OCTOBER 17, 2017
TEN HOURS by plane and another seven by bus, I finally arrived at Córdoba, Argentina, where I was presenting for the first time at an academic conference. Everything was a disaster: it was nearly impossible to find a printer; the professor with whom I was traveling with got into a fight with his girlfriend over buying a pair shoes; I got lost on my way to the host university; and, as a vegetarian in the land of beef, I couldn’t find much to eat. The night before the conference began, I found out that the unknown author I had “discovered” and about whose brief essay I was going to give my presentation had, in fact, been invited to the conference and wanted to attend my presentation. I nearly had a nervous breakdown and felt like running away. The next day, my panel had been scheduled to begin right after lunchtime. I was still struggling with the meat on my plate when I realized I’d lost track of time. I ran back to the conference room, but by the time I got there everyone was clapping and congratulating the last presenter. My panel had ended. I had traveled half the world just to miss my own presentation. To top it all off, I missed my chance to get the kind of feedback most literary scholars and writers could only dream of.
As people began trickling out of the room, a friend noticed that I’d arrived and started to gather everybody and usher them back in. She convinced me to read my paper. I began with the title: “Literature as the Adventure of the Immobile Journey.” I stood there for a minute and then looked the author square in the eye. He gave a slight nod. My presentation was about the unexpected discovery of an author, and the strength and sense of belonging that reading provides. “We are bound to the day when a book bedazzled us,” I said. “We want to recreate as closely as we can the force that shocked us on that day. To bring it back to life, but, this time, through our own effort, using the stuff of our own lives.” To create a common language, an imaginary affinity, and sense of connection that traverses ages and the isolation of our own reading islands. That is how, by chance, at a conference about Caribbean literature in Argentina, I met Eduardo Lalo and recreated the day I first read one of his books.
That day was in 2008 when, by chance, I found a brief essay by an almost unknown Puerto Rican writer published in a small Argentine magazine that had somehow made its way to Mexico. The trajectory of much of Eduardo Lalo’s work has been a similar one of haphazard encounters with faithful and enthusiastic readers who pass around their precious copies of his books. “I would write, paint, or sculpt, knowing that nobody was awaiting my creations, that it would be difficult for me to publish or exhibit my work, and even harder for anyone to read, see, or appreciate what I offered. I knew these difficulties were not exclusive to my country,” claims the protagonist of one of Lalo’s novels. Against the desire of artists to be well known for either their political activism or marginal identity, Lalo assumes his place in the world as one of uselessness, invisibility, and minimal gestures. He stubbornly rewrites the world from a broken, dirty, and sometimes insignificant space.
Lalo’s books demonstrate his unusual versatility with different types of media and genres. He often blends novels, short stories, essays, and poetry with photography, painting, ink drawings, and even film. All of these components of his work, though, are not merely samples or diversions, but respond to the same poetic and artistic endeavor Lalo has embarked on since the 1980s: how does one write from the perspective of invisibility? “At any given moment and in spite of my published titles,” he once wrote, “everything I have written and probably will write in the future could be titled The Invisible.”
Eduardo Lalo published his now practically unattainable first books in the ’80s and ’90s in small independent publishing houses in Puerto Rico. Today, they are collected in the volume La isla silente (“The Silent Island”). It was sometime around the early ’80s, when The Silent Island was published, that the strands of visual artist, photographer, and writer came together in his work as he embarked on a series of unique philosophical, literary, and photographic essays. They are, without a doubt, the most significant and impressive works he has ever produced. In the first of these essays, Los pies de San Juan (“The Feet of San Juan”), published in 2002, we follow the footprints of an explorer as he maps out the city in a literary mosaic of brief anecdotes of its inhabitants and monochromatic photographs of marginal elements in its landscape such as paintings or messages on walls, manhole covers, cracks in the street or ink drawings. Donde (“Where”), published three years later, paints a more melancholic picture of San Juan. The abandoned buildings and dilapidated storefronts cue a series of reflections on the act of writing and its materiality, as well as on the ravages of modernity and the longstanding colonial oppression of Puerto Rico. How is it like to be read as a footnote in modern history? Or to be the interchangeable background for those on vacation? Can anyone find the “where” to such a place? Just as Lalo chronicles urban ruin he also photographs the graffiti left on the walls of a state prison, known as Oso blanco (“White Bear”), that is about to be demolished, documenting the ephemeral nature of things once considered permanent. In El deseo del lápiz. Castigo, urbanismo, escritura (“The Pencil’s Desire: Punishment, Urbanism, Writing”), published in 2010, such a prison becomes the mirror image of the city and its desire to escape from its own reality and from the language that has defined it as a colony. If the word “colony” was once thought too severe, at this moment in Puerto Rico’s history, it has become a dramatic understatement.
These books were “the first and only editions of an unclassifiable literature, the kind that didn’t fit in any genre,” writes the narrator of Lalo’s first novel, Uselessness. But, at the same time, “[w]hat could one expect in Puerto Rico, where much of the best literature died after one printing and in small editions?” It was not until 2013, when Lalo was awarded the prestigious Rómulo Gallegos Prize for his novel Simone, that his work became known across Latin America. The select list of the award, which is given every two years, includes: Mario Vargas Llosa, Gabriel García Márquez, Roberto Bolaño, and Ricardo Piglia. This year, though, given Venezuela’s political situation, the prize is not going to be awarded due to budget cuts from the Ministry of Culture. The independent Argentine publishing house Corregidor, to which Lalo has remained faithful, began reissuing some of his books as well as publishing his latest works, including a book of poetry accompanied with ink drawings and “alphabetographies,” as well as a brief volume of notes and fragments on lean writing in the age of bulky novels. Lalo’s work is proof that being faithful to one’s own poetics can create a circle of enthusiastic castaway readers who suddenly realize that they aren’t stranded but have, rather, become part of a literary archipelago.
If you pick up Simone or Uselessness, don’t pay attention to the cover. Don’t expect to find, as the cover says, a novel. Such expectations will quickly turn the book into a disappointment. There is barely a plot or a story full of events. Also, don’t read the back cover. Finding out that the author is from Puerto Rico might lead you to expect the colorful, paradisiac, and magical scenery emblazoned on brochures for trips to the Caribbean. Lalo’s Puerto Rico doesn’t ever glimpse the beach and piña colada parties, the happiness and dancing, or the untidy corruption, brutal violence, and poverty often associated with images of the Caribbean. His is another Caribbean, one without color, but one that is conceptually denser. His pictures a gray and desolate geography that has been devastated by centuries of colonialism and a tradition that, from the discovery of the Americas onward, has denied its culture and recorded in it an alien form we call the novel. Expect, instead, to find that alien form questioned, and, as in Lalo’s previous work, expect the Puerto Rican capital, San Juan, to be one of the main characters of the story.
“There was a time when I could imagine never returning to San Juan,” declares the anonymous narrator at the beginning of Uselessness, and “I was positive I would remain in Paris,” he adds. For the protagonist, his exile in Paris seems to be the parenthesis in the real journey, which is ultimately the story of his return to San Juan. Transformed into a potent and even enriching motif of modern culture, exile has become a somewhat privileged trope of 20th-century Western literature. “Exile is strangely compelling to think about but terrible to experience,” Edward Said once wrote. Uselessness is about the bittersweet nature of exile. As any respectable up-and-coming Latin American writer, the protagonist of the novel decides to go to Paris, the literary city par excellence, and follow his own Parisian dream of living among the characters and boulevards of the books he has so ardently read. However, cut off from his past life, he ends up wandering around the streets of the unwelcoming, damp, and cold city. There, he finds himself involved in an “uncertain saga,” which includes two intertwined love stories with women who appear to be the diametrical opposite of one another, Marie and Simone, and the search for an obscure and extravagant French ethnologist who, before being run over by a milk truck, had written chronicles about his fieldwork with tribes of isolated indigenous peoples in the Americas. The Parisian saga is an excruciating one for the narrator but also filled with romantic and even joyful episodes. Lalo’s style is often melancholic and serious, marked by sentences that read like short breaths and embodied in the figure of the obsessive narrator. But it can also be generous, offering the reader a vast array of sensorial images contained in the surgical precision of barely a few words. One of the achievements of the translation of Uselessness by Suzanne Jill Levine is that it manages to capture this atmosphere.
The novel is after the idea of whether it is possible to return to and learn to survive in the hostile setting of one’s own country and society after being away for so long. The idealized French world the narrator had previously constructed out of books increasingly reveals itself to be uninhabitable, and he suddenly realizes that he has no choice but to return to his homeland. As the inverse of the often romanticized figure of the strangely compelling exile, Lalo introduces a new conceptual character of literature and history, the returnee: the one who returns, the one who has stayed, or the one who has nowhere else to go and stays by choice despite knowing it is useless.
Once back in Puerto Rico, the returnee of the novel begins writing his anti-saga. San Juan, his city, receives him as a stranger. He struggles with the frustration and anger provoked by the narrow-mindedness of his society and its handicaps, “its persistent vocation as a disposable island, its beggarly gloating.” As a sign of how easy it is to fall into the dangers of San Juan, the novel turns to the story of one of his students, a sort of parallel to the narrator, except that his story ends up as “one more shipwreck, another of an endless series, collapsing within the boundaries of silence on this island.” Another title for Uselessness could have been that of Aimé Césaire’s Notebook of a Return to the Native Land. Both books showcase the same tensions in the poetics of the Caribbean authors: the unhealable wound between a writer and a native place, between the self and its true home — its place in the world — as well as between survival and writing, the only mechanism at hand.
If Uselessness is the journey of a return to the native land, then Simone, translated by David Frye, is the search for a literary and affective embodiment of such a native land. The kind of focalized indirect discourse we encountered in Uselessness becomes, in Simone, more intimate and fragmented. The protagonist of Simone seems to further assume the decision of returning to his native city. But the search for his place in the city never ends. Is he bound to be a castaway and live as an invisible returnee in the island? What is he looking for when he is writing, alone, in the middle of a shopping mall? “Are we known anywhere by anything other than clichés about us or vague, simplistic accounts of us that deny us our humanity?” His decision to write and return to his invisibility is also part of the inquiry of the novel.
But there is another kind of search. Simone is written as a detective novel. Except that there is no blood, no crime, and no run-in with the law. The book’s central character is a professor and marginal writer. One day, as our saturnine city wanderer exits the university building, he finds a cryptic sentence written on the sidewalk in chalk: “To what degree can we build a society based on lies and forgetting?” He initially dismisses the incident but soon begins receiving quotes written in wrinkled papers, notes, letters, and emails from a stalker who calls herself “Simone.” The writer becomes fascinated by these notes: What do they mean? Who wrote them? Why is she stalking him? The novel turns into a sort of literary whodunit, told through notes and fragments. The only transgression, it turns out, is to be an artist in San Juan. Because an artist in San Juan is bound to live as a beggar, turning alms into useless pages, looking for an enigmatic woman only to be found in books.
“Writing fragments, writing notes in a notebook as the days fly by, is the closest I can come to creating a text that doesn’t know it’s lying,” confesses the narrator of Simone. “Later, when I rework it, I’ll introduce subterfuges and establish ways of not saying things, or of not saying everything.” The blank spaces between paragraphs slowly build the tension of a love story, and it is in those gaps that the narrator introduces the subterfuges in order to maintain the growing paranoia of the thriller. Toward the middle of the novel, the mysterious woman finally reveals herself through the biography of the French philosopher and mystic Simone Weil, and a message on his answering machine. Her real identity is Li Chao, a Chinese student at the university where he teaches.
Li and the writer share in their isolation. “Hardly anybody reads me,” complains the author, to which Li replies: “Hardly anybody sees me […] or, if they see me, they see a Chinese woman. Not many can see anything more.” The writer quickly becomes obsessed with trying to find out more about Li’s life, after which the plot turns into a complicated love story between them. Being between two invisible characters, it is a love story unlike most others. They have encountered one another through literature and words, both trying to make peace with living in San Juan. For the writer, discovering Li is also realizing that it is impossible for him both to leave and to return to the city “after walking its streets like this, without shame, turning them into a page for me to write on.”
Most of the inhabitants of the world have a defined, stable and nearly unquestionable origin. A place, a hometown, a nation, a document, all clearly determine their personal compass. However, there are also other inhabitants of the planet whose origins are questions, mistakes or criminal sentences.
This is how Lalo began his acceptance speech for the Rómulo Gallegos Prize. “Who are you?” is the question he must answer every time he meets someone. And his reply over the years has become bolder and more confident, which, given the current political disaster on the island, is now more important than ever. “In the document that allows me to travel to the rest of the world, a series of disorienting facts are recorded. Facts that confuse origins with legalities. On my passport, you cannot find my loyalties or an explanation of me by way of the consciousness of affects,” he continued in the speech. “Soon, I will return to San Juan. I will go to the city walls and I will find, once again, the ocean.” A journey, as Lalo recognizes, does not end in the place you last visited, but where your movement ends. A journey is also a return. And literature is the adventure of that, ultimately, immobile journey.
Christina Soto van der Plas is an assistant professor of Hispanic Studies at the University of California, Riverside. She has published in academic volumes on Latin American literature, psychoanalysis, and critical theory.