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Collection: INTERAMER
Number: 55
Year: 1997
Author: Harry Beleván
Title: The Heirs of Ariadne

TWENTY YEARS’ HINDSIGHT:
AN AUTHOR’S AFTERTHOUGHTS

I have never believed in coincidences and say as much somewhere in this book. And yet I know only too well that coincidences exist, whether one believes in them or not. A turnabout or a self-refutation? I do not know and it doesn’t matter. What worries me, instead, is that I now have to explain a curious coincidence—is there any other kind?—so that here I am, on a sunny day in July 1994, trying to add an epilogue to a translation of a book I finished writing back on a day of cloying mist in July 1974 (apparently the weather is just about the only thing not subject to coincidences).

The first consequence of this, I now realize, is that the present exercise has forced me to read once more this old book of mine—despite, may I add, my congenital aversion to rereading any of my published writings—in order to find answers to a few questions the translator had for me before putting the finishing touches on what has turned out to be a veritable linguistic and grammatical tour de force, an “original” English version I’d be tempted to call it, of a work I must admit was already very complex in its Spanish version. In the process, I’ve made an interesting discovery: that this book is still current, that the theories I put forward twenty years ago are just as valid today. The reader will kindly bear with me, despite this unforgivable vanity, while I explain myself.

In his celebrated work The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, the ever-controversial Thomas Kuhn explained the steady progress of human thinking in these simple yet thought-provoking words: “To be accepted as a paradigm, a theory must seem better than its competitors, but it need not, and in fact never does, explain all the facts with which it can be confronted.”  If this premise has any truth in it, then I’m tempted to say—but here I go boasting again!—that thus far, in my periodic readings on theories of the fantastic, I have never found a book or read an essay that I regarded as a meaningful refutation of the ideas I set forth in The Heirs of Ariadne. What’s more, in the last twenty years I have never come across any interpretation of the phenomenon of the fantastic that was persuasive enough to compel me to review my own thinking on the subject as developed in this book; in other words, I have yet to find the competing paradigms, so to speak, that Kuhn talked about.

As a second consequence, I discovered however that, during the passage of twenty years, I have had more than my fill of the logorrheic sleights of hand of the post-structuralists (and let me add the post-modernists too, in spite of what is generously said in the introduction about the supposed contribution of this book to their cause), their theoretical mindgames, their cogitations and philosophizing. So deep are my misgivings about these politicians of the new ideologies that, purely out of reaction to all this, I’m not altogether certain I would ever write a book like this today. Because the truth is that this text owes much to structuralism, which, if in fact it was in and of itself a stern discipline for the mind —the most important critical tool for cultural theorizing since Benjamin, Victor Sklovsky, de Saussure, Franz Boas, Sapir, Philip Rahv, Northrop Frye, Lee Whorf, Malinowski, and Leo Spitzer, the truly great classics of modern criticism in my biased opinion, though they never made any lasting reflections on the fantastic—also led to these “post” trends of all sorts we endure today, that have denaturalized structuralism and other isms completely. Compounding this is a sadness, a sense of having been deceived, that has grown stronger through all these years of watching how the high priests of today’s criticism rarely, if ever, venture beyond the sacred circle of the regular pontiffs of the fantastic to make a little room for those of us from the periphery who might venture new approaches to the traditional prescripts for analyzing the fantastic in literature. We are no match, indeed, for the relentless undertow of tradition! . . . But I digress.

Thus today, instead of this book, I would at most try my hand at a short essay, written more for the general public than for academics, gathering together some basic ideas about the fantastic. I would say, for example, that a text of fantastic expression—whether a short story or a novel—must have that spark that kindles in the reader a craving to keep turning the pages, mainly out of some inexplicable need to discover the “gold nugget,” that distinctive essence that always illuminates a fantastic tale from within, that special something that distinguishes a text of this sort from what is commonly known as realistic fiction. Because the alchemy that literature of the fantastic genre performs is a combination of a certain language or vocabulary and a particular style or manner of narration, in a constant, and at times unconscious, effort to test the limits of the written word through forms that in both a literal and a literary sense are embodied in characters, dialogue, and situations that symbolize everyday reality but with something else added, that certain something I have tried to discover and explain in these pages because the face of day-to-day reality cannot explain it.

As I said, I suspect I would probably never write a book like The Heirs of Ariadne now, although I like to think it did succeed in demonstrating step by step how fantastic literature creates that disturbing sense of strangeness, that odd ambiguity and ambiguousness, born of the signals given off by its inner workings. I might only suggest today—recalling what I believe one of the characters in my novel La Piedra en el Agua said, in trying to explain his sense of the fantastic—that the fantastic is the literary equivalent of Nietzsche’s eternal recurrence or Escher’s cyclical drawings, words looking at themselves over their shoulders, the splintering of several worlds over and over again, a text unraveling itself in other texts, exhausting all its possibilities merely to demonstrate its limitless wealth of possibilities, all against the backdrop of that subversive recurrence that is the hallmark of fantastic expression.

When a reader caught up in the pleasure and magic of reading comes upon a fantastic tale, he realizes instinctively that the prose of the text and the anecdote it recounts cause the sensation of the fantastic to surface, spread, alter reality, and then vanish forever, having created a new reality of its own. Because this, simply, is the cycle of the fantastic: it creeps in imperceptibly (so much so that it is impossible to say exactly when its symptoms first appear); it permeates the descriptions and the very words used to build the reader’s imagery, but without having to counterfeit those descriptions and words “as if” they were real because, in fact, they are absolutely real; it thereby alters the tranquil truth the reader has been experiencing until just that very moment when the symptoms of the fantastic surface and contaminate the reading experience; finally, it vanishes, leaving in its wake a new order of things. In the final analysis—and this is the other point I hope this book has succeeded in demonstrating—this whole process is what makes the fantastic a truly revolutionary form of discourse, since the words and situations that suggest it are impregnated with subversion, questioning and ever transgressing the normative forms of the real and destroying the traditional mimetic conventions in the process. The literature of fantastic expression is invariably based upon a reality it uses precisely to scavenge itself, to undermine so to speak the neutrality inherent in any fact-based structure, which is why I still believe, as I did more than twenty years ago when I started thinking about the nature of the fantastic, that this genre of literature is infinitely more alarming than so-called “realistic” literature, simply because the latter requires an obedient servant, a reader who respects the social order, the power structures that rule the world, whereas the fantastic is a frontal assault on that established order of ideas kept in place by submissive, docile mentalities.

And perhaps I would say nothing else. Perhaps this is all I would say today about the fantastic in literature. Because, upon reflection, I find that fiction will always suggest much more than any critical essay could possibly explain, particularly with so abstract and ephemeral a topic as the fantastic. Rather than consulting some road map where he is traveling, the reader of the fantastic must let himself go following no particular critical itinerary, abandoning himself to its twists and turns, living it like some new, never-to-be-repeated erotic experience, falling under the spell of its own inimitable nature and the dazzling magic of its infinite mirrors, through the ever-present sense of disorientation begotten under its enchantments, the obliteration of reality itself. “We know not,” Octavio Paz once said, speaking of the erotic, “what it really is, except that it is something else. More than history, more that sex, more than life, more than death.”  It occurs to me that the fantastic and the erotic would then be two sides of the same longing, which, when gratified, would be followed by that twilight silence of pure exhaustion, the precipice of sublime nothingness, the wordless discourse of the senses, the morbid ellipsis of utter emptiness, the lukewarm numbness of desire fulfilled, just absolute and uninhabited vacuity.

It has taken twenty years for this curious coincidence I mentioned earlier to happen, and so, as might be expected, my list of acknowledgments has grown. These are not mere protocolary recognitions but debts gladly paid. Thus, my first thought goes to Sara Meneses and Carlos Paldao, of the OAS, for their determination to have this text translated and published in English. In my first conversation with Carlos, before Sara came on staff, his enthusiasm for and thorough knowledge of the book, which he had used in his classes, along with works by Barrenechea, Todorov, Bessière and Vax, were so impressive that he renewed my faith in it, instilling in me a serene confidence I had not so much lost as forgotten. He tells me that as a matter of principle, he does not agree to acknowledgments of his person within the pages of the books he publishes. Let this be a test of his sense of fairness and objectivity. A second debt I gladly confess to is to Professor Isabel Rodríguez-Vergara, whose critical acumen is more than amply demonstrated in the study that introduces this text to the English-speaking reader. Rarely in my literary career have I seen a book of mine so faithfully interpreted as in this analysis and in another study she was kind enough to devote to some of my other writings. But what I treasure most perhaps is her friendship and outdated passion for literature we both share.

I am likewise grateful for—or should I say amazed by—the effort put forward by Patricia Kennedy-Acevedo, who, like any really excellent translator, has somehow written this book all over again (she mustn’t be held guilty, though, for this English epilogue, which is solely my responsibility!). I must also thank Antonio Cornejo Polar, of the University of California; Elsa Galle-Dehenin, of the Free University of Brussels; Mátyás Hóranyi, of the Etvos Lorand University of Budapest; Roberto Paoli of the University of Florence; Mario Vargas Llosa and the late Augusto Tamayo Vargas of San Marcos University in Lima, my mentors in this strange metier that is literature; Sara Castro-Klaren of Johns Hopkins University; Susana Reiz of New York University, formerly of the Catholic University in Lima, Peru; Miguel Viqueira Niel of the University of Lisbon; Wolfgang Luchting of Washington State University; Danusia Meson of American University; Robert Morris of Lander College; Ricardo González Vigil of the Catholic University in Lima; Saul Sosnowski of the University of Maryland; Robert Reynolds, who was the first to write a thesis on my earlier books as a graduate student at Texas Tech; Tania Sánchez Ferrán of the University of Havana, who was second and just as generous even in her Marxist approach to my fiction; Roland Forgues of the University of Pau, France; Olver Gilberto de León of the University of Paris; and Bernard Goorden, the dedicated translator of the rather clandestine French version of this text. Finally, I shall always be grateful to Jordi Herralde, my Catalan editor, who, back in 1976, risked his prestige by publishing this obscure theorical work of an obscure Peruvian writer in the post-Franco Spain of those days, seduced as it was by the new freedom of being able to read the most daring and heretical literature, mainly erotic or plain porno, and unwilling to drug itself any longer with only “serious” (synonym for boring?) books.

It is only fitting that this book should itself acknowledge its debt by mentioning their names at least here on its last pages; for my part, I can only thank them all because, in many ways, I am indebted to each and every one of them for having kept this book alive among students of so many countries, malgré most literary critics in the Spanish-speaking world who never even bothered to browse through it, let alone read it.