Reading Osman Lins’s Avalovara

Context N°11

by Gregory Rabassa

A great deal of the fiction written in the second half of the twentieth century falls into or is near to a type of writing I call “the inventive novel.” These are narratives where the author produces the raw materials and hands them over for the reader to give them shape or structure and sometimes meaning. It is a case of something much like the old Erector Set I used to enjoy so much, where the choice was yours whether to make a Roman chariot or a wheelbarrow. It is a less subtle way of telling us how to read a book properly than the feeling we get whenever we read something a second time and find that it is not quite what we had read before. Julio Cortázar gives us the essence of this method (if it is such) in Chapter 62 of Hopscotch, where the old writer Morelli lays out his scheme for how a novel should be written:

Everything would be a kind of disquiet, a continuous uprooting, a territory where psychological causality would yield disconcertedly, and those puppets would destroy each other or love each other or recognize each other without suspecting too much that life is trying to change its key in and through and by them, that a barely conceivable attempt is born in man as one other day there were being born the reason-key, the feeling-key, the pragmatism-key. That with each successive defeat there is an approach towards the final mutation, and that man only is in that he searches to be, plans to be, thumbing through words and modes of behavior and joy sprinkled with blood and other rhetorical pieces like this one.

This went on to be the basis for the title and shape of Cortázar’s subsequent novel, 62: A Model Kit. It might well have been the starting point of Avalovara, by Osman Lins.

Lins’s novel has what could be construed as an architectural structure, albeit more in the mode of De Chirico than Vitruvius. At the start he presents the nigh-perfect palindrome in Latin: SATOR AREPO TENET OPERA ROTAS, which can be read with equal ease back and forth or up and down. He then shows us how the phrase just might be an allegory for the order of the universe. This palindrome is then centered on a spiral that emerges from the letter N and subsequently crosses over the various letters of the statement as it expands. As a spiral, unlike a circle, can be infinite in both directions, it could be that it comes out of the letter we use to denote infinity, the nth power.

Avalovara is a somewhat truncated version of Avalokitesvara, the avatar of the beneficial Buddha. In the novel it is described as a mysterious Great Speckled Bird of Folk Music.

The Avalovara climbs even higher amidst the lightning flashes, and suddenly I perceive that a bird just like it—or the same one?—almost legible and also made up of small birds, is flying in our united bodies, light, among the branches, the butterflies, the crocodile, the rabbit, and the animals with noisy throats. It flies in us and sings. Strange: it sings in duet, with a human voice, and one impregnated with compassion.

This coming together and blending of bodies is part of the mystery. Lins introduces the idea of the Yolyp, a person who has two physical beings in one. The older one has the aspect of reality but the younger one is maturing inside and can be sensed by the bearer or even glimpsed in mystical moments. The Yolyp could be described as an inner doppelgänger and it might even be a start for describing the Trinity better than Saint Patrick’s shamrock.

All three women in the novel have some sort of multiplicity about them. Roos in Europe, whom Abel pursues from city to city and finds that she is inhabited by cities herself, eerily reminds us of the characters in Cortázar’s same 62 who, when they are together and only then, are mysteriously called “the city.” Cecília in Recife is more than just bisexual. She is thought to be both male and female in one. We find as we read through the novel a trove of ambivalent and ambiguous yet nonetheless real creatures. There is much of Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle in this novel. Every time we locate someone on the spiral that person turns out to be a variant of the one we thought we had defined or described. Roos can be one city after another or she can carry them all together and even be one that had not been thought of. In Recife, along with the ambiguous Cecília, we have the two old women Hermelinda and Hermenilda, who are so alike both in name and in presence that they often change places in a strange sort of way. Finally, in São Paulo, the last city, we come upon the woman who has no name but is represented by a kind of runic symbol, a, which is open to all manner of interpretation. It is from her that we learn about Yolyps. These creatures appear to have been born inside people as part of them, or a version, or perhaps a second thought of some kind. I think of those miniature peppers we often find inside a mature one when we cut it open.

This use of a symbol for the woman who is ultimately the most important one in the book as she leads Abel to his apocalypse is Lins’s way of showing that she is both real and unimaginable. Much like the secret and true name of God in Jewish folklore cannot be named, her name is unpronounceable. Perhaps there is a sound that goes with the symbol, as with Chinese ideograms; maybe there are multiple sounds also with Chinese ideograms as they are rendered orally in diverse dialects. It could also be that the reader must supply a sound as he attunes the character to his own interpretation. We have heard over and over that things do not exist until they bear a name, therefore it is the reader who must truly create this arcane character. This, of course, will also lead to some kind of variation in the many Yolyps brought into existence by this necessary nomenclature. I say necessary because when I first read the novel I discovered that we do indeed move our lips when we read. When I came upon this character I gagged mentally and couldn’t go on; there had to be a sound behind it. I finally settled on the rather banal solution of simply saying “O” (the film The Story of O was around at the time). This would suggest that every reader will have to come up with his own version, thus making the character so depicted all the more multiple and furtive. At one point she speaks of her real name:

not the one in the registry or on the baptismal certificate—mere appearances—but mine, the true one, the one I don’t know myself and that would grant her the right to penetrate me truly, to open me up, a name that would be like the secret of a coffer.

Lins does not go as far as Cortázar, who furnishes an alternate version of Hopscotch using the same material but in a different order and reaching a different, opposite conclusion. As the novel is set up, however, a reader can organize the contents in what to him might seem to make for a more standard narration, or he might opt to render the story even more difficult to grasp and yet, by this same token, make it seem more authentic. This bears out the image of the spiral. Lins says:

We are the ones who impose a limit on the spiral at both extremities. Ideally it begins at Always and Never is its end. By which we come to a conclusion even less trivial than the preceding ones; to wit, even though we see it drawn on paper in opposite directions, its extremities (if they really exist) will meet at some mysterious point that is inaccessible to our stony comprehension, just like a circle, a much less equivocal and disturbing representation.

It could be that we sense reality to be the circle, the finite, and keep looking for it as we go along in the unperceived or only hinted at true reality of the spiral, which begins and ends at nowhere, whose coincidence of beginning and end gives us the impression that it is a circle. Osman Lins has his people aware of their hidden dimensions, their otherness, but they are completely unaware of how these will affect them in another moment, another place. They are really being led along by the reader, their inventor, who is never sure whether he will come up with a wheelbarrow or a chariot, the choice of which he wrongly thinks belongs to the author. The dilemma of a in a moment of drowsiness could well be that of the reader as he begins to understand this novel:

I am, at that moment, from that moment on, the terrible gorge of things, the point or being where converge, with their multiple facets, what man knows, what he suspects, what he imagines, and what he does not even think exists.

At the end, the murdered lovers lose shape and blend into the rug that is a woven depiction of Paradise, thus losing body as they become two-dimensional and go back to the Creation. We must remember, however, that this is a spiral, not a circle, so that T. S. Eliot’s “In my end is my beginning” and vice versa does not obtain. This ecstatic last chapter where love and death are necessary ingredients of this epiphany, so Joycean in style, leaves the reader in abeyance as he must put it together and reinvent the novel to suit his own purposes of understanding. This is where creative reading, invention, takes hold, a far cry from certain sterile stylistic studies that remind one of ornithologists who study ornithology and not birds. The Avalovara bird deserves headier stuff.

Symbolic of the novel and its view of life is an actual part of its text: the story of Julius Heckethorn’s clock. This is a complex mechanism put together not really to tell ordinary time but the creative time of music, invented ultimately to play the introduction to the Sonata in F minor (K462) by Scarlatti. The vicissitudes of the clock parallel those of the human characters in the novel and it is doubtful that the full phrase will ever get played as the novel ends. If it ever does, one is constrained to think that it will bring on an intuitive moment as does Vinteuil’s phrase in Proust’s novel. As we read this novel we keep Proust in mind and wonder if perhaps, unlike Bergotte, Osman Lins has succeeded in writing something like that piece of yellow wall.
Selected Works by Osman Lins in Translation

Avalovara. Dalkey Archive Press, $15.95.
Nine, Novena. Sun & Moon Classics, $12.95.
The Queen of the Prisons of Greece. Dalkey Archive Press, $12.95.

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