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Luis Sagasti: Bellas artes (Fireflies)

This is one of those books that is called a novel but is not really a novel but, as it is written like a novel, it is here and it is sold as a novel. What it is is a way of looking at the world, through the eyes of certain real people, some famous, some far less so, as well as some fictitious people, as well as a series of wonderful stories, some real, some embellished, some fictitious, and that is, of course, the role of the novel.

We start off with the German artist Joseph Beuys. Beuys was a Luftwaffe pilot during World War II and, in 1944, he was shot down by the Russians. His plane crashed into the woods and he was badly injured. He was rescued by a group of Tartars who had seen and heard his crash. His co-pilot, Karl Vogts, was presumably killed; his body was never found. The Tartars looked after him and took care of him. Eventually, he was rescued by a German patrol. He subsequently became an artist, always wearing his trademark hat to conceal the wounds from his crash. He remained very much influenced by his experiences with the Tartars. However, there were no Tartars. The patrol claimed they found him soon after the crash, still in the cockpit of the plane. There was no sign of any Tartars.

A considerable part of this book is about what we might call imagined seeing, the things we think we have seen, artists in particular, which may not have happened in the real, physical, everyday world but certainly happened in the mind and this is, of course, the basis of artistic creation.

Sagasti gives other examples of this. He moves onto to Kurt Vonnegut and Slaughterhouse Five. I will admit to having read the book and quite enjoyed it. However, Sagasti argues it will always be counted among the top five candidates for the Great American Novel of the twentieth century. It does not even vaguely make it onto my list (selected by others). No matter. Sagasti is showing that the most interesting pages of the book are those dedicated to explaining the literature of Tralfamadore: Brief clumps of symbols separated by stars […] each clump of symbols is a brief, urgent message, describing a situation, a scene.

This leads on to haikus and an interesting discussion of the form and of the work of Matsuo Bashō and the apparently fictitious Kioyi Hatasuko. Sagasti points out two interesting features about haikus. Firstly, they must be seen as a whole. Looking at a haiku as a whole in Japanese kanji is really the only way to examine a haiku. We cannot do this with Western languages, not least because, as Sagasti says, we cannot grasp more than three words at a time. Secondly, the calligraphy is as important as the text. Obviously this is irrelevant in haikus written in a Western language. If we look, for example, at Bashō’s most famous haiku:

Between the lightning and the thunder
A bird
Seeks refuge

We see only the English words individually, not the whole poem as a whole and the shapes of the letters and words is irrelevant. Tralfamadorean literature uses this type of approach.

The Spanish title of this work is Bellas Artes which means Fine Arts. The English translator and/or publisher has gone for Fireflies, which is one of the rare cases where the translation is superior to the original. Fireflies are used throughout the book as a metaphor. We start off with the world as a ball of wool and fireflies flying in and out, ahead of the knitting needles of the gods. The fireflies seem to be the story-tellers. Among people, we should seek out only the fireflies; the rest are simply animals whose frost is reflected in the heavens.

However, they appear again and again. Beuys sees them when he is with the Tartars. Vonnegut sees them in Dresden, after the bombing raid, where they are burning birds falling from the sky. Wittgenstein sees them in the trenches in World War I and, in that same war, Giuseppe Ungaretti wrote My heart showered fireflies/turning on and off/from green to green/I did decode. Zhang Yun, the fictitious space-travelling Chinese philosopher, sees them when he goes up into space. They are symbols, if you will, of a changed world and, more particularly, a changed world as seen through the eyes of a creative person. Without the slightest doubt, art is the answer. What we can’t be sure about is the question.

We move onto to many other topics but a key one is what might be described as creative suicide. Adelir de Carli did not, as far as we know, intend to kill himself but drifting off in a balloon as a stunt to raise money turned out not be a good idea. The Falling Man (from the burning tower in the 9/11 attacks), Saint-Exupéry and Jorge Barón Biza and his father did intend to kill themselves and Sagasti looks at the events surrounding their deaths.

This book is full of fascinating stories. He tells us, for example, that the bravest man in the world was the son of a carpenter and a milkmaid. No, it wasn’t Jesus but Yuri Gagarin, and he goes on to recount the story of Gagarin’s landing in Siberia and what he did before the rescue team arrived. Did this really happen? Who knows?

We do know that some of his stories about real people are quite likely fanciful. We have seen the one about Beuys, and several others may well be true but may well have been embellished by Sagasti’s fertile imagination. Take The Beatles, for example. The cover of their Abbey Road album is world-famous, even if you know nothing about The Beatles. If you look closely at the cover, you will see, on the right-hand side, in the background, a man standing beside what looks like a London taxi but is, in fact, a police van. According to Sagasti, this man is Bob Perry or Ferry and frequently contacted Apple Records to see if the photo was to be published, as he is apparently standing outside his girlfriend’s flat and does not want his wife to see the photo. It is a lovely story but untrue. Does the man look as though he has just come out of his girlfriend’s flat? No, he does not. He is, in fact, an American tourist and you can read about him here.

This is an amazing book, whatever genre you put it in. Given the degree of invention in it, it clearly can be considered a novel. It is witty, highly original, fanciful, learned and a joy to read. It is surprising that Sagasti is not better-known and that this is the first of his novels to be published in English. Charco are to be congratulated for finding him and publishing him in English. I urge you to read it. You won’t be disappointed.

Publishing history

First published by Eterna Cadencia in 2011
First English translation in 2018 by Charco Press
Translated by Fionn Petch