A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
One of the nice things about book groups – so people often mention when they have nothing else to say about the book in question – is that they make you read something you might not otherwise have picked up.
That may not be completely accurate when it comes to Adolfo Bioy Casares’ Asleep in the Sun (1973, translated by Suzanne Jill Levin in 1978, and republished by NYRB Classics), as I had previously read his more famous book The Invention of Morel, but it’s just possible I’d have left it there if someone hadn’t recommended him. True, that person is (like Bioy Casares) Argentinian, and suggested a book which has yet to be translated from Spanish, so we decided to opt for something else from Bioy Casares’ oeuvre. And then the recommender didn’t come to the meeting. Which was perhaps just as well; Asleep in the Sun didn’t get a very warm response. I probably liked it the most, and I was chiefly baffled by it.
It wasn’t really the plot that baffled me, although (as the cover suggests) it doesn’t lie in the realms of the normal. There is a certain amount of people’s identities being manipulated, and dogs are involved, but I shan’t go as far as the blurb to my edition and (a) reveal a spoiler that doesn’t happen until p.161 of 172, or (b) reveal spoilers that don’t actually happen at all. I wrote a chapter of my doctoral thesis on animal metamorphosis and/or marriage to an animal, and so I don’t bat an eyelid at it (in fiction, I should add) – it wasn’t that which left me baffled. I’ll come onto my dazed confusion later.
Asleep in the Sun takes the form of a first person narrative in the voice of Lucio – he is addressing someone who lives on the same street as him, although their relationship is not immediately clear. Instead, he focuses upon meeting, marrying, and squabbling with his wife Diana. He is keen to highlight how fraught their marriage has become – relationships both with Diana and with her overbearing father – and it’s not long before he documents Diana’s removal to an asylum. At this point the only signs of mental illness that she seems to have displayed are a bit of argumentativeness and (supposedly significantly) not being able to decide which dog to get. In quite a realistic moment – the sort of thing which might be the crux of a short story – Lucio agrees to send her to the asylum simply to save face with a neighbour. It is one of the neater events of the novel, and one which shows human nature in a non-obfuscatory manner. Things don’t stay so clear… Everything starts to go a bit haywire when Lucio gets a dog, also called Diana.
One afternoon at siesta time I dreamed that nonsense again. You’re going to laugh: I dreamed that I was in my bed, in my room, and that Diana was sleeping next to me, down below on the scatter rug. Exactly what was happening in real life, except that in the dream I spoke to her. I asked her, I remember, what her soul was like and I said, “It’s certainly more generous than that of many women.” You understand, without openly naming them, I was referring to my sister-in-law and Ceferina. I asked the dog to speak to me, because if not, I said to her, I would never know the soul that was looking at me from those deep eyes. Screams awakened me. For reasons which I knew in my dream, but which very soon were erased from my mind, I awoke grieving, with a real need to be with the missus. I heard Adriana Maria’s voice, which reached me loud and clear. I figured it was coming from the kitchen and wondered if I had heard the old lady’s voice too. When I went there, hoping to have a mate, I had the unpleasant experience of finding the two women locked in an argument. I thought that I had been unfair, particularly insensitive, to my sister-in-law. If I looked at her suddenly, I could take her for the missus, except for her hair colour.
Now, I loathe dream sequences in novels, and I quote this only because it demonstrates two of the central themes of Asleep in the Sun – a style which loops round and round in circles, and the idea of identity (and, more particularly, identities blurring). The latter is quite interesting in the novel, and was a key element in The Invention of Morel – but I couldn’t work out whether the author had something clever to say, or if Bioy Casares just overloaded the narrative with identity issues (he confuses people; names are duplicated, etc.).
More difficult, though, and the reason that I ultimately wasn’t satisfied by Asleep in the Sun, was the style. We talked about this for a while at book group, and couldn’t decide whether the blame (if such it is) lay with Bioy Casares or with his translator. The whole thing just felt a bit impenetrable. Like reading prose through a glass darkly – it was definitely a difficult experience. Not because of the surreal events, or even because of an illogical narrator, but because sentences were clunky and never flowed; they don’t ‘let the reader in’. The hallmarks of a bad translation, yes (as that jarring ‘missus’ in the above quotation, repeated each time Lucio mentions Diana, suggests) – but perhaps instead the style, even the intention, of the author?
There is something of a turnaround towards the end of the book. The haziness and abstract thinking of the first three-quarters, which deals with Lucio’s mind first and foremost, is replaced by the actions of a science-fiction thriller – albeit one where nothing is quite made clear or certain. Again, it’s rather baffling, perhaps intentionally.
I’d love to hear from anyone else who’s read Asleep in the Sun, and more especially anybody who has read the original, Dormir al sol, so they can tell me whether or not these issues were introduced by the translator. But, for me and my book group… we’re all a bit nonplussed.
Adolfo Bioy Casares, Asleep in the Sun (New York Review of Books Classics, New York, 2004) 978-1590170953, 172pp paperback.
Simon blogs at Stuck-in-a-Book.