Thursday, March 21, 2013

Diary of a Humiliated Man by Félix de Azúa

Diary of a Humiliated Man by Félix de Azúa
Translated from the Spanish by Julie Jones
Cambridge: Brookline Books, 1996 (Spanish publication - 1987)
ISBN: 157129029X / 978-1571290298

At present I’m living here like a stranger, in spite of the fact that I’ve been an inhabitant of this city ever since I’ve had use of reason and even though I know its squares, neighborhoods and streets as well as I know my own body—without surprise, of course, but also without tedium. Rather than “like a stranger,” perhaps I should say I live here like a dead man. But, in any event, a banal dead man. A lot of people might tent to consider “failure” a more appropriate term—and I would accept and even claim it if necessary—but I think it’s more accurate to talk about “banality,” since, quite sincerely, there’s been no battle and so there can hardly be a defeat. I haven’t pursued anything, and I haven’t achieved anything. I’ve been done in by banality, not failure. Far from having the energy and talent to invent an enemy, I can’t even imagine a fight. I haven’t had the chance to measure up against anything or anybody, so I don’t have my own measure. That doesn’t mean I’m excessive or immeasurable—good God! no!—it means I’m mediocre. I bear such a modest standard that it doesn’t measure anything special, only things that are general and insignificant, that don’t stand out, that are hard to perceive, to hear, to touch…in short, that are OBVIOUS. I’m the measure of anything. I adapt and accommodate myself to anything without discomfort. I find as much shelter in an elevator as the woods, in the ocean as in a crowd. As I see it, the celebrated, revolutionary proposition of the extreme left, the tremendous, apostolic preposition that says “all men are created equal,” isn’t charged with heroic and liberating values, but instead with the opaque, flat emptiness of a truism: not only are all men absolutely equal, absolutely the same and alike, I’m the most alike of them all. (2-3, ellipsis in original)
So embarks the unnamed diarist, a man who no longer believes he is the protagonist of his own life. There’s something compelling in this rendering of a marginalized man that helps it escape a simple description such as “imagine a mash-up of Dostoevsky’s Notes from the Underground and Sartre’s Nausea.” There’s a militancy in his quest for banality, for starters, a mission he believes he must fulfill. The death of his parents, “sudden and complete,” helped trigger the self-weariness he felt and the descent into banality. So what do you need to disappear into banality? “Here are the ingredients for a ‘personal disappearance’: the desire, the aforementioned money, and a big city.” (17) The money part was easy—the narrator cashed in everything his parents left him, relying on his uncle to handle the money end of things for him. He has the city—Barcelona. Diary provides a wonderful tour of the city, where “crime and chimeras reign.”

So even though I’ll have plenty of quotes in this post I wanted to include a few excerpts that highlight the style you’ll find throughout the book. A lengthy example:
January 22nd The greatest invention ever is the furnished apartment, a revolting place where we can mistreat the fixtures, the furniture and the fittings because we don’t give a damn; they’re not ours. And yet we pay a scandalous price for them. As far as mine goes, it’s a niche that forms part of the Ovidi Apartments (on Ovidi), a building intended for couples making quick stopovers, for long-term affairs and for free-lance prostitution, a place no one plans to stay. Because of some caprice on the part of the speculator, the building was thrown up on a narrow, pentagonal lot. As a result, there’s not a single right angle in my apartment. The walls reach the corners as if by chance, like those chekas where so many unhappy souls had time to examine their consciences. For me, the red hordes are still active, and their name is Ovidi. When I wake up with a hangover, it takes me a long time to shake off my nightmares, and for a good while I make a pointless effort to straighten out the walls.

I feel bound to this cheka for a reason: it’s stimulating. No matter how late I’ve fallen asleep, I can’t stay in bed in the morning because a tremendous racket of horns honking and people cursing inevitably wakes me up. My only window opens on a narrow street (Ovidi) that is jammed every morning, afternoon and night. Starting at seven-thirty, thousands of motorized employees confront thousands of motorized mothers who are trying to deposit their children at schools in San Gervasio and Bonanova, that cradle of Catalonian pedagogy where hundreds of thousands of education centers have accumulated, taking advantage of the low prices, fiscal advantages, pious inheritance and brash swindles, in short, of everything that underlies a good Catholic education. As a result of these advantages, between seven and eight o’clock every morning hundreds of thousands of Catholics honk at each other in order to assert their right to be tormented. And they do it right under my window. (36-37)
And a shorter excerpt:
Diego’s mother lives alone and carries on conversations with her dog, an ancient Pekinese. The animal suffers from a nervous condition that gives his muzzle a Parkinsonian tic as if he were speaking. The old woman “reads his lips” to figure out what he’s saying, and sometimes she gets mad because the dog votes for the Socialists. (167)
So what does the narrator hope to achieve from his banality? With the help of his diary he hopes to discover who he is, which raises several bigger topics addressed in the novel. There are several themes I could touch on but I’ll limit myself to three that continually arise throughout the diary pages: the influence of literature on people, what it means to be human vs. an animal, and life in Spain under and after Franco.

The influence of literature on people winds its way throughout all of the pages. The diarist used to be a poet, although never successful. As a youth (he’s 47 at the time of the diary) he hung out with friends who did nothing but discuss literature. He believes that poetry brings the dead to life through insignificant elements. Plus poetry makes the poet feel better: “This, then, is the poetic passion: to restore what has been destroyed and to mock the kind of people who always have to be on the winning side. Including God.” (47) He spends plenty of time commenting on how the world, poets and intellectual in particular, prepare us for banality. He realizes the limitations of literature are tied to the limitations of man, though:
In the opinion of every grown-up, right-thinking individual, no matter how much knowledge a consciousness acquires, its possessor continues to be stupid and wicked if that learning was sown on acidic or rough terrain. No stupid man ever stopped being stupid because of a book. A countless number of stupid men have read tons of books. In their youth, however, people have an almost African faith in books. They read with the exaltation of nuns. They even reach the point of penitence, suffering through sublime treatises they don’t remotely understand in a kind of ritual of ingestion. The young (including those who are old enough to qualify for retirement) believe that the written word is a potion that will transform the chemical conditions of the soul, producing an immediate benefit in what they usually call the “intelligence.” And, in fact, THAT’S THE WAY IT IS. This is the terrible danger they represent. Terrible.

Reading is like manure; it can only stimulate growth that is alive on its own, that is autonomous. Increasing the quantity of fertilizer can increase natural production up to a certain point if the quantity is DISCREET, but an excess burns the shoots and stifles the free circulation of minerals. Any increment above this critical point spells ruin. There are frequent cases of brains, like Unamuno’s, that have been laid waste because of their imprudent optimism about how much fertilizer they could take.

The young believe they can augment the capacity of their consciousness indefinitely by means of an ascetic program of cerebral gymnastics when, in fact, all they manage to do is abort the ridiculous seed they started out with. This explains the degree of silliness rampant among teachers (eternal youths subject to the most painful acne), obliged as they are to spend their lives swallowing manure. Knowing the exact limits of our consciousness is an essential condition for learning to read. But since this planet is governed by a system of adulation, things work just the other way around. Outcome: a world full of dwarves hauling around giant corpses on their backs in the conviction that they’ll grow taller that way.(65 – 66)
In looking at human behavior, the diarist provides plenty of asides (I would say in the style of George Eliot, but that would be banal). “The passage from formality to familiarity is like crossing the Rubicon.” “Instead of walking th[r]ough life with our minds fixed on the infinite, sometimes we amuse ourselves by killing a cockroach or buying stamps, and it leads to our ruin.” “Destruction exercises a far more voluptuous attraction than development.”

The diarist falls under the sway of a character nicknamed “the Chinaman” (because of his looks), a leading organized crime figure in Barcelona. While the diarist constantly disagrees with the Chinaman in their many philosophical arguments, the two end up closer together than they would care to admit, differing only in degree or viewpoint. Both men repeatedly stare into the void of human life. At one point the Chinaman provides a good summary of his worldview and the corruption that has become institutionalized:
”Now nothing is human but rather ‘human’ as if there were nothing left but the institution, like astrology which keeps its rituals and clientele even though the stars themselves have become dead stones. Not many people are willing to believe it, but it’s no less true for that reason. A few of us have decided to put the obvious into practice. Only a few people can admit IT: human thought has been exterminated. It’s a field that’s been burned by too much fertilizer. Whipped on by Asia, we’re galloping backwards toward the biological plane. Soon sacred tyrants and huge, trubal families will be back. The frontier has come on at an incredible speed; WHAT WE ALREADY KNEW ABOUT has happened so fast it shocks us. Forces that were restrained for millennia are sweating fire and blood. When the seams give way, an irruption of physical power will erase the human from the human. In times like these, times of paralysis, the best of us have killed our maternal inheritance. Its belly swollen with blood, the democratic beast sleeps off dinner placidly. Now everyone is Hitler: bishops plan murders, judges steal their clients’ property, doctors rape their patients, ministers practice blackmail, nuns sell newborns, generals run the drug trade, magistrates handle brothels, union leaders finance kidnappings, hospital directors sell fetuses, presidents of financial consortia exploit gambling dens, police chiefs steal the cadavers of torture victims, the authorities—the ones in charge, the Powers that Be—provide a bulwark for their employees. The thieves, the blackmailers, the murderers, the rapists, the kidnappers: they couldn’t devote themselves to their professions without the protective aura of AUTHORITY. The ones who practice crime without that kind of protection, the amateurs, the newcomers, swell the jails and the cemeteries; they divert the rage of the brutish masses, but real social life, the social life that matters, is CRIMINAL. It’s above the law, above the voting urns, above justice, patriotism, brotherly love, our children’s future, merit raises: all that circus invented for the scum. A magnate will never be imprisoned by another magnate; a banker has never been tried without the consent of another banker; it’s impossible to sentence a military man who hasn’t been denounced by other military men; no bishop ever falls unless there’s another bishop who covets his position. Only the police denounce each other, and even if they’re tried, they’re never condemned unless their condemnation is essential to protect the life of criminal society, which is to say, Society. There’s nothing human in social life, nothing social in humanity. Humans are beasts in excessive numbers who mess up their own kills because they’re overcrowded. And finally the destruction, the torture, the humiliation: all for nothing, for nothing at all, less than nothing, food for passing time, stimulants for murderers with long fingers who prefer killing to playing the piano, toys for dead children. Universal suicide would give us a rest, but it’s impossible.” (163-4)
It’s almost as if humans have become inferior to animals in this view. It’s difficult to argue with it given some of the examples we see in the story. The diarist’s uncle completely screws him over in his finances (even though the diarist allows it to a certain extent). Which leads to a point reiterated several times—the system has been designed to screw over any “derelict” that follows the rules. The diarist comes to the conclusion that “The animals of our body are our salvation,” more than on just a physical, involuntary level but applicable to a social setting, too. The vision he has while in jail notes the basis for man’s eternal disappointment with himself and others. This disappointment goes back quite a ways and he incorporates it into a new motto, noting man “will live an eternity of humiliation because you once lived in Eden, AND IT WAS NOT ENOUGH.” (208)

The diarist also touches on the state of current Spanish affairs, which is still sorting itself out after the death of Franco. (There’s a Catalan independence theme, which seems to be equal parts sympathy and mockery that I’m not going to discuss here.) The political notes of the diary seems to make it clear that the personal nature of banality is intended to carry over to the national state, too. There are several political notes that the diarist hits, most revolving around Franco. First, and most powerful, is the scorn for the people that benefited from his rule. This includes his parents. His mother continued to live and act “as she used to after Franco’s victory when she and her friends saw the country as THEIR tennis court.” (21) His father was a surgeon who “built a gynecological clinic in which it was possible to extract money from each and every part of the feminine anatomy.” The diarist's summary after describing his parents is reduced to a pithy “I’m the son of the jackal and the little Pekinese bitch.” (23)

The sentence of banality for his own life seems to carry over to a commentary on post-Franco Spain. Sympathy mingles with condemnation for many of the people willing to make their lives easier at the expense of others: “I have the greatest sympathy with these trustees of the Franco inheritance: they’ve left the rhetoric behind but haven’t renounced the lack of scruples. Scoundrels are easier to tolerate without lyrical additives. Whenever I see them together, I try to guess which one will be the next hangman.” (127) The diarist’s flashbacks to his family listening to official government commentary and their responses to anything contrary to the official party line under Franco are damning. At the same time, though, the diarist notes his feeling that Franco’s death has left a vacuum in him that he’s still trying to fill. There's a vacuum in the his personal life, too. The resolution of the novel, which attempts to change the nature of the book's message to “A modest book that’s full of hope,” rests on … well, not trying to give anything away… father figures. It’s a complex message that doesn’t rely on an easy resolution.

This post has ended up being much longer than I intended, but given the superficial nature of the few professional reviews I saw of this book I feel justified in taking the time to post on more than just the obvious storyline (even though I only touched on what is going on at other levels). Not to demean the reviews--I'm just noting that the book deserves more than the space allowed. There are many components working here and I've only touched on some of them. Very highly recommended.

Update: It turns out Félix de Azúa has a blog: El Boomeran(g).

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