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Iván Thays: La disciplina de la vanidad [The Discipline of Vanity]

Iván Thays may well be best known, at least outside Latin America, for his superb literary blog (in Spanish, now defunct), one of the few essential literary blogs. He has written six novels but none has been translated into English (Un lugar llamado Oreja de Perro has been translated into French and Italian). Getting hold of his books (in Spanish) in Europe is not particularly easy, which is sad. This book is about writing and, specifically, about the difference between writing and being a writer. The two may overlap but they are not the same.

The plot concerns a literary conference organised by the Spanish Centre for Young Writers, to be held in (the fictitious) Morillo near Malaga. The Centre has invited and paid for young writers from all parts of the Spanish-speaking world. They are to be lodged in a special centre. It turns out to be a place that was built as a prison but, after many objections, was never used as a prison and has now been converted to the Centre’s conference facilities (and, yes, the obvious jokes are made). The conference is set to last for three weeks and the book covers the period of the conference. Peru is represented by five writers – the narrator who is presumably based on Thays himself (he did attend a similar conference in Spain), Mario a young writer but older than the narrator, who has had some success, and Tunc, Aut and Nunquam – who have joined together to form La Liga en pro de la Moral y el Buen Gusto [The League for Morals and Good Taste]. He mocks them throughout the book. He also quotes the Peruvian writer Abraham Valdelomar who said that the first duty of a Peruvian writer is to avoid being squashed by other Peruvian writers. They are lodged in rooms with one other person. The rooms are named after famous novels. The narrator is in Pale Fire, just next to Memoirs of Hadrian. These and the other rooms are presumably books that Thays admires.

The book is quite complex and unashamedly post-modern. As can be seen from the names of the other Peruvian writers, Thays mocks the type of literature and writers he does not admire. In one of the segments that the novel consists of he says ¿Por qué nadie lee en los aeropuertos libros empastados, obviamente extraídos de la biblioteca del abuelo? ¿Por qué todos se empeñanan en libros de bolsillo, paperbacks, en otros idiomas, con caratulas estridentes? Por qué libros de autores de moda? ¿Por qué Auster, Mastretta, Nabokov, Rushdie, Bayly? ¿Cuando leerá alguien un tomo de enciclopedia? ¿Cuándo a Balzac? [Why does nobody in airports read hardback books, clearly taken from their grandfather’s library? Why do they read paperbacks, in other languages, with garish covers? Why fashionable authors? Why Auster, Mastretta, Nabokov, Rushdie, Bayly? When will people read an encyclopedia volume? When will they read Balzac?] (I doubt that any people in British airports read Bayly or Mastretta and few read Auster, Nabokov or Rushdie but I did see someone on the tube read Balzac in English once.) But he mocks not just authors and writing he despises but the other nationalities. He has a go at the Argentinians who try to dominate the discussions and mildly mocks others as well, though he agrees that the Argentinians gave the world Borges and have the best football but also the only authentic literary vanity. Of course, he is particularly concerned at mocking those who want to be writers (and stars) rather than those who just want to write. A Costa Rican writer who goes on about ecology and the novel is one of his many targets, as is the Panamanian writer who insists in saying Poet or prose writer? to everyone he meets. Some of the writers are given nicknames – Mario becomes Bobby Peru, for example, while the African writer who pontificates is called Mboma, named after an African footballer. It is Mboma who sums up the purposes of the conference – to eat rather that talk about literature. He may well have added to have sex, which also happens a fair amount.

After a hiccup, the narrator eventually shares a room with Mario and they become good friends. Much of their time is spent playing a video game called Winning Eleven (in English) involving international football teams and they seem to be expert on the various international football teams of the period. However a good part of the book is taken up with a series of linked stories written by the narrator, essentially about a Peruvian writer and his friends, which Mario critiques. On arrival the narrator sees what he assumes to be a young boy but who turns out to be a fifteen-year old girl, whom he nicknames the Symbol Girl and who says her name is Frances Farmer. (Frances Farmer was a US film actress. Thays’ first book was a book of stories called Las fotografías de Frances Farmer [The Photographs of Frances Farmer].) They become close. She is not the only symbol in the book – there is the ever-present rhinoceros who may be, in part, the sexual noises of the red-haired Venezuelan who looks like his ex-girlfriend (which is how he always describes her) but also clearly is the symbol for vanity and fall.

Vanity is, of course, a theme. We get this idea early on in the book when the flight is taking off. All the writers, he imagines, are not worried so much about the plane crashing but what the newspapers will say about them when the plane does crash. Will they be mentioned as the most important victim of the crash or just mentioned on a passenger list? But he discusses throughout the book many aspects of writers and writing, with references to many actual writers. For example, there is the story of Tolstoy attending an actual execution in Paris or the remark by Hemingway that he could write like Tolstoy if he wanted, it is just that he did not want to or the comments by Mauriac that only older people can be writers as younger writers have only their childhood to remember. Thays concludes, however, stating that no-one reads Mauriac any more.

The book is a joy to read, with comments on and quotes from a variety of authors, plot twists (is Carmen Balcells there, perhaps in disguise; Mario’s arrest for shop-lifting) and numerous discussions both by the narrator and as part of the conference on the role of literature, the writer and writing. It is a thoroughly original novel, as we would expect from a foremost Latin American writer, and one that should be made available in other languages, though I cannot see it being translated into English, which is a great loss for English-speaking readers.

Publishing history

First published in 2000 by Pontificia Universidad Católica del Perú, Fondo Editorial
No English translation