La señorita que amaba por teléfono. Elisa Lerner. Caracas: Fundavag Ediciones. 2016. 149 pages.
I attempt a slantwise reading of La señorita que amaba por teléfono [The young lady who loved by phone], the novel by Elisa Lerner. Like De muerte lenta [On slow death], her previous novel, here there are portraits, many portraits, a dizzying album of memory. In La señorita que amaba por teléfono, this memory starts with faces, sometimes photographed. But the portrait of Elisa Lerner is not a photograph. They are, if you like, kabbalistic caricatures. Faces that are interpreted, not represented; outside of any single frame. Lerner recreates nothing: she plays with these figures. What matters more is the relation between them, the fabric the narrator weaves between them.
Clothing serves as a recurring metaphor in the novel. It can be a single detail: the Edenic short-sleeved dress of Blanca, the high school teacher whose romantic affairs form the novel’s distracted guiding thread; the moral cashmir of Villalba, the narrator’s jokester classmate; the ever more faded, darkened canvas of the Caracas mountains. There is a meaning in each. It is as if, for the narrator, all the characters were coming out of the closet, a fertile and revealing closet. And also provisional.
All are secondary figures here. They are so, in part, because History, that fantasy hallucinated by power, only admits secondary characters, if not ghostly. But also due to the incompleteness of their fates. This marginality and incompleteness marks the narrator’s vision, a vision that is also a form of perplexity: What country did we come from? When I was a child, it was common to see men who were missing an arm. Something was incomplete in them. Their jacket sleeves hung empty, purposeless.” In La señorita que amaba por teléfono, these mutilated men are the Goyesque metaphor for an archetypically truncated, perhaps sacrificial Venezuelan figure. And so, Lerner interprets the Venezuelan civic fabric not so much at face value as much as in its physical disfigurement and moral unease. The body is inevitably unpublished.
Exile is the means by which historical marginality and incompleteness take on greater importance. It appears, in the splendid figure of Marta, as a rugged solitude without pretexts. “Only you,” says the young exile, pointing out the narrator, “who comes from the misfortune of a people in infinite exile can understand my pain, my own exile.” Spain and the Spanish exiles, in fact, are an inescapable presence in La señorita que amaba por teléfono. In Lerner’s Caracas, the Republican exile meets the exile of the Jews, a more internalized banishment, “an infinite exile” with one foot in obsession and another in metaphysics. They express themselves, as do the rest of the characters, in theatrical monologues. They talk to themselves, yes, but as if someone were listening. They also offer an introspective textile ideograph to the novel. But, this time, the clothes give way to the page.
Prayer, the witness’s notebook, along with money and food are not the only ways to obliquely express such a deep-rooted estrangement. Humor is an even more elaborated and lucid response. In Elisa Lerner, it appears as lightly satirical complicity in characters with no direction and no destiny. Compassionate, corrosive humor. Speaking of Professor Livio, the aphoristic narrator asks, “Who said comedy always makes you laugh?” to then add, stunningly, “If laughter broke out in our classroom it came out of astonishment, out of sudden and immediate incomprehension of the burdens of a great, deep suffering. Humor—in any phase of life—can be strangeness faced with the vexations of fate.” This pained laugh declares something missing, whether it be land, rights, or language. The sign of a piercing unease.
This somber humor is far from the only humor present in the novel. In La señorita que amaba por teléfono there are also moments of gratuitous hilarity, delicious Fellinian sketches. This delight reaches its highest heights when the narrator makes a defense of short men as pleasant presences in their mother’s milk. A malicious, unepic joke.
One of the most fascinating aspects of La señorita que amaba por teléfono is the way in which the metaphor ties together the narration. The metaphor converts Lerner’s novel into a sovereign symbolic artefact. It imbues a juicy linguistic irreality upon the novel. Is irreality the word? Perhaps, rather, an enigmatic fabric. This is no lyrical method: in Lerner, the metaphor is the fundamental tool of interpretative elaboration. It reveals relationships, it predicts meanings, it even creates them, like when the narrator speaks of the sealed letters of Max, her transhumant and vitriolic penpal, whose gravesite is already reserved in Montmartre Cemetery: “Looking most of all like the puffed-up chest of a general who had fought in some Napoleonic War with the weight of all his medals on top.” The metaphoric extravagance sometimes suggests a certain discreet transvestism, as if of someone who does not renounce a certain theatrical accent, or of a cinematographer, even to express a chronic political pain.
The metaphor operates as an elliptical statement against silencing, as the provisional but no less enigmatic creation of a form of language. “He wasn’t used to talking about family. Economic scarcity led him indoors like an enormous silence,” the narrator protests in another moment. This domestic silence corresponds to the bloody noise of much of Venezuela’s political history. The telephone signifies the emotional exile of the ironically melodramatic teacher Blanca Elvira. Her voice is her mask.
The main guardian figure of the narrator (and La señorita que amaba por teléfono can be read as an effusive parody of the bildungsroman) is Marta. From her education she remembers, on one hand, the value of details in writing, since “if there were any metaphysics of the writer it was that of writing on things that seem petty.” On the other, she recalls that details alone are not enough for writing. One needs a certain introspective lightness, to which the brightest (like Marta herself) are not always the most disposed.
Reflexive laughter, phone calls, Jewish gossip, metaphorical wingbeats: Lerner cares about the living, furtive word. From time to time, the narrator stoops to a certain moral editorialism on her country. It’s nothing that is not already suggested in the portraits. But perhaps this editorialism is another margin, a juxtaposition of the journalistic formula on the pages of a novel. The phrases flee their frames, like everything in this work. Both editorialisms and portraits allude to a certain mythical memory, the long night of the Federal War. A war (a nightmare) that repeats itself. A regressive nighttime, dogmatic and ferocious. This nocturnal history reappears often, according to the narrator, in Venezuelan literature. The military invasion also takes place in consciousness, to the point that many “end up as failed versions of our men at arms.” More than adversity, it is this lack of destiny (affective, artistic, political) that frames these interrelated lives.
In La señorita que amaba por teléfono, each paragraph wants to be a poem, perhaps even an expressionist poem. And also a portrait, a satire of popular customs, a journalistic editorial, a film dialogue, a theatre monologue. Elisa Lerner unfolds a plural fabric fit for a long night outside.
Universidad de São Paulo
Translated by Arthur Dixon