At the end of the twentieth century, a computer bug known as Y2K or the Year 2000 problem threatened to wipe out all databases globally. It was an error caused by programmers who had not anticipated the change of digits from 1999 to 2000, which led several governments to invest exorbitant sums of money in preventing an unprecedented socio-economic meltdown. Although the computer problem did not unleash a crisis of global dimensions, as several analysts had predicted in previous months, this apocalyptic outlook characterized a series of novels that Josefina Ludmer called “fictions of the year 2000,” which captured the arrival of a temporality of the end of history. The Argentine writer Rodrigo Fresán experienced his own version of the Y2K bug when, while writing his novel Mantra, published in 2001, a virus erased his computer’s hard disk and forced him to start the text from scratch. At the beginning of the new millennium and after several pronouncements about the end of history and literature, Fresán embodied the figure of the writer as a “shipwrecked survivor of the cataclysm of evolution” (Kensington Gardens, 150).
Two later works, Kensington Gardens (2003) and Melvill (2022), can also be read as novels about “the adventure of an artistic calling” at the beginning of the twenty-first century (Kensington Gardens, 46). While Kensington Gardens and Melvill revolve around historical characters (the creator of Peter Pan, James Matthew Barrie, and the father of the author of Moby Dick, Herman Melville), Mantra follows in the footsteps of a fictional filmmaker who wants to create a Total Film, blurring the boundaries between fiction and reality. Their protagonists are “sorcerer’s apprentices,” the expression Fresán introduced in his eponymous story in Historia argentina, his 1991 short story collection, to designate aspiring writers who learn from their “master sorcerers.” In these books, Fresán raises the figure of the writer as a rewriter, dramatizing it through three images that I explore below: the child, the DJ, and the vampire. According to art critic Nicolas Bourriaud, in this age of information overload, artists and writers embody the figure of the programmer because they turn to already-produced works and inhabit them in new ways. Fresán’s books show that the new consists of rewriting tradition in the light of a temporality that is experienced as apocalyptic, as if a virus had erased the canon and it had to be rebuilt from scratch.
The Writer as a Child: Kensington Gardens
Kensington Gardens makes anachronism the privileged method to narrate the life of J.M. Barrie through a lysergic narrative that jumps spatially and temporally. Fresán combines the story of Barrie’s life in the early twentieth century, when the Llewelyn Davies children inspired him to conceive the character of Peter Pan, with a narrative that takes place in London in the Swinging Sixties. The fact that Fresán has chosen the 1960s to write Barrie’s life story shows this era as the definitive break from early modernity. The novel expresses how this era marked the end of childhood due to the overabundance of information that threw children “into a premature adulthood” (61). Barrie’s life conveys Fresán’s obsession with thinking of literature as an evasion rather than an emulation of reality, his defense of writing based on the pleasure of children who play at stopping time “by refusing to grow up” (148). The 1960s narrative thread has as its protagonist a children’s book writer known by his character Jim Yang, who travels on a chronocycle (a bicycle that is simultaneously a time machine) through different eras and relives the history of humanity in his own flesh.
These two eras of radical change prefigure a third temporality that appears in the novel implicitly: the turn of the millennium as a period when “we started over again, became children again” (66). This choice delineates Fresán’s project as the rewriting of his personal library in light of the present and conceives of the contemporary writer as a child who plays with the landmarks of tradition, a bricoleur who performs “manual labor”—evoking the only work that Fresán has refused to republish, his 1994 collection Trabajos manuales—or as the collector who thinks of his activity as leisure rather than a business. Like the narrators of other books written by Fresán, the one in Kensington Gardens seems to write from a limbo; not in a coma, but in parenthesis or ellipsis, a stoppage of the march of time through the figure of the child who cannot or does not want to grow up. Kensington Gardens shows the need to tell enduring stories like Peter Pan’s in a time of computer viruses that threaten to erase our collective memory. Against the grain of the Y2K bug of the year 2000, Fresán delineates literature as a virus that escapes the hands of its creator and spreads to the rest of the population, in the manner of these “immortal stories that will never grow old” because they survive in the memory of all their readers (358).
Fresán’s books can be considered searches for comrades in time, writers like Barrie who felt out of step with their own era and made that gesture a central part of their work. Kensington Gardens brings distant periods into dialogue in order to form an anachronistic community of figures akin to the contemporary writer, “a continuum where Victorians, rockers, and millenarians can commune under the same sun” (86). Fresán describes Kensington Gardens as a tunnel in time where characters forgotten by the narratives of progress converge: lost boys as metaphors for the secondary characters of modernity. In Fresán, there is an evident interest in the endings and beginnings of each era; his books play with the temporal markers of Western culture by highlighting important dates in the popular imagination, such as the assassination of John Lennon in December 1980, which, according to the narrator of Kensington Gardens, signaled the end of the 1960s. In addition to connecting writing with the act of playing, Kensington Gardens delineates the writer as an encyclopedist who, in an age when the old has died and the new has not yet been born, is forced to bring order to an incomprehensible reality.
The Writer as a DJ: Mantra
Mantra exhibits Fresán’s interest in cannibalizing popular culture and making it a constituent part of his narrative procedure. While in Kensington Gardens Fresán rewrites the tradition of penny dreadfuls—weekly sensationalist fiction that, in nineteenth-century England, was aimed at a young working-class audience—in Mantra he uses Mexican telenovelas, lucha libre films, and José Guadalupe Posada’s skull engravings to narrate an apocalyptic story set in Mexico City at the turn of the millennium. The Mondadori publishing house commissioned the text for a collection of novels about different cities worldwide in times of globalization. The fact that the novel was published in 2001 points to the dialogue Fresán establishes with one of his recurring obsessions, Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. However, this “Great Year” does not signify the arrival of the future, as in Kubrick’s film, but “the death of the future or the birth of a new future too distant from us to care about” (178). Like his narrator, Fresán is aware that a country without science fiction has no future, and that this genre is a repository of temporal imagination at a time when the future has died.
Mantra is a novel of the year 2000 that allegorizes the disappearance of national geographies—the narrator refers on more than one occasion to his “now non-existent country of origin”—as a result of the advent of a global order. The novel embodies this global temporality through a discontinuous narrative that opposes the chronological order of national histories. In fact, the narrator uses several procedures of technological culture to combat the amnesia caused by TV spectatorship. For example, he reproduces the technique of rewinding a cassette or videotape to tell the history of Mexico, starting with the apocalypse (which, in the best Mexican style, comes with an earthquake) and ending with the pre-colonial past. Simultaneously, Fresán rewrites canonical works about Mexico City, such as Carlos Fuentes’ La región más transparente (which, in Mantra, becomes “the least transparent region” due to atmospheric pollution) and “La noche boca arriba” by Julio Cortázar, an omnipresent writer since Fresán’s novel can be interpreted as a reformulation of Rayuela in an era of digital chaos.
The novel adopts the structure of a dictionary or encyclopedia that aims to form a memory palace at the beginning of the digital era. The narrator is “memory sick” because he has been diagnosed with a brain tumor, and his gaze is turned toward the past. He is also a kind of collector who gathers the archives of mass culture to provide an alternative image of Mexican history: a circular time that bites its tail. The novel works, not with certainties, but with hypotheses: a menu of options that promotes reader participation in opposition to the passivity of the digital world. It is no coincidence that Fresán’s books contain their own playlists and musical references. His narrators resemble DJs who propose unprecedented tours through the history of modern culture, making the work a collection of ready-mades and reflecting the syncretism of global culture: the mix between highbrow and lowbrow, between popular proverbs and cultured references. A consummate practitioner of the art of the acknowledgments section, Fresán turns to remake and reenactment as necessary procedures to deal with the cultural overproduction of the contemporary world.
The Writer as a Vampire: Melvill
Just as Fresán appropriates the figure of Barrie to develop a theory of the writer as a child, in Melvill, he does the same with the author of Moby Dick in order to propose a poetics of the novel as a genre that functions “as a kind of magnet or mouth and throat of Maelström that attracts to itself everything it needs from others” to chew it up, digest it, and return it in a new form (25). This quotation and appropriation machine turns Fresán’s Melville into an avant-gardist who practiced the same referential mania and passion for epigraphs that characterize the work of the Argentine author. The novel revolves around a well-documented anecdote—how Allan Melvill, Herman’s father, crossed the Hudson River when it was frozen—allowing the narrator to equate writing with the science of studying ice or glaciology. Fresán casts ice as a metaphor for the act of making literary influences and tradition transparent in his own writing, within the framework of a novel that uses footnotes copiously to communicate the narrator’s attempt to write about the entirety of the world’s literary canon.
Fresán’s affinity with Melville also reveals his conception of the literary work as a continuum: a work composed of autonomous books that make up a whole, like an Aleph that projects “so many marvelous moments contemplated at the same time” (73). This passage evokes Fresán’s fondness for the books of the planet Tralfamadore in Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, books that are read simultaneously since they are novels without beginning or end, cause or effect. In addition to books that contain multitudes, Fresán defends a type of literature that creates its own audience, even when this means that readers will arrive posthumously, as in Melville’s case. The figure that emerges from this conception of the literary praxis is that of a writer with his back turned to his own times, echoing Melville’s habit of walking backward or Barrie’s custom of sitting on a train with his back turned to the wagon to contemplate not the coming landscape, but the one left behind.
Another figure that appears in Melvill to describe the writer is that of the fanpire, a neologism that combines the words ghost and vampire to refer to the writer as “the most vampiric of readers” (179). This is an image of the writer as a fan who sucks influences and transmutes the blood of his or her favorite authors; an homage to Bram Stoker’s Dracula, a novel in which the protagonist appears briefly and whose absence turns the other characters into writers who fantasize about this mythical figure. The writer becomes a citizen of the world and the world republic of letters, able to traffic in quotations from various traditions. As Allan says to his son Herman in the novel: “I wish that, without borders, the whole world will end and begin again, and that all of it will become your homeland” (257). Considering that Herman was a customs officer, the novel promotes an art without borders that aligns with the postulates of another fundamental text for understanding Fresán’s poetics: Jorge Luis Borges’ statement in “The Argentine Writer and Tradition,” a 1951 lecture, that “the universe is our birthright.”
Ultimately, Fresán’s books posit the writer as a rewriter through corrected and enhanced editions of his books. His is an arborescent work in continuous construction and modification that corresponds to the floating signs of the global order. Suffice it to think of the fictional region in which several of his books take place, which—unlike García Márquez’s Macondo or Onetti’s Santa María, towns located in Colombia and the Río de la Plata respectively—receives a different name depending on the geographical location of the plot: Canciones Tristes in Argentina, Sad Songs in the United States and England, Rancheras Nostálgicas in Mexico, and Chansons Tristes in France. In line with Fresán’s obsession with childhood, his books are toys that highlight their own material condition through cover illustrations that form an intrinsic part of the plot: the photograph of Michael Llewelyn Davies or the portrait of Allan Melvill. The writer as rewriter is a child who composes the same book in each new entry of his narrative project, making childhood not a fixed and unrepeatable moment, but a condition that accompanies us for the rest of our lives.