Museum of Eterna's Novel: The First Good Novel
by Macedonio Fernandez
Reviewed by John Toren
The Argentine novelist and sometime-philosopher Macedonio Fernandez is best known today in the English-speaking world as an early mentor of Jorge Luis Borges. Macedonio attended law school with Borges's father and during the 1920s, when Borges and other writers in Buenos Aires were expounding their avant-guard views in the magazine Martin Fierro, Macedonio acted as a sort of father figure to the group. He never learned to type, however, and most of his own work was still in manuscript when he died in 1952. In later life Borges's reminiscences fueled a mythic image of the elder writer as a quietist thinker who had no interest in courting renown, yet as Macedonio's own writings began to appear more widely in print posthumously, scholars came to suspect that quite a few of Borges's stylistic and conceptual trademarks could be shown to derive from the literary aesthetic of his early mentor.
Macedonio's magnum opus, The Museum of Eterna's Novel (The First Good Novel), was first published in Argentina in 1967, but is only now being published in English for the first time. Unlike most of Borges's work, it's fairly long. Macedonio is said to have rewritten it five times, and more than half of it consists of fifty or sixty brief prologues with titles such as "A Home for Eternity," "At the Gates of the Novel: In Anticipation of the Story," "To the Window-Shopping Reader," and "For the Reader Who Skips Around." In this last-named prologue Macedonio suggests that he has written the novel with such a reader in mind, a playful theory that naturally recalls Julio Cortazar's Hopscotch. At other places we feel we're in that quasi-metaphysical domain of Borgesian paradox, though Macedonio theorizes about these zones of experience far more often than he creates them, and such passages tend to be a little stale. For example:
We like to reconstruct the beginning of effects and events that continue a long time or a short time, and connect us, but rarely do we find the stamina for a methodical evocation of an effect or event.
We also rarely know whether we are dealing with ideas, or with conduct.
This novel is enamored of itself and it is the sort of novel where mishaps and adventures happen, artistic indecisions, whether to get lost in art, to be silent, to be ignorant; even as it relates events it is swept away by others; it contains accidents and it is the victim of accidents.
Readers may tire of such nostrums about truth and art and illusion, and also of the numerous asides and adumbrations Macedonio provides on a story about which, after all, we as yet know nothing.
The story itself concerns a group of characters who are spending some time together at a hacienda called "La Novela" on the outskirts of Buenos Aires. If the situation sounds a little abstract, the characters themselves are even more so. Among the coterie assembled are the President, the Father, Eterna, Maybegenius, Sweetheart, the Lover, and the Gentleman Who Does Not Exist. The President issues instructions and the other characters come and go, passing one another in the halls and exchanging remarks such as: "'It's done. Is it for the best?' . . . 'How wonderful, today we only saw each other in the dark!' . . . 'What a sweet old house! How I would love to do my work of remembering here!'"
If the numerous prologues have served no other purpose, they have at least prepared us for the fact that Macedonio is opposed to all conventional notions of narrative. He's trying to take us to a different place. At one point, speaking as "The Author," he remarks: "I shouldn't say to the reader, 'Come into my novel,' but rather save him from life indirectly. My quest is that every reader should enter my novel and lose himself in it; the novel will take him in, bewitch him, empty him out." Yet this is precisely what The Museum of Eterna's Novel
doesn't do -- probably because the things that most often take us in (plot, character, action, development, insight, verisimilitude) have been removed from it.
There are moments when Macedonio verges on drawing us in, however, especially during the episode when the President decides to conquer Buenos Aires through Beauty. Here we catch glimpses of the way things are, of sights and smells and feelings that offer some relief from the gassy abstractions that populate the greater part of the book. For example, describing the effects of the beatific assault on the city, he writes:
in the bars, among the odors of alcohol and tobacco, rolled a boiling wave of savory stew whose vapors emitted a homey, charming perfume and which dismantled the incipient orgy; it also put an end to the imperfect irrigation of the trees in the plazas and sidewalks, some of which had been left unwatered, something that leads to the desperation of those who enjoy watching trees be watered; . . . it dispatched . . . all falsely distributed automatic photography machines; . . .
All the statues that saddened the plazas were evicted, and in their place grew the best roses; the only exception was that the statue of Jose de San Martin was replaced by another stature symbolizing "Giving, and Leaving."
To these flashes of odd but vivid experience we must add the rendering of the novel's central character, Eterna, who functions as a latter-day Beatrice or Dulcinea. Macedonio's "novel" is driven from start to finish by a deeply sentimental and even mawkish "lost love" that no amount of quasi-metaphysical rhetoric can obscure. Nor, in the end, does the author want it to. The Museum of Eterna's Novel
may be a hodgepodge of false-starts and quizzical asides that can be picked up and set aside again at any point, but there's a big, if timid, heart beating at the center of it.