Saturday, June 07, 2008

The Tenant & The Motive: Javier Cercas

Mario was a fanatic for order; when he went out for a run each morning he followed an identical itinerary.

Álvaro took his work seriously. Every day he got up punctually at eight. He cleared his head with a cold shower and went down to the supermarket to buy bread and the newspaper. When he returned he made coffee and toast with butter and marmalade and ate breakfast in the kitchen, leafing through the paper and listening to the radio. By nine he was sitting in his study ready to begin the day’s work.

With protagonists like this, the plot typically tends to go in one of two directions – the routine of the protagonists gets disrupted and breaks them or their obsession with order starts ruling them. Javier Cercas, however, breaks the mould and offers these two exquisite satirical novellas.

The Tenant is centred on Mario Rota, a professor of linguistics who twists his ankle while out on his morning run, which leads to more than just a few days off from the university. The Motive follows the efforts of Álvaro, a writer seeking inspiration and meat for his next novel from his neighbourhood, thus leading to disastrous consequences for his neighbours.

What makes these novellas worth a read or two?

To begin with, perhaps the format itself. The relative shortness compared to a regular novel-length, enables a tight narrative and a sharp focus on the central characters, so much so that while The Tenant has at least two (if not three) other characters who have a significant impact on the storyline, the narrative never focuses away from Mario Rota. In The Motive, all the other characters are really as much characters of Álvaro as they are of Javier Cercas. On the other hand, by not writing these two pieces as short stories, Cercas gives himself enough to breathe, to bring out the character of the protagonists, to provide enough events to give the narratives some solid dimension. The level of detail grips without distracting.

Another noticeable feature of these two novellas is the contrast between the bleakness of the situations faced by the characters and the lightness of the narrative tone (a nod to the translator as well – Anne McLean). While this may appear to come in the way of building empathy with the characters, it works because it creates a sense of irony, a good and ubiquitous ally when satire is the object.

However, the most important reason these novellas merit high praise is the way Cercas has ended them. As you race through the narrative, many possible endings come up in your mind, and one of them does actually turn out to be Cercas’ ending as well. So it’s not so much a surprise ending, as it is a logical and realistic one. And a brilliant one, in both cases.

Note: In the unlikely event this review comes to the notice of someone who has read Javier Cercas’ Soldiers of Salamis, I would appreciate some views on it.


Anonymous said...

you wanted a comment on soldiers of salamis? here goes:

the book is divided into, if i recall correctly, three sections. the first is the longest: it is the story of – Javier Cercas, incarnation journalist, a little down and out, stumbling on an unlikely story concerning the actions of a particular solider during the Spanish Civil War. Javier the journalist turns investigator, trying to find the entire story, and particularly the anonymous soldier at the centre, whose brave and inexplicable act is the source of the author's obsessions. part 2: he finds the soldier. part 3: i honestly can't remember (and this happens rarely to me, that i can't recall the plot of a book). the reason for my declining interest in the plot has to do as much with an inherent deficiency in storytelling and direction as much as the ABSOLUTELY AMAZING quality of writing in the first and longest section. like a steam engine, the momentum of this section is unstoppable. the characters are perfectly pitched, the tone expertly judged – this is about as good as writing gets, period.

so, in the end: read this book. for the first hundred or so pages alone, it is absolutely worth it. i sometimes go back to parts of this section just to revisit the experience of reading it – like a recurring dream or a revisit of a favourite place.
i have since read the speed of light, which has the opposite qualities: a good-ish story, sometimes slef-indulgent, with an excellent ending.

De Scribe said...

Thanks so much for the comment on Soldiers of Salamis, anonymous. Will try to lay my hands on it.