Sophie La Belle and the Miniature Cities / Sophie La Belle y las ciudades en miniatura. Gisela Heffes. English translation by Lorís Simón, Grady C. Wray & Kenneth Loiselle. Mexico City: Literal. 2016. 98 pages.
William Carlos Williams described his five-volume epic Paterson (1946-1958) as “a long poem upon the resemblance between the mind of modern man and a city.” Such a resemblance should not come as a surprise; the city is, after all, the reflection of the mind of its creators, and to trace the cartography of a particular city is to take an important step towards an understanding of its inhabitants. About twelve miles outside of Buenos Aires—Gisela Heffes’ native city—one finds Ciudad Evita, a city of approximately 70,000 inhabitants, the layout of which imitates Eva Duarte de Perón’s profile. Ciudad Evita was founded in 1947, that is, exactly forty years before David Foster Wallace created, in The Broom of the System, a suburb bearing the outline of Jayne Mansfield’s profile. Truth is still stranger than fiction. What lies hidden in the layouts of Paris, of Buenos Aires, of London, of New York? In Sophie La Belle and the Miniature Cities, Gisela Heffes draws the map of a metropolis that may already exist, and in so doing produces the chart of our prejudices, phobias, and anxieties.
Located “on the border between ancient France and Belgium,” Continental City is an Interzone that most inhabitants of any modern metropolis will recognize as their own. A proud resident of this city that is all Western cities, Sophie La Belle works on a personal project: the creation of an archipelago of miniature cities. Her aim is “to portray a futuristic metaphor at a moment where the future no longer exists.” The inhabitants of Continental City are confined within an official Discourse, which is in turn shaped and regulated by an official Tone. Their education takes place at centers known as Multimedia Houses. Conversation is limited to art. In a world where political discussion is prohibited, the past—especially the embarrassing past—has virtually disappeared. For Sophie La Belle, ignorance is bliss, until the day she receives an envelope containing the photograph of a city in ruins.
Heffes’ work has been compared to that of Jorge Luis Borges and that of Italo Calvino. The comparison is quite apt in both cases. Borges was the great miniaturist, and his Aleph, a sphere about an inch in diameter that contains literally everything that exists, is the best metaphor for his own oeuvre. Just like Borges’ stories, Sophie La Belle and the Miniature Cities resorts to suggestion, which leads to expansion. This mechanism is also, incidentally, the one employed by the novella, a genre that depends on so much more than word count, and perhaps the one most applicable to Heffes’ story. In regard to Calvino, the miniature cities that Sophie La Belle creates are contemporary visions akin to the Italian author’s invisible cities. Heffes’ invention, however, Continental City, is altogether a different case. As has been observed, Continental City is Every City, an amalgam that cannot be found in a map, but that nevertheless exists. What is most unnerving about Continental City is that, unlike Calvino’s creations, it is all too visible: the reader need only scratch off the veneer of contemporary urban pulchritude to experience the horror.
Besides evoking Borges and Calvino, Sophie La Belle and the Miniature Cities will also remind many of its readers of the apocalyptic visions of J. G. Ballard, whose works explore—or prefigure—a psychology and a zeitgeist of the future. Heffes’ story is, among other things, a memorable example of speculative fiction. There are echoes in it of George Orwell and of Aldous Huxley, and Continental City may be visualized as an environment similar to the baroque bureaucratic hell depicted in Terry Gilliam’s film Brazil (1985). When urban decay begins to corrode Sophie La Belle’s life, she realizes that there are two sides to each of the miniature cities she has created, and that as one side is plunged into misery, the opposite side prospers. As is well known, one of the methods of speculative fiction consists in exaggerating present tendencies. Who would deny that we live in a society where the exploitation of the many produces the affluence of the few? A further development of H. G. Wells’ double society in The Time Machine, Heffes’ vision of the near future illuminates the present day. The future arrived long ago.
Critics have often pointed out the quality of Latin America as a land fertile for imaginary cities. The most famous cases are, of course, those of Gabriel García Márquez’s Macondo, and closer to Heffes’ native Buenos Aires, Juan Carlos Onetti’s Santa María. This is a topic that Heffes has explored in depth in a critical essay, Las ciudades imaginarias en la literatura latinoamericana (2008). A close look at imaginary cities reveals the importance of atmosphere when it comes to conjuring up these urban utopias. It is a particular atmosphere that makes Macondo, Santa María, and Jefferson, Mississippi, seem more real than places one can locate in a map. Imaginary or not, a city is first and foremost an ambiance, and this is also proved by a reading of texts that describe so-called real cities in a memorable manner. All great authors create their cities, their own personal view of the “real thing:” Patrick Modiano’s Paris is not simply Paris, it is Paris as seen through the eyes—and most importantly the memory—of Patrick Modiano, a city that nobody else has seen, and that one may visit only by reading the novelist’s works. Like the great authors just mentioned, Heffes succeeds in conveying the atmosphere that her characters breathe, in this case, a thick atmosphere, the sense of uneasiness that precedes disaster.
Finally, a word about the translation. Sophie La Belle and the Miniature Cities is presented in English, followed by related artwork and by the original Spanish version of the story. The reader may therefore compare the two texts and find that they are equally delightful. Like any translation that is a pleasure to read, the one offered in this book is faithful to the original without falling into pedestrian textualism.
Contrary to what is often thought, the term “miniature” does not derive from minor and its variations, but from minium, the red lead that was used in ancient times to make ink. The Latin miniare thus meant “to paint red,” and later, in Italian, the same word came to mean “to illuminate a manuscript.” To illustrate, to illuminate our urban reality is precisely what Gisela Heffes does in Sophie La Belle and the Miniature Cities.