Estados Unidos: Chatos Inhumanos. 2022.
Campus, written by the Chilean author Antonio Díaz Oliva, can be situated in the traditional genre of the academic novel. It’s centered on the figure of the university professor and the contradictions and inconsistencies that the university administration imposes on him as challenges (yet not to be overcome—such hope does not exist—only survived). The book opens with an epigraph by Virginia Woolf: “For do they not prove that education, the finest education in the world, does not teach people to hate force, but to use it?” From this question emerges a vector in which the genres of satire and political thriller join with science fiction throughout its five chapters, using memories, present-tense narrative, academic directories, web pages, and emails to craft a story of biting irony. How much is real and how much is imagined, how much is denunciation and how much is a mere game, will depend on each reader’s interpretation. Whatever it may be, this novel details the dark and uncomfortable side of university life in the Hispanic Studies and Spanish doctoral programs of the United States. It exposes and ridicules its characters without proposing a solution, as that is not the novel’s objective. A tacit voice whispers in the reader’s ear that nothing can change or be repaired, and for this reason, Campus is, above all else, cathartic.
The narrative is primarily conveyed in either a second- or a third-person voice, focusing on two main characters: Salvador Allende and Wanda Rodríguez. Allende, a scholar specializing in “pornostalgia” (a term that refers to endlessly harping on the past) in Chilean literature, and who soon, in the wake of an unfortunate event (though unfortunate for someone else, it is a misfortune that will soon spread to Allende himself), will begin a job as a professor at Pepsodent University. Rodríguez, on the other hand, is an academic affairs private investigator, a stoner, and a psychic medium who, after abandoning her own career as a PhD candidate, ends up investigating Salvador. It will be up to the readers of the novel to find out what ensues from her inquiry.
Campus begins from the perspective of Allende, a Chilean academic prone to apathy, depression, and insomnia, who has been left broken-hearted after Anselmo, his partner (who is also an academic), abandons him for a new life by switching careers to work as a sports coach for guerrillas in Chiapas. To make matters worse, he has left the country with a new lover. Of Anselmo’s story, readers will learn little; it is only relevant in that it creates an anxious and unwilling atmosphere within Salvador, who, in his insomnia and alienation, without higher hopes and, furthermore, under investigation for the death of his former professor Javier La Rabia, decides to attend an event at Pepsodent University, where he eventually accepts a position as a professor.
Salvador and Wanda are linked by their insomnia, by their feelings of unreality, by their excessive consumption of alcohol and weed, and by a past that binds them to Professor La Rabia, who has been both Salvador’s professor (at Maindell) and Wanda’s (at Princeton). If, as the narrator says, “Sometimes, someone’s death is nothing more than an excuse to remember the people we once were,” then perhaps this “campus” novel is nothing more than an excuse to cynically display the threads of our contemporary despondency. From the academic novel and noir, from the mystery and questions that surround Professor Javier La Rabia’s death, this satire transcends the walls of the university and refers to life itself.
This is a novel that uses universities like a playground, and one that, if it so chooses, could use another human landscape to gaze into the absurdity that surrounds the existence (or survival? or decadence?) of contemporary life. Soon Salvador Allende will become part of the institution. He will be hired not so much for his academic brilliance as for the name that connects him to the political development of his home country and to the history of an imprisoned, revolutionary father (a made-up “story,” or course), which will turn him into a “superstar,” or perhaps more accurately, a useful idiot. Through the capricious origin of his name and the lucky materialization of an academic job, the cracks in the university system become apparent.
As the story’s events transpire, everything that at first seemed doubtful, incredible, or bizarre is shown at last to be lurid. From the moment of Allende’s job offer, things begin to get out of hand, starting with the memories of his experience as a student of the now-deceased La Rabia (his former professor of literary theory and now a ghostly presence in the novel) and the absurd vicissitudes of the present that they carry, including being used sexually by the dean of the university and her husband. If the name Salvador Allende or La Rabia seem to wink at the reader, the feeling is justified. Any suspicious name in this novel carries additional weight. They are all intentional and informative. Indeed, Campus not only values names such as these, with their resonances and their unique histories, but also references real students in one or another well-known Spanish master’s degree or other academic program in the United States. Those who read it with an awareness of certain real-life intricacies can’t help but feel as if they were at a party—a party in which amicable bullying (reminiscent of institutional bullying) is the norm. If these names are only halfway made up, does that make the story half true? In a twist, irony and senselessness happen as much within the pages of the book as they do outside of them. The veiled criticism, the despair, and the certainty that one is never safe remain: each and every person has the potential to be a character, and for some, this potential is realized, driven on by the sharp threads of a good sense of humor.