Caja de fractales. Luis Othoniel Rosa. Buenos Aires: Entropía. 2017. 99 pages.
It has been said many times that the rise of the novel in our time is the clearest sign of the decline of storytelling. In their desire to recapture this lost art many contemporary writers have privileged a return to the primacy of the plot, they have filled pages with adventures for us to enjoy, without realizing that they are merely employing a notion of storytelling invented in the 19th century. The novel, it is true, is different from the prose genres originating in oral traditions as it is the expression of a solitary individual who is no longer retelling folk tales or legends that belong to a community. However, it is perhaps a modern mistake to imagine that the gap that separates us from other time periods can be bridged by a change in plot, resorting to fantastic tales that artificially recreate an epic universe that neither the author nor the reader experienced. A better approach, I think, is to assume that what has been lost with advent of the novel is not the epic aspect of storytelling but a sense of community, and they should not be confused with one another. Achieving a communion between authors and their readership does not have to result in going back to a previous writing mode. Literary forms, we have learned, have their own history. We need to understand returning to storytelling as looking for ways to restore communication and bring back community through literature. For this, Luis Othoniel Rosa’s novel is offering us is an innovative solution: we all must become “authors.”
In general terms, the narration in Caja de fractales follow the lives of several characters (Alice, Trilcinea, Alfred, Lagartijín, la Chilena, and others) linked to each other in a variety of ways —they are friends, lovers, relatives, disembodied voices traveling through time and space to inspire writers, etc. At times, they are presented as existing in a future Puerto Rican landscape, scarred by post-apocalyptic disasters. At another times, they exists in the present, like Professor O., a Puerto Rican university professor in the US who struggles with his position as a member of the American academia and the fact that he is part of an educational and social system he does not believe in. The novel moves back and forth between chapters about the far future (about the years 2037, 2040, 2701) and the present (2017, 2018). Whether the story narrated is a figment of Professor O.’s imagination or a premonition about what is to come, are two of the many possible readings of this fascinating text.
The events in the novel and the decisions of the characters who live in the future revolve around their discussions and explorations of projects and opportunities to lead alternative lifestyles. For example, there is the Cathedral, a sort of sanctuary, helped by the state (they get tax exemption and have military resources are at their disposal), so it can become autonomous from the state; or a group in Ecuador whose daily life is organized by an algorithm: “they possess an economy not based on money but on natural resources and a computer makes decisions for them” (24). For his part, in the present, professor O. attempts unsuccessfully to give meaning to his life by subverting the official discourse from within the Academia. But he has the feeling that his subversive discourse is created or encouraged by the very system he is rejecting, as if his position was a necessary part of the system. In other words, opposition is needed for things to remain the same. This a repeating pattern in the novel. For example, we are told the story of a woman (Cristi Martínez) whose chosen profession–female boxer–represents a challenge to the Puerto Rican society, but whose life is otherwise subjected to traditional rules and expectations, and ends up defeated by the same male chauvinism she appears to be challenging at the beginning. Of the variety of topics that are presented in the book I would like to emphasize communication as a key to the meaning of Caja de fractales. In one of the chapters, Professor O. discovers a copy of la dignidad (the dignity), a sort of collectively written book, whose ingenious format I will let the readers themselves discover. Let me just say that its function in the text is to highlight the difficulties of members of modern societies in communicating with each other. Real communication, seems to argue the novel, is no longer possible in the modern world as there is always someone’s ideology or private agenda disrupting the message. Each reader of la dignidad needs to create his or her own version of the book following directions that guarantee “the book will be constantly changed and updated, each version of the book is alive. It does not have an author, nor publishing house; there is an unknown number of copies and it is written in many languages” (45). Luckily for us readers, this is no meta-fictional exercise: the novel we are reading is not a version of la dignidad, that much is clear just from reading the description of those clandestine books. However, I would like to propose an interpretation about a possible link between both texts. Just as for la dignidad the content is less important than the “anonymous and secret” manner in which the book is distributed, for Caja de fractales the specific details of the plot are not as meaningful as the experience of reading the book itself. It wants us to imagine the act of communicating as eliminating the literary text as a privileged source of meaning, or, in other words, as the possibility of the readers becoming “authors” themselves.
The idea of readers as authors was the great promise of the 19th century newspapers as the first means of mass communication: the possibility that readers could reflect on their readings of the news and send letters to the editors with their opinions to be published, thus becoming authors themselves. In the failure of the traditional means of mass communication to fulfill their promise lays the origin of this Rosa’s desire to rethink the notion of community building in this text. A few pages after describing the project of a massively-authored, ever changing book, the novel describes the creation of new means of communication (this part is taking place in the years 2037-40) to contact alien worlds or beings. A conversation between Alice and her nephew, Lagartijín, informs us that there is not a material component to this mean of communication, it all happens via “informational or communicative waves.” Once again, human need for unrestrained communication drives the plot: “In space one can only talk, one can only exchange conversations. If we cannot meet each other in the physical world, there is no reason for an arms race nor for economic transactions of any kind” (58). Rosa’s novel is constituted as a collection of means of communication found in different contexts, times and universes, seen from different points of view. I don’t think any reader will be able to read this novel and not feel that even new ways of connecting and communicating are possible, and understand this as the basis of any future community.
José Eduardo González
University of Nebraska-Lincoln