The back cover of the Open Letter Books edition of Gasoline (Benzina is the original Catalan title) includes a quotation from the New York Times: ‘a gifted writer, he draws well on the rich tradition of Spanish surrealism’. Since the book concerns an artist (or rather, two artists) then if Spanish Surrealism refers to Miró, Dali, Massanet etc. then I can see what the reviewer may have meant. I have not read very much Catalan literature, however, and therefore cannot comment on whether the Surrealism referred to goes in that direction too. For me, the literary similarities are perhaps to certain French surrealists (such as Boris Vian’s Froth on the Daydream, 1947); or perhaps postmodern American fiction writers (such as Thomas Pynchon’s Crying of Lot 49). In making these potentially misleading comparisons (my memory of Vian is ancient; Pynchon is much more challenging to read …) I should also say that Gasoline is a very original novel, and I can understand how it might have achieved a sort of cult status as a result.
The plot concerns an artist named Heribert, whose main love is Helena, but whose mistress is Hildegarda, and whose lovers include a myriad of women whose name begins with ‘H’. Heribert is some sort of overnight success in the New York arts scene, and as he prepares for an upcoming exhibition, has reached a stasis and boredom with his success (as an artist and lover of women). His actions are ‘surreal’ in the sense that he is impulsive and defies logic in how he goes about his daily life and art. For example, once he suspects that Helena may have taken a lover of her own, he follows her, dressing in a disguise so outlandish as to provide paradoxical cover. Helena’s lover, as it turns out, is Heribert’s double – named Humbert – and in true Dostoevsky tradition, seems to take over Heribert’s life from this point on.
Humbert is a hungrier version of Heribert, and just when the reader imagines a character couldn’t be a more shallow success as an artist and a man, Herbert takes it all to another level. To say any more would ruin the reading experience for others – as it is, perhaps I have already said too much. This, perhaps, is the difficulty of writing about such a short novel (141 pages) which has a relatively simple plot and is more about the listing of ideas and the playful scenes of eating, drinking, making love, and movement – there’s lots of movement – from one idea to the next, and one location to another.
Barcelona is somewhere in the background with its labyrinth streets and its Surrealist artist’s shadows. It must be a wild ride in Catalan, particularly when it was first published in the early 1980s after years of repression of both Catalan language and (one assumes) sexual expression in Franco’s Spain. To read it now, it’s easier to see satirical elements and perhaps to dwell on those. It’s also just great fun – like Humbert’s endless scrawling in notebooks, or Humbert and Helena’s international meals, or Heribert’s random train catching in search on inspiration. I'd be very interested to hear about what other readers think!