When less is so much more

A woman is found next to a half-sunken car off a road in the middle of the country, her feet dipped into the stream of water. By the time she is discovered, the cold has put her in a state of coma. Her sister, a bike messenger in a city shrouded in a veil of fantasy, visits her at hospital and wanders around her house and the studio where she repaired fountain pens looking for clues to what happened that night. Everything is an enigma – no witnesses, no traces, and she is a 5 in the Glasgow Coma Scale (a 15-point test used to measure the conscious state, where anything below 8 is considered a severe coma).
This could be the opening to a mystery novel, some sort of detective work leading to a conspiracy involving security agencies and secret societies, or at least grubby corporate hands. But in the hands of Isabel de Gracia this premise turns into Glasgow 5/15, an infinitely subtle novel painted in watercolours: everything hangs in the air, hinted at more than narrated, with a plot that unravels almost as if by accident and thickens quite against its own will just the necessary degree of suspense to keep the pages turning, but the leading force is always pushing deeper rather than ahead. The first word that comes to mind is not one that we get to use very often to describe recent books: reticent.
Jane Austen famously wrote of “the little bit (two inches wide) of ivory on which I work with so fine a brush, as produces little effect after much labour.” Glasgow 5/15 is very much a fine-brush novel that hints at a broader story (a broken geography with hints of De Gracia’s hometown of La Plata that lets a blurry but intriguing social context shine through, characters with backstories that run deep out of the reader’s sight) but chooses to focus on its two inches of ivory, understating more than saying, diving more than pushing forward. It is easy to forget, while reading it, that this is De Gracia’s first published work – but then again, this is the first novel of a 46-year-old who has had a career in other areas (law and photography), showing once more that youth and novelty in and of themselves are more a marketing ploy than a literary virtue.
The heart of the novel is the relationship between the sisters, or rather the feelings projected by the carer on the coma patient as she lies unresponsive and unblemished: there are no traces of violence, no wound, just an empty shell that may one day become a person once again, and the waiting game for those expecting their return. More than anything, the novel plays variations on the key of uncertainty and impossibility. It is impossible to describe just what is happening, what happened, what will happen; it is impossible to grasp a mourning that is not a mourning; it is impossible to know who is who and what is what; it is impossible –as T.S. Eliot’s Prufrock put it– to say just what I mean. And yet, do not be mistaken into expecting a meandering accumulation of poetic ramblings and lyrical musings. The sparse, careful prose is precise and controlled, sometimes interrupted by snatches of documents (police and court reports, technical information, broken letters) that make it even more pointed: this is not a bland meditation but a surgical examination that can often turn brutal. And yet, it all hangs in the air, packing a punch without diving for a punchline.
Despite all prejudice regularly held against the conventional taste of literary awards and the novels that win them, this novel won the second edition of the Premio de Novela Letra Sur, with a jury made up of Martín Kohan, Claudia Piñeiro and Juan Sasturain. The first edition of this award was granted to Gabriel Báñez’ La cisura de Rolando, another unusually worthy novel (whose title was also taken from medical textbooks, by the way) that would not have made it very far in other competitions. Kudos, then, to the jury for both its choices.
Kudos, also, to Editorial El Ateneo for the beautiful books they make for their Litterae collection, lovingly and thoughtfully designed. One would, however, wish to read more from this collection: besides Báñez’ and De Gracia’s novels, the only two other books in its two-year history have been Vicente Battista’s El cuaderno del ausente and a reissue of a 1990s novel by Fogwill – enough to know we can expect more good things from it, and to wish that they should come more often.
Perhaps the highest compliment I could pay to the book is mentioning the one tiny pebble that gritted against my finicky, pen-freak palate: in a memory, the fountain pen repairer tells her sister that the Parker 51 is the finest writing instrument ever built (an undeniable truth: you just haven’t written until you have tried a Parker 51, pens just don’t get any better than this) was designed by Laszlo Moholy Nagy, of Bauhaus fame. Moholy Nagy did some design work for Parker and is sometimes credited with participation in the 51, but most sources agree this work started after the model was released (Bauhaus designers did design many of Lamy’s most popular models, but that’s a different story). That is the one flaw I can find in the novel: I must have liked it a lot, then.

(Publicado en el Buenos Aires Herald el 21/1/10)

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