Elefantes y desapariciones: Una novela de Luis Enrique Belmonte / Gabriel Payares

Elephants and Disappearances: A Novel by Luis Enrique Belmonte

I began to work as an artist when I began to be an adult, when I understood that my childhood was finished, and was dead. I think we all have somebody who is dead inside of us. A dead child.
–Christian Boltanski

The phrase is almost a cliché, but that doesn’t make it false: the end of childhood is the beginning of the end of life, the first step toward aging and death. Only after we have overcome childhood do we gain an awareness of death: first in relation to our parents and, eventually, through this discovery, of our own. The task of art –and of literature in particular–, when facing such a rough panorama of life, is none other than to provide man with an instant of recuperation of that lost initial stage, of that dead child mentioned in our epigraph; this is why Bataille affirmed of literature that it is “childhood finally regained.” Art, then, is a constant search for the ontology of the human, which is presumed to be lost with childhood: whether it be to preserve it, to spread it, to question it, or even to unveil it, to find the human element in reality’s most unusual corners. This, along with the awareness of one’s own finitude, and above all the capacity to visualize one’s own absence, to prepare us for it and to leave a legacy, makes art a particular disposition of the individual toward the coming absence, that is, man’s preparation for death: his own and that of others.

Such a poetics of disappearance animates the pages of the first work of fiction by the poet Luis Enrique Belmonte, the novella Salvar los elefantes (Caracas: Equinoccio, 2006). In its pages, the hot Catalonian summer serves as the ideal stage to illustrate the gradual dissipation of the world, the slow melting of a humanity that is broken and tied to itself, symbolically summarized by the protagonist’s damaged refrigerator, and at the same time transmuted, by means of media deception and televised simulacra, into the poor little African elephants that the Sheldrick Foundation promises to save.

In this manner, the anonymous protagonist of Salvar los elefantes plays the role of audience to a cruel performance of disappearance: trapped between the warm agony of his refrigerator, which exudes the stench of its own decomposition onto everything around it –a strange smell “of fermented mayonnaise” (p. 10) sticks to the striped pajamas the protagonist wears–, and the prolonged academic trip of his girlfriend Evelyne, from whom he will barely receive a couple of postcards with increasingly terse phrases –as if she herself were slowly dissipating–, the narrator seems to become more and more linked to a group of absent characters, dead, or in a steep trance toward disappearance, leaving behind the more “alive” or palpitating dynamics of existence: beginning with his anodyne sleepiness, a type of renunciation of a vital posture in the face of life –maybe only interrupted by his brief attempt to exercise by swimming, which logically culminates with a near-drowning–, and later on with his constant reference to (and even his dialogue with) actual characters whose deaths occurred amid intriguing conditions of sudden dissipation.

Thus the objects of his continuous reflection include the celebrated disappearances of Chet Baker, who died under suspicious circumstances after falling from a window in Amsterdam, or Saint Exupéry, who disappeared without a trace in a Lightning P38 airplane flying over the coast of Marseilles; along with those of several neighbors in the Barcelona neighborhood where he lives: Mrs. Cremer, consumed by the heat, or the neighbor dressed in pajamas with little snakes and arabesques. Something similar happens with the character Dumont the antiques dealer, a sort of imaginary friend to the narrator –an homage or reference to the first known aviator, the Brazilian Alberto Salas Dumont, whose suicide by hanging remains clouded by uncertain details–; and with Dr. Boltanski, the narrator’s psychiatrist –whose surname references the Jewish artist Christian Boltanski, famous for his tireless exploration of the themes of death, memory and disappearance in his many works and performances.

The experience of absence, then, takes place in the very writing of the story, understood as a type of detective work in which the aforementioned clues point not to a restitution of memory or of legacy, as would be the case in Boltanski’s installations, but rather to the consummation of disappearance itself: as though the very act of writing were providing an account of forgotten details about and by the absent ones. Writing as a remainder, a retelling of what endures, but at the same time the story of the disappearance of the writer himself. This meta-discourse makes its appearance within Belmonte’s narrative, present in the photos the protagonist obtains from an abandoned roll of film, and which exhibit the sequence of a photographic calendar of a man’s disappearance. It is a trace, undoubtedly, because the photos are the testimony of something that existed, but a trace that leads to a definitive absence, and from whose reading the narrator extracts the conclusion that, the more perfect the disappearances, the fewer traces of themselves they leave behind, the more impossible will be the existence of magic, art and writing:

How many of us haven’t felt disappointed when, at the disappearance of a dove or a parrot, the magician has been incapable of hiding the feathers that remain at the bottom of his top hat? It’s true that it would be very difficult to disappear into thin air, and that without the traces that bodies in transit leave behind detective stories wouldn’t be possible. Auguste Dupin wouldn’t have invented the police genre had it not been for the carelessness, almost always involuntary, of the turncoats. To hide the tracks, or to erase them, is one of the greatest challenges for anyone with the intention –the vocation– of disappearing. (p. 80)

Listening to the narrator himself, the novella is followed by a brief “Report Regarding the Absent,” which offers the reader various additional clues regarding certain referents that could be considered “lost” within the story. However, these annexes in the form of short stories run the risk of being unnecessary details: weakening the whole with their lack of fluency and their tendency toward narrative dispersion, instead of reinforcing a global imaginary that, in the end, doesn’t really need additional pivots.

In the end, saving the elephants perhaps represents the act contrary to that ideal disappearance by which Belmonte seems to renounce the human. But the narrator asks himself: “Why save the little elephants and not the little crocodiles or the chiripas? Mrs. Sheldrick has the answer to this: elephants are humans.” (p. 11) Maybe the answer lies in finding the human where we least suspect it: in seduction, in the pure desire (to help the little elephants, in this case) that will hide the absences; a hopeful gesture, perhaps, the suggests the quintessence of the human in other regions of existence, such as mercy or nobility; but one subject to the laws of the society of the spectacle: Mrs. Sheldrick will turn out to be a marketing ploy to promote the protection of the poor little animals, and with this discovery a new disappearance will end the spell the elephants cast over the narrator. It would seem that the human, after all, is destined to vanish in any of its spheres of existence, just like it’s also destined to leave behind a long trace. Therefore, the perfect disappearance, the absolute erasure of man, resides, according to Belmonte’s poetics, in assuming the inevitability of death as a vocation, as a commandment, as an explicit desire for escape; like that pilot who climbs into his plane and midway through his journey cuts off communication with the control tower, so as to then mysteriously disappear into the air.

Illustration: “The Disorganized Life of Maxim Valletin,” Christian Boltanski

{ Gabriel Payares, 500 ejemplares, 2 February 2010 }

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