When you know a novel has suicide as a central focus, you wait to find the right – the strongest – frame of mind before reading it. This was true of me, and so it is some months since I received this impressive work for independent review from Swan Isle Press. Fresh from reading the captivating ‘To the Beautiful North’ with its irrepressible characters (by Luis Alberto Urrea, another Mexican), I took up this well-presented volume with its haunting, probably haunted, portrait on its dust cover.
It is a hard read: hard in the sense that it is intellectually challenging; hard emotionally; hard in tone and use of language as opposed to soft and fluid; hard in its relentless move towards facing death.
The author, Jorge Volpi, is one of the originators of the Crack movement in Mexico, ‘crack’ or fracture – a break from what is trivial or superficial, and from the established magical realism of authors such as Marquez, well loved in the UK. Perhaps ‘crack’ is apposite with regard to Volpi’s novel since it centres upon the cracking up of an esteemed poet and chemist, Jorge Cuesta, and ultimately of the narrator. We use ‘cracked’ or ‘crackers’ to denigrate people who have become mentally ill. Cuesta’s ‘crack’ connects with his ambivalent sexual identity. His attempt at a fusion between the male/female ended with self-emasculation. But more than that, he was obsessed with catching the moment to the point of defeating time, perhaps finding a crack through which he could pass in order to do so. “Time doesn’t stop, but passes.”
If magical realists such as Marquez write about incidents, characters, and settings that could not occur within the physical world as we know it, Volpi straddles a world in which the reader is witness of what seems to be occurring but is in fact fiction, and is informed of a parallel set of events that are factual. Boundaries are deliberately blurred. The narrator is Jorge, like the author, like the poet. His friend, Eloy, has the same name as the author’s father and Cuesta’s colleague.
Jorge, a poorly paid writer, overhears mention of Cuesta’s name and suicide following self-mutilation. He tells us at least twice that sharing the christian name hurts his life twice. It seems to place him under a responsibility to tell Cuesta’s tale.
The novel begins as Jorge visualizes in great detail the last agonizing days of Cuesta’s life. He gives an unnervingly empathetic account.
Jorge Cuesta is not really known in UK. His achievements in two professions were remarkable, yet the acme of his inventions appears to have coincided with his mental deterioration. The wisdom and despair of his poetry seep through the novel as Jorge searches out the poet’s point of view. “I’m searching for Cuesta’s not my own.”
While immersing himself in researching Cuesta’s life, Jorge listlessly follows his own. He is in an unrewarding relationship, unrewarding for his partner as well as for himself. Volpi’s unpicking of this relationship is masterly. He shows us the selfishness of both partners and their unwillingness, not inability, to engage in the other’s raison d’etre and preoccupations. It is a hostile dependency that fails to improve or to end.
Jorge amasses all the information he can about Cuesta, studies the poetry, takes note of the inventions, imagines the extent to which Cuesta loved, believed and understood. His scholarly and increasingly emotional investigation includes tracking down the two important women in Cuesta’s life, his lover and his wife. Increasingly, the reader notes the parallels between the two Jorges’ existences, and despairs in his obsessive moves towards repeating the pattern.
In the process of his research, Jorge’s own life becomes increasingly deranged. He believes that if he could fuse male with female he could preserve the moment of ecstasy, could break through the force-field of time. Volpi skilfully shows the intricacies of his thought pattern. The reader becomes concerned for Jorge’s self-destructive behaviour, his immersion in dark thoughts.
He visits the hospital where Cuesta lived his last days before hanging himself. The current patients are circling around a central flower bed. He asks a nurse why they do this. She answers, ‘Perhaps they want to exit time.’
Jorge’s work to reveal Cuesta’s ‘meaning’ culminate in scholarly articles. These are met with ridicule and condemnation by his intellectual colleagues and the academic community. This is devastating not only to his self-esteem, but to the chance of conveying the central concept via Cuesta’s biography. Volpi, in the voice of the narrator, sees Cuesta as one of the “fugitive poets that favoured a clandestine existence rather than submit themselves to the absurd rules of time.”
Meanwhile, Jorge’s refusal to commit to an emotional and supportive involvement with his partner causes her to leave him. She has been no better able to provide an emotional investment in Jorge. She goes away with her former lover despite her sudden realization that she loves Jorge.
Left on his own, the last vestiges of normality leave him or perhaps it is more accurate to say that his last hold on himself as a unique individual drifts away. He is in despair.
A major strength of this novel is the economic and skilful delineation of the process of thought and the coming apart of a tortured mind.
Cuesta waited to end his life until he had written his poem, Song to a Mineral God. Early in the novel, this is discussed by Jorge and his friend, Eloy. With premonition, Jorge states “I’m going to write an essay -” In his last moments he does so. It is an account of his feelings. He is fully aware of the irony that this comes too late to save his love relationship. He writes his essay before repeating the act and manner of Cuesta’s death.
The suicide of Cuesta, poet and chemist, was a great tragedy. Without academic recognition, Jorge’s struggle to understand Cuesta and convey to the world the significance of the ‘moment within the moment’, the implacability of time, now has no hope of standing the test of time. He is defeated by it and faces death in spite of its dark silence.