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Rodrigo Fresán: La parte inventada (The Invented Part)

This is the first book in a trilogy. The second part – La parte soñada (The Dreamed Part) – appeared in English in November 2019. The third part – La parte recordada [The Remembered Part] – has appeared (October 2019) in Spanish and will presumably appear in English at a later date.

Fresán writes about writers and all too often the writer is himself. Will I ever be able to write something in which a character who is NOT a writer appears? Difficult. Doubt it. Don’t think so. I have a completely romantic notion of the figure of the writer.

The book opens with a series of quotations from various writers about writing and about the truth of writing. All this happened, more or less, says Kurt Vonnegut while James Salter says Nothing actually happened. Juan Carlos Onetti says Always lie. How relevant these all are is doubtless for the reader to determine.

The first chapter is called The Real Character and we start with the writer as a boy, referred to only as The Boy. His parents were always arguing and planned to get divorced, but she got pregnant before that happened, producing a sister for him – Penelope, whom he refers to as The Mad Sister.

In the future, he’d read in a novel that parents start as gods and end up myths, and that, between one extreme and the other, the human forms they adopt tend to be catastrophic for their children.

He thinks a lot about the world and poses questions to us and himself, such as Why is the Miss Universe contest always won by a woman from planet Earth? There are dozens, hundreds of questions like these dancing in The Boy’s head.

But he grows up and becomes The Young Man. We meet him when The Young Woman is making a documentary about him. The Young Man and The Young Woman are literary animals. They live to read literature and dream of making a living off of a literature based in reading. And they know that modernism (when anything was possible), postmodernism (when everything had been worn out), and post-postmodernism (when, since everything had been worn out, anything was possible) have already passed.

The Young Man wonders why there are no fans of writers as there are fans of rock stars and then proceeds to tell us how he stalked Ray Davies. He comments on readers and writers – People read less and less and, thus, read worse and worse. Readers are more . . . unrefined all the time.

Penelope, whom he mainly refers to as The Mad Sister, plays a key role, not least because, perhaps to annoy her brother, she has a fling with and then marries Maximiliano Karma (who belongs to that generation of kids who’re dying to be writers and to be read but who don’t really bother to read or write and what Maximiliano writes is not very good and what he puts up his nose is superlative.)

Karma, who comes from a rich family, and his family are somewhat larger than life.n They live in a place called Abracadabra and seem to be ruled by a matriarch called Mamagrandma, who claims to be ninety-five. I’m not planning on dying, she says.

If this book has a plot, it is the tales of the Karma family and a Bildungsroman for The Writer at various ages. His third stage is The Lonely Man, where we follow the story of the mature writer who is not selling as well as he used to. He is determined to write his posthumous book before he dies – a zombie memoir, he calls it. Again, we get a long list – this time of the type of book he will write, such as A book that — divine and comedy, infernal and purgative and paradisiacal — would be thinking about not writing the entire time it’s being written. A free trip to the Large Hadron Collider seems to be the solution.

But, above all, this is a book about writers and writing. He has great fun mocking a whole host of fictitious writers though I suspect that some are based on real writers. There is the writer who says I have no time for what gets written outside my country; the writer who wrote an ingenious and avant-garde “post-finneganian” novel which becomes one of those inexplicable bestsellers that everyone buys and talks about without ever reading and the illustrious Lucián Vieytes who believes that he’s the author of books like The Brothers Karamazov and The Magic Mountain, from which he recites entire pages from memory. There are many more.

However, there are also many real writers. The list of writers mentioned is huge, from Chekhov to Bellow, from Dante to DeLillo. The vast majority are US writers. He claims to have read ninety-three of the hundred novels on the notorious Modern Library 100 Best Novels List, most of which are from the US and most of which are by men. (I admit to having read ninety-two.)

Two writers stand out in his discussions. The first is William Burroughs, in particular the shooting of his wife, an incident whose importance becomes relevant later on in the book.

The second is F. Scott Fitzgerald and, in particular his writing of Tender Is the Night, which is linked to The Writer’s parents. (Penelope, incidentally, is a Wuthering Heights devotee.)

Reading is also important as we are berated for not reading closely enough and also for using e-readers. He does not like mobile phones either but two inventions he does welcome are the wheeled suitcase and the retractable handle on suitcases.

There was a time when parties or film or TV or alcohol or drugs or sex or politics or sunsets pulled us away from books.
Now—surprise!—it’s the books that pull us away from the books.
The electronic books that prevent us from concentrating for more or less long stretches of reading without feeling the reflexive and automatic temptation to jump to another place, another site, another front.

There is also music. This is the second Argentinian novel I have read this week, where the writer-protagonist seems to be a devotee of Pink Floyd, though other musicians – Dylan in particular – also feature.

Apart from the two plots mentioned above, the book is essentially about writing. We follow writers, including the fictitious-but-presumably-based-on Fresán writer. However, we also follow a lot of other writers, real and fictitious, as mentioned above. We learn how they write, what they write and why they write. We learn how they use their own lives and the lives of their families and friends to create their work. He compares himself, the fact that he uses Penelope and her story, to F. Scott Fitzgerald using Zelda’s life (and her diaries) for his stories.

It is a very long novel and Fresán piles it all on. This review can only give a taste of what is involved. Let us not forget that there are two other books in the trilogy and the second is almost as long.

Publishing history

First published by Literatura Random House in 2014
First English translation by Open Letter in 2017
Translated by Will Vanderhyden