Authors: A. G. Porta
A. G. Porta
No World Concerto
The No World Concerto
was a difficult and pleasurable experience, much of the pleasure deriving from the difficulty, which always holds a fascination for those among us who enjoy reading books that not only move us but that, according to Blake, “rouze the faculties to act.” An ambitious novelist, A. G. Porta is not content to take the approach of many contemporary writers who presume to subvert the literary tradition by ignoring it. Take his prize-winning debut,
Consejos de un discípulo de Morrison a un fanático de Joyce
(Advice from a Morrison Disciple to a Joycean Fanatic, 1984), which he wrote in collaboration with his friend, Roberto Bolaño: a highly ambitious, playfully irreverent novel about two bank-robbing lovers, Angel and Ana, who rebel against their parents and society by trying to steal enough money to realize their dream of starting a new life in Paris. Angel has a penchant for poetry, Ana for psychopathy. Angel wants to write a great novel about his moony protagonist, Dedalus, Ana wants to torture and murder as many people as possible. Both fancy themselves artists competing with rival criminals who are stealing all the headlines. Neither truly believes their personal ambitions or plan to escape to Paris will ever come to fruition. Despite the novel taking a decade to write, Porta and Bolaño were the ones who stole the headlines when they won the Ámbito Literario Prize in 1984, with many critics predicting a great follow-up from both writers. But whereas Bolaño quickly responded with a solo effort,
, Porta entered a literary silence that lasted almost fifteen years.
During this time, Porta was earning his living as an editor of educational textbooks, spending much of his leisure time, according to Bolaño, obsessing over Joyce. Bolaño later joked that he remembered him “[writing or collecting] random sentences from
with which he assembled poems that he called readymades, à la Duchamp. Some were very good.” Although Porta had seriously considered giving up fiction writing for good, he clearly hadn’t stopped writing, because he eventually broke his long silence with three books in relatively quick succession:
Braudel por Braudel
(Braudel on Braudel, 1999),
El peso del aire
(The Weight of the Air, 2001), and
(Singapore, 2003), all of which were applauded by the majority of critics and ignored in equal measure by the public.
His next effort,
Concierto del No Mundo
The No World Concerto
, 2006), features some of the characters from his previous three novels. But, besides retaining the same beguilingly simple prose style and metatextual construction, it is markedly more ambitious than any of his previous works. Ostensibly the story of an old screenwriter’s struggle to finish his script, and his relationship with a former student — a female piano prodigy referred to only as “the girl”—who is similarly struggling to write her own novel, it is a bewildering superposition of tales within tales that often blend seamlessly into one another, and at many times confound readers’ attempts to determine whether it is Porta, the screenwriter, or the girl they’re reading at any given moment. As with his first novel, the book is haunted by the ghost of Joyce, and again like that novel, there is the
folie à deux
relationship of two ambitious characters intent on escaping their situation. But whereas the Porta-Bolaño world is one of violence and sweaty-balled erudition, entering the No World is like entering an M. C. Escher lithograph. Added to this difficulty is the author’s pervasive use of epithets instead of proper names for designating characters, cities, historical figures, books, music, etc. Paris, for example, is called “the neighboring country’s capital”; the composer, Schoenberg, is referred to as “the father of twelve-tone composition”; and Méliès, the film director, may or may not be the “the inventor of the cinematic spectacle” who’s buried in a “famous” cemetery Porta doesn’t name.
Besides the many other cinematic, musical, and philosophical allusions in the book, what most concerns the characters — and the author through his characters — is literature. Both the screenwriter and the girl are obsessed by great writers like Shakespeare, Cervantes, Joyce, and Proust, among others, although Porta, of course, refuses to name them, choosing instead to refer to Joyce, for example, by the unwieldy epithet, “The author that revolutionized twentieth-century literature.” Such evasive insistence could be a playful prank to keep the reader guessing, or it could be the author’s indirect way of contending with these literary giants, as if not naming them might be a kind of desacralization.
All in all, Porta’s approach is undoubtedly risky, but he’s not so niggardly as to refuse to supply the reader with clues. In a sense, therefore, the reader becomes a kind of detective, and feels — as the screenwriter feels when writing his script — that if she follows all the clues, she’ll be able to figure out the mystery behind this postmodern mystery play (or screenplay), a process the screenwriter compares with reconstructing the scene of a crime. Thus, the screenwriter’s doubts at the beginning of the novel mirror the reader’s. Each must navigate through this shadowy otherworld until all — or not quite all — is finally revealed.
Doubts, confusions, are indeed what Porta himself had experienced while writing the novel, for it was only after five complete revisions that it arrived at its present form. Even when he won the prestigious Café Gijón Prize in 2005, the novel wasn’t in its final version, still bearing the early title
Cazadores de los No Mundos
(Seekers of No Worlds), and having an old guitarist as its protagonist instead of a screenwriter. Nonetheless, one gets the impression that even if he’d been cast as a biochemist or a ballet dancer, his obsessions would still have been with writers — as they would for the girl, who sees writing not only as a means of escaping into a No World but of liberation from her enthrallment to the piano on which her mother forces her to practice. The definitive title of this novel may only be incidental — whether or not it’s “just” the tale of an uninspired screenwriter conceived structurally as a bastardization of Wittgenstein and Schoenberg, it’s certainly not a musical concerto. And yet, it is undoubtedly a work of art. So, in calling his novel
The No World Concerto
, perhaps A. G. Porta was only reinforcing what Walter Pater famously said about all such endeavors: that they constantly aspire to the condition of music.
I’d like to thank the author, A. G. Porta, for writing this wonderful novel which was such a delight to translate; my fellow-translator, Rhett McNeil, for beginning a process that it was my privilege to complete; John O’Brien, for entrusting me with the task of doing so; and Jeremy M. Davies and the staff at Dalkey Archive Press, for helping so greatly to improve what I believed only an adequate translation.
Darren Koolman, 2012
No World Concerto
To Joel, for his No World
1. The world is all that is the case.
5.123 If a god creates a world in which certain propositions are true, then by that very act he also creates a world in which all the propositions that follow from them come true.
LUDWIG WITTGENSTEIN, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus
55. So is the hypothesis possible, that all the things around us don’t exist? Would that not be like the hypothesis of our having miscalculated in all our calculations?
75. Would this be correct: If I merely believed wrongly that there is a table here in front of me, this might still be a mistake; but if I believe wrongly that I have seen this table, or one like it, every day for several months past, and have regularly used it, that isn’t a mistake?
LUDWIG WITTGENSTEIN, On Certainty
The screenwriter stands with his luggage, facing the hotel, having just gotten out of a taxi, thinking he ought to know, or at least have a good idea, how the story he intends to write is going to end. He’s certainly seen better hotels than this, but today he can’t afford to pay for one, because he no longer gets the advances he used to, and he’s lost a well-paying job teaching literature at a school for gifted kids. Now, all he’s left are some savings and a miserable pension, and he doesn’t know how long they’re going to last, for life in the neighboring country’s capital is so much more expensive than the city he just left. He remembers when he was young and distinguished, back when he was working in the movies, back in the days when he didn’t have to teach. It is noon, on August 1st, when the taxi leaves him standing at the hotel’s entrance, motionless, as if afraid to confront his destiny, wincing at the small, grimy windows of the dreary façade, at the weather-beaten awning covering part of the sidewalk, thinking he’s seen better hotels than this one, wondering if anyone alive can recall its last renovation. After spending a few moments gathering his thoughts, he gathers his belongings, taking the portable typewriter in one hand, his cane in the other — against which he leans to offset his imbalance — and wobbles through the front door, keeping the corner of his eye fixed on the luggage he leaves on the sidewalk as he stumbles toward the reception desk. There are no bellhops in sight, and the receptionist talks on the telephone, watching him insouciantly as he clumsily lugs in his bags. He doesn’t know how many days he’ll stay. He thinks a few. Once in his room on the fourth floor, he briefly inspects the facilities, a diminutive bathroom and a mini-kitchen converted from a storage closet. He then sits on one of the beds and checks if the telephone is working. He promised his wife he’d call her every day; several times a day in fact, so he dials the number and waits, takes a good look around the room, noting the arrangement of the furniture, two beds and a writing desk, until he hears the fifth ring and hangs up. Still seated, he looks at a mirror on the wall, searches for the kitchen’s reflection, which his position and viewing angle prevent him from finding, so he looks out the window instead. He thinks he’ll have to move the desk a few inches if he wants to take advantage of the natural light. He takes a small diary from his jacket pocket and searches for a phone number, dials it, waits, but again there’s no answer. After the voicemail prompt, he gives the details of his change of address then lies back on the bed for an ample stretch. He decides to sleep on the bed nearest the writing desk; the other, beside the window, will serve as a makeshift table for his bags and research material. He gets up to move the desk a few inches before setting up his workstation. He fiddles quite a while with the typewriter, for it must be in the perfect position. On one side of it, he places a couple of books, some index cards, and a few loose pages — both typewritten and scribbled on with pencil; on the other side, a carefully squared-off stack of blank paper. After arranging everything meticulously and standing back to admire his accomplishment, he goes over to the window to look down on the street below. He notes that the sidewalks are quite spacious, zooms in on the occasional passerby — many returning home from work, a few with bags of groceries — scans over to the other side of the street where some people are waiting for a bus, and finally pans upward to survey the building opposite. While looking in one of the windows, he surprises a woman folding children’s laundry when she looks up and accidentally meets his eyes. He smiles, but she quickly looks away. No matter, he forgives her. She must deal with these situations everyday. Besides, she doesn’t even know him. He turns to look at the typewriter, the books, the mountain of paper, but hesitates. Perhaps, he thinks, he shouldn’t get ahead of himself. After all, fools rush in where angels fear to tread. Ideas should be given time to germinate. So he decides to freshen up and go for a walk instead. Although he’s been to the neighboring country’s capital before, he’d still like to do some exploring, to take a walk along the riverbank, and relax in the park on one the benches beside the pond. His limp affects his progress, but he thinks slow progress has its advantages. On reaching the river, he decides to follow its course while appreciating the view of the opposite bank, with its rows of houses, amusing himself by wondering about the people behind each window, living out their lives inscrutably, recalling, as he always does when in this mood, a certain movie in which an angel is able to hear other people’s voices, not only when they speak, but also when they think, the spoken and unspoken thoughts of everyone on Earth. He stops at the railing to look out on the wharf, at the boats full of tourists, the barges full of cargo, before deciding to continue on to an old bookstore where, years before, he remembers buying his first collection of screenplays. The bookseller, who looks a hundred years old, is propped in a chair in the middle of the store — a book in one hand, a cup of tea in the other — not acknowledging the screenwriter, who imagines him dying in that same chair with the same cup of tea in his hand, since he presumes booksellers never retire. He buys nothing, doesn’t want to disturb him, rob him of what little time he has left. Instead, he waits until he reaches the boulevard, and buys a newspaper at one of the kiosks. Although he thinks they’re mostly a waste of time, sometimes they can be troves of great ideas. After dining at a restaurant next to the botanical gardens, he decides to head for the pond to see if the children there still sail their little toy boats. He recalls the day he went there with his son, when he sat down on one of the benches to have a rest and watch him play, and perhaps to do as he does now, reminisce. He sees some parents are doing the same with their children, young fathers and mothers, although his eyes are only for the mothers. He thinks they’re pretty. He tries to make eye contact while riffling through a newspaper he’s already read, but none of them answer his gaze. He soon forgets all about them though, adapts to his surroundings, diffuses himself among the other strangers present — the parents and children, the various tourists — until he finally believes he has possession of the place, and then returns to the hotel alone.
That evening, the screenwriter prepares to begin his work. He positions himself before the typewriter, the books, the mountain of paper, and a little notebook filled with plans, snatches of dialogue, and notes on the story’s structure. Before beginning, he removes his glasses to massage his eyes, relaxes them on the middle distance, and then considers what he wants to say. He’d like to be original, but at his age, ambition has given way to disillusion. He’d be happy to produce a decent script. Before even touching the typewriter, he decides to make a cup of coffee, so he shuffles with the help of his cane toward the mini-kitchen, which is half obscured on the other side of the room. He lights a cigarette and smiles contentedly, glad that he has his own kitchen — not that his limp is an issue, but at least he doesn’t have to stray too far to get a cup of coffee. He looks out the window and notices the woman across the street, whose movements he’d been following earlier that afternoon. He noted then that she was setting the table. Now he can see her serving dinner to some brats he assumes are her sons. After looking for a husband and not finding one, the screenwriter concludes there isn’t one. He starts entertaining the notion of inviting her to dinner, but then quickly reproaches himself. Who says there isn’t a husband? From a distance she looks quite pretty — young, the way he likes them. She’s not going anywhere, he tells himself, and he has all the time in the world to seduce her. He leaves his vantage point by the window and retreats to the kitchen and the solace of a murmuring kettle. While pouring a cup, he fantasizes about their first encounter, imagining her likely negative reaction, before consoling himself by thinking she’ll have the time to get to know him better. He returns to his desk and works for a while, if an activity that produces no results can be called work. First, he attributes his lack of inspiration on his taking an overlong break; then, he blames it on his sitting too long at the desk thinking, waiting for the
to fall into his lap. He removes his glasses and relaxes his eyes on the view outside the window, on the traffic lights in the street below, the glow from the windows in the building opposite, the numinous halo above the cityscape, until suddenly, a knock on the door restores him to his senses.
He wasn’t expecting her. The reason, perhaps, is that he’d only just arrived in the capital. The real reason: he didn’t want to delude himself. She floats over the threshold like a ghost and ambles through the room, pausing in front of the writing desk. She rests her hand on his typewriter momentarily and glances around, examining all four corners of the screenwriter’s new abode, before going to the window and peeking through a chink in the curtain — which she quickly pulls shut, and then declares she’s being followed. She’s not certain of course, nothing is certain in this life, but she’s had this feeling for days now. She sits on the edge of one of the beds. She can’t stay long, the rehearsal lasted longer than she expected. She came to this country’s capital to be part of a youth orchestra called the Little Sinfonietta, and to record the
5 Pieces for piano
by a famous composer of twelve-tone music. Although she’s a celebrated pianist, her real obsession is writing. But she rarely has the time for what she considers to be her true calling, and even when she finds the time, she’s unable to concentrate, due to her chronic suspicions of being followed, so her work in progress remains at an impasse. She came to see his new room, to examine the desk where the screenwriter will ply his trade. He watches her silently, longingly. He’d give anything to make her stay the whole night, to feel her body’s warmth next to his, to be safe in the cocoon of their desire, and then the tender moment afterward when she would rest her head upon his breast, and tangle his graying chest hair between her fingers. But she seems nervous, and the screenwriter suspects she’s taken caffeine pills to help her stay awake. The sex is strange when she’s too wired, he thinks, she has no patience, just wants to get it over with as quickly and as roughly as possible. They say little, although, occasionally, they mention the voices she hears, and her impression that they pronounce her name with a “ka” sound. Voices from another world, not like the ones the screenwriter hears, or like the movie he recalls; they don’t speak with the accent of his inner voice, nor do they sound like the voice she affects when reciting the twenty-one poems of that other twelve-tone composition, and though they call out to her, they’re not human voices, and who knows what it is they want to say, or why they pronounce her name with a “ka.” He watches her as she paces around the room. They begin to discuss literature, particularly the most revolutionary writer of the twentieth century. Sometimes I have trouble following you, she says. His work still impresses her, although the novelty has long since worn off. Perhaps it’s because he always changes his approach, the standard that defines his whole idea of literature, and therefore hers, is never quite the same. It’s too dry. No, she can’t quite put her finger on it. Luckily, the novel came with a reader’s guide, although it did little to help her penetrate its difficulty, and this, paradoxically, is what has made the novel famous. Maybe the thing that jars you the most in a novel is when it’s not clear if the narrator or one of the characters is speaking, so the reader mistakes the narrator for one of the characters or one of the characters for the narrator, something the novelist has no control over, and hence both chance and contingency are given literary form, allowing for a multiplicity of possible narrative voices and possible characters that can all be confounded together in an infinite number of possible scenarios, without the reader knowing where they came from or where they’re going, without her knowing more, perhaps, than their names. The reader may be taken aback at first, but after a few pages, sometimes by degrees, sometimes spontaneously, she begins at last to grasp what’s going on. The screenwriter doesn’t see the danger in reading other writers’ works, except in getting too involved in them, in overly assimilating, imitating, which stymies one’s developing a distinctive style. The girl spots the silhouette of someone waiting on the street below. She imagines a detective, or maybe a jealous lover keeping tabs on his fiancée; it could even be a spy or a policeman. He thinks she’s too young to talk about developing a personal style. Perhaps, in all her sixteen years, she’s read very little.
Perhaps she isn’t familiar enough with the spectrum of different styles and languages that constitute his literary world. But the screenwriter is fully aware of his own shortcomings. To be a writer requires more than just desire, one has to want it more than anything else in the world. She made a promise to herself. Her musical talent wouldn’t interfere with her writing, despite her making little progress on her
, the work she writes and rewrites, having never progressed beyond twenty pages, saying something always prompts her to start over, to change the theme, the diction, even the structure. The screenwriter thinks youth ideal for self-discovery, the waiting ends when one finds one’s true vocation. This may not apply to the pianist, but it certainly does to the writer. It’s a game they play, in which sometimes he plays the tutor, sometimes the lover. He gives her advice on reading, tells her to focus on the twentieth century’s most revolutionary writer, but he also recommends the great dramatist of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, whose works he insists have set the standard for everything written after them. She must read as widely as possible to cultivate a proper sense of what will stand the test of time. But being selective is not naïve reductionism, he says. The alternative is to read many more books than is feasible in a single lifetime, and of the making of books there is no end. So the girl reads everything he recommends, between each visit, each of her rehearsals, and each abortive attempt at her
. But I don’t see the point, she complains. He says young women today are spread too thinly between school and extra-curricular distractions to develop as artists, especially the so-called musical prodigies. She kisses his forehead. There was a message from the Principal on my mom’s answering machine, she says, referring to the Principal of the school at which the screenwriter taught. It was from a week ago, ten days at most — before he embarked on his trip. He looks into her eyes; she delays, smiling mischievously, getting ready to leave, until the moment of her exit when she says, But don’t worry, I deleted it.