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Bernardo Esquinca: Los escritores invisibles [The Invisible Writers]

Our narrator/hero is called Jaime Puente (it means bridge in Spanish but I don’t think that that is significant.) He is an unpublished novelist. He had a contract with a publisher to publish a novel but that was three years ago and it has still not been published. He spends a certain amount of time harassing potential publishers but they have become quite skilled at avoiding him. He is at the stage where he says that if it is not published soon, he will sell fruit from a cart. He live with David Pozo (it means well in Spanish but I don’t think that that is significant.). David essentially supports him, giving a free (very small) room, free food and drink (primarily gin) and moral support. This is not a sexual relationship. While we do not know about David’s sexuality, Jaime is a vigorous if generally unsuccessful heterosexual. David teaches literature in a secondary school and the pair of them have a radio programme late at night where they talk about literature and play their favourite music. They are paid a small fee which David lets Jaime keep.

Jaime’s problem as regards his writing, is that he has had a very boring and uneventful life and therefore not of the stuff to provide the basis for an interesting novel. During the course of the book he will tells up about the various writers he likes and that appear on the radio programme, several of whom had very colourful childhoods. These include James Ellroy (whose mother was strangled to death when he was child and who knows that one of the functions of literature is vengeance) or Barry Gifford, whose father was an associate of gangsters (including Al Capone’s brother) or J G Ballard who spent part of his childhood in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp. Jaime’s parents were happily married and produced seven children (he was the youngest). The parents are now dead and he rarely sees his siblings. His Aunt Lola, who never married, lives alone in the old family home and, during the book, he will visit her a few times, trying to reconnect with his childhood.

One day he bumps into an old friend, Julio Degollado. (Degollado is a small town in Mexico but it means having had one’s throat slit, which, as we shall see, is significant.) Julio, to Jaime’s surprise, works for a prestigious publisher, wittily named Bolaño and Fonseca (presumably after the Chilean and Brazilian novelists), though we learn that they are the names of the owners. Even wittier, we learn that Mr. Bolaño is no longer involved in the firm as he is sick of literature. Mr. Fonseca proves to be something of a Machiavellian character. With Julio is his colleague, Selma. Julio offers to read Jaime’s manuscript but when he takes it round to the publishers, Julio is out and Selma takes it.

It seems that the publishers, and Mr. Fonseca and Selma in particular, have an ulterior motive. They agree to publish Jaime’s novel but they want a favour in return. They want to get hold of the manuscript of a book written by Roberto Rojas. Rojas was Jaime’s teacher at college and they had become very good friends, though they have now drifted apart. The novel now takes a different turn, as Jaime tries to track down Rojas, who seems to have disappeared. It seems that everyone is after the manuscript. Jaime starts by going to Rojas’ flat but he is not there. He then contacts Beatriz, a waitress who works at the café over the road from Rojas’ flat and whom Jaime knew well (though not as well as he would have liked). She has a key to the flat, which they search but find nothing. Things get increasingly complicated as Julio becomes the sacrificial lamb (literature is, at times, also a crime) and Jaime has to flee. He heads to a town which is known as a place where US retirees go, because of the mild climate, though this is changing as the lake which makes it mild is drying up.

In this town, he meets the Guild of Housewives, who write quality erotic novels, unknown to their husbands and, indeed, anyone else (En la pornografía está la salvación de la literatura [The salvation of literature is in pornography]). It is, indeed, pornography, as we get selections from their work. However, even this does not work as Jaime gets carried away by the pornography.

This is something of a strange book. It starts off by seeming to be a conventional novel by and about an unsuccessful novelist who, by his own admission, is not a very exciting person. It then morphs into a mystery, before switching to eroticism/pornography. It ends with something of diatribe against the system. We have already had the environmental issues, with the disappearance of the lake but, at the end, we revert to the issue of publication of his novel. He rails against the conventional publishers who are only interested in money and not in literary quality and suggests that the only worthwhile literature is underground, generally unpublished literature. As regards the plotting of the book, he leads us down several paths, which tend to simply fade away without resolution.

Esquinca is known for mixing his genres and there is certainly nothing wrong with that, not least because it offers a certain amount of variety and, in this case, a novel about a novelist who could not get published could have been quite dull. I did quite enjoy this novel, including all the mini-biographies/commentaries on the various authors Jaime admires and his diatribe against conventional publishing (as Somerset Maugham said The great American novel has not only already been written, it has already been rejected, and this can no doubt be said of novels all over the world). However, I felt that it was a little slapdash, as though written in a hurry as he jumped from idea to idea, from genre to genre. His work has not been translated into English and it would not surprise me if it never were.

Publishing history

First published by Fondo de Cultura Económica in 2009
No English translation