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Apropos of Manuel Talens’s latest novel

The Omniscient Narrator


Translated by  Rebeca Castellanos for Cubanow.net

1. God

diospormiguelangel.jpgI have always wished to have a few words with God, a face-to-face rendezvous to tell Him what I could never tell Him as a child… for lack of courage. When I was a little boy I read the Bible with unction and delight, feeling guilty at the same time for the joy I found in those pages, a quite materialistic and carnal joy. I found thrilling scenes and bloody battles, hand-to-hand combats and mass movements. I found loneliness and grieves, but, above all, there was myth turned into stories, never-ending narration: the myth of origin, of morality, of sin, of death. I found literal and also figurative speech; the infantile hermeneutics which made me get the most out of it by learning all possible lessons. Sacred film screenings on Holy Week did magnify the outcome of my readings. Thus, by giving faces to Biblical characters, movies like The Ten Commandments reaffirmed what I had learned: Biblical issues had a quite realistic effect on me, and fear was also present.

But let’s go back to the Book…I used to read it all the time, particularly the Old Testament amazed at the multiplicity of ethnic groups which inhabited the Biblical ancient world. Perhaps I read it non-stop because, in my father’s scanty library, the Scriptures had a privileged, quite visible spot. More often than not, all looks would land precisely on the ascetic binding from Ediciones Paulinas, on faked leather cover. I still have it with me. Better yet, I had it with me until recently: now, I can’t find it on the bookshelves of my own confusing and haphazard library. I feel guilty. I must find it soon so I can read again the Old Testament, remarkable tale of traditions, collection of written testimonies of the fate of chosen and indomitable peoples that recover themselves from failure after failure. Such pages are bursting with terrifying villains who endanger decent people’s fortune and patrimony, with saints who serve as examples of piety and devotion. Above all, I need to find that book to take note again of God’s words, this distant and quite strict Being who caused us so much uneasiness as adolescents. As I read those pages, I was always distressed by the Providence’s presence, omniscient and omnipotent. Back then, we believers feared, in effect, the imposing image of such a severe and vigilant God, always directing penances and punishments to devout sinners. He constantly found me in faux pas, in sin; always tormented with invincible temptations. My Ediciones Paulinas’ edition had a few Biblical pictures: yes, pictures from the ‘60s, I presume, displaying Israelites, Palestinians, peasants, art crafters, desert landscapes and extremely fertile oasis. Or so I remember. It was an attempt to illustrate the pious Book and bring it closer to our modern vertiginous age. Those images had a great impact on me; they struck me as permanent and valid: on Holy Land, human beings and landscape were the same as thousands of years before. That had to mean something… It didn’t have any picture of God, though. Of course, such absence increased his enigmatic power for my adolescent imagination.

2. Manuel Talens


I envy Manuel Talens ever since I read his first narrative writing. I envy his magnificent imagination, capable of constructing worlds unreal but extraordinarily similar to the real one, an imagination capable of using syntax to recreate just what he wants to say. No matter if it has one word too many, if it is about luxurious baroque elaboration or verbal economy, concise and to-the-point, his writing style has always struck me as having an accurate sonority. It is not about writing well or beautifully. It is about subtler and thus more important issues. By saying that his style has an accurate sonority I mean that he states precisely what he wants to state, but also that each character (including the narrator) speaks accordingly to his/her own language, idiom, and idiolect. Generally, all his characters are well-mannered in their own private ways to communicate, even if they are vulgar or illiterate; there is ancient and traditional wisdom in their speech. One of Talens’s distinctive skills in expression are his sharp remarks, his imprecations, his cursing carefully distributed and stated at the exact moment by the exact people. Besides, one can perceive in the author’s prose a verified skill to reproduce discourses from different cultures, places and social backgrounds.

About writers who have these skills, literary critics usually say that the novelist has an acute ear: an acute ear for the specific registers of common citizens, of scholars, of leaders, of both refined and mediocre people. It is quite an issue, I know, but in the case of Manuel Talens such skill has been sufficiently substantiated. Of course, the skill per se wouldn’t be much without a sense of humor. Knowing how to reproduce what a chaplain or a peasant says, and how they say it, is a fine talent. However, it is much better when the writer manages to imitate discourses by cracking jokes with the expression, by kidding around in our very tone, using formulas more or less stereotyped, with verbal traces from our pasts which we tend to keep repeating. It is not Talens’s only distinctive feature as a writer, but irony is decisive in his fiction works, better yet, post-modern irony. “The post-modern response to the modern is to acknowledge that, since the past can’t be destroyed- its destruction could lead to silence- what we need to do is to revisit the past; with irony and devoid of naivety.” So stated Umberto Eco and so does his excelling disciple, Manuel Talens.

He has just published a novel, La cinta de Moebius, in which he revisits Biblical passages with creative freedom and copious research, with writer tools and with the eye of a distrustful reader, with numerous post-modern winks, with explicit and implicit citations, with cryptic or manifest allusions. There are even bibliographical references at the end of the novel. Bibliography? But, whose? The narrator’s or the writer’s? On second thoughts, such an erudite exhibitionism can only be derived from the empiric narrator. Please mind that, in this novel, God has a definitive presence. Better yet, God is the very narrator. He is. If God is omniscient, I can’t picture Him justifying himself, including certifications or substantiating his statements. So that it is the writer who has decided to incorporate the critical paraphernalia which sustains fiction. Of course, this is not the first attempt. Another novel by Talens, Hijas de Eva, he did something similar: he would list the books that had helped him recreate, for instance, old times Valencia. Is the writer forced to do so? Of course not. Whenever I have the chance, I explain to my students the case of the novel Hijas de Eva: fiction empirical writers don’t have to give detailed account of their sources; particularly if part of the books mentioned in the list are not real, like the case of Talens’s novel. When they do it, what is it that we are reading? An apocryphal bibliography that, at the style of Jorge Luis Borges, mocks erudite usage? Anyway, quite a mess…a post-modern mess. Naturally, Umberto Eco would also avail himself of such academic methods to bewilder us all he wanted, to cause us a shock, a reality effect, as his friend Roland Barthes would say.

I won’t reveal to you the contents of the novel La cinta de Moebius, where unfortunately, all cited bibliography is real. I say unfortunately because in the final chapter, the one devoted to cite sources, the author seems to drop the game of apocryphal erudition. It is a common feature of novels to mix reality with make-believe elements. More often than not, novelists include, at the beginning or at the end of the text, but always out of the story, what we call author’s notes. Such out-of-the-story sections help them clarify procedures or justify decisions. However, there are novels where the author’s notes are nothing but tricks and, therefore, are part-and-parcel of the narration, incorporated to the fiction story. Such was the case of El nombre de la rosa, for instance. I truly believe that Talens is able to commit such loutish acts like he sets himself to do in this novel, but, who knows, maybe his edifying spirit or his academically correct disposition have advised him to suppress apocryphal bibliography efforts, something he dared to do in Hijas de Eva.

“Experienced narrators share the common knowledge that, in order to be realistic, any book which aspires to reproduce past times must seek the support of books written before. The following list is a non exhaustive, though essential, account of books that have served such purposes, in this case,” stated Talens at the end of the novel Hijas de Eva. Did he state it? Who did state such words? The section was entitled “Bibliography” and the exact lines I have cited here couldn’t be taken word by word as author’s notes since most books included in that list did not exist at all. Besides, if such statement was made by “an experienced narrator” then, it means that it was the narrator himself-the one telling the story- and not the empiric author-the one writing the novel- who made such a note about the references. The final lines of the note were: “Also, the narrator wants to say…”

Now, if Manuel Talens is bold enough to put God at the center of a story, something that surpasses all expectations, then I can’t understand why he refuses to let fiction carry him to the very end, until the fabulous bibliographic list which would certify statements made throughout the story. Let’s drop such an erudite reproach…I would have never dared to do half of it, to create fictional stories with God as a main character. Not precisely because of pious self-restraint, good God! Rather, because of my own lack of skills to fantasize as audaciously. It wouldn’t occur to me to write about God, making him play a leading role in my story or usurping his own.

3. The omniscient narrator

hal9.jpgGod’s role, no less. To give the Providence the leading role so that it would necessarily have to reveal to us its inside world and surrounding elements. It is quite a delight that a writer like Talens- an atheist, I presume- takes the Kingdom of Heaven as seriously as to use it as scenery for the plot of a novel’s ups and downs. Indeed, God is king on such territory, but it is Archangel Gabriel, so he signs himself at he end of the novel, who guides us around. We don’t have Virgil, but this winged being of feathery gender. The mentioned character, who hasn’t been too busy since the Annunciation to Mary, wishes to be useful, to be a worthy subject for attention. On such efforts, I see work going on opposite to alienation, the state of mind so much poked at by German philosophers…Alienation, estrangement, to feel isolated, out of place, unfamiliar to deeds and actions, to resulting products. Gabriel wishes to feel that he is useful, that there is a reason to his existence. Of course, he is somebody who highly appreciates intellectual instruction and, according to what we find out by reading the novel, somebody with an irrepressibly progressive tendency. Is it perhaps the author’s own version of facts? It makes no difference at all. Gabriel worries over the general state of affairs in Heaven, better yet, over the general well-being of God himself. If things are not going too well up there, there are few hopes for earth, a dull reflection of Heaven. But, who is telling us this story? We go back to the baffling concerns stated before. Without a doubt, it is not a voice talking first person, but an omniscient narrator who is actually God, God no less, a self-generating mechanism capable of telling, of stating, even of doing at underlying levels.

He is at the center of the plot, watching over all things, the world’s evolution. God, present and absent at the same time, is also the author, ruling over the characters’ fate as decision-making authority and creator. The God portrayed in La cinta de Moebius is indeed responsible: he governs the world’s progress, as well as the fate of creatures living in it, though with some degree of difficulty. Unlike Frankenstein, monster created and then abandoned by its creator, or Philip K. Dick’s orphan Replicants, Talens’ God takes care of the world. But, such world is as faded as the universes of the abovementioned creatures, so that He needs to reset it, to repair it, a task more appertaining to an author than to God. An author like Talens, who finds his own ideological will to gladly change crooked things or things he deems contemptible. The author’s interference? Such a question brings to my memory Gustave Flaubert’s advice, his own reservations as novelist-demiurge: “authors must be present in their work like God in the universe: present everywhere, visible in none. Since art is a second nature, creators of such nature must act according to similar practices. Every atom, every aspect must show evidences of a concealed, infinite aloofness.” Don’t ask me for more details, don’t insist on deeper particulars. I won’t speak another word so that I don’t spoil the novel for you. I have also refrained myself in the review I wrote for Ojos de Papel. A commentator’s job is not to write plot summaries, but critic analysis and above all, to display reading enthusiasm, regardless of whether we share the author’s believes or not, whether we agree with the author’s plan of action or his/her restructuring of the outer world or not. I spent three days reading this novel, noting down and commenting on it…with God. At the height of Holy Week, timing couldn’t be better to dip into such a Biblical piece of writing during such special commemorations to help me raise my fading spirits with such an irreverent liturgy. Now, to expiate my weaknesses, I will fully reread Todo Talens. Or so I intend to do. Because I feel like it and because an imposed penitence so mandates.


Original article published on 22 April, 2008

About the author

Tlaxcala, the network of translators for linguistic diversity, wishes to thank Cubanow and Rebeca Castellanos for this translation, which may be reprinted as long as the content remains unaltered, and the source, author and translator are cited.

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STORMING BRAINS : 22/04/2008