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Epiphanies Without End

MONSTRUARY A Novel By Julian Rios Translated from the Spanish by Edith Grossman; Alfred A. Knopf: 230 pp., $25

April 08, 2001|THOMAS MCGONIGLE | Thomas McGonigle is author of "The Corpse Dream of N. Petkov" and "Going to Patchogue."

Julian Rios is one of the most original writers living in Europe today. At 60, Rios has a body of work marked by a uniqueness of vision and design that begins with his very first book, "Solo a Dos Voces" (published in collaboration with Octavio Paz in 1973), a dialogue exploring language and place that is based on a poem by Paz. In "Larva," the reader is seduced linguistically by Don Juan on a midsummer solstice in London; "Poundemonium" follows two readers of Ezra Pound as they walk the sites of London associated with him, while in "Loves That Bind," a lonely man constructs an alphabet of fictional lovers-from Albertine to Zazie-to console himself.

Rios has been creating an island in the universe of literature that is uniquely his own: an island requiring only that the reader possess a sympathetic and informed curiosity. In return for this, the reader gains access to a territory where art and literature are still the supreme sensuous accomplishments of the human imagination.

'Monstruary" is an opportune place to begin reading Rios. "Monstruary" opens in Berlin as the story's narrator, Emil Alia, sits at the bedside of painter Victor Mons, who threw himself out of a hotel window after a frenzied evening of destroying his own work. His long years of painting have been an attempt to depict the horrors of the 20th century.

But something seems to have cracked in the man; the horror he tried to capture had gone to his mind. But Emil observes that Mons, lying in bed, seems to recover: "Now I don't know if I'm the mummy or the Invisible Man, said Mons with some difficulty through his bandages, and we laughed relieved to suppose that along with his good humor he had also recovered his reason sometimes he opened his eyes wide-two coals, edged in red-through the slits in the bandages. Three days after the accident he was still confused and agitated at times-by the feeling that the most broken part of him was his memory ...."

If his memory is broken, then Emil attempts to restore it through the story he tells in "Monstruary." The book's chapters follow Emil's attempt to describe all the people that Mons has known, including, among others, a corrupt patron who paid for Mons to draw his face upon the stomach of a mistress; while in another chapter he uses wordplay to tell the story of why Cezanne ends in "-anne" and why this unfortunate Anne must die (perhaps playing on a meaning of cesser) in a car wreck.

In perhaps the most rarefied and heartbreaking section of the novel, "Paris as Paradise," Emil describes Mons' paintings of Frank Reck, a Joyce scholar who is the author of an ambitious book on Joyce called "Epiphanies Without End" and who tries to call back to life his dead wife, Joyce, by walking the streets of Paris and mingling his memories with the life of James Joyce. Coming in contact with places associated with her, memories return to Reck, even though the act of recollection can do nothing else.

Rios comes from the literary tradition that produced "Finnegan's Wake" and the novels of Arno Schmidt, Vladimir Nabokov and Italo Calvino (and you might add Georges Perec and Raymond Roussel for good measure). Impatient with the limits of the conventional novel, Rios shuns elaborate scene-setting and long conversations between characters. Instead, he toys with his own knowledge of art (he has written about the painters Kitaj, Saura and others) and language to create Mons and the people that he has transformed into bestial erotic images for his series of paintings titled "Monstruary" ('monster" as well as his own name).

The novel suggests that the sources for the creation of modern art are far different from those for the art of centuries past. Once, one painted for the glory of God, for kings, with a sense of divine purpose. But Mons seems to be missing such an inspiration, such a reason. Viewing the grotesque images Mons creates, Emil wonders, as he writes the catalog for Mons' next exhibition, whether the modern artist's muse isn't demonic: "Since the devil cannot be the creator, a divine attribute, God permits him to possess artists." And so we enter the world of the possessed figure of Mons, about whom revolves the vivid dead of his life and, in particular, the form of a mysterious woman, all of which he has attempted to capture in his series of paintings.

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