Sunday, July 20, 2014

The Chase

Having read this short novel by Alejo Carpentier in Alfred Mac Adam's translation many years ago, I cockily told myself that I would be able to whip through it now in Spanish in a couple of nights. As it turned out, I made it about thirty pages in, then bogged down and decided to re-read the translation instead first before giving the original another stab.

Why the difficulty? I've plowed steadily through much longer books in Spanish than this one, which is barely over a hundred pages. Though the author was Cuban there's no Afro-Caribbean dialect issue to speak of; there's nothing comparable to the exuberance of Mexican regionalisms found in Elena Poniatowska's brilliant Hasta no verte Jesús mío, for example, or to the elaborate twists and turns of narrative perspective in Cortázar's novels and some of Vargas Llosa's. Maybe I just had too many distractions; in any case, the novel does present some obstacles to the reader, not insuperable ones to a native speaker, perhaps, but enough to make reading it a bit of a challenge. In Spanish or in translation (and Mac Adam's seems to be good), it repays persistence, though.

Carpentier told the critic Luis Harss that he had composed El acoso in imitation of sonata form, "with an introductory section, an exposition, three themes, seventeen variations, and a conclusion or coda." I tend to be skeptical of such claims (Milan Kundera has made similar statements) but in fact the narrative, the bulk of which consists of one long flashback, is framed within an evening's performance of Beethoven's "Eroica" symphony in a Havana concert hall, and probably should be read with that piece of music in mind.

The first character to whom we are introduced is an impecunious classical music buff who is employed as a ticket seller in the concert hall. As he sits in his booth a patron rushes in, flings down a bill many times more than sufficient for even the most expensive seat, and hurries into the hall, closely pursued by two other men. Pocketing the bill (which may or not be genuine), the ticket seller goes for a stroll, calls on a prostitute of his acquaintance, and returns, at the end of the book, in time for the final notes of the performance — and for the brief, violent aftermath of the opening incident. It is the figure he sees fleeing into the hall who will dominate the long central section of the novel. A native of the provinces, this man has incorporated himself into some kind of vaguely outlined revolutionary cell, but ideological purity has degenerated into betrayal and murder-for-hire and he is now a marked man. As we follow the series of steps that lead him to the concert hall events that were narrated in the book's first pages take on new significance.

Carpentier's vocabulary is rich ("baroque" was a word he himself used to define the character of his writing), but the greater challenge is posed by the fact that the reader often doesn't know — and isn't yet supposed to know — exactly what is happening. One section, for instance, begins, in Mac Adam's version, as follows; the ellipses and parenthesis are in the original:
(... this pounding that elbows its way right through me; this bubbling stomach; this heart above that stops beating, piercing me with a cold needle; muffled punches that seem to well up from my very core and smash on my temples, my arms, my thighs; I breathe in gasps; my mouth can't do it; my nose can't do it; the air only comes in tiny sips, fills me, stays inside me, suffocates me, only to depart in dry mouthfuls, leaving me wrenched, doubled over, empty; and then my bones straighten, grind, shudder; I stand above myself, as if hung from myself, until my heart, in a frozen surge, lets go of my ribs so that it can strike me from the front, below my chest; I have no control over this dry sobbing; then breathe, concentrating on it; first, breathe in the air that remains; then breathe out, now breathe in, more slowly; one, two, one, two, one, two ... The hammering comes back; I am shaking from side to side; now sliding down, through all my veins; I am smashing at the thing holding me in place; the floor is shaking with me; the back of the hair is shaking; the seat is shaking, giving a dull push with each shudder; the entire row must feel the tremor;
And so on and so on. It's only gradually that we realize that this passage is being told from the point-of-view of the man who has fled into the concert hall; we won't understand why he is there, or why his thoughts are frantically racing, for many more pages. Carpentier professed a disdain for "the little psychological novel" and a preference for the "big themes" of historical and social processes; perhaps the fracturing of perspective here is conducive to that more analytical, even didactic approach. El acoso was first published in 1956; since then its technical innovations have been widely borrowed and extended by other writers, but it still retains its nervy intensity.

Alejo Carpentier's description of the musical structure of The Chase, as well as his comments on the psychological novel, are quoted in Harss and Dohmann's landmark Into the Mainstream: Conversations with Latin-American Writers, which includes a respectful but sharply critical evaluation of the Cuban novelist's work.

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