"On a Darkling Plain"

James Wood has written an interesting essay on the British novelist Ian McEwan, whose work I haven't read. Wood's analysis is insightful (as always) precisely because he addresses how fiction engages with the seemingly untranslateable events of our current decade. Wood opens the essay with a comment on how political and social crises affect a writer:

"In Schlegel's famous aphorism, the historian is a prophet facing backward. We could describe, in the same spirit, the novelist as a historian facing inward. This inward historian, or historian of inwardness, holds up no clear mirror but rather the mind's mirror--cloudy perhaps, stained, and losing some of its backing--to the world; that is to say, this historian watches how his or her fallible characters interpret reality, how they inhabit it, how they distort it and force it to accommodate to their mental cosmos. Novelists, then, are consumed by the question of representation twice over. They themselves see the world and describe or redescribe it; and they must describe their characters' own descriptions, too.

Thus we often have a sense, in fiction, of two different time signatures: the world is living in 6/8, as it were, and the novel's hero or heroine is thinking in 3/4. Most fictional characters think more slowly than reality passes; they are internal expansionists. [...]

Great historical events, such as wars and revolutions, refine this division between characters and history--between history and inwardness--by concentrating it to a point of irony: the gap between the public event and a fictional character's experience of that event may become comically or tragically acute. The novelist can disrupt the accepted record of a great public event by inserting his hero into it, and letting his hero distort that public record." (James Wood, "On a Darkling Plain," The New Republic, 18 April 2005)

Wood's advocacy for certain novels (Naipaul's A House for Mr. Biswas, Sebald's The Rings of Saturn and Zadie Smith's White Teeth) are convincing for me because he refuses to overlook the flaws inherent in any good piece of writing. Those flaws, whether in the critic or in the novelist or poet's work, reflect the horrors and uncertainties that all of us face today (to varying degrees). Wood's essay goes on to discuss the effect of today's dangers on human consciousness: "There is a war on, but it is in part a war with our minds, and it is necessarily hidden."

When I think about certain events in Venezuela, or elsewhere, I notice the presence of these seemingly invisible threats or fears. How does the writer discuss or describe what can only be felt? For me, at the moment, that question has no answer. Save perhaps, to read.

Along with Cristina Rivera Garza's novel, I've started reading Carlos Rangel, Del buen salvaje al buen revolucionario (Monte Ávila Editores, 1976). This was another book I came across in Venezuela a few years ago, in my family's library and which I've been meaning to start for a while now. Rangel (Caracas, 1929-1988) analyzes the mythology that exists in Latin America around the figure of the revolutionary, the great emancipator who sets out to free a nation or a people. Rangel also looks at how that mythology is almost always filtered through the distortions of political power and personal ambition.

One of the epigraphs that opens the book is from Octavio Paz:

"The lie installed itself in our nations almost in a constitutional manner. The damage has been incalculable and it reaches into very deep regions of our being. We move through the lie naturally...That is why the fight against the official and constitutional lie should be the first step of any serious attempt at reform."

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