Shelf Life

Shelf Life

Martín Adan’s The Cardboard House; José Manuel Prieto’s Encyclopedia of a Life in Russia


When The Cardboard House was published in 1928, 20-year-old Martín Adán became a literary celebrity in his native Peru. Thereafter, writes his translator, Katherine Silver, “the traces of his life fade into an alcoholic haze.” It is thanks to Adán’s devoted editor, Juan Mejía Baca, that “six or seven” volumes of his poetry appeared in the decades that followed—Silver has Mejía Baca collecting “the bits and pieces of paper Adán left strewn along his path”—and that he “is now considered to be one of the greatest Latin American poets of all time.”

The Cardboard House (New Directions; Paper $15.95) was Adán’s only work of prose, and it is prose only in dim light and without corrective lenses. The setting is the Peruvian resort town of Barranco, but it is a feverish and fantastical Barranco, and the characters—Manuel, Ramón, Catita—are ghosts, nothing but shadowy names. There is no story, no incident, nothing to hold on to, nothing to move toward. There is only a voice enraptured by its ability to reduce the world to poetic images. Fig trees “strolled down a street crowded with seminarians, streetwalkers, and geometry professors.” The sky is “a lemon peel turned inside out.”  “The city licks the night like a famished cat.” “There are children who are nothing but the joy of a sailor’s hat: children who are not even the hat they wear. There are women who are barely an artificial hand in a purse made of donkey leather. Priests who are nothing but a wrinkle of their cassock.”

I have never enjoyed a book so much that I also understood so poorly, but it may be that there is nothing to understand. Image is content; there is no content beyond the image. Adán’s transformations and transpositions are playful above all. Goats have “a face between that of Mephistopheles and Uncle Sam.” Pigeons “speak French,” “are indecorously sentimental, go everywhere alone,” and have “a Yankee partiality for couplets.” Turkey vultures have the “bent, sallow fortitude of a diabetic Norwegian.” Why not? Everything is something else. Everything is poetry. The “world is a potato in a sack,” and all you can do is go to bed and “sweat colors.”

But The Cardboard House is also intimately familiar, and not just because of Adán’s powerful and recognizable influence on writers like Carlos Fuentes and Gabriel García Márquez. The book is so palpably the work of an excitable 20-year-old who conveys what it feels like to be young when being young doesn’t feel awful. “Death is only a thought, nothing else, nothing else,” the narrator says. “I have no past and an excess of future.” Didn’t we all think so? Didn’t we all want to say so? “The air rubs against the sky and scratches it the way a diamond scratches glass. I do whatever I want. A dove has carried away my last good thought.”

* * *

It is unsurprising that the entries in José Manuel Prieto’s new novel, Encyclopedia of a Life in Russia (Grove; Paper $15.95), translated by Esther Allen, correspond only vaguely, and sometimes not at all, to the esoteric items they describe. The entry for Gustav Klimt begins with this qualifying fragment: “In the sense that a mane of hair in the hue known as red ochre held great meaning for me.” The entry for “Raskolnikov, Inc.” begins: “Saint Petersburg was still a good city for shuttered courtyards, dark stairways, tenacious drizzle, flooding, and usury.”

There is a kind of plot, “a story that [exists] in suspension among the vector convergence of these entries,” but it shows itself only at long intervals. A man calling himself Thelonious Monk—who is, as Prieto was, a Cuban living in Russia during the fall of the USSR—travels to Yalta with a woman he recruits for the purpose and whom he calls Linda Evangelista (after the Canadian model). Thelonious is writing a novel about this trip, or rather he has organized the trip so that it can be incorporated into the novel he wishes to write. It has been necessary to “amass the capital for this novel,” to budget out its scenes. He says that he “seeks to confer upon [real life] the luster of a finished product, ready for the marketplace.”

It is a story barely told, a story with an elusive and ungraspable rhythm, a frivolous story, and it’s Thelonious’s intention that it should be so. He wants his novel to be “based on insignificant feelings.” So even though the Encyclopedia is a portrait of the USSR in its death throes—“I dined for three dinars one evening and breakfasted the next morning for a thousand”—it is above all a celebration of irrelevance. The novel is dense with frivolous material: the elaborate “Regulations for Usage of the Passenger Elevator,” a disquisition on the effect of fluoride toothpaste on the Russian soul, a passage in which Prieto expresses the Borgesian hope that “one day the magic of publicity will succeed in merging” him with the author of the Encyclopedia, whose name he shares, so that his “face alone will suffice to accredit [him] as a writer.” Thus commodified, he will cease being both a name on a book and a private individual.

But frivolity is a serious business. Prieto argues that the USSR fell in part because the allure of Western consumer goods seemed to discredit “the Doctrine” of communism. Frivolous things move mountains, in short, and it pleases him to imagine his novel as just one of a great many distracting products. “It wouldn’t pain me if, once consulted, my Encyclopedia were to be forgotten on the luggage rack of a commuter train. In fact, such a fate would be marvelously well suited to the philosophy underlying [it].” I don’t believe him, but it is a wonderful idea.

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