Not Just A Pretty Face
By Christopher Teevan.
Rafael Reig, A Pretty Face, Serpent’s Tail, 2007
I’m not sure how helpful it is to try to summarise the wildly exuberant and convoluted plotline of Rafael Reig’s new novel. His work has been variously described as ‘surrealist’, ‘absurdist’, ‘madcap’ ‘and ‘quirky’, but I’m not sure if any of these adjectives go very far in conveying Reig’s style.
Like its prequel of sorts, Blood on the Saddle (Serpent’s Tale, 2005), A Pretty Face offers a similar metafictional cocktail; part-noirish detective story, part sci-fi allegory, it’s shot through with a detached, at times satiric humour. As in Blood in the Saddle, the setting is a Spain whose recent history has been re-imagined: after the oil resources ran out in the late seventies, the Communist party have been overthrown by a US military invasion. Spain has become another part of the USA, the official language is now ‘Anglo’ and the Spanish language has been banned. Genetic-engineers are now testing a neuroprotein called K666 – which scientists are boasting may conquer death – praying on the destitute, many of whom are fugitive drug addicts.
Although not much of this back-story is ever actually made explicit. The novel is narrated by the ghost of Lola Eguibar, a popular children’s author, who has just been murdered. Exactly why she has been murdered, Lola isn’t sure. What’s more, upon discovering that she cannot be either seen or heard by the living, Lola finds herself powerless to intervene in the ensuing – and incompetently handled – murder investigation. One fiction is invaded by another, as Lola is joined by the ‘child of her imagination,’ Benito Viruta, the horny, adolescent protagonist from her children’s books. From here on it all gets a little convoluted.
That said, for much of the novel, the convoluted and, at times, quite vague backdrop takes a backseat to Lola’s own journey of self-rediscovery. Lola’s murder draws together a number of disparate tangents, many of which were already set up in Blood in the Saddle (not least the appearance of that novel’s central character, the private detective Carlos Clot and the sinister re-appearance of green capsules, this time complicated by the introduction of the K666 neuroprotein). Lola’s story feels a part of a much larger and unresolved narrative project that exceeds the limits of this one novel. Instead, what we get in A Pretty Face is Lola’s gradual understanding of the person she was, the life she led – a sort of Bildungsroman in reverse, in which the protagonist comes to realise her role in the world only in her absence from it.
Reig adopts a distinctive prose style that is concise and yet conversational; it is expansive enough to contain the scope of its diverse elements but also retains a focus on Lola’s story that is effecting and sincere. There are many fine descriptive flourishes. Upon discovering Benito sulking in a corner after having an argument with him, Lola describes the boy as a ‘lump that looked like a badly wrapped parcel… [trembling] with an extremely disagreeable sound, like the sudden raising and lowering of blinds’. Later, Lola recounts the story of the love of her life, Carlos Viloria, a heroin addict who becomes the ‘critical conscience’ of a generation after the posthumous publication of his novel, Profound Deafness. In one episode, Lola recalls Carlos shooting up, witnessing ‘a string of blood describe a red flower inside the cylinder, the labyrinth of a rose that opens’ – a brilliantly potent image that like many of the phrases and images in the novel are reused and recontextualised.
Indeed, one of the ways in which Reig’s narrative operates is in its interplay of a series of symbols, images and phrases which are introduced into the story and how their various meanings are recontextualised later in the novel. In essence, metaphors are developed so that they too go on a narrative journey, which adds a further structure to the novel’s plotting. There are some interesting and inventive motifs at work here: notably the recurring symbol of a butterfly to represent Lola’s ‘dasein’ – what might be defined as her psyche or essence – and the conceit of a loosened knot of blood linking Lola’s reason and emotion, are imaginative and subtly handled. There is a structural advantage to this metaphor-heavy style. It enables a writer to make subtle links between themes, characters, and narrative strands. Not just in the one novel either. Even in Blood in the Saddle and A Pretty Face, Reig is developing an associative network of images and symbols that interrelate between the novels. In this, it’s both a method of control and obfuscation; it entices interpretation in its patterning and yet often eludes meaning in the complexity of its framework. Part of the joy of reading this sort of writing is trying to disentangle this network of symbols, images and phrases.
Although Reig retains his own idiosyncratic voice, the novel’s network of verbal and imagistic patterns reminded me nonetheless of the Portuguese-Angolan writer Jose Eduardo Agualusa, author of the recent The Book of Chameleons. As in Agualusa’s novel, at times the intricacy of its web of metaphors is dazzling, elliptical, often demanding at least a secondary reading; at other times it can seem facile and unworthy of even a single reading. For example, in Blood in the Saddle, much is made of detective Clot’s interest in chess; in A Pretty Face this little motif takes on a frustratingly obvious metaphorical import. Similarly, a number of characters are noted drowning their sorrows, to which the narrator makes the all too mundane point of considering on each occasion whether the bottle is either half empty or half full (another recurring thread from Blood on the Saddle). It is perhaps part of the nature of a book that juggles so many metaphorical strands that it occasionally treads a fine line between the inventive and the banal. But Reig is often more successful than not. Not least with one motif in particular – the changing significance of an old family photo in which Lola is crying beside her father – which is sustained throughout the novel and then reintroduced towards the narrative’s climax in a beautifully controlled and moving vignette.
Control is a key word here. At times Reig’s writing is measured and contained, as with some wonderfully evoked chapters recalling Lola’s childhood. At other moments, it is loose, discursive, digressive and metafictional. A feature of this is the novel’s at times troubling relationship between supposed fact and fiction, which often seems to be contradictory and is yet enormously compelling, precisely for that reason. After briefly alluding to the fictional genetic alterations performed on heroin addicts that take place in Reig’s alternate Madrid, the narrator goes on to recount the actual events that took place on the day of her death: the war in Chechnya is mentioned, as is the death of Paul Bowles, along with news of an injury to the Barcelona forward, Rivaldo. The literal and fictional, the eminent and the ephemeral are filtered into one another. Lola’s death also coincides with the death of Enrique Urquijo – a member of the actual Spanish new wave band, Los Secretos – who died of a drugs overdose on 17th November, 1999. It is clearly no accident that Reig chooses this date for the setting of the novel. Los Secretos were a part of la movida madrilène, the socio-cultural explosion that hit Spain, particularly Madrid, following Franco’s death. La movida madrilène came at a time of economic success in Spain and was typified by more liberal attitudes towards sexual mores and recreational drug use. But coming at the time it did, la movida madrilena was not all free love and hedonistic euphoria. Drug addiction and the spread of AIDS have cast something of a shadow over the generation as well. The invocation of Urquijo’s death seems to draw a line under the movida generation, to acknowledge a cultural comedown of sorts. In this reimagined version of recent Spanish history, Reig, or rather Lola, laments a generation – the post-movida generation – who were not only too young to share in the unifying political struggle against Franco, but were also too young to play a part in the democratic transition to American citizenship. The novel’s history accommodates and conflates the socio-economic boom of the movida generation and death of Urquijo with the US imperialist invasion. The narrator castigating the movida swingers for making chat show appearances and collecting Oscars, for speaking ‘Anglo’ and for ‘[saluting] the flag with their hand on their heart and a solemn, frozen expression on their face, as if they were controlling the urge to go to the toilet’. Whether or not this has any bearing on contemporary Spanish culture – minus US colonialisation – I’m not sure. Reig’s history is ambiguous enough to allow for a commentary on the movida generation as well as revisionist version of recent Spanish history.
It’s worth asking similar questions of Reig’s political revisionism, which mixes the actual death of Franco and the military coup of Feb 1981, with a fictional Communist electoral victory (is this a comment on the legalization of Communism in 1977?) and a vision of a Spain subjugated to American imperialism. It’s a Spain where the Santa Constitucion is studied alongside the Gettysburg Address. What do we make of this? Is it a possible attack on Jose Maria Aznar, the former prime minister, who supported the US-led invasion of Iraq? It’s certainly notable that it was published in Spain in 2004, the year he stepped down following a second term in office. I can of course only speculate, but, then again, it is hard not to think of the Iraq war when Lola – albeit very briefly – alludes to the American military invasion of the Iberian peninsula as ‘[vouchsafing a] transition to democracy’. Any revisionist version of history invites such speculation, but whatever Reig is doing here – which is at times pointed and at other moments ambiguous – I can only imagine he’s developing this thread over the course of more novels. There are few answers in this one novel.
Whatever the conclusions we might draw from Reig’s conflation of fantasy and fact, it is still an audacious, exciting mix. Whether the novel itself is entirely the sum of its many parts remains a moot point. At times its thematic and narrative strands threaten to break free of the novel’s centripetal force. What is crucial though is that the canvas Reig is working on seems to be a lot larger than this one novel and that A Pretty Face is only one part of a larger vision. Given this, anyone who is interested in reading A Pretty Face – and it is to be recommended – might be advised to head for Blood in the Saddle first. I suppose context is all important here and thankfully Paul Hammond has crafted a pithy and, for most part, lucid translation (along with supplying some helpful footnotes for the more obscure references to Spanish culture that might elude British readers). While I imagine that its re-imagined portrait of Spain’s recent past will have more resonance for its Spanish readers, there is a story at the heart of this novel that is expertly crafted and universally affecting; and in Lola, Reig has fashioned a narrator detached enough to accommodate not only his post-modern playfulness but his sincerity too.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER
Christopher Teevan is recently graduated, writing freelance and looking for a job.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, September 3rd, 2007.