Argentina: Random House. 2022. 219 pages.
In 2013, Julián López wrote what may be one of the best Argentine novels of the century thus far, based on the history of repression during the last dictatorship and narrated by a seven-year-old boy (Una muchacha muy bella, available in English translation by Samuel Rutter as A Beautiful Young Woman). He next wrote an erotic novel about a romantic encounter between two men, a lyrical novel, equally bitter and sweet (La ilusión de los mamíferos, 2018). He recently published El bosque infinitesimal, a gothic novel revolving around the perverse and the sinister, narrated in an archaic language, and—as if that were not enough—humorous to boot. Evidently, López is a writer who likes challenges.
El bosque infinitesimal is the story of a young physician in a city called Sbörnika (a faithful representation of any Eastern European country at the end of the nineteenth century). Alongside Blavatsky, his accomplice physician and mentor, and his assistant Ávida, he holds Gut captive. Gut is a savage wretch found in the streets with whom they mean to put their innovative techniques into practice for the good of science, progress, and humanity.
The main character is a physician who would prefer “opening live bodies to just studying the physiology of the dead.” A barely-concealed misogynist acting with arrogance, he feels that his destiny is to subject his patients to all types of examinations and inspections as he always looks ahead into the future.
“THE MOST REMARKABLE ASPECT OF LÓPEZ’S PROJECT, OF HIS WORK AS A WHOLE, IS THE VITALITY HE IMPRINTS ON EACH PIECE, HOW HE FULLY SURRENDERS TO HIS OBSESSIONS”
One of the major achievements of López’s work is the way in which, through several chapters, he manages to sustain both the tension around the captive misfit and the suspense about what they are planning to do to him. In one of the chapters, they explore the possibility of calling a Mandarin tattoo artist to print letters onto his skin describing his medical records: “Blavatsky was proposing a final solution: to bring the Eastern artist so he can print his art on the fool’s skin. This way, he would forever carry with him the data collected from the medical research to which he was happily submitting himself.” A truly Kafkian scene.
Moreover, an erotic component permeates the novel. The physician is seduced by Ávida and, later, by an old roommate with whom he has a hilarious sexual encounter: “Rufu´s little eyes would not stop displaying that loyalty I find in a kneeling friend.” Yet, this seduction always submissively originates from a position of inferiority: “The woman who is always attentive, who remains quiet, who hides, the willing assistant who keeps her place in front of all Humanity and stays obedient to science. My Ávida!”
As it nears its final pages, in my view, the novel loses the reader at times. The narrative, which previously rested upon the anguish of not knowing to which abhorrence the hostage would be subjected, now offers an heteroclite aggregate of both oneiric and sexual elements, an unconnected series of references to sweetness, which do not seem to quite fit the parodic and perverse tone which characterizes the work.
Likewise, psychoanalysis hovers over the novel without actually ever landing. This is seen in allusions to Freud, Lacan, and Dufourmantelle, which are somewhat disconnected from the rest of the story, even though these contemporary interventions can certainly be read as part of the parody.
El bosque infinitesimal is a novel about abuses committed in the name of knowledge and science. The relation between medical knowledge and power—perfectly embodied in a European, white man—leaves us with a feeling of impotence, vulnerability, as if things had not changed much since then. The pathologization of society, the drive for classifying anguish and suffering, and medical thought as the cure for all evil remind us that we are still like Gut: always waiting for a diagnosis. As the novel notes, “the world wants to be cured.”
The most remarkable aspect of López’s project as a whole is the vitality he imprints on each piece, how he fully surrenders to his obsessions, gives shape to his delirium, and continues to be faithful to his wishes. This vitality stems from his trust in those voices, in complete polyphony, which López has housed by inscribing them onto a blank page.
His obsessions belong to the realm of language. López can afford to write a sentence with six subordinate clauses in a baroque language, like some kind of verbal symphony, at a time in which screens and social media impose their brevity on us and all seems to mirror the real.
In these times of autofiction and of narratives “based on a true story,” what El bosque infinitesimal proposes is almost unheard of (unusual, without a place). It is a period comedy about two grotesque physicians who spend their days examining a vagabond in a house’s basement.
Lopéz’s work is remarkably exceptional. We do not get hooked on a novel, we get hooked on a style. What is being told does not really matter since López always takes us to an uncomfortable place and compels us to question ourselves, very much like a handful of other local writers (Aira, Guerriero, Kohan, Cabezón Cámara). He belongs to a select group of misunderstood writers (Di Benedetto, Saer, Gallardo) who make their way through uncharted territories with unique and excessive prose, and whose writing is at odds with the current uses of language, specific agendas, and prevailing aesthetics.
Translated by Adriana Vega