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Carmen Boullosa: La novela perfecta [The Perfect Novel]

Vértiz is a Mexican writer. He has no first name. He has written one novel (in English), which had a moderate success and still brings him a small amount of royalties. Meanwhile, he met and married Sarah, a US national who barely speaks Spanish and who is a successful lawyer. They move to Brooklyn, where they buy a brownstone. (Boullosa herself lives in a Brooklyn brownstone.) After a all sorts of problems, which we learn about, they finally manage to convert it into a duplex. Their income consists of Sarah’s salary and the rent from the other duplex apartment. Vértiz is, by his own admission, lazy. He gets up late, has his coffee, meets friends and associates in the Spanish-speaking community of Brooklyn. He is planning to write another novel but has never got round to it. One day, he is stooping out (i.e. sitting on the stoop of his house; Boullosa uses the English word), when he is accosted by a man, Paul Lederer, who is a neighbour. Lederer asks him about himself (we later learn that he knew all along) and learns that he is a novelist. Lederer invites him back to his house for coffee, saying that he can help him write his novel.

Vértiz is amazed when he enters what he thinks is Lederer’s house (it is actually his office) as all the walls and floors have been stripped out, leaving one vast room, with masses of computer equipment all over the place. Lederer then invites him to the next-door brownstone, where the floors and walls are intact, though it is very untidy. It turns out that his parents – both only children – had lived next door to one another in these two houses, had married and had had only one child, Paul. They had now retired to Florida, while he had inherited the two adjacent houses. Paul is a computer specialist and he has developed a programme whereby someone can merely think a novel and the computer will put it down into words, creating what comes to be called the perfect novel. He wants to do this for Acorta and soon has him wired up and thinking of his novel – not of the words or the language but of the scenes, the images and the characters. The novel is about the relationship between Manuel, a married man with children, and Ana, his mistress, an often volatile relationship. Vértiz and Lederer do a trial run but then decide they need to get a legal agreement on this.

Vértiz, as befits a novelist, is a very expressive man. We follow the story through him and are treated to an expansive commentary on life, on Lederer, on his wife, on everything. He uses Mexican and his own slang, not only words coming into common use, such as googlear but words of his own invention, such as as boyear, to call someone boy, as Paul Lederer occasionally does with him. He also throws in a lot of US slang, not all translated into Spanish, such as the stooping out, mentioned above. On the short journey with Sarah, his lawyer as well as his wife, to the meeting with Lederer’s lawyer, we get a wonderful example of his colourful view of the world as he examines all and sundry, thinks of his life and the Spanish-speaking community, thinks of his relationship with his wife, not always smooth and of Paul Lederer. When they get there, he is surprised to learn that Sarah knows Paul Lederer (she later claims to pay attention towthat is going on in the neighbourhood, unlike Vértiz, who is completely detached, in her view, from the real world). He will later suspect that she is having an affair with Lederer. At the meeting, there are four lawyers, including a representative from New York University, where Lederer works, and from George Soros, who is funding the project. Vértiz, inevitably, falls asleep during the discussion but will do well out of the deal, getting a million dollars upfront for his book.

Work starts the next week but does not go smoothly. Despite the million dollars and the ease of doing the book, his novelist’s pride feels that he is losing control of his work and that the computer is taking over. He therefore decides to be difficult. When he produces only a short chapter (the arrangement is that he only has to do a chapter a day), Lederer complains so Vértiz goes off on a tangent. Manuel dies while he and Ana are having sex in a four-star hotel. She tries to get the hotel to send a doctor but they do not seem to know one. Meanwhile, a large armed police contingent turns up, horrifying the hotel manager, and proceeds to search the hotel, finding the body of Manuel (with a large erection) while Ana escapes to hide in the dirty laundry, where she has a dream… Of course, things go wrong – with the novel, as Vértiz goes off on further tangents, with Sarah and with Lederer.

Boullosa makes the general conclusion that, while human-computer interaction has definite benefits and is probably here to stay, it cannot, at least as yet, write a novel. But, in between, this is certainly a funny and fascinating novel, not least because of the expansive character of Vértiz, and his verbal pyrotechnics, mixing Mexican, slang, US slang and his own use of the language. It has not, as yet, been translated into English and, I suspect, it will be a tall order to do for any translator.

Publishing history

First published by Alfaguara in 2006
No English translation