A book whose table of contents is a poem-Esteban Buch on Air Carnation by Guadalupe Muro

June 25, 2014

A book whose table of contents is a poem.

A book that is a love letter to whom it may concern.

A book whose epigraph quotes from a Wikipedia article on vegetal epiphyte.

A book in two halves revolving around an intermezzo called Songs for Runaway Girls.

Yes, and a book with two girls: one seemingly real, Guadalupe, the other clearly fictional, Rita. And a single way of running away from nowhere, while remaining anchored in shared memories of a very peculiar place. This place is Bariloche, the small city in the Patagonian Andes of Argentina where the author was born, and where most of the novel is set. A beautiful place made of trees and lakes and mountains, and a paradoxical town, known both as a Nazis’ refuge and a hippies’ paradise. The whole region was once the theater of what the army called the Conquista del Desierto, the conquest of the desert, in fact, a genocide against the Indians, and is now a wonderful destination for tourists, in search of natural happiness and artificial trips.

Yes, a book whose stuff is made of History, for the fictional Rita retraces actual genealogies of real women, namely a mother, Gabriela, and a grandmother, Nelli, and a great-grand mother, Tekla, this last arrived to Argentina to flee the Nazis, and all of them capable of facing life in creative ways; a book whose stuff is made of stories, many short stories in fact, like the one in which the real Guadalupe, born in this Spanish-speaking country, becomes an English-language writer by sending a letter to an American lover who doesn’t speak her mother tongue.

Symmetries run all over the text, yet this is no classical text. Let’s call it a post-hippie narrative, all made of fragments of different shapes and colors, some of them funny, some moving, some meditative, and let’s keep in mind that, if symmetry may seem foreign to a counter-cultural mind, freedom is not just getting rid of structures. Structuralism itself is gone. So what’s the point? Maybe flowers. They are the core of Guadalupe Muro’s poetic intentions, as described in these lines about the proper way of preparing bouquets, one of the many things she once did for a life: “The objective of the arrangement is to efface the structure by obeying the structure. A bouquet has depth and height. What really matters are the empty spaces, the spaces occupied by the air. The air is the frame. The flowers must have space to breathe.”

This Zen attitude runs throughout the text, and resounds already in the title. Air Carnation: the novel grows on a fertile land, where biology meets literature. The same improbable land where years ago Deleuze and Guattari cultivated their rhizome, that weird and elegant concept that opened decades of intellectual joyful nomadism. In fact, this is no land at all, for rhizomes, like air carnations, know no roots, nor earth. They are not like trees, for “we are tired of trees”, they write in A Thousand Plateaus. Water and food and light come to them, and also to Guadalupe Muro, from other, non-earthbound ways of surviving, like writing, loving, and traveling.

The novel is about all of them, in a beautiful dance of bodies and languages and places. The language of the body, a softly erotic language made of images, sounds, flavors, and perfumes, all bound to rooms and houses and countries and continents. In this novel, lovers do different things, like writing and painting and climbing mountains, and speak different tongues. As for language as language, nothing is lost in translation, yet all that is solid melts into air, as Marx once said. Clavel del aire: to an Argentinean ear, the Spanish version of the title reminds the tango by Carlos Gardel, Como el clavel del aire / así era ella, igual que la flor. In that song, the flower girl runs away from a big and lonely tree stuck in the pampas. For somebody used to thinking in Spanish, it is an image more lethal and less bloody than the English, for the trenchant of clavar, the verb for what knives do to bodies dead or alive, is compensated in carnation by the sound of carne, the noun for the stuff bodies are made of, alive (the flesh) or dead (the meat).

Air Carnation came out as a title after a first try, To Live in Communist Russia, an allegory of Argentina as a kind of prison. Yet, compared to the novel’s nomadic aesthetics, the Brezhnevian joke was stuck in time and place. Guadalupe Muro’s Russia has nothing to do with Moscow, and everything with the Beatles’ Back in the USSR. The songs of The Beatles, deciphered in covers of LPs and sung over old turntables, are where her English comes from in the first place.

Epiphyte flowers, rather than political allegories, open thus in a truly poetic way the narrative twist of a wonderful poet, the author of ¿Con quién dormías? (2007). And in any epiphyte or parasite story, the host is the key. Guadalupe/Rita chose neither to stay nor to go away from her post-hippie non-roots. As a matter of fact the author lives in Bariloche, ready to travel again around the world, and the lyrics for Songs for Runaway Girls –a title borrowed from Louise Bourgeois- are a project shared with Julián Muro, her brother musician. The self-referential game includes showing how it is made, as with the Guadalupe/Rita double character, where Guadalupe writes a novel whose main character is named Rita, after a Beatles song. And it is from this Patagonian so-called desert, full of people and trees, that Guadalupe Muro sends “to whom it may concern” her wonderful autofiction, as the French call autobiographies freely turned into novels.

A strong generational voice is audible here, namely the voice of a children of the children of the sixties, coming from the end of the world, where History got lost. The author’s father, the visual artist Tam Muro, was once a designer for the Museum of Patagonia, which displays the history of the region, and the memory of the child visiting his studio is maybe one of the most moving moments of the book. At the same time, for the concerned reader to whom the novel is addressed, real places and people merge with literature and its fictional beings. And in the non-place built in words by Guadalupe Muro, where air carnations live, incarnated love is always in the air

-Esteban Buch


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