Friday, March 25, 2011

Underlining: an irresistibly unreliable narrator talks about art

The Topless Tower, Silvina Ocampo's long story/novella, translated by James Womack (London:  Hesperus Worldwide, 2010) is the tale of 9-year-old Leandro's unexpected entrapment and eventual redemption. Leandro mixes first and third person, sometimes inside his story, sometimes beside it, almost always inside the tower that he both suffers and creates. It's a story about writing (or making any kind of art) and about childhood and about the bonds (including ruptured bonds) between parents and children and also among friends. To me, it suggests what Harold's story might have been like if he'd been more introspective about his work with that purple crayon. 

In a twist on the unreliable narrator, Leandro tells the reader in the very first paragraph that he sounds like a better writer than he is: "Sometimes I can't understand what I write, it's so well written, but I can always guess what I wanted to say. I'll underline the words I don't understand" (3). And he does-- words like canopy, lugubrious, obliquely, prolonged, discern, marsupial, and impetuous. Many are Latinate, suggesting the translator might have found fairly neat parallels between English and Spanish. Those underlined words are one of my favorite parts. By no means constant, not overdone, they reflect the uncertainty of any writer, any user of language. Who hasn't used a word she didn't fully understand? Thrown in something that sounds good, hoping for the best? Even the words we think we understand completely can be slippery. 

Leandro is a determined artist, but he is not highly skilled; his paintings and drawings do not always resemble his chosen subjects as he had hoped they might, nor do they remain under his control, keeping him company or protecting him from danger. At least, not all of them. The tale blends the expected and unexpected until the threads come together with precision and a degree of inevitability. Inevitability shouldn't come in degrees, I know, but that impossibility describes this tale: it had to happen this way, but everything might have been entirely different. Maybe I should have underlined inevitability.

About the title: I might have changed that. The Spanish title is La torre sin fin. "Topless," an adjective all too frequently followed by "bar," so would not have been my first choice. Tower without end, on the other hand, like world without end: it's resonant, smooth--but not quite right, either? "Topless" does include the sense of "no upper limit," whereas "endless" or "without end" suggests a more lateral extension--road with no horizon, railroad tracks converging out of sight. And the juxtaposition (the jolt of "topless" against the dreaminess of the text) is effective, too. So I circle back, and the jury (this jury) goes back out.

Ultimately, the story celebrates what the narrator calls "the same joy that we feel at the end of a nightmare and at the magical beginning of a piece of creative work" (52). Coming to the end of the text is a kind of waking, too, and not entirely welcome--I immediately flipped back and reread the beginning. I came across the book while browsing and was hooked by the mix of bravado and caution in that first paragraph. I count it a find.

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