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Quim Monzó: Benzina (Gasoline)

Heribert Julià is a successful painter. Though born in Barcelona, he has lived most of his life in the United States and is a US citizen. He is married to Helena, an art dealer, and they live in New York. Helena’s gallery represents Heribert though a man called Hug seems to also play a role in promoting him. Though they are married and sleep together (in both senses of the word, though, in both cases, their active sex lives seem to take place with other partners), they seem to have little contact with one another outside their limited professional contacts. Usually, when one returns home, the other is asleep. Heribert tends to get up late, while Helena gets up fairly early. You will notice that both their names begin with the letter H. In one of the many post-modern touches, the vast majority of the characters have names beginning with the letter H.

The books starts off with Heribert dreaming that he is in a scene based on Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks. When he awakes, we find that he is not sleeping with Helena but with Hildegarda, his latest girlfriend and wife of an opera singer. However, he does not seem in touch with the world. He reads (interestingly enough a Brazilian book, in Portuguese) but is soon bored. He and Hildegarda have been together for just two weeks but already he seems bored with her. He should be painting but he is not. He has made up his mind never to go to another art exhibition. He has an upcoming exhibition of his own and he has yet to paint all the paintings for this exhibition and, so far, he has only done two and he considers them to be mediocre. Indeed, when he does start painting the boredom that engulfs him is so great he messes up the application of the paint to the legs of the stool. He even considers being very post-modern and just submitting blank canvasses. In short, he is completely detached from the world, both in his personal and professional life.

But this is a post-modern novel. His angst – let’s call it that – is very post-modern. He/Monzó lists things. He goes to a bar and starts classifying the different kinds of glasses for different kinds of drinks. He goes to a sex shop and examines the different-coloured condoms. He buys a copy of Mademoiselle magazine, primarily because when he was much younger, he had only had such fashion magazines to masturbate to. He looks at all the ads and all the articles. Angie Dickinson reports that California avocadoes have only seventeen calories a slice – If you take into account, it says in one corner of the ad, that there are sixteen slices to a medium-sized avocado. Lists are his and the post-modern way of keeping in touch with the world. He goes even further, feeling that he needs to collect something, both as an investment and to keep him grounded (what he needs is to find an obsession). He goes to a stamp shop and buys an inordinate amount of stamps – we get about three pages of descriptions, including the various countries that issued the stamps – and then to a numismatics shop and buys a huge amount of rare coins, again with a long description of his purchases.

We learn about his latest attempt when he is with Hilari, a friend, who introduces him to Herundina whom he should recognise but does not. It turns out that she is the sister of an ex-girlfriend. No, not Henrietta nor Heloise but Hannah. However, he is so bored that he no longer finds Hilari’s jokes funny. Moreover, though he is somewhat attracted to Herundina and finds the idea of dating the sister of an ex, he cannot bring himself to flirt with her. Indeed, he does not know what to do.

He has been unfaithful to Helena on numerous occasions. While he assumes that she has been unfaithful to him, he has not thought of specifics. However, he now discovers, by chance, that she is not out with her girlfriend as she had said she would be but obviously with someone else. However, he admits he does not really care who she is out with. Despite this, he decides to follow her. This is a very funny book but his attempts at following her are certainly one of the funniest parts of the book. After following her for a bit, he decides that he needs to disguise himself. Indeed, he needs to have a different disguise at every corner so he buys something at every block. He starts with an outlandish blond wig, moves on to a beach ball (free with some sunscreen that he buys but which he cannot bounce as there is snow on the ground) and some baggy trousers. It goes on and on, each purchase more outrageous.

Helena has mentioned a young artist who would love to meet him and get his advice. She asks him to phone the artist and after trying to avoid doing so, he finally meets the artist, Humbert Herrera, a fellow Catalan who is represented by Helena but who, so far, has only had limited success. He asks to see Humbert’s work but Humbert says it is too dark and Heribert and Humbert agree on the next day. However, that afternoon he is out with Herundina and there is an accident and Heribert ends up in hospital with a broken leg and damaged hands. He cannot paint, so the exhibition cannot take place.

Helena, of course, has a substitute, not just for the exhibition but also in her love life. That substitute is Humbert. The next part of the book is devoted to Humbert. He. too, starts with a dream in which he is in an artwork, though his dream is Hockney’s A Bigger Splash. Though Monzó mocked the art world in the Heribert part, he mocks it much more in this part, such as the various contemporary schools of paintings. Humbert’s work has been called garish clutter but he realises if he persists at it, it will come back into fashion. He is now the star painter but he has an obsession. He takes notes of everything. Indeed, he is always taking notes. Unlike, Heribert, we learn of his early career, particularly as it develops both as an artist and as a waiter. However, like Heribert, he follows. In this case, he is determined to find out about Hildegarda, whom Helena has mentioned to him. As with Herbibert we get a hilarious description of his attempts to find her and find out about her, and, in particular, to seduce her. That they end up in front of Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks is probably not surprising.

This is a very funny work, very post-modernist in its style and totally cynical. None of the characters can be said to be loveable or admirable. At least part of the book is a mockery of the contemporary New York art world but much of it is simply a post-modern detachment from the real world, with connections to it only through things, lists, and Auster-like explorations of the city or, at least, a certain part of the city. This might not to be everybody’s taste but I found it a first-class work.

Publishing history

First published 1983 by Quaderns Crema
First English translation by Open Letter in 2010