Conversation in The Cathedral (published in Spanish in 1969) and Cobra (published in Spanish and French in 1972) seem to represent opposite poles, or opposite possibilities, in Latin American fiction. Vargas Llosa, a Peruvian living in London, I believe, when he wrote the book, has a definite, almost obsessive subject: Peru itself, a loved, ruined, helpless country—“At what precise moment,” we read on the first page of Conversation in The Cathedral, “had Peru fucked itself up?” and the book replies with a dense report on interlocking Peruvian lives, suggesting that the answer is always, that the precise moment of fuck-up is forever, since the mess is all around and seems, eternal. Sarduy, a Cuban now living in Paris and closely associated with Tel Quel, has no subject, only a set of excuses, of pretexts, springboards for excursions into various territories of imagination and memory.
But the neatness of the opposition between the two writers ends here, and the poles of fiction begin to circle round each other. Vargas Llosa, in spite of his heartfelt subject, is a tricky, mannered novelist, offering us narrative information in the most intricate arrangement of flashback and crosscutting and multiple planes of time. Sarduy, in spite of his absence of subject and a style which blends solemn baroque with high camp and contemporary pop, appears to have no interest in form at all, and is really without tricks—it is as if form and manner for Sarduy were simply old hat, a couple of those uninteresting delusions that people used to entertain about the relation of a writer to his material. The real world, to use an old-fashioned phrase, is often blurred by technique in Vargas Llosa; and just as often sneaks into Sarduy’s text because of the sheer recklessness and openness of the writing.
I can best illustrate these shifting, circling differences perhaps by looking briefly at the titles of the two books. The conversation of Vargas Llosa’s title takes place in a shabby bar called The Cathedral. The speakers are Santiago Zavala, a thirty-year-old journalist, and Ambrosio, the former chauffeur of Santiago’s father, now working at the dog pound, where Santiago has just been in order to collect his dog which had been rounded up because of a rabies scare. It is clear already, I think, from this description, that whatever its narrative behavior, this is a novel heavily dependent upon plot in the conventional sense, upon visible connections among people moving through a particular time and place—Peru, obviously, and for the most part Peru under the dictatorship of Manuel Odría, which ran from 1948 to 1956.
The conversation goes on for four hours, Santiago gets fairly drunk, either from the beer he is drinking or from the oppressive memories the conversation provokes; and phrases from the conversation echo all the way through the novel, providing a sense of structure and a returning reference point. Out of the conversation, like Combray rising out of a teacup in Proust, rises a complicated Peruvian past, narrated to us, as I have said, in a form which makes it all as bewildering as possible. Putting the pieces together, we get a thick, melodramatic picture: Santiago’s respectable, upper-class father screwing his chauffeur, who is none other than Ambrosio; Ambrosio murdering a woman called Hortensia, who was blackmailing Santiago’s father; Santiago working on a newspaper as a crime reporter and discovering at one fell swoop that Ambrosio had killed Hortensia and that his father was queer.
In the middle of the book, lurking in the central conversation, and in most of the remembered conversations sparked off by it, is the evil Don Cayo Bermúdez, Director of Security and subsequently Minister of Public Order under Odría, patron of Hortensia because he likes her lesbian ways, enemy of Santiago’s father, and an emblem of what is wrong with Peru. When he is ousted, however, a sort of nostalgia creeps into the novel: his crude and nasty ways of dealing with opponents of the regime were at least visible and comprehensible, and really bad bad guys are not all that easy to come by these days.
The conversation in The Cathedral, then, never reported in full but constantly present in these pages, presides both over the initial obscurity—why is Santiago so upset about seeing Ambrosio?—and over the ultimate explanation of it all—because of Ambrosio’s relations with his father. The conversation itself doesn’t clear these things up for Santiago—they remain rumors, and Ambrosio won’t answer questions on the subject. But it lets loose the cloud of memories and associations which become the book we read, and we certainly get to know the truth about everything. The title, that is, is addressed to us, to the readers of the book; it is a signpost to the book’s major meanings.
Cobra, Sarduy’s translator tells us, refers to a school of artists of that name, taken from the initials of the cities where they work (Copenhagen, Brussels, Amsterdam); to a singer called Cobra; to a Paris motorcycle gang also called Cobra; to the snake; to a form of the Spanish verb cobrar (meaning to receive payment); and less directly, to the word barroco (baroque) and the town Córdoba. The most crucial reference, though, appears in the text itself, and points us to an anagrammatic poem by Octavio Paz, in which a cobra speaks and becomes a vocablo, in which language, as it were, devours nature.
But these references are not really allusions, they are not part of the meaning of Sarduy’s text, not things we are supposed to have in mind as we read—as we are supposed to have Dante and Columbus in mind when reading Lezama Lima, for example. And they are not primarily indications of sources either, although of course if these meanings of the word cobra didn’t exist Sarduy couldn’t have written his book in this way. The references define the word cobra (the vocablo) as a sort of crazy semantic crossroads, a linguistic point where unlikely meanings intersect, and it is the intersection that counts, rather than the meanings themselves. We are invited into a magic space, into a tunnel of words, a place from which transformations sprout in all directions.
If Cobra has a theme—“Ah, because literature still needs themes,” someone sneers near the beginning of the book—its theme is transformation. A transformation which takes place in language, of course (cobra into vocablo), but also in the mind and also in the world. Men become women and women become dwarfs; people die and do not die; Paris becomes Amsterdam, which in turn becomes Nepal. Cobra is a book of changes, and its title indicates not its meaning but the kind of activity it is engaged in.
Vargas Llosa is concerned with a generic Peruvian condition, evoked very early in his novel as a “smell of defeat,” “an invincible higher stench.” Yet the form of his narrative suggests a victory, a passage from darkness to light. The Spanish edition of the book comes in two volumes, and at the end of the first volume (page 327 in Gregory Rabassa’s impeccable translation), confusion has simply been piled upon the initial confusion. We know who all the characters are, have become acquainted with all the whores, maids, ministers, bureaucrats, generals, senators, businessmen, cops, madams, and strong-arm men who people Vargas Llosa’s Peru, and we can make guesses about what will happen to many of them, but we are still wondering about the first question of all—what bothers Santiago so when he meets Ambrosio and goes off for a drink with him in The Cathedral? The very first chapter of the second volume clears this up, presents Ambrosio’s murder of Hortensia and the information about Santiago’s father’s homosexuality, and then the book retreats into apparent confusion again—but by this time we have enough clues to tie everything together, and we read the rest with a clicking sensation of things falling neatly into place. It is as if we were to start out in Faulkner and finish in Agatha Christie, all stray threads tucked up with ribbons.
This means that David Gallagher’s generous defense of the form of the novel (in Modern Latin American Literature, Oxford, 1973) really won’t wash. It is true, as Gallagher says, that the complexity of the form enacts the complexity of life as Vargas Llosa sees it, but then Vargas Llosa presumably doesn’t see the complexity of life as resolving itself into tidy explanations if you wait long enough, and that is what this novel (as well as his earlier novels, The Time of the Hero, 1962, and The Green House, 1965) finally suggests. On the other hand, he does create genuine suspense by holding out on us as he does, and while suspense may not be one of the higher literary virtues, it certainly keeps us reading; and may be a necessary tactical prop when the writer is also making reading difficult for us by converting his narrative into a kind of labyrinth:
“What bad luck happened to you in Pucallpa?” Santiago asks.
“I’ll find a small hotel in the neighbourhood,” Bermúdez said. “I’ll come by early tomorrow.”
“For me, for me?” Don Fermin asked. “Or did you do it for yourself, in order to have me in your hands, you poor devil?”
“Someone who thought he was my friend sent me there,” Ambrosio says.
The first and last of these remarks occur in the actual conversation in The Cathedral, and the last is the beginning of an answer to the first. The second remark occurred when Cayo Bermúdez first accepted his post as Director of Security, at a time when Santiago was still in school, and when Ambrosio had not yet come to Lima from the provinces. The third remark occurred when Santiago had already left the university and had been working for some time on the newspaper; when Ambrosio had just killed Hortensia—Don Fermín, Santiago’s father, is asking him why he did it. The complexity here is a false complexity, it seems to me: nothing complex is happening, simple events are merely being related as if they belonged to a jig-saw puzzle.
Even so, the novel does get over these gratuitous games, or rather puts these games to work, because there is such a large and painful pathos in the immense, wishful distance between Peru at any imaginable moment in its history and the clarified, thoroughly explicable Peru which this novel delivers to us in the end. Complexity just vanishes into limpid clarity by the time you turn the last page. Vargas Llosa has told us about the unmanageable masquerade of his country’s history in a novel that is too perfectly managed, and the result is a text that, curiously enough, is most impressive when it is most self-deceived.
Sarduy’s text, of course, can’t deceive itself because anything that happens to it can be incorporated into its transformations. Thus the last section of Cobra, called “Indian Journal,” is a journal, notes on a fetid, sacred land full of snakes, cows, temples, gods, dogs, monkeys, bicycles, smells, and gurus. Sarduy is describing the surfaces of India, which he says is all a Westerner can know, is the “only unneurotic reading” we can make of it. But these surfaces, this reality, are connected in the book to rank and outlandish worlds of fantasy by the simple means of the word cobra, and presumably the only unneurotic thing to do with all this is to take it as it comes, “real” India, “unreal” Amsterdam, as a series of variations on a theme; on the theme of variation itself.
The book opens in the Lyrical Theater of Dolls, where Cobra, the star performer, is worrying about the size of her feet. In the course of taking potions and applying unguents in order to shrink them, she converts herself into a tiny dwarf, referred to from then on as Cobra. She also mysteriously continues to exist in her full dimensions, and the dwarf comes to be known as Pup: there are two of them and there are not two of them. It gradually becomes clear (in so far as anything becomes clear) that the ordeal of elaborate make-up which precedes performances in the Lyrical Theater of Dolls is also the ordeal later undergone by Pup, who wishes to return to her full size, and also the ordeal undergone by Cobra in Morocco, in order, since it now turns out she is a man, to become a woman. The first part of the book ends on a cruel, comic note with Cobra transformed—“up to her neck she is a woman; above, her body becomes a kind of heraldic animal with a baroque snout”—and asking “¿Qué tal?” meaning “How about that?” or “How do I look?” An old woman, possibly one of her former companions at the theater, approaches, imitates Cobra’s question, and says, “It’s him.”
The second part of the book is concerned mainly with the initiation of a boy called Cobra into a motorcycle gang, and the ceremony is obviously yet another version of the ordeals undergone by the other (the same?) Cobra earlier. There is a guru in a bar in Amsterdam, there is a figure meditating in a white room—“on the wall an Albers.” At one point the motor-cycle gang disappears into what the blurb of the Spanish-language edition of the book calls the landscape of a Chinese painting: “Further on, a frail bridge, a small boat. White on white, a bamboo forest. The towers of a monastery.”
But this description is already falsifying, since I am suggesting that we need to follow some kind of narrative thread in Cobra, whereas the narrative thread is there merely because you can’t string events out along 176 pages without creating some sort of narrative. What matters here is not the story, but the visions growing on the story, literally the pictures being drawn. Analogies to painting are strewn all over the book, but Sarduy is not painting with words, as the phrase used to go. Or rather, he is, but he is painting only those things that can’t be painted with anything else, he is creating hallucinations which can’t be seen and can’t be described but can only be experienced as a kind of intoxication of language. Cobra is not about language; but its adventures occur within language. We move from word to word, we chase the “paradise of words,” as Roland Barthes has said of this text, and reality follows after. Instead of looking at a snake and saying cobra, we say cobra and a fabulous snake appears.
The book gives words a special liberty, a special priority, and while the effect, in spite of Suzanne Jill Levine’s exemplary translation, is hard to illustrate, perhaps a quotation or two may suggest something of it. Here is Cobra trying to do something about her big feet, and creating only a mass of unhelpful vegetation:
A greenish vapor, of camphor, emanated from Cobra’s dump, an arabesque which expanded into a nebulous spiral band, into a spreading snail shell of mint. Trapped in transparent flasks, boughs sprouted everywhere, wide and granular leaves, pestilent dwarf shrubs, sick flowers whose petals minute and shiny larvae gnawed at, crumpled ferns in whose folds small translucid eggs lodged, in constant multiplication. From stylized vegetal art nouveau the cubicle had moved on to weed anarchy—relentlessly she sought the saps, the elixir of reduction, the juice that shrinks. In a chest of drawers and on a divan robust artichokes opened, a white down gradually covering them; in Lalique glasses formaldehyde preserved crushed roots and sugar-cane knots, bagasses in which large red ants were caught….
The bathtub: a field of tubular reeds, a flowery and concave Nile.
Here is Madam, Cobra’s employer and friend, advising Cobra before her operation in Morocco:
“Rather than into your delirium, look at yourself in the mirror of others: they flee crestfallen, as if they had just lost a ruby on the sidewalk, so that, like Veronica Lake, or like lepers, their hair conceals their faces. By the fire-escapes they enter Negro night-clubs. Furiously they dress as odalisks. They plaster their faces. With blood they paint their eye-lids. While the cooks sharpen knives, with squeaks in the background they tire the rabble. Scrofulous and bald like them, an Afghan hound swoons at their side….
There is a dizzy freedom in such writing. And while Sarduy has horrible slithers into cuteness and into sniggerings of camp, and while he is far more interested in blood and semen and leather jackets than I am ever going to be, and while it is hard to begin to imagine where he will go from here, Cobra remains a remarkable book, a nervous, flighty homage to the life of language.
March 20, 1975