Lima: Seix Barral. 2022. 116 pages.
Peruvian writer Ricardo Sumalavia invigorates Latin American literary tradition with his novel Croac y el nuevo fin del mundo (2022). He does so by activating and integrating Asian fictional forms that erase contemporary—and unnecessary—dichotomies. The author accomplishes all of this through the repeating onomatopoeia of a frog. To do this, the narrator assumes an essential role: acting as a translator when words are the only way to access the frog. Sumalavia began exploring such experimental literature in Historia de un brazo (2019), a book in which, as the title suggests, the protagonist is an arm. In his latest work, he continues pushing his own limits and invites us into a world where humans and animals merge.
The first thing we notice about the novel is that the story clearly evokes classic Latin American works of magical realism, such as El reino de este mundo (1949) by Alejo Carpentier, Pedro Páramo (1955) by Juan Rulfo, and Cien años de soledad (1967) by Gabriel García Márquez. Sumalavia’s book, however, takes place around the Peruvian Amazon River, a space that becomes decentered as the frog travels between the toilets of the narrator and the narrator’s grandmother. In these fragments, the characters’ family stories become stitched together and we don’t always know if the grandmother, narrator, or frog are ghosts or memories; all of this stylizes the narrative’s Amazonian space along the lines of Rulfo’s Comala. Through these “oddkin” or “unexpected collaborations”—in the words of Donna Haraway—the author avoids presenting the Amazon River as either idyllic or in decline: its banks act as an Aleph from which we cycle through all the frog’s possible existences, including one that suggests the frog is a god. The book opens with poetic inspiration: verses from Argentine writer Roberto Juarroz’s “Una rosa en el florero” (1975), a poem in which the protagonist—a rose—is replaced by a frog. These lines also anticipate the role of language in the storyline because, in some chapters, language is coded as disorder or as a new order, which helps maintain meaning throughout the story.
A second noteworthy feature is Sumalavia’s use of literary references which, for his South American audience, are more distant, but not altogether unknown. In the novel, a representation jumps into view—like a frog—of a classic scene from the world’s best-known haiku by sixteenth-century Japanese poet Matsuo Basho. This representation could be an extended translation of verses that have been difficult to translate into other languages, which is also a nod to one of the novel’s main ideas noted above: the narrator’s translation of frog language into Spanish. At the same time, the experiences of the pensive, monstrous frog—an animal-human—links to the world of Ryunosuke Akutagawa and his turtle-men, the philosophers in Kappa (1927), and spiders who push us to think about human ethics, as in the story “The Spider’s Web” (1918). Further, in Sumalavia’s novel, the frog’s depth points to Buddhist ideas about the futility of existence. In fact, its voice completely overtakes the narrative and becomes an “I” that mimics the narrative voice in Natsume Soseki’s “I-novel.” This representation is quite distinct from the egocentric pronouncements in the self-referencing stories of the neoliberal present. This unique voice explores the depths of individual and collective consciousness, which we can find in the novel Kokoro (1914) and in other texts by the novelist Meiji.
“SUMALAVIA AND HIS NOVEL SHOW THAT IT’S POSSIBLE TO TELL A POLITICALLY NOTEWORTHY STORY THROUGH AN ENDLESS NUMBER OF FORMS AND WITHIN A SINGLE WORK”
Our third observation has to do with the connections between this novel and Korean narrative. One link is the use of complex literary devices to convey significant political content. While all literature can be read politically, Korean authors’ use of the contemporary short story forces readers to analyze the canon through politics. For example, the frog is angry at the beginning of Croac because the narrator makes him go to a bank and witness a scene in which an ant is detained. This scene articulates a (not so) veiled critique of banks’ bureaucracy and power. Close to the end of the story, the frog runs into police officers and is frightened because they mistake him for a toad. They continue to pressure the frog, saying they would like to see him “reventar como un sapo” [explode like a toad]. The frog decides to attack, telling them he’s no ordinary frog, but rather “a ghost frog” who will make the police officers “reventar como un sapo,” thereby deflecting the general animosity the police often inspire. Additionally, the novel’s characters discuss the war between the “las ranas del norte y las ranas del sur” [the frogs from the north and the frogs from the south], which inevitably makes us think about Korea’s political situation over the past 50+ years. However, we can also tie this sentence to tensions between Ecuador and Peru or Peru and Chile if we think about South American conflicts. Another point of contact between this novel and Korean audiovisual narratives, like Lee Hey-jun’s Castaway on the Moon (2009) and Park Kwang-hyun’s Welcome to the Dongmakgol (2005), are scenes marked by cursing and satire as a socio-literary device. In Croac, to time travel from the house toilet, “la cantidad de mierda debe ser proporcional al tiempo al que desees viajar” [the amount of shit must be proportional to the amount of time you want to travel]. Such an expression lets us visualize the aesthetics of the action, which is typically viewed as unpleasant to fictionalize. Moreover, this novel’s fusion of formats points to one of the most important twentieth-century works of Korean literature, Cho Se-hui’s “A Dwarf Launches a Little Ball” (1978), as well as Park Min-gyu’s more recent work, Korean Standards (2005). Like Korean authors, Sumalavia shares another gift with his readers: his obsession with experimenting with backdrops and forms.
This interesting mix of Latin American and Asian forms, humans and animals, the past and present, creates multiple entry points for reading. Each approach to the novel can also be interpreted in different ways, and they cast political codes read between the lines. Sumalavia and his novel show that it’s possible to tell a politically noteworthy story through an endless number of forms and within a single work. Croac both leads to the multiverse and invites us to continue creating and writing literature from South America.