An unsettling sensation welled up from time to time, as I ventured into and struggled through Luis Chitarroni’s The No Variations, a novel disguised as the journal of an author working on a novel, a novel which, if completed, would have been disguised as a journal—a literary journal, to be precise. Somewhere, I fretted, in this dense and demanding assemblage of notes, narrative fragments, author biographies, etc., was a concise and scathingly satirical portrayal of this very review, which was then obviously unwritten. I had been reading too carelessly to notice it; somehow I’d forgotten where I saw it. How would I ever find it again? And there it would be for everyone to see, blatantly undermining everything I could possibly write.
This anxiety might be pre-coded into the flesh of the Argentine’s first work to be translated into English. The persistent recurrence of an all-caps “NO,” often interrupting passages, also seems to be aimed directly at the reader, abruptly ending, not only the contents of the book, but also the just-budding bits of response that might rise while the reader wades through the thick torrents. Fitting that the literary journal around which the unfinished novel swirls should be called Agraphia, named for a type of aphasia resulting in the incapacity to write. My first instinct was to submit for publication a diary of an unfinished review—how else to contain all the reasons to read, to read and—well, if you’re lucky, not to write about, this fucking book.
Although Agraphia provides a kind of nexus for the text, the journal—like the novel, like the diary—never arrives at a full instantiation. Instead, Agraphia hovers like the memory of a dream emptied of any recollected content, evoking naught save the fact that something significant has been lost. Which is not to say that the book is about nothing, or even that its subject plays second fiddle to its form. Indeed the brash cacophony of narratives without beginnings or ends, names without characters, pseudonym’s without names, antitheses without theses ultimately meld and form into a kind of formlessness perfectly suited to depict the “writers without stories”—a pejorative appellation applied to the exclusive, illusorily erudite clique comprising Agraphia’s contributors and editors.
These “characters” are the real satirical targets of Chitarroni’s prose: authors like Marina Ipoustedguy, in whose books there appear not “a word that couldn’t have been dispensed with,” or Remi Sabatani, whose final book is described as “a wondrous achievement of arrogant display and inanity.” These are editors like Nicasio Urlihrt who would like to “transform this journal, which is a pandemonium of columns and pillars with no personality or style, into a paradise where calumny is warranted and pillory is praised.”
This is a sort of literary figure we are all in danger of aping when we write, obscurantists with nothing to say, but arsenal aplenty to cover our asses, artists like Hilarion Curtis, who might, by reshuffling the letters in his name, morph into the diabolical author of these demons, Luis Chitarroni, himself. And it is tempting to re-ascribe these acerbic attributes back onto Chitarroni and his daunting project. After all, much like Belisaria Tregua’s 13 Attempts to Abolish the Present, The No Variations “is despite its ingenuous premise one of the worst books to read in the Argentine literary canon.” But please don’t let that deter you.
Because unlike the contributions to Agraphia, The No Variations is not only an exercise in impossibly difficult and needlessly obscure writing; it is also a work precisely calculated to repudiate the propagation of the kind of literature it presumes to be. The ultimate target of Chitarroni’s well-aimed agraphia is the reader—particularly if she or he has any intention of writing under the book’s influence. Thus arose the abovementioned unsettling sensation—if I pretended to have understood the book, did my best to disguise my bewilderment, what would have distinguished me from the absurd writers the book so clearly mocks?
But I was wrong when I thought the book had already prefigured my review. The portentous passage was, in fact, still to come, and it would be hard to miss, (though, admittedly, hard to understand) printed in all-caps near the end of the book:
Let me admit forthwith, I did not understand this book, and almost certainly did not abandon myself to the herculean task of “truly appreciating it.” As Darren Koolman, the impetuous translator, points out in his generous preface, even a partial list of annotations would bloat the volume of the book to three times its current length. I do not mean to deter a more careful reader, should she find herself with the patience and smartphone I lacked. Every name and obscurity is a cryptic weave of allusions and puns, which expand indefinitely inasmuch they are parsed and penetrated. And it’s painful to admit I didn’t untangle very many.
But neither do I wish to discourage a reader like myself. Even the involuntary pariah will have the pleasures of encountering fragments of a story involvign a sex cult based on a D.H. Lawrence novella, or a minute-by-minute diaristic account of an increasingly inebriated and hallucinatory boat ride through the canals of Xochimilco. Even a reader as indolent as I, might be arrested by bouts of significance like: “Memory is the least attractive of the muses. And although she always changes her appearances, I only ever remember the least appealing,” or, “…love, the only condition for which reciprocation isn’t a law…?” or, “My splendid art, my sad profession.”
And at the torn and tattered heart of this work is a vengeful critique of this literary profession, a critique founded on a firm love for this art. For the fictional affiliates of Agraphia, the community figures more like an arena than an alliance. The contributor to Agraphia doesn’t read her peer’s work in order to appreciate it, or to learn from it, but like, Elena Siesta, to acquire “hints, indications, suggestions, and ritornelli for the enrichment of her conversation.” This is a kind of savage war, differing only insofar as the tools and techniques of disempowerment and death have been refined—here defeat takes the form of admitting not that you have lost, but that you are lost, that you have not understood.
The oft-dreaded all-caps passage, quoted above, not only confirmed my anxieties—I had been tremendously lazy in my reading—it also assuaged them, challenging the assumption that I had done something deplorable. Perhaps there is something magnanimous about not possessing a replete understanding of a work of art, as magnanimous as not possessing an understanding of a friend or lover. I cannot use Chitarroni to boost my sense of self-worth. My pride is wounded. But I’m okay with that. Read The No Variations. Be defeated by it. Become, like this reviewer, another involuntary pariah—and it would be damn difficult not to be—another casualty of Chitarroni’s devastating art.
Jesse Kohn is a writer of short and long stories. He is based in Brooklyn and Berlin, but hails from Santa Fe. He can best be reached by email: JKohn02@gmail.com.