Failure as the ghost of conquests. Although, in this case, what the characters have conquered, what they call into question is a low-voltage life, and their failure would mean bearing witness, from a place of privilege, to collapse.
Francisco Bitar, 2018
There are at least three distinguishable phases in the narrative production of writer Francisco Bitar, of Santa Fe, Argentina. Each, in its own way, reveals a pursuit that restarts again and again, departing from the figure of failure. Tambor de arranque (EMR, 2012), the novel that introduced him to readers as “a classic, skillful, and well balanced storyteller,” the stories of Luces de navidad (UNL, 2014), and his picaresque Historia oral de la cerveza (EMR, 2014) were all sealed into the realistic mold of the first phase; the stories of Acá había un río (Nudista, 2015) and Teoría y práctica (Tusquets, 2018) evince an inflection in his poetic project, incorporating an exercise of metafictional unfolding and producing a certain denaturalization of his previous narrative regimen; but the phase that opens with La preparación de la aventura amorosa (Tusquets, 2020) and La leyenda del muñeco de nieves (Marciana, 2022) truly marks a qualitative leap—at once disruptive and somewhat anachronistic, it must be said—toward a literature singularly attracted to the idea, and put together through a reflexive allegorization of the process that gives rise to poetic forms.
As we learn from Latin rhetoric, allegory is not a genre but a mechanism of signification that transmits a meaning of its own within a figurative meaning, on the inside of any genre. Literature can produce an allegorical signification only through an over-nomination that, of course, breaks with any hope for univocal cross reference between the signified and the signifier. The allegorical elaboration of the new phase of Bitar’s production appeals, on the contrary, to an open symbolic reverberation over a possible allusion. It is not presented in mediation forced by intention; it is founded upon an insinuation rooted in the very structure of the story itself.
The title of La preparación de la aventura amorosa, with its avowed allusion to Barthes, fosters the signifier’s untethering. The excessive burden placed on the constitution of this theoretical allusion infringes on any linear referentiality. The story becomes allegorical through the saturation of the first meaning signified; held up by literality, it speaks, nonetheless, of something else. And the first thing it speaks of is, paradoxically, what it is: literature. Or, better still: what Bitar himself has defined as the exoskeleton. La preparación de la aventura amorosa is, thus, La preparación de la aventura literaria: a literature built on the subject of its possibility of being, of the available resources, of the possible paths, of uncertainty and the promise that love and literature both entail “traits that will prevail.”
The first offering in the “De ahora en adelante” series, written in 2019 (but published more recently in 2021), La preparación de la aventura amorosa closes with the idea that, in order to see, we must close our eyes. Literature, like love, “becomes a mystery” before the writer’s eyes. And, for this very reason, it becomes irresistibly magnetic. This attraction shifts everything else to the background and, for this reason, surpasses its own limits: for Bitar, as for Cerro, changing the object of desire implies “exchanging your life for another.” In play, therefore, is not only a book or a series, but an entire literature. Marcel Proust and Macedonio Fernández made of preparation the literary venture itself. And in Un accidente controlado (17grises, 2021), Bitar lets slip the idea that the exercise of reading, daily note-taking, and the narrative schema (Acá había un río is patent proof of this) are spaces in which literature becomes literature before being what is institutionally and formally recognized as such, in the genres and forms consummated and legitimized as Literature. Following this logic, the natural progression of this “literary” project, ever more attracted to the idea, the note, the draft, and the map—even more so than to territory, more enthused by what portends literature, or by what is pronounced around it, than by literature itself—should continue down a regressive path toward its own disappearance, perhaps passing first through the form of the composition book full of minimal notes on “what could be written” or “what could have been written.” Bitar plays with this same idea in one of his latest chapbooks, Resúmenes de poemas, published at the end of 2021.
The fact that the preparation of the literary venture should resolve, like Cerro’s relationship with Betania, into three tenses that are, in effect, three standards of production (expansion, withdrawal, and supplement), becomes especially significant when we think of the trajectory of Bitar’s poetic project. As the writer states himself, “the cycle seems to come together at its extremes, that is, at the first and the third tense, where strength and the intent to move forward come together,” but in fact, it does not. That which has fed into movement—and movement itself—makes truth of literature. Because if the beginning is “a necessary evil that, like any other of its sort, gives way to a bright future,” there is no room to doubt that “the venture, or the venture within the venture, is in sight; even more, it is suddenly in motion.” And, indeed, it moves toward the allegory as a fragment-ruin, allowing the author to cast light on the excessive and uncertain experience that is literature.
La leyenda del muñeco de nieve (2022), the second offering in the “De ahora en adelante” series, holds a decisive place here. Thirty years on, Bitar returns to an allegorical configuration employed by César Aira in the early nineties to reveal one of Alfredo Prior’s most notorious fetishes—a configuration later embedded into the ending of La costurera y el viento (1994). Like in Prior’s paintings, which insist on presenting scenes where, in their fixed immobility, the characters themselves create the image (“they represent something, like how the ant in the formula represents hardworkingness”), in La costurera y el viento the passage dedicated to the legend of the snowman illustrates the ephemeral and vulnerable character of the work of art, in the exceptional conditions needed for its emergence as much as in the conditions necessarily put in place for its survival. This ambiguous praise of fragility coincides symptomatically with the praise lavished in those years on “weak thought.” And, with as much irony as cynicism, he then suggests that the snowman can only be saved at the cost of his being placed safely out of the elements in a space where his presence will doubtless lose its ability to amaze. Like in the tale of Peter Schlemihl, The Shadowless Man, (cited by Aira’s narrator), the unmelting snowman trades life for duration (persistence for consistency) as an avant-garde work of art, “protected” in the museum.
But what in Aira’s novel is one of the typical allegorical parentheses that verify, in their way, his intelligence as well as his cynicism, and with which he settles—to the excitement of his academic fans—the autorreflexive moment of his fiction, in Bitar’s occupies the neuralgic center: the venture itself. What is in Aira a “rather reasonable business” is, in Bitar, an irresolvable problem; a problem that, in its irresolvability, can only lead to failure. While Aira wanted “all the dispersed elements of the tale to come together in the end into a single sovereign instant,” Bitar tells them apart and lays them out sequentially so as to later integrate them: the preparation and the legend are two parts of the legend itself. Bitar jumps over Aira; he moves toward Hans Christian Andersen and Nathaniel Hawthorne, but he clarifies that even “the Snowman comes to them premade, as if he had always existed.” What matters is the venture that, like Stravinski’s music, is always already playing in the series: “de ahora en adelante,” “from here on out,” preparation is now part of the work. And, in a sense, its consequences are too: not failure itself (the only certainty in art is the certainty of failure) but the very way it fails.
The fact that the legend of the Snowman echoes in the legend of the artwork returns the book to a model of allegorical thought in which the literary project itself connects one of its phases to others, but always points to a horizon of totality in life itself: “Perhaps no other experience takes on consistency today (at least in a life like mine, that tends toward dematerialization) if I do not simultaneously recover that old encounter, which projects the point of origin not forward but toward the totality of my life” (p. 14).
Unlike Aira, Briar’s narrator resists dematerialization, struggling against the idea that the Snowman should grow “blurry, trapped in that intermediate state: between existence and melting away” (p. 58). He works on the story and on its preparation. He finds a way for the legend not to be inscribed in the body of the tale, but rather to reach the tale through the door of fiction. He thereby stabilizes the allegorical construction, depriving it of the aim of any edifying lesson.
Progression defines ethics in relation to desire: Bitar’s allegory extends from preparation to the story of a new life for the everyman here called Wakefield (a life in which we might read the course that outlines the author’s ascent, fall, and return). But allegory also intervenes through a story in which the narrator speaks up, not to tell his life story, but to unfold (again!) the image of the everyman Wakefield into the figure of a failed father. Even more than Hawthorne, Beckett is his Virgil. Allegory is always shown to be as recidivistic and as violent as it is deceptive: like the life of the Snowman, the path of a work can only lead to failure. This is why Wakefield finds a way to make a life of a life’s failure and to make life itself of preparation for life. He goes from the reactive vitality of the symptom to the dense monotony of the ghost and then retraces his steps, never finding what he seeks or thinks he seeks, as if he perhaps intuited that what he seeks is to fall again and again into this cycle, always stumbling on the stone he sees but cannot skirt his way around, and, to a degree, finding pleasure in every stumble. But this does not lead him to resign himself, like Aira’s narrator, with a groan of corrective forgetting, to the knowledge that “in what’s lost everything comes back together.” At the start, Wakefield (Bitar?) thinks he has made a decision that has led him to failure; but, as he clings to it, he discovers that he didn’t want and later that he didn’t need to have made said decision, that the power not to act was also in his hands. His journey to the dream of the past is revealed to him, then, as strange as it is irreparable; wrapped up in it, he cannot avoid the knowledge that his story is being told, that he is being dragged along by his own past with a strength that surpasses him and that awaits him, after his second missed connection with lost love, on the other side of the mirror, to invite him to fail once more, to fail again, to fail better.