PRINT September 1984



IT STARTS WITH THE COVER, a soot-black image by Antonio Saura on which the title, Larva: Babel de una noche de San Juan, is inscribed, a title that cedes its place to a premonitory cyclopic eye dominating the drawn and dribbled face in typical Sauresque dramatic dissolution. Thematically, and physically, this is a complex image, fitting in relation to a complex text, a novel that is itself full of visual as well as verbal surprise and difference. We see Saura’s eye before we see the enigmatic profile that contains it. It peers out at us as we peer into it, sharing the voyeuristic experience it provokes. Like the carnivalesque novel it surrounds and encloses, the sooty cover pierces the secret night, a Spanish midsummer’s eve festival held in a disused English mansion, a fringe moment celebrated by fringe people elaborately disguised, elaborately revealed. Its eyed face lifts and perversely—in relation to its dimension—dominates the night/curtain of the cover, from which it emerges like a grin: Goya meets the Cheshire Cat as painted by Francis Bacon during a night imagined by someone James Joyce called Mr. Aubeyron Birdslay.

Larva is a black brick, about the size of those Joyce’s Tim Finnegan carried in his hod before he fell humpty-dump down the ladder off the wall, himself a sun setting into the night. Like the sacred stone of Kaaba that “hurtleturtled out of heaven” into the Mecca of Finnegans Wake, Julián Ríos’ novel has fallen into the best-selling consciousness of the Spanish reading public. Though this is hardly a surprise, given the fact that for 11 years its author has been publishing bits of it in serial form all over Europe and the Hispanic world, few could have expected this book to attract so much attention, given the fact that it was released by a small house specializing in poetry and that its form is as demanding as its verbal content is rewarding and delightful.

Apart from the fiction of the Cuban Guillermo Cabrera Infante, there is nothing even resembling Larva in Castilian. This is true despite the fact that, in the service of his plot, Ríos uses that most traditional of genres, the picaresque or rogue novel, lacing it with farce. Larva is best thought of as encyclopedic picaresque, featuring two young Spanish self-exiles, whose identities are functions of the polymorphous text they generate. Milalias and Babelle, a couple of not-too-innocents abroad, are, as their names suggest, creatures of words in a text that is in some sense about its own presentation. It is also about the energy that can be generated by language and the intertextual universe of fiction, thought, and the plastic arts. Its babel is a tissue of verbal surprises, analogous to the drip labyrinths of Jackson Pollock. Like the painters of the CoBrA group, Ríos knows how to lay on the colors for grotesque effects in which words dissolve into meanings and allusions proliferate to produce a contemporary phantasmagoria out of Bosch. The book is thick with interest, as are the late canvases of Nicolas de Staël or the impastoes of Albert Pinkham Ryder. These are of course metaphorical parallels, but readers soon discover that Ríos (like Joyce) uses his distorted and enhanced words as matter, that his language does more than convey—it is plastic.

Larva’s format introduces further complications. In effect we are in the domain of conceptual art: a complex event is conveyed with the aid of the necessary documentation. The language of Larva constitutes a primary mimesis, or, better, a body of gestures rendered visual in their own right. There are five components to Ríos’ text: the narrative line printed on the right-hand page through-out; annotations on the narrative in an ironic voice printed on the left-hand page; “pillow-notes,” reflecting Ríos’ “Deptford (iglesia de St. Nicholas),” from “Album de Babelle.” Larva. fascination with the Japanese erotic masterpiece, Sei Shonagon’s early-11th-century The Pillow Book, that are placed at the end of the text proper; a “carnival of mononyms,” or index of proper names, which mocks the reader at the book’s end; and, sandwiched between end-notes and index, a rogues’ gallery of candid photos of many of the undistinguished London locales mentioned in the text. This last item is preceded by a foldout map of London in two colors.

All of this paraphernalia is functional in the book, though we may be disconcerted by the feeling that we need to interrupt our reading of the narrative proper to consult the main text’s notes. which in turn frequently send us back to the pillow-notes. However, the latter amplify the text and, like the photos, frequently constitute our main contact with the ambient world of the protagonists Milalias and Babelle. In point of fact (or ponteffect) the main notes, written in a kibitzing voice, shed little light on the narrative proper, which describes an action rendered for the most part in terms of vivid and polyglot verbal gestures laced with allusions to other texts and activities. We are frequently left to wonder precisely what is going on in this masquerade moment plucked from time, even as we enjoy the parade of shifting identities and carnival effects. We may and do, however obliquely, participate in all manner of outrageous comic offenses, sexual attacks and counterattacks, drunken revels, mayhem and abuse. The end notes disrupt disruption, leading us down irreverent byways, but by referring us back to the pillow-notes they also let in patches of expository prose relatively free of puns and hence more readily “accessible.” Indeed, these pillow-notes, written in a babelian voice (Babel being also Babelle, “the beautiful chatterbox”), are our passport to the larger world of the text, its London context. They, more than any other part of the book, constitute the “story line” or conventional novelistic dimension. To complete the inversion of narrative procedures and confirm our sense that Ríos is very much in tune with recent developments in the plastic arts, we have the very antifantastic and noncarnivalesque photographs.

These obviously candid photos combine with the map of London to ground the narrative in real space, but at the same time, by their prosaic presence, they heighten the baroque texture of the novel. Art anti art, they stand at the end of the volume as a challenge to the elaborate word-painting and verbal pyrotechnics, or rather they sit on the page testifying to the humdrum locale of so much frantically portrayed activity. They are ostensibly the pictures taken by Babelle, whose dry commentary has provided us with a humorous counterpoint to the main text. Babelle’s words are a commonsense approach to midsummer madness, an ironic putdown, and a further attack on the reader’s romantic instincts. In this farcical novel, they constitute the last word in clowning, a pokerfaced putdown for the reader, who is addressed in the jacket copy as “Solapado Lector” (Cunning reader). If we knew no better, we might see the photos as typical tourist snaps of London scenes. But they are far from that. Rather, they are carefully calculated to be the antithesis of tourist photos, for the most part showing lesser-known hangouts, places distinguished mainly by their incidental roles in the novel. When on occasion they record views of places like Hampton Court, or Hyde Park Corner, we are struck by the way they reduce famous spots to the level of a street of row houses or a nondescript view of a church. It is part of the comedy of Larva that these projections of places stripped of all romance enhance the real substance of the archly autonomous puns of Ríos’ text, and provide yet another break in the splintered development to which the “action” is subjected. Though they were taken and compiled before the invention of Saura’s darkly farcical cover, they lend it a curious reinforcement—they are the bright side of his darkness, a brightness that seems finally obscure. For the daylight of these snapshots is mysterious and absurd in its banality, just as the darkness of the Saura print is illuminating in its essentially lighthearted mystery.

David Hayman teaches comparative literature at the University of Wisconsin—Madison. He has published widely on modern literature and literary modes: his current projects include Transparent Bodies, a book on the mechanics of modern literature, and a study of 17th-century French fairy tales.


Julián Ríos, Larva: Babel de una noche de San Juan (Barcelona: Editions del Mall, 1983), 558 pages, 50 black and white photographs and map, Pts 1600.