Juan Francisco Ferré: Providence
In letters to Lillian Clark and to James Morton, the writer H. P. Lovecraft used the phrase I Am Providence. It later became the inscription on his gravestone and is the opening quote of this novel. Both Lovecraft and Providence are key to this novel. Lovecraft is a writer of horror fiction who was virtually unknown in his lifetime but has now become a cult horror writer. While appearing both as a character and with reference to his works in this book, he has clearly also been an influence on Ferré. Lovecraft was born in Providence, Rhode Island, and spent most of his life there. The English title of the Spanish book refers primarily to the city, rather than the general meaning of the word though clearly Ferré was well aware of the play on the meaning of the word. In this book, however Providence is also the title of a video game, of a strange website, of a film/film script and of Alain Resnais’ film of that name, which is also mentioned in this book.
While this book is not a horror story, a sense of menace and chaos runs through it. Mysterious and threatening police officers, vicious immigration officers, (American) football player gay rapists, the Mafia and a host of other unsavoury characters people this book. while the shadow of 9/11 hangs over it The hero is Alex Franco. Like his father he is not happy about sharing his last name with the Spanish dictator. Alex is a film-maker. He has had some success with some short films and has now made a full-length feature film. It has been submitted to Cannes but has flopped. While at Cannes, he meets (or, rather, seems to be accosted by) in his hotel a French woman who clearly had been very attractive but is now somewhat older. He learns that is she is called Delphine Dielman and was the lover of a successful but jealous producer, now dead. Both Alex’s ex-wife, Véronique, and his mother were French, so he speaks good French. She takes him to her room where she proposes that he film a script she has of a film called Providence. The script consists only of dialogue and descriptions. It seems to be based on the work of a Russian novelist, called Arkady Rubliov. She also shows him a video. With nothing else on his plate, he agrees to see if he can write the script in a presentable form.
This encounter reminds him of an encounter he had had seven months previously beside the swimming pool in a luxury hotel in Marrakesh. He had been invited to a festival dedicated to Spanish cinema. There he meets a well-known French scriptwriter, Gaspard Guimard. He nicknames him Gaspard de la nuit, one of the many in-jokes in this book. The pair go out eating, drinking and chasing women. However, on return Alex meets a Lebanese film producer who makes him a vague but lucrative offer, a sort of Faustian pact, which Alex agrees to, without really being sure of what he is agreeing to. The producer seems to know Alex’s brother, Michel, who is a somewhat shadowy character, who various people seem to know but whom we never meet. Back in Spain the mysterious double act – Gabriel Vallard and Claudio Benoliel – turn up at his flat, claiming to be policemen, and ask him questions, particularly about Providence, the video game.
But Alex is now off to Providence, Rhode Island, where he plans to write the Providence script and to teach film at the university. (Ferré himself taught at Brown.) Initially, on arrival in the United States, he is subjected to a certain amount of brutality, culminating in his being asked, while completely naked, to execute another naked man, allegedly a terrorist. He survives that and heads off to the house where he will be staying, owned by the wittily named Klingons. This is where the novel starts to bog down for me. Much of this section deals with Alex’s sex life, all too often with inappropriate women – underage girls, prostitutes, one of his students (an Afro-American woman), married women and a woman police officer who stops him for speeding. We also follow his film class which does not go too well, as his students definitely do not share his views on cinema. His favourite film seems to be Jaws. They complain about him. (Para ellos el cine independiente es la cima del arte narrativo y el cine experimental el equivalente audiovisual de la poesía. Cuando les hago saber mi desprecio hacia esta última y, por tanto, mi rechazo a la estética experimental en cualquier ámbito, se miran contrariados [For them, independent cinema is the high point of narrative art and experimental cinema the audiovisual equivalent of poetry. When I let them know of my contempt for this type of cinema and, as a result, my rejection of the experimental aesthetic in any field, they look at one another in annoyance].) However, we do get a potted history of the cinema or, at least, his view of the history of the cinema. While he occasionally and halfheartedly seems to be writing the screenplay, it does not figure much in his life, apart from occasional phone calls from Delphine. He does, however, learn about the dark side of Providence, helped by an email from a man called Jack Daniels (who stresses that his name has nothing do with the bourbon) as well as various Lovecraftian people and others that he meets. Providence clearly, like most cities, does have a dark side. However, much of this part – by far the longest part – seems to be more campus novel meets cheap sex novel meets Ferré’s views on the cinema than the Gothic/world is going to hell/evil conspiracy novel that the opening had promised us.
Así va el mundo, hacia su destrucción manifiesta, que no será, pobres poetas, pésimos inventores, un Apocalipsis espectacular, una gran fiesta con fuegos artificiales místicos y revelaciones trascendentales en un cielo digitalizado, sino una caída completa en la banalidad, un ocaso de la grandeza, un hundimiento total de la vida en su sentido moral [So the world goes, towards a manifest destruction which will not be, poor poets, worse inventors, a spectacular Apocalypse, a huge party with mystical fireworks and transcendental revelations, but a complete sinking into banality, a lack of grandeur, a total collapse of life in its moral sense.]
In other words, Eliot’s This is the way the world ends: Not with a bang but a whimper. The Spanish-language remark is made by the Lebanese businessman but could be seen as Ferré’s comment. La vida no es un videojuego [Life is not a videogame] he also comments though, towards the end that is (somewhat) challenged. Indeed, the ending is a sort of promised apocalypse which does not quite happen, except, perhaps for Alex but which still does not quite live up to the promise of the early part of the book, except to show that Providence may not be quite what it seems, though we are told No busque a Providence en Providence [Don’t look for Providence in Providence] which, at least in this book, could be interpreted in several ways.
While this certainly is an interesting book, it does not completely live up to its promise. Yes, in the post-9/11 world, chaos and menace are omnipresent, even in Providence and Providence, in the non-Rhode Island, non-videogame/film sense, is maybe what we should be looking to. Equally, it is clear that we will see more of this type of novel – the world on the border of chaos – particularly from the Spanish-speaking world.
First published 2009 by Editorial Anagrama, Barcelona
No English translation
Published in French in 2011 as Providence by Passage du Nord-Ouest
Translated by François Monti