The Swimmers by Joaquín Pérez Azaústre, translated by Lucas Lyndes

The Swimmers is a short novel published this past September by Frisch & Co. – an e-book only publisher focusing on translated fiction. Ostensibly about the end of the world, it features no natural disasters, barren landscapes or bands of survivors fighting savagely over the few resources that remain. Azaústre’s vision is much more surreal, one could argue that it is meant to function as metaphor.  Jonás is a photographer who has grown too accustomed to interacting with the world through the lens of his camera. Which might be why his girlfriend left him and why his art career, once so promising, has stalled. He is an only child of divorced parents and carries that slightly clichéd aura of loneliness and isolation with him. The most important person left in his life is his best-friend, Sergio. The two have a relationship more like brothers than friends. They meet regularly at a pool in Jonas’ old neighborhood to swim laps.

Central to the novel are Jonás’ visits to the pool – with and without Sergio. These swimming sessions are integral to the structure and overall tone of the book.  In a wonderful article on the website Necessary Fiction (as a part of their Translation Notes series), Lucas Lyndes describes the challenges of translating a novel written under an Oulipian style constraint -

The novel’s protagonist, Jonás, goes to the pool almost every day, where he swims 2,500 meters. The book is broken up into 50 chapters, representing laps in the pool; as I learned during the translation process, an Olympic-size pool is 50 meters long, so essentially the book (50 laps x 50 m) is the equivalent of one swimming session. I read the prose, and especially the rhythm, as an imitation of the act of swimming. Most chapters start off a bit slow, with short(er), sharp(er) sentences, like diving in or kicking off from the wall, and then the sentences start flowing into one another, like strokes and kicks.

The carefully choreographed rhythm of the prose (apparent even without reading Lyndes) has a soothing effect and lessens the impact of the events driving the story.  People are vanishing into thin air.  Not to be confused with abductions and/or kidnappings – men, women and children in the city where Jonás’ lives are simply no longer there. Their disappearances are almost supernatural. First, other swimmers at the pool.  Then, Jonás’ mother. In quick succession: the daughter and grand-daughter of an older swimmer who Jonás meets regularly at a cafe; followed by a fellow artist and, then, the daughter of an underworld boss. As the pages pass the urban environment through which Jonás moves steadily empties.  Azaústre manages to create the feeling of a physical world expanding as, in almost direct correlation, Jonás sheds his personal relationships and connections. The disappearances come to represent an existential detachment.  At the same time they create discomfort in the reader – a primal response to the idea of non-existence.

Joaquín Pérez Azaústre is a novelist and a poet; with the ability to evoke the full range of sensory details.  He’s particularly strong when describing abandoned places. He breaks down the space into units of time – individual moments which the reader explores with the protagonist. Beautiful, haunting imagery appears all throughout The Swimmers. Azaústre’s writing is a combination of Camus, a young Stephen King and the great Rod Serling (The Twilight Zone).  He challenges our preconceptions of reality in new and interesting ways.  He plays with the concept of negative space, twins, reflections and parallel universes.  But he does it in a way that seems to exclude the fantastic.  There could be a logical explanation for all this.  In the meantime, people and events constantly move in and out of the periphery of the story.

It’s five in the afternoon. The clarity of the foothills is enveloped by the specter or rain. There is no countryside beyond the city, just a wasteland, a barren stretch of dry earth. On the right-hand shoulder, the bus leaves behind a hamlet of moveable homes and shacks erected with miscellaneous materials from demolition sites. He sees no one, not a single face. They take off so quickly that later, after driving out of sight of the wood and tin huts, some of them made from old emptied-out bodies of cars and trucks, scrap metal with plastic curtains and tarp roofs, Jonas starts to doubt their existence, as if the expulsion from the city had turned them into phantasms, as fleeting as the rest of the bare mounds of earth.

Joaquín Pérez Azaústre has unknowingly embraced Alan Weisman’s initial premise in The World Without Us – what if humanity were to inexplicably disappear? -  and stopped there.  Whereas Weisman explores the event’s aftermath, Azaústre is interested in the experience of disappearing.  Very little in The Swimmers gets explained or resolved, least of all where everyone has gone.  Instead we’re given tantalizing glimpses of another, untold story happening parallel to this one.  Even the characters feel it.  While explaining his mother’s disappearance to Sergio, we’re told that Jonás “felt as if he too was a witness to his tale, as if for a few minutes he had been able to contemplate his own narration…” Later, Sergio expresses “…that sometimes, when I think about it, I get the impression that out there, somewhere else, far away from this house, someone else is living my life for me.”

Everything about the novelthe prose style, the structure, the characters and settings - feels purposeful.  The author has a bigger idea in mind but it’s too much to absorb in just one reading.  I can’t say, definitely, what The Swimmers is about.  Upon finishing it I was left with an impression of thoughtful writing, a plethora of ideas, and the yearning to understand something that seemed important.  Or maybe I’m reading too much into it?   The Swimmers could just be one of those books that exists simply as the sum of its parts – regardless of our expectations (or desires) on how those parts should connect.

Publisher: Frisch & Co., Berlin (2013)
ISBN:  978 0 9891267 2 4

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Paprika by Yasutaka Tsutsui, translated from the Japanese by Andrew Driver

PaprikaThe 2006 anime film Paprika, based on the Yasutaka Tsutsui Japanese novel and its subsequent manga adaptation, has a cult following.   Unfortunately, the original book contains the very elements in anime and manga which I find most distasteful:  the sexual objectification of women, homophobia and a hysterical prose style.  Add to this a plot built on a dubious pseudo-science – i.e. dream therapy based on a Jungian model – and there’s very little left in Paprika to recommend it.

The novel’s heroine and namesake Paprika (a.k.a. – Dr. Atsuko Chiba) is the stunningly beautiful psychiatrist.  She and her morbidly obese colleague, Dr. Kōsaku Tokita, are shortlisted for the Nobel Prize for their research and work in dream therapy.  Dr. Tokita is the inventor of the “PT” (short for psychotherapy) device which allows Dr. Chiba to access, enter, and sometimes even perform treatment in, a patient’s dreams.  During its early development PT devices were illegal, and so Dr. Chiba created a cover identity named Paprika.  After the ban was lifted Atsuko Chiba still uses Paprika to treat high-profile clients, those whose mental illnesses might hurt their careers.  While Atsuko Chiba is intellectually gifted, poised and professional; Paprika is often mistaken for a teenager.  She speaks in a juvenile slang in order to put her client’s at ease.  She wears jeans and a tight, red shirt to her meetings.  The clients, invariably men, are all sexually attracted to her and she to them.

The plot rolls into motion when internal politics endanger the institute where Chiba and Tokita perform their research.  Tokita has created a new PT device, known as a PT mini, which allows for a kind of dream “wi-fi”.  But it is stolen while still being tested.  Someone is using the PT mini to “infect” employees at the institute with schizophrenia.  Should it be made public there would be mass-hysteria and the institute, and subsequently all Chiba and Tokita ‘s research, would be shut down.  Not to mention the innocent people being driven insane.

And so Paprika goes to battle in the world of dreams.  There she fights the bad guys with the help of two former patients – both middle-aged, powerful men – in a surreal landscape that begins bleeding into the real world.  The dream landscapes that Yasutaka Tsutsui creates are by far the most engaging aspects of the novel.

On one level Paprika is a fairly typical science fiction novel, with good using futuristic scientific technology to fight bad.  Taken on that level, the writing is no better or worse than the fantasy writer R. A. Salvatore.  But Yasutka Tsutsui was awarded the Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres by the French government and the English translation of Paprika is being published by Knopf Doubleday under the Vintage Contemporaries imprint – which leads readers to have certain expectations.  My expectation was that the quality of the writing would be on par with other Vintage authors, such as Cormac McCarthy, William Faulkner, Orphan Pamuk or Haruki Murakami.  Instead, what I actually got was:

“Are there any other functions we don’t know about?” asked Osanai.  “If there are, you’d better tell us quickly.  This device is dangerous.  We need to control it rigorously, under high-level isolation and in all secrecy.  Please return all DC Minis in your possession to us.”

“Who’s this ‘we’ you keep going on about?  Would it be you and your gay lover?” Atsuko countered with a smile.  “I wonder if he’s at work yet.  There’s something I want to ask him.”

or

By intentionally withholding the discovery of a murder, Atsuko knew she was sinking even deeper into guilt as a co-conspirator in evil.  Even winning a Nobel prize might have been part of that evil.  Fortunately, though, she felt no such guilt about winning the prize itself.  She could therefore put on a brave face, drawing on her feminine ability to become impervious to evil as necessity demanded.  Atsuko waltzed into the Meeting Room as if nothing had happened.  While expressing dissatisfaction at her absence, the reporters had reluctantly started questioning Tokita and Shima.  Now they started to remonstrate and call out loudly to Atsuko, without even waiting for her to settle in her usual seat.

I’m inclined to blame the translator for the awkwardness and hackneyed quality of the prose.  But the juvenile attitudes and prejudices are all the responsibility of the author.  For example, when two gay men use the DC minis for sexual encounters they are treated as perverts – “They’re not playthings for gay sex games.”  But when Atsuko uses them to have sex with her clients, sometimes multiple clients at once, it is viewed with an abashed acceptance.  Perhaps most offensive is the scene where one character attempts to rape Atsuko – and instead of fighting back she reacts by urging him to do it and to make sure he satisfies her in the process.  Later in the book she will admit to herself (in a dream, because apparently everything except homosexuality is allowed in a dream) that she loves and is attracted to him (Paprika/Atsuko is attracted to and engages in sex with almost all the male characters at some point).  And she has sex with him, her would-be rapist.

Therein lies the problem with Paprika.  Yasutaka Tsutsui has created a strong, capable and intelligent female character in Dr. Atsuko Chiba.  Then, he housed her sexuality in Paprika.   And, according to Tsutsui, it is permissible for the male characters to sexually objectify Paprika – she (literally) becomes the receptacle of their fantasies and desires.  Because, we’re not accountable for what we do in our dreams according to Yasutaka Tsutsui.

That may be good enough for some of his male readers, but it’s guaranteed to leave most female readers cold.

Publisher:  Vintage Books, New York (2013)
ISBN:  978 0 307 38918 3

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