Polifemo by Erik Del Bufalo
Polifemo. Erik Del Bufalo. Caracas: Editorial Eclepsidra, 2019. 317 pages.
I live without living in myself, and in such a way I hope I die of not dying.
Saint Teresa of Jesus
You already know the dangers of treacherous swamps.
Every movement jeopardizes the possibility of getting out alive.
Erik Del Bufalo’s novel demands commitment and intellectual audacity of its readers, each of whom must find “a door in the darkness,” work through its shadows, discover light through the fractures in the paragraphs of this volume of gnostic initiation.
In my case, I searched for the relevant tools, gathered my personal convictions surrounding the art of narration. I recalled a type of dogma, imposed, perhaps, by Octavio Paz, when he defined the unity of action as a cardinal property of the prose narrative.
Polifemo includes few unexpected incidences. The novel is a neurotic variation on three or four stories. The wedding, Lucian’s trip to the Keys, the murder of Lucrecia, the first bride of the inquiring voice, the disappearance of Judith and the trial. A few conversations with an almost-invisible best friend and an uncle. Uncle Gruz reveals the first mystery in a treatise on chess, a eulogy for the Queen, and there the game is opened, or the cards are shown, the search for light and the anxious approach to femininity meet.
Contrary to the logic of the narration, the dialectic between antagonistic and protagonistic forces dissolves and, paradoxically, it is not movement that produces the narration’s images but rather the anxious paralysis of the speech. Inaction is movement in pensive articulation, it is the action of thought that generates the narrative of one who inquires into his reality as a prisoner to a higher understanding.
The landscape is more dreamlike than dystopian, absurd and disobedient, it is arid and gray, at times riddled with vermin lying in wait. It is here where we open up as readers, in these scenes, in these grimy copies of reality where we see the intimate estrangement of one who is obliged, by the narrator, to belong to his story.
If I were an existentialist, I would say that it is an estrangement from being incapable of naming oneself, from being transformed into a rat, a rat transformed into a being, one the same as the other; the estrangement from the poisoned, estrangement from the poisoner; but I, astonished reader, believe it is the vacant lot, the desert, the open sky.
We find ourselves facing a demanding text that will require from the reader not just imagination but the maximum of his capacity to hyperlink what is read with his cultural and archetypal grounding, with his mystical intuition, because he will be challenged to a duel in multiple fields and by innumerable references. Del Bufalo reminds us, opportunely, that reading is not a pleasure. Reading is a pact, an agreement with the text. It is neither fun nor indulgent, it does not have the end goal of accumulating followers. The subsequent objective will always be purification and grace as it was understood by the Greeks. A book should appeal to one who reads it, make demands of him and take him, at times, through paths filled with obstacles, to the edges of cliffs. It should upset his soul, put him in dilemmas and tell him: “there is a door open… or closed, there is a state of placidity, life necessarily does not have the gaze of the cyclops, but you must find your way to the light.”
How should we approach Polifemo?
I will speak modestly of my own experience, though it is, as all human things are, according to Jorge Luis Borges, cheap; a personal effort shared with everyone who will read these lines.
First, locate the protagonist.
When we locate the protagonist, we will find the dialectic of the text’s narrative, the unity of sense and action. Contrary to a first impression, Lucian is only the subject, the medium. This medium is a boxer. He moves gracefully around the ring, makes bicycles and makes use of jabs and uppercuts, much more than hooks to the sides; he isn’t interested in leaving his opponents gasping for air, or destroying the vitality of their organs.
More than anything he wants to knock out the force that, when it thought of him, put him in the ring.
If we read carefully, the novel has many turning points because the speech has many turning points. Lucian is the subject, he is a blade of grass in a stream of consciousness revealed in his intellectual diatribe. We are not facing a classic stream of consciousness because it consciousness, conscious of itself, that is flowing, a current of attentive consciousness that makes and unmakes itself and wrestles with the reader, the consciousness catching its own mistakes because it’s the stream of consciousness of an obsessive personality that, knowing it is being thought, searches for any way to free itself from the thinker. Even when Lucian accuses the reader of being a monster: “Oh, great you! What is it you really want? Why have you gotten this far? What was it that you really understood?” …the character doesn’t get it right; he is still confused. However, a sign appears and he follows the hint and it helps us conclude, without fear of being wrong, that the protagonist in Polifemo is the speech at the same time that it is the addressee. Lucian? The subject’s speech is only an echo of the speech of the one who is thinking him. The subject is an image of the one who is thinking and creating him; he is not independent, and even the words of his bitter complaints are those of the one thinking him and giving him a voice, they do not belong to him as an autonomous entity.
Herein lies the tragedy.
A human being needs air, food, water to live, like any other animal; but all of that is insufficient; the human being is an animal that lives to transcend its biological condition and it does so through speech. I can imagine a human being without water or food, but never without its voice, without speech, without narrative, without story. Never without a history of its miserable odyssey. The human being is unthinkable without its companion, without the voices with which it interacts, inside of itself, outside of itself, in the ineffable spheres of the spirit and in constrained reason. In this sense, the novel is a text about a voice that does not belong to the self as soon as it belongs to the leading speech from which it seeks liberation. Through voice, man explores his universe and falls back on his obsessions, time and time again naming things as if he were the first man, with no care for plagiarism or usurpation. But when the voice does not belong to him, when it is an emanation of an articulation of a narrative text and in turn is conscious of that fraud, it reveals itself and begins to plot its nullity.
Behind closed doors we are a torrent of noise, the famous Buddhist “mind-monkey.” The voice is the crude panpipes, the brutish voices of the cyclops and Lucian; the voice is the medium piercing the edges of lucidity, in search of a luminous meaning that emancipates him. All of that is revealed in a type of removal, a mystic emptying; only the empty, in the end, can contain uniquely, and he wants to contain, being hollow as a cavern, being nobody—and one.
He wants to be light, being darkness.
There is an obsessive search in the novel, a recurring frustration, the impossibility of understanding and possessing the feminine. The impossibility of loving it.
Who is the seeker?
Lucian’s divided speech?
Or Lucian, divided from all that he has narrated?
Then Prometheus’s defiance in the novel appears.
Lucian wants something more than happy adages, something more than talking nonsense about femininity. At times he seeks to take over the speech, to rob the monster of its voice, and it is then when he decides to explain it and confuses it with a reader that demands his story, a confession of a crime, subjugation to a trial. Lucian takes consciousness of himself and understands that only with the guile of Ulysses can he achieve the autonomy of his monstrous thinker, the speech that it has created. To be nothing and pray with Hemingway, our nada who art in nada, is the way to redeem himself. He decides to stop naming and naming himself.
The feminine figures in the novel are two and one, moon and sun, darkness and light, prostitute and virgin, mother and wife. Eve and Lilith. Lucrecia and Judith are intangible characters, both distant Eurydices in the underworld, the Ascension of Mary. Lucian in his rebellion, like a fallen angel, decides to search for them in the desert, in exile. His search is desperate and painful, the search of a man expelled from paradise, the search of a man emerging guttural and incomplete from the caverns, of an enlightened mystic setting out on the road of emptying toward totality. He must be “nobody.” “We can only love that which we do not know.” He stops naming and being named, wears his camouflage and converges with Homer’s “nobody”; in this way, the antagonistic medium, Satan, the fallen angel, will outwit Polyphemus, the one who seeks him, judges him and wants to devour him.
The voice, Lucian in his neurotic relationship, reaches degrees of sublime lucidity when he declares himself incapable of knowing the woman and refuses to even call her by a name. This is one of the most vital ruptures in the novel; the insurmountable distance of the woman, his inability regarding the feminine entity, the anxiety about Finland, the North Pole, the Universe, “which is a steppe where weightless things run.”
Not being in Her to be without Her in Her and thus in a succession of images reflected in a house of mirrors, in search of communion and impossible completeness. A drama of mortality.
Polifemo is a novel to be read slowly, to bask in the performance of speech in its contradictions, it is the adventure of the deranged -logue, an adventure of the voice; it is vast and plays many keys. This is an Orphic novel. In each paragraph we can see the Jordan, the baptism, the descent to the underworld, to the caverns, to darkness; the resurrection, the light, a resignation and an emptying that leaves us with this quote from Meister Eckhart: “When the soul is unified and there enters into total self-abnegation, then she finds God as in Nothing.”
Translated by Adrian Demopulos
Israel Centeno (Caracas, 1958) is a writer of short stories and novels, professor of creative writing, translator, and cultural promoter. His work, around sixteen books including novels and short fiction, has been published in Venezuela, Spain, England, and the United States. He won the Premio del Consejo Nacional de la Cultura (CONAC) and the Premio Municipal de Caracas in 1992 for his first novel, Calletania, and the Premio del Concurso Anual de Cuentos of the newspaper El Nacional in 2003 for his short story “Según pasan los años.” His work has been featured in anthologies published in Venezuela, Spain, England, and Slovenia. His book of short stories Bamboo City and his novel The Conspiracy have been translated to English and published in the United States. His translations of the novels Perú by Gordon Lish, El Jardín/Constance by Fenimore Woolson, Un inconveniente by Mary Cholmodeley, and Diario de un hombre de éxito by Ernest Dowson have been published by Editorial Periférica in Spain. He lives in Pittsburgh, where he was writer-in-residence of City of Asylum and he works as an interpreter and linguist.
Adrian Demopulos was born in Dallas, Texas. She graduated from the University of Oklahoma with BAs in Spanish and communication. She is currently pursuing an MFA in Literary Translation at the University of Iowa. Her translations have appeared in Latin American Literature Today and in the anthology A Larger Reality: Speculative Fiction from the Bicultural Margins by The Mexicanx Initiative.