Friday, February 21, 2014

La cosa en sí

La cosa en sí is the second of the three volumes of Andrés Trapiello's multi-volume diary that, to my surprise, I found in a bookstore in the city I was living in in France, a city whose inhabitants, for the rest, have almost no interest in things Spanish. If I didn't enjoy this volume quite as much as the first one I read, El jardín de la pólvora, it's just that the earlier volume had already prepared me: I expected to be entertained and astonished. With the earlier volume, it had come as a complete surprise.

As with El jardín, I particularly enjoyed Trapiello's bitchy, gossipy, and perhaps even slightly malicious but surely accurate portrayals of his fellow Spanish writers. He coincides with Enrique Vila-Matas at the famous book fair in Guadalajara, Mexico, for example. Vila-Matas isn't named, but he's clearly recognizable even to someone like me, who is by no means in the loop. Trapiello describes him rather acidly (he calls him the man whose stock response, unlike Bartleby's, would be: "I would prefer to") and stresses his physical resemblance to Buster Keaton. I was most gratified, as I've never enjoyed Vila-Matas's books, and his relative popularity baffles me. Vila-Matas's books, for instance, have been translated into English; not so Trapiello's, which, on the strength of the two I've now read, are more interesting and much funnier, at least to me.

At another point, in Colombia, Trapiello refers to the Colombian artist Botero as the current darling (the diary corresponds to the year 2000) of the PUB (Pedorrez Universal Burguesa). I laughed out loud there. Of course, that laughter may have been in part the result of the single apéritif that I, in utter solitude, had just consumed.

But good Lord God, since we're obviously not going to translate him, contemporary English-language writing needs someone with Trapiello's lucidity, his corrosive humor and caustic spirit, his independence and courage! Instead we have J. Franzen and P. Roth. We have Lorrie Moore and Louise Erdrich and Joyce Carol Oates. We have critics who, as E. Abbey used to say, are like giant schools of minnows, all turning in the same direction at once. We translate Enrique Vila-Matas.

There are some things in the diary I don't really like, too. For Trapiello, everything that's attractive or appealing becomes precioso. I've never really liked that word in either Spanish or English. All the writers he discusses are referred to either as X or by their initials. I don't really get it. Sometimes you can identify these writers easily enough (as with Mr. I Would Prefer To), but other times it's hard. Here, Trapiello praises the stories of one D.J., a Colombian (?) writer who works for the Banco de la República and lost a leg to a bomb. I might have liked to try these stories for myself. But who is this writer? Finally, Trapiello sometimes launches into brief flights of fancy (never more than two or three pages) that sometimes strike me as a bit too fanciful. Are his novels made up of successions of such passages? If so, I'm not sure I'd enjoy them.

At all events, one has one more volume of the diary to read, and after that one will decide where to go: to one of the novels or back to one of the earlier volumes of the diary.


  1. I like the phrase "giant school of minnows" in that context. By the way, the critics have finally started to come out of the woodwork on Lorrie Moore, and I've dutifully added some of their comments to her Wikipedia entry. You can sneak in your opinions there as long as you don't say "I think." You only have to quote a published source and reference it.

  2. But what baffles me is why the latest Moore collection is being reviewed at all. And not all of the reviewers have come to their senses, either. This month's Atlantic, for instance, has what looks like a largely positive, even somewhat hyperbolic review.


    1. I would like to get in touch with John Penuel, translator of Panait Istrati's works. In connection with a coming event where his writing will be discussed, among other authors approaching Eastern (Oriental) topics. Please help me to get in touch with him. Many thanks, Dana Radler. Email

  3. Yes, I read several of the reviews, and on average they were positive. But her last book had only one negative review - at - so it appears that she may be going out of favor. Possibly there is less at stake here for the publisher and reviewers since short stories don't sell anyway.

    I'm a bit of a broken record on this, but it's really the commercial aspects of fiction that encourage mediocrity, and the same force permeates society. Last night, for the heck of it, I watched the opening scene of Saturday Night Live for the first time in several years. Basically it was an un-funny promotion of other NBC programming. The show is so formulaic that it has become a parody of itself. In order to find the original spirit of it, you have to look elsewhere. SNL dropout Fred Armisen captures that with "Portlandia."

  4. It bears repeating, especially if it comes with a little wit.