Reading Ivan Ângelo’s The Celebration

Context N°19

by Theodore McDermott

You can see something of Borges in The Celebration: in the way that the central event of the book—the event that gives it its title—is absent from its pages. You can see something of Cortázar in the way the chronology coils around and crosses over itself. You can see something of Nabokov in the fictional annotations that retell the story from an entirely new vantage, implying an endless number of other versions as yet untold. You can see something of Barth in the stylistic variations. You can see something of Machado de Assis, Osman Lins, and Ignacio Loyola Brandao in the peculiarly Brazilian integration of remarkable formal innovation and social and political engagement.

You can see all of this, but what’s most apparent, and most important, is that Ângelo has written a book unlike any other.

***

When he sat down to do it, Ângelo took the entire world and dissembled it so that he could cram everything in the space of 203 pages. The entire world in one book, except he has forgotten to include one thing: the celebration.

Reading Ivan Ângelo’s The Celebration is to reassemble. This is not passive fiction that tries to tell, start to finish, the chronology of a life, of an event, of a particular epiphany. Instead, in chapters that skip through a bewildering array of styles, techniques, times, and places, Ângelo, who has written a number of other books both for children and adults, including the story collection Tower of Glass, creates a kind of fiction that is as precise as it is broad.

He writes with a ferocious energy and purpose about both the inscrutable forces of history and the maddening insignificance of all our individual lives.

Ângelo began The Celebration in 1964, twelve years before it was published and the same year a revolution put a military government in control of Brazil. Near the end of the novel, he writes:

(Author’s note:
What am I supposed to write about in this shithole of a country? Anything I write seems like a joke, as if I were totally avoiding the subject. What subject? Shit, that’s all. And anyway, whoever said it was my responsibility? Why not write detective stories, or one-act plays for children?)

The answer to all of these questions is the book itself. He doesn’t choose a subject: he includes everything. He doesn’t avoid politics, but neither does he announce any specific political commitment.

Flannery O’Connor wrote, “I suppose half of writing is overcoming the revulsion you feel when you sit down to it.”

Ângelo’s revulsion is palpable; he overcomes nothing, but writes anyway. And the world that Ângelo creates is as vivid, as grim, and as crowded as a Hieronymus Bosch hellscape.

***

The novel begins with “A Short Documentary (the city and the interior, 1970).” The city is Belo Horizonte. The interior is the Brazilian Northeast. The documentary is comprised of excerpts from newspapers, leaflets, police testimony, a letter to the editor, books, a birth certificate, “a popular Northeastern ballad of 1952,” speeches, and a report from the “Sugar Refineries Association.”

Some of these are actual historical documents, while others are invented; it’s impossible to distinguish between the two. Together, they describe the riot that exploded on the night of March 30, 1970 and continued into the next morning. There is a “flashback” to documents from earlier moments in Brazilian history, showing us the events that made the riot unavoidable.

Severe drought, government corruption, prolonged disenfranchisement, and poverty have combined with a host of unstated, alluded to, and unparaphrasable events and prejudices to bring Macrionílio de Mattos, a fifty-year-old former outlaw from the Northeast, and Samuel Aparecido Fereszin, a reporter in Belo Horizonte, to the fore of a “highly organized group” of peasants marching toward riot police.

That’s the first chapter. In fourteen pages, we’ve covered 120 years. We’ve been dropped into the midst not only of Brazilian history, but also into a miniature war.

Then we turn the page and read the title of the next chapter: “Thirtieth Anniversary . . . Pearls.” The next page is only occupied by a single word, “Husband,” down in the lower right corner. We turn again and read:

—I have so much to do tomorrow.
It was some time ago that she began this business of making plans for tomorrow. But tomorrow she’s going to die.

We go, in a matter of three sentences, from an unremarkable bit of dialogue to an insinuation of murder. We find ourselves trying to figure out who’s speaking, who “she” is and why “she” will die. But this is answered quickly: a wealthy husband is trying to kill his beautiful wife, and she is his willing victim: “So Juliana nodded yes, finished the rest of her slice, and braced herself for the onslaught of its poison.”

In the transition from the first to the second chapter, the book moves from the public to the private without blinking. It moves from the historical to the domestic without comment.

The book is filled with these kinds of shifts, sudden turns, and unresolved mysteries. It moves from the ’30s to the ’50s, back to the ’40s, on to the ’70s, and even into the future. We move through a cast of characters as large and disparate, and yet surprisingly interconnected, as those in Robert Altman’s Nashville.

Chapter-by-chapter, we unpack the contents of this book: a brief biography of a beautiful girl who seeks a career in journalism and ends up left only with “days of drunkenness and solitude”; the story of a woman who is driven to abandon her family by the exclusionary intimacy that her husband enjoys with her son; a chapter about a once-promising writer who gave up his career to become a successful lawyer and a “strong contender for a top slot among the ten best-dressed bachelors of the city of Belo Horizonte in 1970”; a brusque story that tells, in alternating sentences, of two characters who meet and confront each other in the last line; a story—told from the points of view of his mother and a police commissioner—of the consequences of a college student’s political activism. And this only brings us half-way through.

***

Should you get a copy of The Celebration, you will notice that the pages that comprise the last third of the book have black edges, so that, when seen from the side, it’s explicitly divided, like a phone book.

These black-edged pages demarcate the final chapter of the novel, which is entitled:

“AFTER THE CELEBRATION: A cross-index of the characters, in order of appearance or reference, with additional* information regarding the fate of those who were alive during the events of the night of March 30.”*necessary?
surprising?
useful?
corroborative?
unnecessary?
useless?”

Between the bookends of a “Short Documentary” and an “index,” then, we have been given seemingly disconnected stories of a range of characters who (before the index) may or may not be going to—or else (in the index itself) have already gone—to the celebration of the title.

This is where, if it hasn’t already, summary begins to break down. Any statement about plot, character, action, setting, theme, or anything else would require a paragraph of qualifiers, caveats, and extrapolations. For example, I could reiterate, We never actually see the celebration itself.

But I would have to explain that the index contains annotations that, like those in Pale Fire, are never indicated in the main body of the text, and that refer to events that may or may not ever have happened—even in fictional terms. Unlike Kinbote’s interpretations, however, this indeterminacy is not an outcome of the alleged narrator’s probable insanity, but because the events described in the index happen in the future.

Sometimes “future” means “after the celebration.” Other times it means “after the date of the book’s publication.” The Celebration was first published in 1976, but we are still informed that Commisioner Humberto Levita “died of laughter, literally, in 1982.” Now, this index also includes an annotation to the word “Author”: an Author who is similar to, but isn’t, Ângelo. Here, in the index, the Author is having a conversation with a friend about the book you’ve been reading. Parenthetical asides written by a third-person narrator describe the action in what otherwise would be a passage comprised exclusively of dialogue. Referring to the matter of the celebration not being included in a book that’s named for it, the Author says, “I have some sketches, I’ll show you (opening the drawer, taking out a folder, selecting three pages, sitting back down again). Take a look (handing the pages to his friend).” Only then is part of the missing scene included. In the end, the celebration is neither present nor absent. Despite the novel’s infinite fracturing, everything is carefully connected.

The term “experimental writing” implies that formal innovation is an “experiment.” An experiment implies a question, implies that the book is an argument whose success or failure proves or disproves something. As a result, one often feels that they’re reading a lab report. I think it would be better to disassociate “experimental” and “innovative” in order to make room for books like The Celebration.

Ângelo’s novel is not an experiment, but a fully realized, nearly perfect work of art. The use of so many styles, the colored pages, the fragmentation, the “cross-index of the characters,” the primary documents, the false ones—all of these are simply the elements that best describe, well, reality. And because reality is subjective, mutable, indeterminate, and indescribable, formal innovation is the one great way to get at it.

In the suffering of the drought-starved and government-exploited poor, in the petty conflicts of upper-class intellectuals, in the wide-angled scope of Brazilian history, in the microcosm of a celebration, in everything the novel includes, and in everything it pointedly leaves out, the entire, tired world is captured.

And since the world hums along, thus far, without end, so does The Celebration. You can start reading it, but you can never finish. I open this book and close it. I swear it off, telling myself I’m through, that I get it. I started reading The Celebration about eight months ago, and though I have read it start to finish several times, I’m not finished with it. I carry it around my apartment. I prop it open with the weight of the salt and pepper shakers when I’m eating dinner or hold it open with the soles of my shoes on the front steps when it is warm enough, or bend it back when I am laying in bed.

Oftentimes, I’m not even reading the words, only looking at the type on the page and wondering, How the fuck does he do it? But then, I come back to it again.

(Author’s note:
What a waste to let this moment go by without trying to capture the sense of it, if only in outline, to be able to show someone: this is how it was, back then.)

This is how it was, this is how it is, and this his how it will be.

It’s hard to know what to say about The Celebration, a book that is so clearly a masterpiece, a book that you read with wide, uncritical eyes, a book that strikes you initially as perfect, and only improves after that. An essay in praise of The Celebration is like the hook that hangs a painting: it might help to get it noticed, but won’t add anything to the beauty of the work itself. If you will only notice it, the book will do the rest.

___________________________

Selected Works by Ivan Ângelo in Translation:

The Celebration. Trans. Thomas Colchie. Dalkey Archive Press, 2003. $13.50.
The Tower of Glass. Trans. Ellen Watson. Dalkey Archive Press, 2004. $12.95.

Selected Untranslated Works:

Duas Faces [Two Faces], 1961. Out of Print.
O ladrão de sonhos [The Thief of Dreams], 1995. Out of Print.
A face horrível [The Horrible Face], 1996. Out of Print.
Amor? [Love?]. Companhia das letras, 1996.
Pode me beijar se quiser [You May Kiss Me if You Please], 1997. Out of Print.
O Vestido Luminoso da princesa [The Luminous Dress of the Princess]. Editora Moderna, 1997.
História em ão e inha [History in Big and Small], 1998. Out of Print.

← Return to index

Comments are closed.