BooksSunday, July 13, 2014
A kilonovel with a few blemishes
For The Herald
By magnificent, I mean it truly sweeps the reader along; it is full of insight on the subjects it centres on: shock, loss, chance (in a way), and works of art as icons, beacons and anchors in life. And it has writing so good that one finds oneself smiling with sheer pleasure at the similes, the metaphors, the nutshell descriptions. In retranslation from Spanish: some music by Palestrina brings “ethereal, impersonal, penetrating harmonies, like a radio signal coming from Paradise.” About a weak and unassertive schoolmate: “Andy was an anaemic and luckless mouse you might feed your boa constrictor.”
A depressive’s encapsulation of life prospects for children: “boring jobs, ruinous mortgages, doomed marriages, loss of hair, hip transplants, solitary cups of coffee in an empty house and a colostomy bag in the hospital.”
Still more virtues: it has astute plot twists up its sleeve. It gets inside the skin of someone with a colossal case of post-traumatic stress disorder without being a downer itself. It shows much research on subjects as diverse as furniture restoration, drug effects and the Russian and Ukrainian underworld. Its description of an explosion and its aftermath is nothing short of a masterpiece.
At the heart of El jilguero (“The Goldfinch”) is a small, charming Dutch painting by that name which survived a catastrophic gunpowder explosion in Delft in 1654. Novelist Donna Tartt puts it in an imaginary second catastrophe, a terrorist attack at a New York museum in our time, and her book follows a boy, Theo, who is present (his mother is killed in the blast) and who, in his daze, ends up with the painting in his possession. For many years, he doesn’t know how to get rid of it (and at the same time it’s what holds him together). It’s his huge guilty secret.
There is something neo-Dickensian about the early sections, with boys who are buffeted about, and characters who are really finely-drawn stereotypes. But the main reference that came to my mind was Proust, and I don’t mean this part as praise: it alludes to Theo’s obsessive relationship with his mother, even before losing her. Love, and even tragic loss, is one thing, but this is a bit too much, and it reminded me of Proust’s narrator as a snivelling child, concocting ways to wheedle one more kiss from his mother. (At least Theo doesn’t think the whole purpose of the present is to relive the past).
It also reminded me of Pinocchio — the grim original novel by Collodi — in the sense that over and over, when the lead character’s problems seem fixable, he does something bad that pulls him back down.
The present novel’s blemishes are far outweighed by its merits, but that doesn’t mean they mustn’t be pointed out. The very brilliance of the descriptions, towards the beginning, makes it unlikely that a 13-year-old child, however sensitive and well-informed for his age, could have made them. There isn’t a single indication that we are to take them as refinements added when he recapitulates those impressions in later years.
Also, Theo is constantly analyzing his own and everybody else’s motivations (though not in psychoanalytical terms; he shows no awareness that the way he goes on about his mother would light up Freud’s eyes). So it’s very striking when, for hundreds of pages, he doesn’t find a thing to comment on about a 13-year-old getting blind drunk and stoned every day, as distinct from just describing it.
Further, we can fully empathize with him when coping with his trauma and with the trouble he unthinkingly got into with the painting. But when the adult Theo starts doing shady things — again with what is, for him, a startling lack of analysis — we inevitably begin to care less.
Nor is it apparent why this junkie with no shred of poise (socially, as opposed to commercially), an inveterate hemmer and hawer, is seen by his upper-class girlfriend as such a catch. Or why her friends express their disapproval of him “however charming.” He has positive attributes, but of charm we have never been shown a glimmer.
Then there some minor points (like a few missteps in the translation; a tractor-trailer is not a tractor but a truck). The Mouette that Theo groups with Kes and Lacombe Lucien under “incredibly depressing foreign films” is probably Robert Bresson’s Mouchette.
The book ends with what is, essentially, a sequence of sermons, one by each of three main characters, and they summarize the book’s conclusions about life and about art that readers should have reached on their own — and surely have. Tartt should have put more trust here in her own success.
El jilguero, by Donna Tartt (Lumen); 1,148 pages, 349 pesos.