Sunday, February 21, 2010

Review Monday: The Museum of Eterna's Novel (The First Good Novel)

Macedonio Fernández
The Museum of Eterna’s Novel (The First Good Novel)
(translated from the Spanish by Margaret Schwartz) with a foreword by Adam Thirwell.
Open Letter
Pub Date: February 23, 2010

Reviewed by Luis Alberto Ambroggio

In this extraordinary literary creation, Borges’ mentor, Macedonio Fernández, masters in the reader's playful engagement to games of the word and of the mind beyond literature and metaphysics. One of the great Argentine writers of the twentieth century, Macedonio (as he preferred to be called), wrote this novel (or anti-novel) with an originality and perversity second to none—way ahead of his time and beyond the avant-guard rupture with previous conventions. He redefined the genre and influenced the great literary geniuses among Hispanic-American writers, including Jorge Luis Borges, Julio Cortázar, Ricardo Piglia, and many others.

“Whoever preceded him might shine in history," Borges wrote, "but they were all rough drafts of Macedonio, imperfect previous versions. To not imitate this canon would have represented incredible negligence.”

The Museum of Eterna’s Novel (The First Good Novel) is structured as a challenge to realism, to logic, and to structure itself, as if the author intended to demolish the sense of fluidity of a normal novel and its aesthetic tendency towards realism and the solemnity of style. Instead, we (the readers) are forced (as well as intelectually seduced) to immerse ourselves in continual digressions and discussions on the roles of authors, readers, critics, characters, theories on genres, etc., as if these topics were objects which are acquired and kept in a Museum. This Museum is also, as Adam Thirlwell writes in the foreword, a “laboratory for investigating whether every philosophical question can be observed through the condition of falling in love.”

Museum starts by offering over 50 prologues with a wide range of themes: mortality and eternity; perspective and the viscitudes of the author (including authorial despair); critics; context; non-existence; and so on. Many of these themes have digressions containing dedications, salutations, and narratives on whether readers should accept or reject a chracter in an elaborate effort to playfully frustrate and challenge.

Following the prologues are twenty chapters concerning a group of characters (some borrowed from other texts) who live on an estancia called "la novella." Three sets of lovers (Eterna and the President; The lover—Deunamor—and his anonymous lover; and Maybegenius and Sweetheart) in different settings exemplify or put into practice or reason the so-called concept of “todoamor,"—“totallove"—which overcomes what the world calls death, merely “hiding/ocultación” in Macedonio’s vocabulary. He writes: “I do not believe in the death of those who love nor in the life of those who do not love.”

Thus the only death possible and present in this novel is the academic death of the characters. Critics have suggested that the long process of writing this novel from 1925 until his death in 1952 was Macedonio’s attempt to fight his pain and fear following the untimely death of his wife, Elena de Obieta, in 1920.

The translator, Margaret Schwartz, Assistant Professor of Communication and Media Studies at Fordham University, has done an outstanding job translating Macedonio’s baroque, convoluted prose, complicated language, and invented words, preserving his unique voice. The quality of her translation no doubt comes from her time spent in Argentina prior to and under a Fulbright fellowship in 2004, her first-hand familiarity with living in the literary circles of Buenos Aires, and her meticulous research on the life and work of Macedonio Fernández. This is more meritorious when, in her own words, she is translating “someone who deliberately tangles his words, uses antiquated language, and who writes at the speed of thought, without regard for syntax and punctuation.” But even more so, I might add, because Macedonio Fernández is a genius like Cervantes and Kafka—who not only created their own language but masterfully caused the unpredictable methamorphosis of the genre.

Luis Alberto Ambroggio, a member of the North-American Academy of the Spanish Language, is Writer's Center workshop leader and an internationally known Hispanic-American poet born in Argentina. He is the author of eleven collections of poetry. His poetry and essays have appeared in newspapers, magazines (including Passport, Scholastic, International Poetry Review, and Hispanic Culture Review), poetry anthologies (DC Poets Against the War, Cool Salsa), textbooks (Paisajes, Bridges to Literature, Voices: Breaking Down Barriers) and award-winning electronic collections of Latino Literature (Alexander Street Press). Recently, another Writer's Center workshop leader, Yvette Neisser Moreno, edited his Difficult Beauty: Selected Poems. You can read a review of that book here.

He can be reached at

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