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Juan Andrés Ferreira: Mil de fiebre [A Temperature of a Thousand Degrees]
Our story follows two young men from Salto, Ferreira’s home town. The first is Werner Gómez. When the inspiration hits him, which is often, Werner writes. And he writes and writes. He blogs You can see his blog here), he writes stories, he writes poetry. As he says, whatever he writes, it all leads back to Salto.
He is now contemplating a novel based on the figurines made by Polvorita , a purveyor of juice concentrate, for the 2002 World Cup in Japan and South Korea. It was a suspense story, a techno-thriller, very violent but also very subtle with the names of he players as the protagonists. It follows on from his Dictionary Project, a novel which would use every word in the dictionary. The football project is developing, It is set in numerous cities of the world, with its cast of thousands. He suddenly realises there is one problem. This cast of thousands has no women.
He had thought of writing a science fiction novel where all the women had been killed by a virus but it never took off.
Luis Bruno wants to be a journalist and goes to Montevideo to study. Instead of studying, which he does less and less, he spends his time drinking wine, eating chocolate and watching TV. Gradually, particularly after he meets a woman eight years older than him, Ana Paula Aldrich, he falls into worse habits,using cocaine and drinking whiskey. He gets erectile dysfunction and then Paula leaves him. Its only the appearance of his mother, Graciela, that saves him.
These two young men both come from Salto, a town with a population of 104,00 and must be approximately the same age. Yet not only do they never meet,as far as we know, they seem to have no friends in common and never meet mutual acquaintances. There are only two minor, tangential intersections in their lives as we see later in the book and they never meet.
In many ways they are similar. They are loners, struggling to find their way in life. They both eat badly and consume industrial quantities of alcohol and drugs, both legal and illegal. Both indulge in pornography to a great extent. Both are close to and often highly dependent on their mothers. Perhaps they are the two sides of the same coin or, as the issue of alternatives universes does come up, maybe the same person but in different alternative universes. However, if that is the case, there is nothing to suggest it in the book.
Luis spends time in institutions. The first time round he meets Angelina and has a fling with her. When he comes out, he has cleaned up his act, finished his studies and gets a job and has big ideas for his career (a Rolling Stone-like magazine on football.) He meets and marries Clara. Foolishly – he makes a lot of foolish decisions – he continues to see Angelina. Things go drastically wrong when she slits her throat in front of him and he is now back in the institution, losing his job and his wife.
When he comes out he gets a job in Salto (the others had been in Montevideo) working for a local paper. However, he still struggles somewhat. We get a list – a very long list it is – of the side effects Luis has suffered from the various treatments he has undergone. The treatments include electroconvulsive therapy and various drugs.
Werner, meanwhile, is writing. His great plan is the GSN (the Great Salto Novel). However, before we get there, we see his prodigious output (full details given with quite a few samples) and his generally failed attempts to get them published. (On one occasion, when he is back in Salto, he submits a work to the local paper on which Luis is working. This is the only time their paths vaguely cross till the very end of the book. Luis does not see the letter as it is the editor who reads it and replies and gets a torrent of invective from Werner, criticising both his literary abilities and his knowledge of the Spanish language.
Unlike Luis, Werner does not do too well with the opposite sex. He has a friend, Renata – he calls her his ally – but no girlfriend. Through a male friend he joins a club which seems to be devoted to pornographic activities, which makes him ill. He masturbates frequently and gets caught, when one day he gets an anonymous phone call from someone who has clearly been watching him masturbate and worries that he will tell everybody.
He struggles to earn money. For example, someone has set up a website where people reveal (anonymously) their most intimate secrets, usually sexual. He has to invent new personae and stories but the owners find his contributions too literary.
His mother suggests that he try and get a normal job and even makes some (to us) intelligent suggestions but he is having none of it. If he does take a normal job, he will lose his vapour. He uses the term vapour to describe his inspiration and how it comes to him. It needs to be carefully managed. Eventually, she lines up job interviews for him.
There is a third key character who does not, in fact, appear. He is Eldon Szavost, a highly prolific writer who is Werner’s favourite writer. The first question is: does he exist? There are doubts as he seems to produce three long books every year. (We get the titles and even occasional samples). Is Szavost really a group of people as has been suggested? Whatever the case Werner and Renata tend to go to an annual symposium devoted to him. Reading Szavost enriches his vapour. If you look at the bibliography of our author, you will see his other published work was published under the name Sandor Szavost, who, in this book, is the father of Eldon.
However, there is an enemy and he is Ernestino Camacho. Camacho is a Salto writer but, unlike, Werner, he has had some success. He has even written a books called, simply, Salto. In Werner’s view he is a terrible, conventional writer, devoid of any talent. But people read him. Indeed it is estimated ninety percent of Salto households have at least a copy of one of his book. He is THE ENEMY.
The title, by the way, comes from a song by the best band in Salto, Los Muertos [The Dead but presumably nothing to do with the Grateful Dead].
We have the stories of two troubled young men, both of whom have clear ambitions, Werner to be a published writer and Luis to be a sports journalist. Both fail because of their own inherent failings, caused to a great extent by mental health issues, even though both are firmly committed to their cause. Both struggle with life – diet, drugs and alcohol, social interactions. Both are helped by their caring mothers though both mothers find it difficult to persuade their respective sons to change their way of life. Ultimately, neither fits in with the society in which they live and seem unwilling to make the necessary compromises that most of us have to make.
This is a very long book and wonderfully chaotic. It goes off on all sorts of tangents with various other writers (would-be and actual) making an appearance and showing that there are ways other than Werner’s ways, even though these ways inevitably involve some compromises. Because of the length, we get very deeply involved in the lives of Werner and Luis, their foibles, their weaknesses, their failings and their struggles. Sadly, I cannot see it being translated into English.
First published in 2018 by Literatura Random House
No English translation