Two Latin American novels, published in English for the first time, stake out radically different artistic territory.
Despite their enduring reputations as classics of Latin American literature, posthumous translations of Juan Filloy’s Op Oloop and Guillermo Rosales’s The Halfway House are just now appearing in English for the first time. Not much is known about the authors, though both appear to have been deeply peculiar; Rosales was a schizophrenic and lifelong misfit who spent years in halfway houses akin to the one described in his novel. He practiced journalism in his native Cuba, but remained largely unknown for his more literary efforts. He went into exile in Miami around 1979, and took his own life in 1993, at age 47, after destroying the majority of his work.
Filloy, on the other hand, lived to be 106, finally expiring in his sleep in 2000. Unlike Rosales, Filloy lived a charmed, somewhat leisurely life. He spoke seven languages, and was a talented caricaturist, boxing referee, palindromist (he composed over six thousand), and judge in his hometown of Río Cuarto, Argentina, where he lived, some say, to escape the pernicious literary society of Buenos Aires. According to Op Oloop’s translator, Lisa Dillman, much of what Filloy wrote “he simply passed around to friends” instead of submitting it for publication. Nonetheless, Julio Cortázar cited Filloy as a formative influence, and he’s said to be experiencing a “cult following” in Latin America today.
Op Oloop was first published in 1934. The protagonist, Optimus (“Op”) Oloop, is a 39-year-old Finnish statistician whose legendary gift for self-discipline goes to pieces when he falls in love—for the first time—with a beautiful virgin named Franciszka. The story takes place in one day: the eve of his betrothal, which is also the night of his 1,000th “fuck” with a prostitute. And, though it begins cinematically, with Op gallivanting about town, it quickly fades into an extended lyrical discourse on love, with echoes of Montaigne (“Love, at times, follows the path of truth. But friendship, almost unfailingly, follows a more tortuous path”) and Freud (“The human condition imposes ineludible obligations which it is necessary to fulfill so as not to fall into psycho-moral trauma”). The plot is all but replaced by armchair psychoanalysis and a fragrant cloud of aphorisms: “Love, like blood, contains biological permanent characteristics;” “Love requires freedom, or else it asphyxiates;” “Love is a plane crash of the soul.”
One is left with the impression of a virtuosic, wildly passionate, and often hilarious writer writing primarily for his own aesthetic amusement. Filloy’s storyline exits at so many metaphorical cloverleafs—with lengthy explorations, for example, of the similarities between crime and pregnancy, or between the psyche and the Mediterranean Sea—that the novel runs out of gas before reaching its destination. The language is impressively ornate, with lovers’ souls merging “telestically in the grace of a Pythagorean rapture.” And the author provides a splendid portrait of the pre-modern metrosexual, personified by Op Oloop, whose symptoms include “inexcusable levels of urbanity” and “respecting himself altogether too much.” Yet Filloy’s verbal facility couldn’t hold this reader’s attention. Which is another way of saying Op Oloop lacks urgency of purpose—something which might be too much to ask from a 75-year-old work that may not have been written for publication.
Rosales’s The Halfway House was first published in 1987, fifty-three years after Op Oloop. In just over 100 pages, it tells the story of William Figueras, who arrives in Miami’s Little Havana half-crazed after “fleeing the culture, music, literature, television, sporting event, history and philosophy of the island of Cuba.” Unequipped for society, he soon enters a halfway house, a “marginal refuge where the desperate and hopeless go.” Here Figueras, who claims to have plowed through the works of Proust, Hesse, Joyce, Miller, and Mann as a boy, finds himself surrounded by human gargoyles, like Ida, “the grande dame come to ruin;” Napoleon, a psychotic midget; and Castano, whose verbal repertoire is limited to shouting, “I want to die!” Figueras carries with him a book of poems by the English Romantics, whose example he appears to have followed too closely, as he now inhabits their visions of hell.
The Halfway House lies on the other end of the stylistic spectrum from Op Oloop. Narrated in the present tense by Figueras, it has the raw, minimalist texture of a Raymond Carver story that Gordon Lish forgot to edit. The sentences are simple and almost entirely in service of the plot; the few similes that do pop up (a man snores “like a saw,” for example) are so clichéd they don’t behave as similes. Instead, they underscore the horrifying banality of life inside the halfway house, while suggesting that Figueras’s fate is of such consequence to the writer that he couldn’t be bothered to decorate the novel’s prose. The halfway house is the book’s one all-encompassing metaphor, symbol of the limbo thousands of Cuban exiles endured after being violently expelled from their homeland in the early 1980s. Often compared to Reinaldo Arenas’s Before Night Falls for its graphic depictions of brutality and suffering, The Halfway House reads as if it were written in blood.
Which isn’t to say that The Halfway House is superior to Op Oloop. It’s certainly not as “beautifully written.” But it’s heartwrenching, gripping, and enigmatic—all the more so for Rosales’s resemblance to another celebrated Latin American exile, Roberto Bolaño.
Rosales and Bolaño had much in common. Both wrote without pretension, or the “vanity of style” Borges detested. They valorized youthful, romantic, slacker revolutionaries disillusioned by the forces of tyranny. Augusto Pinochet, dictator of Bolaño’s native Chile, crushed the socialist crusade of Bolaño’s surrogate, Arturo Belano, whereas Castro crushed Figueras’s. Railing against a Ricky Martin-type pop singer called El Puma, Figueras says: “He’ll never feel the joy of taking part in a revolution or the subsequent anguish of being devoured by it.” Both authors’ fiction is heavily autobiographical, and each died relatively young, at the height of his powers. The crucial common denominator, however, is their indisputable sense of consequence, of urgency, which in Rosales’s work reaches SOS-type proportions.