Jorge Eduardo Eielson: El cuerpo de Giulia-no [The Body of Julia-n]
The title may look odd but it is Eielson’s attempt to make a sort of pun. Two of the main characters in this book are called Giulia and Giuliano (i.e. Julia and Julian) so Eielson has tried to place them together in the title, to show their interconnectedness. I have tried to do the same in English with Julia-n. It is possible that Eielson was trying to be really clever here (though I don’t think so) by adding one more element with the title also being Giulia-No, i.e. Julia No. I don’t think it works.
Eielson was an artist and a poet and this novel is the work of an artist and poet more than that of a novelist. The narrator is a young man who has grown up on a fairly prosperous farm. His father is presumably dead. The farm is run by his mother with some help. Clearly, she would like her son to take over and equally clearly he does not want to do so. He antagonises the foreman and scares the Indians who think he is some sort of witch doctor. His only satisfaction from the farm is that he likes the exotic birds he sees, particularly the chicawos and the toucans. All of this we gradually learn as the book progresses.
The book does jump around in chronology but starts off with the narrator looking at the body of Giulia in a morgue in Venice. We gradually learn that he and Giulia had some sort of relationship. They had met in a café in Paris. Giulia is a model (though the police will later say that she is a prostitute, something the narrator strenuously denies). She models purely for money, not because it is a profession she is particularly attracted to. She is Italian, so initially they have language difficulties. It transpires that he receives money from his mother but not much and not all the time so, in part, he lives off Giulia. What their relationship was, is not clear. When pressed by the police inspector at the end, he admits that he never told her that he loved her and did not, and nor did she ever tell him that she loved him. Indeed, he had no idea that she was suicidal and was, in fact, in Rome when she killed herself.
Giuliano appears on the scene quite early in their relationship. They had known each other when young as Giuliano lived on the neighbouring farm. For a time, they had been close and had had a short homosexual fling. They had lost touch when the narrator went off to Lima but had met again in Paris. By this time, Giuliano now was rich, starting with a successful ice-cream business and now expanding to other businesses, even branching out to Chile. There are many colourful rumours about how Giuliano made his money, starting with marrying a rich woman when he was younger and more attractive. (He is now overweight.) Every year, he leaves his wife and children to come to Paris and have a good time, which generally involves women and drink. Clearly, Giuliano is interested in Giulia. As the title indicates, the narrator makes much of the Giulia-Giuliano dichotomy – Giuliano fat, vulgar, brash, Giulia ethereal, pale, thin and quiet.
There is not much plot to this book, apart from the background to the narrator and the investigation of Giulia’s death by the Venice police. What makes this book fascinating but, perhaps, at the same time, a not very successful book, are the poetic/artistic images he paints for us, from the exotic birds he watches and describes, particularly the chicawos (infinitely pure and sad as an orgasm), to the pure white body of Giulia on the white marble slab of the morgue. He gives us a wonderful but succinct description of Lima, with short succinct sentences (you can read an English translation of this passage here). His description of the Irish prostitute, Shelah-na-Gig, is equally masterful and poetical.
I can see why this book has never had much of a reputation, particularly outside Peru, but it is a little gem and, as with other literary gems, a good part of its attraction is what is not said but what is left hanging in the air. What really happened to Giulia? Was she murdered or did she kill herself and, if so, why? Why was the narrator not there? And what is he actually doing in Rome when she is dying? If, indeed, he was in Rome. And what is really the Giulia/Giuliano relationship or dichotomy? Eielson is an artist, a poet, not an explainer or even, particularly a novelist and this novel is not about plot or explanations but rather about images and impressions. It is not readily available in Spanish so, sadly, will probably never make it into English.
First published in 1971 by Joaquín Mortiz
No English translation
Published in French as Le corps de Giulia-No by Albin Michel in 1979
Translated by Bernard Lelong