Martín Adán. The Cardboard House. Translated by José Garay Boszeta. Dallas, Texas: Dulzorada, 2020. 157 pages.
Rafael de la Fuente Benavides (1908—1985), better known by his pseudonym Martín Adán, was a fundamental figure in Peruvian literature at the beginning of the 20th century. Born in Lima to a family of aristocratic origins, which he always rejected, Adán was a poet of extraordinary talent and a renovator of the literary tradition of Peru.
A precocious writer, when he was barely twenty years old, he published The Cardboard House in 1928. The artistic maturity of this book makes us forget that Adán began to write this book while he was still in high school. Soon after its publication, The Cardboard House was a book that was here to stay and was greeted by two important Peruvian intellectuals of its time: Luis Alberto Sánchez and José Carlos Mariátegui. A work with a clear avant-garde spirit, its structure reminds us of the experimentalism of Joyce, Proust, and the influences of surrealism. In reality, The Cardboard House is a difficult book to classify: for some it is a novel with a poetic style, while for others, it is a great prose poem. Be that as it may, it is a book made up of multiple patchworks, images, and sensations that invite an unhurried reading in order to savor its skilled use of language.
In its story, vaguely guided by the consciousness of an unnamed narrator, the reader is witness to the adolescent experiences of Ramón, Catita, and Sergio. The setting chosen to develop the collection of vignettes is the small town Barranco at the beginning of the 20th century. Located on the outskirts of Lima, Barranco was then a summer resort site for the upper class whose beaches and small-town life could be visited via a trip on the trolley car from downtown Lima.
If, in The Cardboard House, the traditional limits of a literary genre are defied, something similar happens to the very act of reading. The plot of the story is barely outlined, being confined to only a few episodes and concrete allusions. The Barranco setting is evoked through rapid brush strokes of the site, as well as through some characters that live there. The Cardboard House opens thusly: “Winter has already begun in Barranco; weird winter, ditzy and fragile, that seems like it is going to plunge into the sky and let a tip of summer peek out. Little fog of the tiny winter, thing of the soul, puffs of the sea, drizzles of a boat trip from one pier to another, sonorous flapping of retarded lay sisters, opaque mumble of Masses, winter just arrived…” (51).
If The Cardboard House has a possible plot, it revolves around the friendship of the narrator with other adolescents, particularly with Ramón, and the love games both young men play with girls their age. In the face of such an ethereal structure, what sustains the story are the many vignettes that evoke scenes, people and situations without an apparent order; the unity of these fragments is achieved through the narrator’s stream of consciousness, which then forms an image of the protagonist in his relationship with the world.
If a juvenile voice is what informs this story, the rebellious attitude of the narrator favors a critical look of the bourgeois world of Barranco and all its prudish morality. Concerning the sanctimonious women who wander through its streets, for example, the narrator comments: “In the morning, at the edge of dawn, from the tower windows, in a clumsy flight of frightened birds and wet bell strokes, the old lay sisters go down to the coven of the trees and the light poles in the mist. Blacknesses that move from here to there, infinite arms, hooked hands, half-heard precepts… Lay sisters who smell of sun and morning dew, of the humidity of towels forgotten behind the bathtub, of elixirs, of artificial tears, of the devil, of sponges, of that hollow and dry smell of used limestone, tinctured, soaped… Lay sisters who smell of dirty clothes, of stars, of cat skin, of lamp oil, of whale sperm… of tumbleweed, of darkness, of the litany of flowers for the dead…” (58).
As this quotation demonstrates, in many of its passages, The Cardboard House is a casual and daring book with scenes that unfold a corrosive humor and an ironic glance over the small world of Barranco with its rancid morality. On the other hand, some critics have wanted to see in this book the portrait of an adolescent artist in this book. In effect, the presence of Ramón, the narrator’s best friend, makes them share intellectual and literary concerns. Ramón’s life reveals the drama of a youth who hopes to develop his literary vocation but who lives trapped in a bourgeois world that only respects moral conservatism and economic certainty. Moreover, Ramón’s premature death permits the discovery of his diary, which will allow the narrator to realize that the vocation of a poet is seen as a subversive trade, one selcom tolerated by the upper class. For that reason, Adán’s text can be read as a reflection on the place of the artist in society and the affirmation that, beyond any intolerance, good literature is capable of creating its own reality. Upon close analysis, Adán’s first book is a profession of faith by someone who consecrated his life to art and literary creation.
It is worth underscoring the book’s most important asset: its use of language. Its rich imagery is thanks to its prose, which is always agile and versatile, full of nebulous images, audacious syntactical breaks and a secretive narrative musicality. The story highlights the value of the flexibility of language, with its capacity for poetic evocation, recurring frequently to metaphor, to hyperbole, and to synesthesia, while also incorporating a wide use of neologisms, archaisms. and Peruvianisms when the anecdote deserves such. Thus, Adán proves to be an innovative and radical artist of his time, since his is a language derived from erudition that enables a rich torrent of visual images that are always seeking out new expressive horizons.
This new edition in English of The Cardboard House, an excellent translation by José Garay Boszeta, is worthy of the highest praise. It not only makes available a masterpiece of Peruvian letters to an English-speaking audience, but also gives visibility to a book that inaugurated a new stage of modernity in Peru’s literary history and announced the arrival of someone who would later be regarded as one of its greatest poets of the 20th century.
University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee
Translated from the Spanish by Jeffrey Oxford
Midwestern State University
Proofread by Jenna Tang
César Ferreira is Professor of Spanish at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. He is a member of the Academia Peruana de las Letras and serves on the editorial board of World Literature Today. His most recent publication is the volume Narrar lo invisible: aproximaciones al mundo literario de Sara Mesa (2020). In January 2020 he received an Honoris Causa from the Universidad Ricardo Palma in Peru.