El ciego y los tuertos. Braulio Fernández Biggs. Santiago: Descontexto Editores. 2015. 120 pages.
El ciego y los tuertos [The blind and the one-eyed] is a book of exceptional stories, written by a poet who is tragic, classical, and modern all at the same time. By “poet” I mean an outstanding stylist capable of imposing imagination in a place where the common reader would wait for explanations. The story as a genre, when it reaches great heights, encourages the unspoken and forces the reader to discern that which the writer didn’t want to say. Perhaps for this reason the novel revels in a greater “prestige” than the present day narrative. To read Fernández Biggs, the reader must focus on every detail, slow down and listen to the voice in the background, the implicit voice, like the defenseless foam of an evening ocean wave.
If the author is a narrator and poet at the same time, the first subject of deliberation that emerges in regard to the work is, namely: Where does one place the literature of Fernández Biggs from a generic and stylistic point of view? I will respond noting that it is not necessary to establish a label for this book of fourteen stories, as it’s destined to resist the stereotypes and pretensions of generic and stylistic constructs. The book escapes the reductions that a critic is accustomed to using, in such a way that to read it, it would be appropriate to abdicate from every literary entomology. Who, furthermore, would want to frame it within the diversity of personal experiences, that which could be called the “new Chilean narrative,” but will be surprised not to find any of the generic features of the national scene in this book: a bland naturalism, the cruel description of sex, and a prurient language presented as pocket change in the absence of imaginative and symbolic heights.
What the reader will find, on the other hand, is a prominently tragic imagery, to the extent in which the significant principles to which Fernández Biggs adheres are framed inside what Henry James called “imagination of disaster”; the common denominator of a specific tradition of Western literature whose course is possible to trace from the Iliad up to Eliot, and which precipitates—can there be any doubt?—in El ciego y los tuertos.
The reference to James is not in vain if we consider that Fernández Biggs’ book, in its entirety, is composed with the intent to restore and adhere to a joint lineage of classical and Anglo-Saxon roots that include Homer, Shakespeare, Marcus Aurelius, Sophocles, Coleridge, proceeding only—I dare to say—in the history of the Chilean narrative. This is accomplished through headings charged with significance, settings placed in the mouths of the characters, and allusive chapter titles that point to figures of the classical tradition. Biggs could be considered an imposter, and a bad reader would have to brand the anachronism he imposes, contrario sensu [contrary sensu], with an immoderate force. The mix of modern prose and dramatic language is one of the greatest achievements of the book.
El ciego y los tuertos is a work with an untimely, parabolic, and dramatic style. From the beginning we find ourselves located in a world very different from that of the 21st century: “Lejos huye quien de los suyos huye. ¡Ah, los ojos de esa foca…! Tal vez no haya que pedir demasiado. Donde vayas esta noche te cubrirá el cielo. Se atraviesa en tu camino lo que no esperabas. Algo rige nuestro destino sin contar con nosotros” [He who flees from his own flees far. ¡Ah, the eyes of that seal…! Maybe it isn’t too much to ask. Wherever you go tonight he will cover you with the sky. Do not wait for that which crosses in your path. Something governs our destiny without telling us]. In today’s narrative, we hardly ever find these types of texts that, out of order, would completely ruin an essentially prosaic structure. However, tragic and symbolic resonances seem more natural in a text like that of Fernández Biggs. This distinction that I’m referring to is, additionally, the imaginary place where the majority of the events take place. May is the expression of a desolated world where it seems all the characters find themselves dead before time, wandering inducible areas. The place is an Omphalos, as the title of one of the stories illustrates to us, or the rarefied Elsinore of Hamlet. It’s a symbol of the center of the universe where nature exhibits all its potential towards integrating itself with human emotions, and where communication between the world and man, as well as the gods and the dead, all come into play. The nature, in the work of Fernández Biggs, is a spirit that evokes sublime omens, like in the poetry of Wordsworth.
In its construction, the book is classical and absolutely modern at the same time. The unities of space, place, and time find themselves pulverized. Underlying this condition is an expressionistic idea of art, where the poetic vision that is deployed by the text surges from the inadequacy between the reality and improbability of the narrator(s), a subject fragmented through the versatility of its register, the diversity of voices, and the confusion between reality and dreams. The technique resembles that of Ulises by Joyce, a work in which Stephen Dedalus acquires this name by being a labyrinth builder whose works cause himself, and his readers, to get lost. It’s easy and convenient to lose one’s way in the evasive drama of El ciego y los tuertos, where every text signifies a formal experiment for the author. The better stories demand reinterpretation, and as Borges has said, and this is one of those cases.
The reader will be put to the test while also facing a genre, the story, which through its nature requires brevity from us in place of its closure. Who, on the contrary, would not want to walk pensively after the reading from El ciego y los tuertos, but instead will have to play the game that the author imposes on us. This reader will have to give specific attention to the ambiguous voice of Tiresias, the fortune teller: it is the skein that Fernández Biggs extends to us so we can escape the maze.
Thematically, the book is constructed around the subject of failed love between a man and woman, Moss and Berthe, characters whose reminiscences extend horizontally throughout the work. In this sense, El ciego y los tuertos is a work of grief through their loving disaster, questioning upon the meaning of their sexual act when its aims are merely superficial, and the mutual annihilation of the pair for the implicit futility of human desires in front of the overwhelming evidence of destiny. But, is the collapse of love sufficient enough to give free rein to the “fall of civilization”, as mentioned in “Moss’s poem”? There are books about the failure and violation of lovers, but none end in the imaginative disaster of El ciego y los tuertos. Why do(es) the narrator(s) consider the love and carnal temptation of sex to be “a violation of time and peace”? What more is a man’s role in the world but to be a spectator, living to butt heads with his neighbor and “barge in” violently “upon the silent sea”? To do away with the natural equilibrium, like the author would seem to purposely reproach us with the initial heading of “The ballad of the old sailor” of Coleridge? This is one of the biggest questions raised in the work.
If the narrator is a poet, then there are only images in El ciego y los tuertos. There are no characters, no schemas, nor fixed states of mind. The work never says: is. Maybe we can partially or totally comprehend it, but whoever reads it will find a sublime pleasure in the text. We must understand the sublime as Burke points out: this is, like admiration and respect toward a type of art whose purpose is our ignorance of these things. On this, we must bear in mind that literary pleasure does not have to see with morals or reason, and is better found in the obscure, the dangerous, the painful.
Fernández Biggs, using his scope of vision and rigor in his implementation, has left us with a “dark” text which makes us play with the most sublime human sentiment: fear, as part of the respect that a human being should have towards God and a predetermined destiny. The work, consequentially, can only drive us to a state of catharsis or atonement, whichever the reader’s faith permits. This is the recuperation of a religious significance for the actual narrative and the major accomplishment of the poet. Fernández Biggs has attempted to show, through a story of infertile love, the ontological collapse of an era – our era – and has done it tremendously. But an insistent reader will note that he has also achieved an undoing of personal pain, following Wilde’s maxim of a timeless artist: “to sympathize with all human suffering.”
Rodrigo Arriagada Zubieta
Translated by Sam Marino