Tristano by Nanni Balestrini
by Nanni Balestrini
Verso Books, Feb 2014
128 pages / $25 Buy from Verso Books or Amazon
Bear with me as I use a paragraph to go through what I think is a problem with global leftist thought.
When equality is the ultimate aim of a movement, whether it be economic, social, gender, or any other form, and said equality never historically existed in those areas, the notion of it has to have been constructed in the ideal realm, as opposed to the observable—some might say objective realm (but let’s not go into that)—and could only have come as a reaction against what is actually happening in the real world. So far there is no sign that equality will ever grace us with its presence in the social world in any form, at least not on a large scale, but that’s not to say that the idea doesn’t sell. When movements like the Occupy one fail not as a result of energetic potential, but because of a lack of concise probing into problems with feasible resolutions, this says that a disillusioned segment of the population has the impetus to change economic disparity, but not the means to effectively do so. In other words they’re stuck in ideals, sifting through Verso books, with no reason to believe that these ideals could possibly move into observational reality. But that last part typically gets left out because the most horrifying thought to a progressive movement is the idea that our only real options are stasis or continued decay, that the option of equality is a completely delusional invention used to string us along.
Whether intentional or not (and how, with this book, could I be sure?), reading Tristano, or at least my version of it, numbered 10,672, conjured these thoughts through the annoyed trudge that was the experience of reading this book. The novel is broken up into ten chapters with fifteen paragraphs. The fifteen paragraphs of each chapter are interchangeable and each edition of the book is presented in a different narrative order, making for different possibilities of reading experiences number at 109,027,350,432,000. And like ideas of equality, the expectations are promising and exciting, but the result is disappointing, and precisely for the same reasons. When an idea like equality is stuck in the ideal realm, each individual has a different experience with it, has different notions of how to execute it and different notions what it should be. If this weren’t the case, there wouldn’t be so many different strains of Marxism, or ongoing arguments over precise meanings of his texts, or what should be followed and what not, or even if they should be followed at all. Tristano, too, is individualized for your consumption, but I can guarantee that all versions lead the reader nowhere, that each subjective experience with this text would be similar to the one I had, as equal in their failed executions.
Aside from the numerous possibilities of ordered narratives, there are also uncertainties with the number of characters, what their genders actually are, where a comma should go to make sense of a sentence, where quotations should go and who would be speaking, ultimately placing the most amount of importance on the reader as the most essential character in, and creator of the book. Since the initial readthrough was wrought with indecision and uncertainty, it seems that ideally you’d need to read the novel once so that you would know what decisions you’d need to make for the next time. I’d be surprised if I found anyone who would want to do this, though. As he says near the beginning of my version: “It looks like a very complicated story but with a little patience you manage to unravel the problem. The question is not so much the story itself but rather what effects it might produce what developments it might have what dynamics it might set in motion.” Although this makes sense, and effects are produced, nothing could possibly be set in motion afterwards because all the elements in the story are simply too loose and too vague. I think the intention was to make an experience resembling a Rorschach test, where the reader would input his or her own projections to fill in the empty spaces and cover up the discrepancies. What happened though, at least in my experience, was that I wasn’t concerned with the story. I got lost thinking about what other structures of this book would be like, and the only reason my mind wandered this way resulted from a lack of intriguing themes or narrative or characters to string me along. Loosely the book is a love story, vaguely involving infidelity. With the interchangeable set up presented, nothing winds up getting invested in the reading, and the story reads like a mess of pointless interactions between people or ideas I didn’t care about, like brainstorm scribblings of a bad romance novel.
Even Umberto Eco in his introduction spent more time giving a history lesson on the different uses of combinations instead of discussing the merits of the book. While the mathematical feat is awe inspiring, and the idea one of the most original to come to literature in maybe its entire history, interacting with this text just isn’t interesting. The novel embodies the paralysis of the left, and this failure toward action concerned Balestrini when writing the book. As a member of both Italy’s Gruppo 63 avant-garde collective, along with the Autonomia movement, among other leftist cliques, Balestrini knew first hand the power of state forces against subversive elements, and felt distraught with the lack of effective leftist action. Even if the intention were to expose the inherent powerlessness in the left, is reading this short book—one so overwhelming it’s underwhelming—worth such a simple message that could be illustrated by more stimulating means?
The one thing that I will grant this book is that it is very aware of itself, and by the last chapter, I was somewhat glad that I didn’t give up on it all the times I wanted to. My second to last paragraph went like this:
Even by the end of the book I couldn’t be sure if C was male, female, or if there were multiple Cs, so the romantic aspect, the story at the forefront, just went ignored and the only things left worth concerning myself with were the metafictional aspects and the inactive leftist ideals aware of themselves as inactive that popped up throughout. Tristano, in the end, acts as a fractional artifact of a great idea that just didn’t transfer over into reality well, and it’s sole value lies there. When communism emerged in its initial worldly form as the Soviet Union, it resembled its antithesis—fascism—more than the ideals that spawned it. Perhaps the only message Tristano wanted to get out was this discrepancy between ideals and reality, and that no matter how many combinations we use, none will be the right ones given the tools we’re using. If so, Ballestrini succeeded, but much to my indifference.
February 3rd, 2014 / 10:00 am