Sunday, October 3, 2010

NYRB Challenge #45: Lost at Sea. . .

As you can see by the different cover treatment, Julio Cortazar's The Winners was one of the earlier NYRB Classics published; I collected them right from the start. Alas, I had read over a hundred pages before I realized that it's currently not in stock. However part of this challenge was to tackle the unread books that beckoned from my shelves and I've long wanted to read this prominent and influential Argentine writer, so I kept going. Hopefully you can find copies in your library or a used bookstore, and my fingers are crossed that NYRB will reprint it in the future.

The "winners" of this novel are a motley group of people who have all won a cruise as part of the state lottery. The novel opens in a Buenos Aires cafe where they've been asked to meet prior to embarking on their trip. No one knows where they are bound and things don't get much clearer once they are actually on board the ship. Despite the luxury accomodations and an attentive bartender, the captain of the ship is mysteriously absent as are most of the crew. The passengers find themselves confined to one end of the ship; when they try to explore they keep encountering locked doors. As they set out to sea amidst rumours of a typhus epidemic that has broken out among the sailors, the group starts to divide between those who accept what they've been told and just want to enjoy their vacation, and those who gradually move from skepticism towards anger and then sudden and rash action. There's also plenty of drama on deck; conflicts and jealousies swirl among both existing couples and newly bonded strangers. And commenting on it all in a somewhat beautiful hallucinatory haze is Persio, the ship's visionary philosopher who sees and hears the music of the endless space above and surrounding the ship as though plucked on a giant guitar. It is he who very early on foreshadows not only the plot and one of the key themes of the novel, but perhaps articulates Cortazar's own personal fictional challenge, when he questions whether individual acts aren't just part of one big, unknown machine where people end up as one of the many feet of a centipede:

It's well known that the whole is more, and at the same time, less, than the sum of all its parts. What I'd like to find out, if I could place myself inside and outside the whole - and I think it can be done - is if the human centipede responds, in its constitution and its dissolution, to something more than chance events; if it is a figure, in the magical sense of the word, and if that figure is capable of moving, under certain circumstances, on more essential planes than those of its isolated members.

The role of fiction is also explored within these parameters, making this a wonderful novel that floats ideas as readily and steadily as it charts the course of this troubled ship. Cortazar's masterpiece Hopscotch has long been on my radar just waiting for a good, uninterrupted block of time when I can do justice to it.  Reading this earlier novel feels like good preparation.

1 comment:

Michael said...

Hopscotch is well worth reading, both in the straight ahead version, and in the hop-around from section to section version (sort of like Choose Your Own Adventure, except with gritty realism). I will try to find The Winners to read.