Thursday, December 06, 2007
Leonora Carrington is probably best known as a surrealist painter, and that is undoubtedly a shame if "The Hearing Trumpet" is anything to go by. A more delightful book is difficult to imagine.
One way to describe it would be as a Roald Dahl take on a Miss Marple mystery. Still it would be a way off. For Dahl would have to be informed by a grown woman's point of view - and that point of view would have to take in account the truly surreal life of Carrinton.
Whether or not, the young Leonora snipped her guests hair while they were asleep in order to serve them omelets stuffed with their clippings for breakfast, is truly besides the point. If she didn't actually do it, she at least thought of the prank which is too surreal for words.
Geographical constraints aside, her nanny is also supposed to have rescued her from a Madrid asylum where the young british debutant had been institutionalized (after a short-lived marriage with Max Ernst), by way of submarine. Once again Si non è vero è ben trovato.
"The Hearing Trumpet" has that cosy feeling only the british seem to get across with the surrealist touch of magic and color that one can't help but believe is consequence of Carrington's adopted country, Mexico.
Our narrator is an extremely lucid and good-natured, ninety-two-year-old. Marian Leatherby is perfectly content in the back room and garden of her son and his wife's home where she keeps two cats and two chickens and looks at the moon. Often she vists her friend Carmella, a sophisticaded mature woman who wears day-glow wigs and writes letters to people she chooses out of a phone directory (and is truly amazed they never write back, a surrealist at heart).
Marian's only handicap is that she is stone-deaf which most of the time does not take any pleasure out of her days. Unfortunately her son, and most importantly his wife, seem to find her an embarrasment, and her grandson agrees.
Petit-bourgeois that they are they take offence at the sight of old-age, and the fact that Marian has a beard doens't much help; neither does the fact that she likes to tell their dinner guests stories which, more often than not, lack a clear narrative line.
When Carmella presents Marian with a huge hearing trumpet, her deafness is solved. However, the first thing she hears is her family conspiring to put her away in an asylum.
Carmella takes her cats, and the maid the chickens (less fortunate) and off Marian goes to a surrealist asylum if there ever was one. The director and his wife seem to be involved in some sort of new-age cult the exact dogma of which is never very clear. The only thing required, besides some truly strange gymnastics, is for the women (it is a female asylum) to conform, forget about humour, curiosity and of course, voicing an opinion ("Personality is a vampyre", Dr Gambit avows). If however, one can feign a spritual connection to the other world as one of the women does, one is in the clear.
The women live in bungalows shaped as boots, cuckoo clocks, mushrooms, birthday cakes, igloos, circus tents and lighthouses. However the asylum used to be a catholic convent, and a strange portrait of a winking nun faces Marian everyday at dinner.
The story of Doña Rosalinda Alvarez della Cueva takes up part of the book, by means of a journal passed on to Marian, just as events seem to turn the way of a murder mystery: two women conspire to kill a rival (by means of poisoned brownies, how else?) and end up taking the life of another, glutonous woman, who on careful observation is not quite what she seemed.
Amid a mutiny in the asylum, late-night reunions where tribal drums sound, and where the elderly women find themselves compelled to perform strange dances, a strange creature is unleashed from the misterious tower which looks upon the compound.
Marian is led into a basement for a ritual initiaton and an ice-age ensues. It is all good fun, for Carmella arrives in a limousine driven by a chinaman with fur coats for all and an army of cats in tow, while Marian's long estranged friend, Marlbourough, arrives in an ark, straight from Venice, accompanied by his sister, a wolf-faced woman.
It is enough to make one crave for old-age if its going to be half as wonderful.
"The Hearing Trumpet" is a feminine book in which the few male characters are never as interesting as their wifes, mothers or sisters. There is no room for children, Marian's adolescent grandson is an idiot, and the adults tediously conservative, deluded, egocentric and full of their own importance. Only old-age, especially female, grants a magical eye and a colourful disposition, humour and serenity to withstand the adult world's boorishness. Cats abound and a small glass of "portuguese wine" makes everything endurable, especially coupled with a french éclair.
Alchemy is as attainable and delicious as tinned sardines. Wonderful.
In "Asleep in the Sun" as in "The Invention of Morel", what happens, happens only in the last pages of the book.
In this sense the synopses of both Bioy Casares are somewhat misleading: they suggest a fantastic universe that will engulf the reader from the first pages, when really it's the other way around. What amazes in both books is how "normal" everything seems even with it clearly is not.
What conspires to make it so, is the very ordered and rational way in which both the unnamed narrator of "The Invention of Morel" and Lucio Bordenave tell their stories: they are utterly confused by the events which begin to take place in their lives and the only shred of sanity they can cling to, the only thing keeping them from complete madness is the careful, factual writing of their ordeals.
In "Morel" the journal of events is written for future perusal of persons unknown, while Lucio describes his story to a childhood friend, in order to beg his help. In "Morel" people appear where previously there were none, people who are unable to see or hear the narrator; in "Asleep In The Sun" the protagonist's wife comes back to him after being in an asylum, completely changed. What magic or science have the doctors worked upon her character?
Lucio's story can be read in many different ways of course, one of the most powerful might be as a satyre of modern psychoanalisys. But the important question is the one facing our narrator: if a loved one is transformed into someone devoid of all her faults and endowed with qualities you have always wished for, are they still the same person? Do you still love them?
The question is especially hard for Lucio who has always, if somewhat shamefully, believed he loved above all, his wife's beauty. As she is a very difficult person, one would believe Lucio should feel nothing but gratitude towards the doctors who took her away, for she returns, still beautiful but also loving, obliging, tender and humble.
However, Lucio cannot reconcile himself with the new Diana: she wants to take strolls in places she never cared for previously, has forgotten her most prized ability, cooking; never wants to leave the house except in his company, when before she went out alone and came back late at night, which caused Lucio a great deal of anxiety.
After fending off his sister-in-law's lewd advances in Diana's absence (all the more distressing because she looked so much like her sister); and battling the guilt of having allowed her institutionalization, (in one instance by acquiring a gentle alsatian, also named Diana, for the wife had been wanting a dog)the return of the new Diana is too much for Lucio to bear.
He starts, slowly, to become more and more distressed, and as he looks into his wife's eyes he cannot avoid the question "who are you?". The search for the truth about Diana's character change is finally what will plunge Lucio and the story into the fantastic, behind the walls of the asylum.
It is worth noting that in "Asleep In The Sun" the characters seem to be either wicked or clueless with not much space in between (except for his father-in-law who is both). The message might be that Lucio, and all good-natured people along with him, put their sanity at risk by wanting to find out the truth about the world. And also, that by wanting to seem perfectly reasonable and sane when faced with figures of authority (such as the doctor Samaniego), the insane and the mean, one is always taken advantage of.
More than once, I felt that the only thing that could save kindhearted Lucio was to allow himself a fit of hysterics and rage. But alas, that is the one thing he (or Bioy Casares)will not allow. Even in a world gone slightly mad, Bioy's characthers always believe pondered words will save them. The reader is all the more unsettled because he knows they won't.