The City of Marvels has
the form of historical fiction and the light touch of magical realism. The fact
that it was recommended to me by a Spanish professor made me read it with an
ear for higher meaning – this is so well disguised in the novel that it may
not actually exist at all. And yet I think it’s there in spades.
The story – a picaresque tale – begins in Barcelona in 1888,
and it is the two Barcelona world trade fairs of 1888 and 1929 that situate the
story most concretely in time. Early in the narrative, there are, indeed,
explanations of Catalan history that might come out of Robert Hughes’ Barcelona -- readable pleas for the
uniqueness of the culture and for Barcelona’s status from pre-Roman
times. This sets up the background narrator, a shy historian, perhaps. At the
foreground is a young, mysterious stranger whose deeds we soon see are
unscrupulous, as Onofre Bouvila sets about moving from poverty to power and
riches. In the City of Bombs, he begins his journey as an anarchist, but joins
forces with a peddler of a cure for balding; an innate capitalist and
entrepreneur, in other words, with just the occasional recourse into his
repressed social conscience from here on.
Apart from improving his finances via the
underworld, Onofre first conquers the landlord’s daughter, Delfina, and then
sets out to win the love of a crime boss’s daughter, Margarita. Their
enforced separation creates some high romance, including a scene where he
sneaks into her room via a ladder, just as a hunchback rival falls also for
Margarita’s charms. But neither Defina or Margarita are Onofre’s true love – this is
saved for the end of the novel, when he lifts off with her like a scene from
Calvino’s Baron of the Trees.
There are many tales to tell and digressions, and although
amoral and downright evil at times, the character and his city are so closely
linked that it may be that Eduardo Mendoza is telling an impossible story for
possible meanings. That is to say – survival, brutality, gentleness,
irreverence, regret – a city’s sins and graces in the life of a man. In more
concrete terms, there is much commentary on the exploitation of Madrid. For
example, this passage feels just as relevant today as ever, in the light of the
present crisis Catalunya crisis:
The government, for its part, sat back and reaped the fruits
of the situation, dragging its heels when it came to tackling Catalonia’s
internal problems, as if Catalonia were just another colony. It dispatched
military troglodytes who know only the language of the bayonet and whose idea
of imposing peace was putting half of mankind to the slaughter (p.173).
The description of the growth of the city – from the
indifference and power of Madrid to the individual corruption of the entire
population – as ‘an eminently mercantile breed’ is one that could be applied to
many cities, Sydney included (see p.196-198). The separation of haves and
have-nots, nonetheless, gives some sympathy to Onofre’s attempts to beat the
system, or rise above it, until of course his tricks are worse than any others
when it comes to property speculation and its social effects.
Onofre isn’t content to grow rich through property alone –
he is inspired at times to invest in early cinema, the illegal arms trade,
aviation. The author puts all this into an historical context that places
Barcelona as a would-be major player in this historical re-writing (as a nation
that is often treated as a colony, the stories speak volumes for the status
desired, and ironically but not unsympathetically treated by the author). As an
Australian, I get all this – for we too are a country of inventors whose ideas
are often attributed elsewhere. Indeed, I can think of a great
comparative study to an Australian novel published in the
1980s, whose title I will keep to myself at the moment. Let’s put that down as a project for the future. After all, as Onofre’s
life demonstrates, life is long and full of possibilities for those with the
inclination to grasp at ideas floating out there in the ether.
In a very fine New Yorker review of John William’s Stoner, Tim Kreider laments that despite the novel becoming an unexpected bestseller in Europe, it remains ‘chronically underappreciated in America’. Kreider senses the presence of not just a great writer, but a wise one – ‘And wisdom is, of course, perennially out of style’ (October 20, 2003). Stoner sold fewer than 2000 copies in 1965 but its modest presence refuses to go away. My “Vintage” copy was given to me by a graduating student – a very fitting gift once you know the story. As a teacher of literature, I take encouragement; this is a novel about a man who teaches novels and plays and poetry diligently, honestly, and as passionately as he can. Not all English teachers are Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society – yet literature can speak through even a dry manner, if we only let the ‘words’ do the talking.
William Stoner comes from an unlikely background, as a son of the earth, enrolled initially in Agriculture, until he experiences a kind of conversion in the class of a rather intimidating old professor, Arthur Sloane. Asked directly by Sloane to explain the meaning he finds in Shakespeare’s Sonnet 73 (‘That time of year when thou mayst in me behold’) Stoner can only reply ‘It means … It means…’. And yet this moment resonates with him and he moves on to the study of literature. In a passage I think I will from here on quote to teachers at the start of a school year, Sloane later tells Stoner the nature of his destiny.
‘But don’t you know, Mr Stoner? Sloane asked. ‘Don’t you understand about yourself yet? You’re going to be a teacher.’
Suddenly Sloane seemed very distant, and the walls of the office receded. Stoner felt himself suspended in the wide air, and he heard his voice ask, ‘Are you sure?’
‘I’m sure,’ Sloane said softly.
‘How can you tell? How can you be sure?’
‘It’s love, Mr Stoner,’ Sloane said cheerfully. ‘You are in love. It’s as simple as that’ (p.19).
Sloane is such a servant of his job that Williams gives him the ambiguous fate of dying at his desk, discovered on a Monday morning by one of his postgraduates. Let that be a warning to Stoner. Stoner, too, will live out his life in a provincial university, not seeking his own advancement but nonetheless becoming the victim of more ambitious, less worthy types. Stoner’s marriage, too, is a tragedy – brief love deflowering into coldness and hostility; an inspiring affair has all the temporary freedom on Winston and Julia in Nineteen Eighty-Four. It’s not an easy life that this professor lives, and yet Stoner has the integrity and humility to realise that there are worse lives to have lived. His dream as a teacher – ‘a kind of integrity … a kind of purity that was entire’ -- is beyond his reach; like the philosopher, he understands the limits of his knowledge and power (‘he had conceived wisdom … he had found ignorance’ p.285).
Despite all of this, I found the novel to be not only compelling but inspiring. The question of failure and success which dominates so much of our thinking is – in this novel – put into a wider, more humane perspective. And that, it seems to me, is the domain of not only good literature, but the good literature teacher.