Amar a Olga. Gustavo Valle. Valencia: Editorial Pre-Textos. 2021.
Amar a Olga, the new novel by Gustavo Valle, asks us to consider that the person we share a life with could wind up being a stranger. Valle presents disloyal and combative relationships, couples who betray one another as they grapple with the sharp divide between the past and the present. Memory and love are two central themes in a book marked by psychological inquiry, a story that calls to mind in some way the movie Perfect Strangers.
The Venezuelan author, winner of the XIII Premio Transgenérico de la Fundación para la Cultura Urbana (2013) and of the III Bienal de Novela Adriano González León (2008) awards for his books Happening and Bajo tierra, respectively, reemerges on the literary scene with a novel that is fresh, filled with subtle humor, and a voice that remains intimate from the first to the last page. The novel takes place in a country that is unraveling as easily as a theater backdrop. As in all good novels, the main character keeps surprising us across two hundred pages and each of the novel’s five parts, showcasing Valle’s talent as one of today’s most notable Venezuelan authors (who has resided for the past few years in Buenos Aires).
The first part of the novel sketches the protagonist: a middle-class man with a relatively normal life, writing texts for a Spanish-language digital encyclopedia—which allows him to be paid in euros—driving a Fiat and living in a modest apartment with Marina. She works away from home, and has been unfaithful to the protagonist, something he discovers upon rummaging through a box that contains notes from the recent past. Upon discovering the infidelity, the protagonist takes vengeance by sleeping with Gisela, an old friend from college. Principles don’t seem to matter much, as Gisela is also married to the owner of a video game company. The characters appear to be perfect strangers, just like in the Italian film.
This is not the story of an “everyman” who comes to an understanding of the universe and learns to find happiness in small things. Nor is the novel about a philosophical approach born of maturity and a holistic view of the contours of life. Instead, the novel shows how the protagonist’s fixation on the narrowness of the world makes him unhappy, anchored as he is to the “weight of memories” surrounding a girlfriend from high school: Olga.
This is how the protagonist, who is now 47, sets out on a nostalgic journey. Interestingly, Valle’s novel was not conceived of during the pandemic but before. But the emphasis on attempts to the reconstruct the past, driven in the novel by general dissatisfaction with life and a dissonance with one’s home country, is sure to resonate at a time when, for many, the only firm territory, especially in the first months of the pandemic, was precisely the past—the present had been kidnapped and the future was clouded by thick fog: “I hate to be the protagonist in an episode of Italian neorealism. Love should go in the same way it comes: without our realizing, trailing its anxieties and uncertainties, but leaving behind that angry mania we feel when faced with the most disagreeable part of ourselves.”
In this vein, it’s worth it to cite a saying by W.G. Sebald: “No one knows what kind of shadows prowl around inside themselves.” Shadows of the past, which can be paradoxically bright, trap the present, and that is what happens to the protagonist, who, in a kind of evasion of his present-day reality, goes back to 1982 and the moment he was first taken by Olga. At this point in the novel, a smart narrative counterpoint emerges between the protagonist’s present-day discontentedness with Marina—in a year, 2013, marked by political difficulties that interfere with everyday life—and his undiluted adoration of Olga in the past. The contrast of the two time periods is expertly done with compelling parallels. For example, an object comes to serve as the link between 1982 and 2013 when the narrator says that Olga used to have in her possession “my old Kodak Ektralite 500, with which I’d photographed her thirty years ago, an oversized eighties-style camera that, with a flash attached, looked like a brick.”
His obsessive thoughts of Olga are intense to the point of being all-consuming, and embarrassing, when Marina surprises him while he is masturbating surrounded by old notes and photos of Olga. In that moment, a character we had judged as more or less a archetypal loser, who’d even accepted Marina’s infidelities—(“I always reproached myself for not being able to hold a grudge”)—strikes up the courage to begin a frenetic search for Olga, reminiscent of similar searches, though in this case less tragic, in the novels of Patrick Modiano: “I tried to find her in the phonebook and even called four or five people with the same last name,” confides one of Modiano’s characters, who, just like Valle’s, is in search of someone from the past.
The novel then takes a wild turn. The protagonist’s embrace of his past causes the present to overflow not only with perverse and obsessive memories of Olga, but also of Doris, Laura, Camila, Brenda, and Raquel. After this upheaval touches all aspects of his life—leading him to have to sleep in his Fiat, a sorry homeless man with an obsession for the past and great dissatisfaction with the present—he starts to believe that he is in love again with Marina. All the same, he remains anchored to his remembrances of his life from three decades before: “To remember is to drug oneself.”
The drug of memory and his pursuit of it leads him to a serious reckoning in a story that surprises the reader more and more as the pages pass, priming the tension that is sustained throughout the novel like a heartbeat. Reading a novel is like living the life of another, and this otherness puts the protagonist in the pincers of Chavez’s military apparatus, driving him, with an unexpected courage, to face down the authoritarian machine. He becomes a kind of naive romantic hero, doing everything for Olga. But will she feel the same way? As Carson McCullers has said, “Often the beloved is only a stimulus for all the stored-up love which had lain quiet within the lover for a long time hitherto.”
From the first part, “The Spiral Ascending,” to the last, “To Kiss Your Eyes,” the narrator, given the fluidity with which he tells his story, evokes his literary antecedents: Mario Levrero, Idea Vilariño, Kureishi, Barthes, Celine, Pascal Quinard, Verlaine, and finally Juan Sánchez Peláez, from whom the epigraph is drawn: “Memories are like wolves.” We find this sentiment of Sánchez Peláez throughout the course of a novel told by a character who dared to write out his literary impulses in a notebook. He seeks to continue with this task in spite of many difficulties and in the middle of crises both personal and societal.
As with any good crisis, the plot reveals to the reader an unexpected change in the protagonist. His prose underscores this transformation. At times, his phrases border on the poetic: “I write to not think of her any more / She is no longer here, but her absence colors everything.” At other moments, this same prose seems essayistic, as when he comments on the parts of the brain that are connected to love (the prefrontal cortex, the amygdala, the limbic system), finding scientific support for the idea that love comes from the head. As he concludes, “The heart is a trick. We fall in love through the brain.”
Pedro Plaza Salvati
Translated by Travis Price