Diego Cornejo Menacho: Las segundas criaturas [The Second Creatures]
Ecuador did not play much of a role in the Latin American Boom. To mock this the Chilean writer José Donoso invented an Ecuadorian Boom writer, called Marcel Chiriboga, in his novel El jardín de al lado (The Garden Next Door). Carlos Fuentes then put him in his novels Cristóbal Nonato (Christopher Unborn) and Diana o la cazadora solitaria (Diana, The Goddess Who Hunts Alone). Finally, Donoso put him in his novel Dónde van a morir los elefantes [Where Elephants Go To Die]. You can read more about him (in Spanish) here and here. There was even a mockumentary on him. You can see a trailer on YouTube. It was therefore inevitable that an Ecuadorian writer would write a novel about him.
We meet him as he is dying. He is living in Paris with his wife née Elena Adelaida Gómez Rivas but now known as Adèle de Lusignan. They have no children as, according to him, it is irresponsible to bring children into this miserable world. Both claim descent from noble families, she from The House of Lusignan and he from the Chiriboga de Guzmán family. Perhaps not surprisingly, she is reading Dónde van a morir los elefantes [Where Elephants Go To Die]. Also, perhaps not surprisingly, Chiriboga claims that Donoso envied him. As I said, he is dying, having been given a year to live by the doctors several months ago. He had always thought he would kill himself in 1988, when he became fifty, as he did not want to be old like his grandmother, smelling of piss and cumin. However, he is now seventy-two, and still not dead though, by the end of the novel he will have died..
Much of the novel is narrated by a Catalan literary agent, clearly based on the legendary Carmen Balcells, who represented many of the Boom writers. (She represented both Donoso and Fuentes and, of course, represents Chiriboga in this novel.) Donoso had called her Nuria Monclús and this is what she is called here.
It was Balcells/Monclús who published Chiriboga’s first novel, La Caja sin Secreto [The Box Without a Secret], having met him through Fuentes. (Fuentes was at a conference with his then girlfriend, Jean Seberg. Chiriboga has already told us that, from his current flat in Paris, he can almost see the flat of Romain Gary, who later married Seberg). Chiriboga is in Mexico to flee the evil that had contaminated writers in his country, though we will later find out why he is really there.
La Caja sin Secreto [The Box Without a Secret] was praised by Severo Sarduy (another Balcells client), who called it not a best-seller but a long-seller (the quote is given in English in the Spanish text). The writing has been compared to Faulkner and García Márquez. Balcells/Monclús had been in Mexico and was not initially taken by him, not least as he said he was born the same hour as César Vallejo, implying that he is Vallejo reborn.
Chiriboga is not a faithful husband. We learn, for example about his fling with the very large Rubi Macnamara. His only reason was he had always dreamed of giving a very fat woman multiple orgasms. Not surprisingly, it is does not quite worked out as planned. The only time he ever returned to Ecuador, to pick up a prize for his scandalous novel El intolerante, he had a fling with the bisexual New York-based painter María Cayetana. He even tries to seduce Balcells/Monclús but her response was Jamais avec les clients.
Adèle reads out to him his obituary from Dónde van a morir los elefantes [Where Elephants Go To Die], which describes many of his great achievements though, perhaps, as we later learn, somewhat exaggerated. For example, he is credited with being Ecuadorian ambassador in Mexico when, in fact, he was initially the chauffeur. When the ambassador found out that he could not drive, he became the ambassador’s secretary. The only part of the obituary he himself disagrees with is that, contrary to what is said, he cannot speak English, though we know he spent some time in the United States.
We also follow the Jean Seberg story. Part of the purpose of this novel, of course, is to get back somewhat at both Fuentes and Donoso (both of whom are now dead). Fuentes had an affair with Seberg (which is covered in Diana o la cazadora solitaria (Diana, The Goddess Who Hunts Alone)) and Seberg appears quite a bit in the book, including the false report that she had a child by a member of the Black Panthers. However, he also has a cheeky story that Fuentes turned up to see her and she denied him entry because she was allegedly with a student. That student turns out to be Chiriboga and he claims an affair with her as well.
As mentioned, Seberg was married to Romain Gary, the French writer and he appears quite a bit as he and Chiriboga were friends and Balcells was Gary’s Spanish agent. Chiriboga claims that Gary’s La vie devant soi, translated as Momo and published under the pseudonym of Emile Ajar, was one of the great twentieth century novels.
Balcells/Monclús gives us details of Chiriboga’s early life. He was actually christened Cristo Jesús but, not surprisingly, later changed his name to Marcelo (after the Italian actor Marcello Mastroianni). He had a colourful early life (of course), including a (fictitious) girlfriend who late became one of the world’s greatest sculptresses and, because of whom he left Ecuador, being thrown out of Mexico and, of course, with relationship his Adèle. Naturally, Fuentes had been interested but she preferred Chiriboga.
His reputation was made with La Caja sin Secreto [The Box Without a Secret]. Balcells/Monclús says it was one of three great Latin American books (the other two were Cien Años de Soledad (One Hundred Years Of Solitude) and Octavio Paz’s La llama doble (The Double Flame) (about love and sex). She also said that he was the Munchausen of her writers and that he lived his life as a novel.
Others were less flattering. Donoso said he was snobbish, a name dropper, vain, narcissistic. Chiriboga retaliated by saying of Donoso that he was an author who loses every battle he has with language. Ernesto Sabato was condemned as a trivial and stereotyped novelist. Chiriboga had lots of disputes with his fellow novelists. From an early age, he fought with those who claimed the Ecuadorian novel should be more (left-wing) political. In particular, he has a dispute with the Ecuadorian novelist Vargas Pardo who is, of course, as fictitious as Chiriboga, appearing in Roberto Bolaño‘s Los Detectives Salvajes (The Savage Detectives). Indeed it is partially because he called Vargas Pardo a hooligan that he has to leave Mexico.
However, his reputation faded. The very real Ecuadorian novelist Leonardo Valencia (link in Spanish) claims that Chiriboga was not really an Ecuadorian novelist but some Chilean, Colombian or Mexican novelist pretending to be the Ecuadorian novelist.
In the end, he dies. He sends (anonymously) his incomplete novel to Balcells/Monclús and this is, of course, this novel. The title, not surprisingly, comes from a Vallejo poem (scroll down to the second poem for the Spanish original and English translation).
This is a hugely inventive and witty novel, peopled with a host of both real and fictitious people. Indeed, as a guide to the Latin American novel it is most interesting. However, it is, above all, a brilliantly clever and original novel, which manages to mock Ecuador and Ecuadorian literature, most of the Latin American Boom novelists and, indeed, many others, while still telling a fascinating story, based on a story already invented by others. Sadly, Cornejo Menacho has not been translated into any other language.
First published in 2010 by Dinediciones
No English translation