An Obituary for the Epistolary Novel: A Review of Tarzan’s Tonsillitis by Alfredo Bryce Echenique
I’m in admiration because it’s rare that I read text as fresh as this:
“The mood: a forced and obligatory joy combined with a very Latin American we live here but we don’t live here and on trouve tout à la samaritaine, my Buenos Aires, my San Salvador, my Lima, my Santiago de Chile, my and my and me and Mimi, and this Christmas season is always like that, false happiness and shitty disquiet.” Hey there Pessoa, you too? Yep, because this is a novel of disquiet.
We have Juan Manuel who receives and occasionally reflects upon letters from Fernanda Mia. He also has a scrapbook of photocopies of some of the letters he sent to her (that she gave him.) Together these chronicle a decades long correspondence. He is a single singer rising to fame who travels frequently, who lives in Paris and later Minorca. She is an office administrator of some form, married, constantly moving around Latin America and later to Berkeley. They engage in rare trysts. One of these occurs at 47 Evelyn Gardens; I enjoy being able to look up real addresses found in novels, maybe the author stayed there, or lives there, who knows; anyway it’s fun to speculate.
And how exactly did I stumble on fascinating work by Alfredo Bryce Echinique?
The other night I realized that it had been a long time since I’d read an epistolary novel. This was while standing in a dumb bookstore staring at spines. So I pulled out my mini picture typewriter and goo-goo’d contemporary epistolary novels finding what is one of the great titles of all times: Tarzan’s Tonsillitis. Of course the dumb bookstore, which rarely has anything literary anyhow, didn’t have this but luckily it was available to digitally borrow from that great site archive.org.
For our lovers, life is farewell and shipwreck. At one point Manual has the sensation of encountering in Fernanda “the agile and seemingly stark prose of Hemingway at his best — that ability to suggest and invent a reality vastly superior to the one our routine-glazed eyes can see.” And so, the novel commences with a head rush of ideas and fantastic lines such as “When things get bad, don’t look sad, a saying that over in savage Oakland would probably be translated as ‘You can’t shit your pants upwards.’” Echenique’s writing can be liquid mercury meeting Diogenes of Sinope. The first section rises to the brisk humor found in Never Any End to Paris by Enrique Villa-Matas, then throughout the third quarter, the novel reads like a lite version of Hemingway’s Garden of Eden. (When will someone please please publish the unabridged version of this book?) I just wish the hot light of the first part had continued for the remainder of the book; some of the spark is lost in the letters.
Here is a world of continual longing and proxy resolutions. As a toy example, the family dog runs away and another of the same breed shows up, female instead of male, but the collar fits and the children are happy about having a dog. Fernanda wants out of her marriage, so she says, Manuel wants her to be with him, so he says. She writes, “Wherever I am, there’s always room for you,” except, apparently, when there’s life, war, moving, politics, children, family, husband, jobs, sickness, distance, illness, and death. As the novel progresses we find not the story of two star-crossed lovers but something worse and not dependent on finances. Even when he becomes famous and they create some decent selling children’s songs, they choose angsty estrangement. One of them is using the other, but who does what to whom? My empathy diminished as I read. She is an emotionally abused enabler, he is the other man, both are sort of long distance stalkers. They appear to enjoy every painful moment of their situations. I began to wonder if perhaps Manuel or Fernanda had made all the letters up, figments of their lonely imaginations. But then I decided that they both were…how to say it: All happy characters are alike; each dysfunctional character is dysfunctional in its own way.”
Try on a few of the great lines found in the later letters:
“In the Canaries I was paid like a bullfighter. But I spent like a sailor.”
“Paris, too, is. Simply is, and it still has stoplights.”
Echenique refers to the “Bostons of d’Aubervilliers, tossing…” How not to see a witty play on Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles here.
Over time time of the letters, technology raises problems, the Fax is seen as the electric chair for the epistolary mode and the future is predicted. But more seriously is the entire form dead? Can the epistolary mode only have validity in historical works? Certainly email and blog novels don’t cut it, remember that fad that was over the moment it appeared?, they don’t hold up with their lack of reflection, the glib replies, and headers like a bad toupee, ugh. After reading Tarzan’s Tonsillitis I still wasn’t yet fully sated. I pulled out my copy of Clarissa, or, the History of a Young Lady by Samuel Richardson, the abridged by Sherburn. It all flooded back to me just how cranky I’d been over the cuts during my first reading and so I compared the text of the first letter to the one on gutenberg.org. The abridged version seemed shabbier than ever. So I downloaded the more than a million words in six volumes of the novel, as though I have time to read it.
But back to Echenique. Tarzan yells, his yell spans distance. The jungle awakens. The animals run to his aid. He yells “with a cry that would impose total respect” except in this world, in a “demonic world where everything seemed to depend on anything except us.” However, by the end of the book we no longer believe this sort of statement as sincere. These characters are hooped in the head, cuckoo in the cranium, slippy in the psyche. Good try crazy-pants, fool me once sort of thing, won’t take the bait. Self deprecating enablers are fun but only from a distance, for a short time, in the unbelievabubble, or as found in Pinter. By the end, Tarzan tires of yelling and the animals tire of rushing to the call. Fernanda is married, living in Berkeley with some guy named Bill and her letters go unanswered.