“Marcelo Cohen does not only reconfigure the foundations of the realist story, but also of the fantastical story, with his ‘looking’ that encompasses so many layers”
“The world is filled with things that call out to you: handles, apples, hammers, a piano, a doorknob, and how do you keep from answering?” says the elderly seamstress, wife of the narrator in the story “El fin de lo mismo,” which appears in the book with the same title (1992) by Marcelo Cohen. And the narrations of this Argentine author are also made up of things that call out to you and can’t be ignored. A piano, a doorknob, a handle, an apple, but also a musicaja, a flytaxi, some merigüeles, a woman who discovers the asymmetrical beauty of her three arms, a coach who founds a new physical and metaphysical discipline: la palabrística. Also inhabiting these pages are a salesman who aims to disappear by writing a seven-hundred-page diary, a lost boy who glimpses salvation in music and impurity, a dazed translator, and so many other endearing characters who suddenly “see,” who wake up and pass through the twists and turns of their imposed realities to break free from them. Characters who lead us by the hand over unstable ground, crossing an imaginary continent or connecting to the universe through the panconsciousness. Who live in cities choked by rubble, surrounded by vacant lots littered with technological waste, on islands that make up an imaginary aquatic continent. Cohen’s plots guide us through a universe in which reality and fantasy are woven together into a tight braid. A different world where things of this world can be seen through a new perspective so that they may be rescued, recovered, reformulated, transfigured, and pondered. A subtly shifted, defective future that keenly questions the tensions of the present, the malaises of the contemporary world.
I never met Marcelo Cohen, who sadly left this world in December of 2022, but I walked hand in hand with him across many of the islands and hidden corners of his imaginary terrain. In his fictional work, Cohen created a continent, “the Delta Panorámico,” a space that appeared for the first time in his collection of stories Los acuáticos in 2001, the first book he published upon his return to Argentina after a long period of “autoexile” in Spain. But this continent could already be intuited in his previous books. The Delta Panorámico, a future version of our world, post-apocalyptic and entropic, seems to have survived some unnamed cataclysmic event more conceptual than physical. The majority of the Argentine author’s novels, stories, and “novelatos”—halfway between a short novel and a story—are set on the many islands that make up this delta. The characters who pass through his stories tend to be stateless, excluded, outsiders on the fringes of a declining post-industrial society who aim to expose the fissures in hegemonic discourse. To configure this world, Cohen creates a new language: a peculiar Spanish rebuilt from its foundations that permits him to narrate alienation through original metaphors, diametrically opposed images, chaotic enumerations, paradox and oxymoron, neologisms, archaic vocabulary, and even Spanglish. Reading any of Marcelo Cohen’s novels is an illuminating experience of discovery and revelation. It implies entering into another world, strangely similar to our own, but essentially other, told through a unique language that is at the same time ours, which the reader picks up as they wade in deeper. A language that echoes with poetry and peculiarity. I didn’t know Marcelo Cohen personally, but I delighted in the grammar of his language.
Cohen’s work, more than science fiction, is specifically inscribed in what has been called anticipation fiction. His narrations abound with fantastical and “futuristic” elements such as the “panconsciousness”—which allows for travel through other states of consciousness—“flycoches,” and news projected onto the sky by laser rays, among others. But, above all, the novum that predominates in Cohen’s work refers to new forms of thinking, new social and political orders, innovative hierarchies that have certain connections to present ideologies but take these elements to the extreme through hyperbole, parody, and estrangement to show us the thousands of fissures all around us. From there Cohen builds the foundations of his “anticipatory sociology.”
In his essay “Realmente fantástico” (2003), Cohen says a narrator is someone who sees. Of course, this is not the simple act of seeing, but a much more complex mechanism that goes beyond the physiological and implies using all of the senses. A kind of wrenching open, a spring bubbling forth to flow through a dry rock, an unexplainable knowledge, a minimal but glimmering experience that captivates us. Something that enters through the eyes and sets in motion a network of infinite circuits. “What happens when what we see, even at a distance, seems to touch us with a shocking force, when what we have seen imposes itself on our vision as if it were taken over, touched by, placed into contact with that vision?” he ponders in this essay-story as he walks us through the genesis of a plot in all its possibilities, narrated on the page (as we read), and at the same time theorizes on the inexistence of the borders that would separate realism from fantasy. This essay-story, then, proposes a double reading, since it is at once an aesthetic proposal and the germination of a narration, the writing and rewriting of a story that is told and re-told before our very eyes. A story born from an image casually viewed by the person who writes it. A lesson in writing and forms of “seeing.”
“COHEN’S UNIVERSE ALSO ABOUNDS WITH SEEMINGLY ILL-TIMED, DETAILED, POROUS DESCRIPTIONS, WHICH INTERRUPT THE SPEED OF NARRATION BUT GIVE IT A NEW EFFICIENCY”
“To see what is in front of one’s nose needs a constant struggle,” said George Orwell, another great author of anticipation fiction. And this is Cohen’s struggle: seeing what is here and finding a way to narrate the infinite multiplicity of the shifting reality that surrounds us, while rejecting interference from what he called “prose of State,” language manipulated by power, forms of seeing made obsolete by custom. In “El fin de lo mismo,” the narrator points out, “We do the same thing so often, whether we realize it or not, that The Same ends up thinking for us,” to later conclude and affirm that “…I can’t allow it. My vice is invention.” Cohen’s characters and narrators look at the habitual from another perspective, they invent. They don’t allow themselves to think from the same old perspective; they seek out a freer language to describe the untamable, to transmit their ineffable intuition to the text, knowing ahead of time that they will fail. In his essay “Notas para un realismo incierto,” (2003) Cohen says, “The story is failure and the pursuit of something that flees.” His literature seems to delight in showing that failure, highlighting that irreparable fissure, and celebrating the end of what he called “realist servitude” and “the painful subjugation of reality.” This celebration is the form and foundation of the text. It is poetry and predicament.
In El oído absoluto (1989), the main character uncovers the hidden agenda of those in power on the touristic island he calls home: “There are moments when you discover extraordinary failures in the electric grid that feeds us, and in the vertiginous confusion they cause you can see the antiquated audacity of that chaos,” he tells us. Like a typical dystopian character, he discovers the folds and fissures in an apparently utopic system, but it goes well beyond that, since the vertiginous confusion he refers to is also an existential shock. Furtive glances, spying, secretly investigating our own egos, questioning what we are and the discourses we use to tell our stories and comprehend our identities. That same vertiginous confusion drives Aliano D’Evanderey, the protagonist of Donde yo no estaba (2006), to set out on a journey, both literary and geographical, into the depths of his own being, into the void, questioning his writing and the literary genres in which his diary could be inscribed. These pages detail the vertiginous confusion of someone who suddenly sees and is illuminated.
Marcelo Cohen does not only reconfigure the foundations of the realist story, but also of the fantastical story, with his “looking” that encompasses so many layers. There are no endings to these texts. There is no climax or denouement. Cohen’s narrations demand to be read in a different way: not swiftly like a story destined to become a bestseller, without any manipulation or tension, without false solutions or the false consolation of a conclusion. There are no answers to any of the questions posed. There is no unequivocal solution to soothe the reader, and this allows us to move through the pages at another pace. It is more about entropic endings. The notion of entropy, which the author refers to in his essays, is a contained, chaotic energy, portending a crisis that never occurs, at least not in the textual corpus. Entropy is, in Cohen’s words, “a continuous disintegration from which new systems continuously emerge.” Within this passive chaos, characterized by disorganization and imbalance, energy is channeled into new systems and crises seem to dissolve into new forms of instability. There is no end: the text is an entropic system in constant movement. Throughout Cohen’s work we perceive these open endings, which leave stories unresolved and deny all apocalypse, all conclusion, because they are made up of forces that lose energy very gradually and almost imperceptibly, but that remain open to new chaos.
Cohen’s universe also abounds with seemingly ill-timed, detailed, porous descriptions, which interrupt the speed of narration but give it a new efficiency. It is “seeing” put into words, one of the marks of what Cohen himself has called “skeptical realism,” a narration that does not “believe in the virtues of completion, roundness, loose ends tied up, coincidences explained, motives revealed, plans clearly accomplished or frustrated, exhaustive reasons, or the thin gratification of the conclusion.” A narration that takes other paths, across other terrains, that prefers “wandering, dead time, impertinent description,” that seeks to evade the unquestioned, imposed reality, opening itself up to multiplicity. Skeptical realism constitutes a discourse that aims for “true” realism, a permeable category that retracts and expands over time, feeding doubt and the multiplicity of versions, nourishing itself on uncertainty, abandoning all polarity. “Skeptical narration ignores divisions—realism, fantasy, parody, metaliterature, satire, etc.—and instead belongs to a limitless text-world,” Cohen tells us.
In “El fin de la palabrística” (Relatos reunidos, 2004) the narrator confesses: “I see the cracks in this society: that is where I penetrate and break through. I infect.” Through so much looking, Viol, the hero of this story, ends up seeing “with the amplified eye of the distracted” a reality beyond the permitted perimeter. What he saw was almost an Aleph, viewed from the skies of his island: everyday life, garbage, frivolousness, the suffering of the world, perhaps. Like Borges’s Aleph, all places were there, all angles, all things, the undertow of the inconceivable universe. And one does not come away from that unscathed: thus his unexplained final disappearance.
In a blind literary panorama, with narrators who don’t see and unambiguous, repetitive narrations that aim to trap the reader-consumer, seen as a customer who must be satisfied, Marcelo Cohen’s work was like a lighthouse rising up indomitable and marvelous, luminous and illuminating. Efficiency, tension, and economy are words foreign to Cohen’s protean poetics. Because his stories conjugate occurrences, not events.
I didn’t know Marcelo Cohen personally, but I did witness his characters’ many epiphanies, and in a way I also saw: “The world is filled with things that call out to you: handles, apples, hammers, a piano, a doorknob, and how do you keep from answering?” says that seamstress. I, along with her, ask myself: how could we remain indifferent to that call?