Savage Theories. Pola Oloixarac. Translated by Roy Kesey. New York: Soho Press, 2017. 304 pages.
As a member of the American academy’s (sometimes rightfully) maligned humanities community, I didn’t have to read much of Pola Oloixarac’s Savage Theories, translated by Roy Kesey, in order to understand why every previous review I had seen about the book focused largely on the fact that it is controversial. I was suspicious: the book had generated positive buzz online, and yet, in these times of edgelords (and edgeladies…), it is hard not to suspect that any piece of writing praised for its ironic takedown of the academic establishment might just be another attempt to “trigger the libs”: the so-called “social justice warriors” who inhabit both Tumblr comment sections and the hallways of humanities departments.
After all, Oloixarac herself clearly relishes her reputation as a gadfly on the twitching flank of academia, recognized by her publishers and herself as the new “femme fatale” of Argentine letters and as a counterpoint to contemporary expectations of the social and political commitments of literary women. But was I right to be suspicious? Did Savage Theories make noise because it’s polemical, or is it genuinely good? Not that the two are mutually exclusive…
I won’t give a summary here, since other reviewers have beaten me to it; suffice it to say that Savage Theories is populated by a cast of characters who could typically be found lurking in the dingiest nooks and crannies of both academia and, almost by extension, the Internet. In a sense, the almost complete incorporation of academia–and political philosophy in particular–into the online world is the novel’s central conceit. For that reason, I think this book will seem more extreme to some readers than to others.
For this reader, the novel’s scenes of scatological sexuality, ludic violence, and absurd intellectual pretense were not so exaggerated: the depressing orgies of the novel’s self-important protagonists, the ironic effort to convert Argentina’s Dirty War into an online video game, and the evocation of representatives of “the lettered elite who actually took all this nonsense seriously” may ring true for many navigators of online forums and of humanities departments. Rather than a fantastic parody of reality, Savage Theories could be read as an almost naturalistic exposé of the dark corners of the Internet and the so-called intellectuals who live there. The novel is not so unrealistic: nonetheless, it is decidedly experimental.
This experimentation is the result of another incorporation: the incorporation of fiction into theory and vice versa, the imposition of the aesthetic elements and narrative strategies of political philosophy upon literature. It is no coincidence that the edition of Los teorías salvajes from Literatura Random House features an image of the Leviathan conceived by Thomas Hobbes on its cover; according to Oloixarac, “the experience of terror late at night is essential to a thorough understanding of political philosophy,” and similarly Hobbesian rhetoric is an essential part of the text. There are at least two books within Savage Theories: a grotesque love story of online trolls and obsessive humanities students on one hand, and a political thesis on the other, centered on the “Theory of Egoic Transmissions,” proposing that violence is an inherent human trait, that we are still soft-skinned prey animals at heart and that all of human culture is the deterministic result of this condition. Both readings are disturbing and amusing at once, illustrated with a dark and fatalistic humor, and neither works without the other.
This is what impresses me most about Savage Theories: Pola Oloixarac’s unusual, simultaneous skill as a theorist and a prose writer–a sort of contemporary Sarmiento diagnosing the ills of her Argentina–not to mention as a subversive comedienne. This unique blend of literary and philosophical proposals accounts for the success of Savage Theories, and makes the labor of translation carried out by Roy Kesey all the more impressive. Kesey shows off a thorough mastery of both theory and prose–substances that often refuse to mix–and offers a natural and precise rendering of Oloixarac’s story in English. We are lucky to have it and we should look forward to more collaborations between the two in future.
Savage Theories is funny and sad, charming and revolting, attractive and offensive. As a reader, I get the sense that many readers won’t like it, and I think that is precisely, in part, what Pola Oloixarac wanted. If we’ve learned anything from the short coexistence of the real world and the world online, it’s that the thoughts and feelings of others are more radical, more shocking, more savage than we once thought, and Savage Theories gives this unexpected revelation the space it needs in Latin American literature.
University of Oklahoma