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Mario Levrero: La novela luminosa (The Luminous Novel)

Our hero/narrator is a novelist called Mario and is obviously the author of the book we are reading. He is writing a luminous novel or rather he isn’t. He started off from an obsessive image. However, another completely different image occurs to me as the source of that impulse. However, both these images seem to have proved difficult to convey in a novel. In what he has written, the way is lost at the very beginning, and those five lengthy chapters are nothing but an energetic attempt to find it again. They were written sixteen years ago and he plans to return to them, which,eventually, he does.

Two things spurred him on to continue with the writing. The first was a need for a gall bladder operation. Indeed, this inspired him to finish four other works and try to move on with this one. He had been reluctant to have the operation but then read in a book in a bookshop (a book he never bought) that a gall bladder operation was one of the few worthwhile operations.

The second and more important one was receiving a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2000 to finish this novel. This whole book is the testimony of a monumental failure.

What he writes is anything but luminous. (I have to confess that when I see the word luminous in a review of a novel. I have no idea what it means. Can a novel be bathed in or exposed to steady light? And don’t get me started on numinous).

However, I thought it was impossible then and I think it’s impossible now. It being impossible wasn’t reason enough not to do it, as I knew full well, but the prospect of attempting the impossible made me feel very lazy.

He starts off writing a Diary of a Grant. He describes what he does do or, more particularly, what he does not do. In short, he does everything possible, within the confines of his somewhat limited world, not to write the novel, diary or whatever it may be.

One of his many problems is that he has depression for which he takes antidepressants. It is not helped by his decidedly erratic sleeping and eating habits. He seems to stay awake most of the night and sleeps during the day. For example, he tells us one day that he had breakfast at 4.30 p.m. He eats badly and at odd hours.

At one point he decides to see a psychiatrist and wants an appointment at 7 p.m. Not surprisingly the psychiatrist does not see people at 7.00p.m. but does send him some questionnaires to fill out. He finds that, answering the questions, helps him to focus on his problems, so he cancels the psychiatrist, though the question: Please describe in five lines the problems with every relationship you’ve ever had seems a bit ambitious.

We get a detailed description of his routine. His first action is, of course, is to spend the money he has received from Guggenheim. He buys two armchairs, one comfortable and one less so. The problem with the comfortable one is that if he sits in it, he falls asleep. He has his flat rewired so the computer is away from the living area.

However, he has a computer so that is an endless source of distraction from the task at hand. He plays computer games – golf card games. He writes little programmes in Visual Basic and macros in Word 2000. The programmes are meant to remind him when to take his meds and other similar issues. He spends a considerable amount of time tweaking them. The same applies to the Word macros, used, for example, to sort out the diary he is writing.

Before the Internet, he claims, he was not into pornography and found it repellent but since the Internet, he has become more interested and, indeed, has discovered a whole new (to him) genre – naked Japanese women – which turns him on.

What does not turn him on but seems to obsess him somewhat are the pigeons he can observe on the neighbouring roof. There has been a dead pigeon there for some time and how the other pigeons react to it, he finds fascinating.

He visits people. People visit him. One of the most frequent visitors is Chi. She is an ex-girlfriend. She brings him food – she is a very good cook – but what he really wants but is not getting from her is sex. As he is says, she used to be his lover and is now his sister.

He is, of course, totally wrapped up in himself. His daughter phones to announce her new-born baby – his fifth grandchild, but first granddaughter. He does not take the call and only phones her back later.

He decides that he had better write to the Guggenheim Foundation to explain his situation, which he does. He starts the letter Dear Mr Guggenheim and ends it, by sending his best wishes to Mrs Guggenheim. The creator of the Foundation, Simon Guggenheim, died in 1941 and his wife in 1970. If he receives a reply, we do not learn about it.

Of course he does buy books and reads them. Like the author, he is an aficionado of detective novels and buys and reads a lot of them. But there a lots of other books he buys/reads. Beckett, Bernhard, Kafka, Celine, Le Carre, Deighton, Edgar Wallace, Chesterton, Philip K Dick, Burroughs, Bukowski and Handke are just a few. You will note that none of these were originally written in Spanish. However, he seems to have two favourites: Somerset Maugham and Rosa Chacel. (The University of Nebraska Press has published three of her works in English but she is not well-known in the English-speaking world.)

On one day, he enumerates everything he does, giving us a detailed list and description. He buys bookshelves and takes delivery of them and visits the dentist but, on the whole, does not, like most days, achieve much.

However he has set himself a target. He had not written any more of the famous luminous novel since he wrote the five chapters sixteen years ago. On 1 December he will resume. Or, rather, he won’t. His monitor explodes. I immediately took it as a ‘sign’: from an invisible, higher place, I was being told not to write that part of the story. I was being told to abandon the project.

It does not get better. I imagine the eventual, hypothetical, long-suffering reader got lost a long time ago. Well, yes. No one reading these lines will have failed to notice, by this point in my story, that I’m going through a particularly serious phase of galloping looniness. Well, yes again.

He wonders whether he should finish with a bang. I’m tired of playing this role. I’m tired of everything. Life is no more than a stupid, unnecessary, painful burden. I don’t want to suffer any more, or carry on with this miserable life of routines and addictions. As soon as I close these quotation marks, then, I’m going to shoot myself in the head. But he neither ends it in that way nor does he shoot himself in the head or in any other part of his anatomy.

When the grant ends, he has to do a report but he does not think that they will care too much. However that is not the end, as we get the famous five chapters written sixteen years previously. Luminous? I think not.

So what are we to make of all this? On the face of it, it seems quite boring but Levrero writes well and keeps us interested the whole time.

We do, at times share his frustration, for example with computers, the state bureaucracy, dentists/doctors, a failing air conditioner, ants and other annoyances of daily life. I am sure many of us have been in a situation where we have to produce some work and have looked for excuses not do so. He does seem to take it to excess. The problem remains. I don’t know what to do to keep hold of the reader, to make them carry on reading. Something had better happen soon, or all this work will have been in vain.

Even, towards the end, when it looks as though he might get on to the luminous bit, it does not work out. Do you expect us to believe you’re going to tell us about luminous, mystical, spiritual experiences, when you’ve talked about nothing but women, destruction, alcohol and prostitutes? All that’s missing is drugs.

The author clearly has mental health issues – we know he is on anti-depressants and consults a psychiatrist. We also know he is incredibly wrapped up in himself. Though he mentions many people he is planning to see, we never really meet these people. There is virtually no dialogue with them and we learn little about them, except as regards their relationship with him. The same applies to the various people who assist him – the local bookseller, the IT person, the maid, the doctor and dentist. We learn the name of the IT person but not of the others and we learn nothing whatsoever about them except the services they provide for him. It is all about him.

The book is about a man writing a novel who does not write a novel but, rather, seemingly, keeps a diary of how he plans to write a novel but cannot, does not write it. Even the novel-like bits at the end – his childhood and his sexual escapades – are more autobiography. That he keeps up the pretence of trying to write a novel and then failing to do so (for 544 pages!) might seem trying but while I felt exasperated with him, I did not feel bored with the reading experience.

Publishing history

First published in 2005 by Alfaguara
First English translation in 2021 by And Other Stories
Translated by Annie McDermott