Fictions, autofictions and other ways of counting

The act of writing novels in the 21st century always raises the uncomfortable question of whether we are doing something anachronistic. When what is written is not police, horror, historical or romantic, very precise genres, can one continue appealing to the suspension of disbelief as in the 19th century? Are books that do not hide their real origin more true? In “The First Law”, the novel by Damián Huergo (Buenos Aires, 1983), the question about the value of fiction resonates, something like, will it be more valuable when it is based on real events? Or will it seem easier to write for the same reasons? The question about the thing is always welcome, do not take it for granted, try to promote new relationships or, at least, try them out.

On page 44 the narrator writes:

“In those years, a large part of my generation was writing in the first person, with their navel as a lighthouse. Several critics began to speak of autofiction and writing of the self as a mark and decadence of the age. Even writers that he admired spoke badly about autobiographical writing, although in his past the genre was part of his work and in the present they modulated their selves from different social networks. I wanted to escape from the so-called writing of the self, if such a thing existed, just like from fashionable clothing that ridicules you in front of the mirror. At that time, I still believed that one could decide what one was going to write about. And, like someone who thinks they can make a ghost disappear just by closing their eyes, I tried stories of zombies, vampires, or characters with realistic outlines, alien to the world that stepped on and transformed and constituted me”

Only when you have written about something that haunted you and obsessed you, something you wanted to investigate, is when you set foot in the world.

“Stories of zombies, vampires or characters with realistic outlines, alien to the world he was treading on…” Damián Huergo hits a key when he says “the world he was treading on” because only when it has been written about something that haunted one and obsessed, something that I wanted to investigate, is when one steps on the world. He steps on it with the deed, not before. He slips before but does not apprehend: once it is written he realizes that this is what happened. The operation is the opposite of what is believed: it is not that the real facts are in his memory and the writer selects and reproduces them, but rather that the writer recounts them with his artifice and that story ends up constituting what happened. .

That is to say, Huergo tried all kinds of resources to avoid the possibility of writing about something very close, the relationship with his brother, his older brother, but this story reappeared. He actually had it embedded in her forehead, he couldn’t escape her no matter how much he pushed her away from her.

And there came a time when he stopped shying away and faced it and, as if to get it out of the sphere of intimacy, he gave it an epic patina, and he thought it could be a novel about “a brotherhood”.

I think of literature: male brothers are not as popular a topic as female sisters.

The torn Crónica de mi familia, by Vasco Pratolini, is a text narrated entirely in the second person. With devastating emotion and storytelling power, one brother speaks to the other and tallies up the damage. Pratolini would say years later that he always wrote the same story from different angles. Claus and Lucas, the extraordinary novel by Agota Kristof, is written in a more extreme key: an abyss setting, a closed plot with three characters, Claus and Lucas, the twins, and the grandmother, who articulates the misfortune.

Family horror novels. Aren’t all family horror novels familiar?

Sometimes, when one wants to be a serious writer, the closest is what is discarded because it seems the easiest, which does not require imagination. Nevertheless, Ricardo Piglia said that just as the trip is a great engine of fiction (travels to tell, the trip as research), the family is also a fiction factory. Piglia was a fabulous reader and also an expert in narrative strategies and he maintained that saying about a fiction “This is real, this happened” has an incomparable effect of truth on the reader, a forceful weight. So, when Damián Huergo begins to write, how can one avoid something as attractive —a delicate matter— as a troublesome brother. The questions that are inevitably triggered by someone sensitive such as the younger brother, who has not starred but has observed from a certain cautious distance, has recorded many details, is a productive nucleus to germinate.

However, the problem is not the what, but the how, it is the only thing that matters. Scott Fitzgerald pointed out in one of his memorable letters to his daughter Scotty: “It’s not what you write but how you write it.”

How to tell this story of “The First Law”? It is a great challenge. Because beyond the suspense and reflection that Damián Huergo is creating and dominating with remarkable mastery, the tone and language are highly worked. The tone, content. Containment, never explicit emotion, always stops for a moment before saying everything a more verbose writer would have been tempted to say. I think the author has read a lot of good American literature and finds a fascination in mastering that dry, very condensed style. This novel is short but each paragraph could be doubled and there is an aesthetic decision, that of subtraction, that of choosing very well what to tell so that the plot is compact. The emotion is tremendous but it never overflows. He leads us by the nose from the first page to the last.

For example, the description of the house. The loft is a space that is going to be built later, when the narrator is born, because before Sebastián and Érica slept in the same room; and in the attic, the lawless, unregulated place, is where Sebastián uses cocaine for the first time. It is not in the living room or the dining room or the kitchen, it is in the attic, a place that is hardly part of the house. The house is sacred. Traits, codes of the very identifiable Argentine middle class. Although the family falls apart, there are traits, gestures, that remain, continue to form a structure that sustains the narrative, that allows “the world to step on.”

A disaster can happen, all the time we have that feeling that we are walking through a minefield, the narrator conveys this to us with perfect doses.

One of the problems is the naturalness that is attributed to the family. A way of working that we should all know and apply. However, here that is dynamited. The communication bridges are dynamited. How complex can relationships be? One does not have to look very far to find a writing object, the literary material. The closest thing can be the strangest and most enigmatic. That which incites us to an inquiry.

The brother is a ghost, the relationship between the brothers is a ghost. How to tell that brother? How to tell that relationship? There is no way to understand their behaviors. Because it is not about drug addiction, but something beyond or here: the meaning of addict is that it does not speak. There is no dialogue between the characters. What is that possible language of brothers? It is not something natural, says the narrator, it is something to build. If that is possible we will find out by reading Huergo’s novel. How do you know a brother, how do you know yourself in relation to that relationship? By his actions?

In the second part of “La ley primera”, the older brother, Sebastián, has become a subject, not only is he told by the narrator but also leads the narrative. And the questions about the older brother seem to return to the narrator, the younger. And the older one begins to see, to look at the younger one. He reverses the thing. They mirror each other.

Structurally it is magnificently written. That is the concern that it generates in a notable way, because the narrator has almost no truth, it is not that he has the deck of cards and watches them and knows how the hand comes. He doesn’t seem to know what’s going to happen either, we accompany him as things happen, it’s a very successful effect because of course he knows how it goes on, what happened, how it ends, however he keeps us on our toes.

Everything can surprise you. It is an admirable subtle effect.

His great capacity for observation is his safeguard.

On page 73 it is said that Sebastián was a great storyteller, a great storyteller, we learn that not only the narrator writes but that the older brother has a fondness for stories. And that while he moved through a strange and complicated world, the stories “were the only capital of him,” says the narrator. Oh surprise. It is a moment when the narrator goes looking for his brother who is working in some mines in Patagonia. He goes with Atilio, his dog. And he arrives at the Andacollo mines, 500 km from Cipoletti. A revealing moment of the book and a beautiful poetry and dryness at the same time. Finally the novel has captured something.

There are always tensions between the real material with which a novel is made and what is written, and these tensions are what makes a text a great novel of experience or a simple autofiction.

“The first law” has a quarry of stories or possible narratives. And other modes of counting to explore.

Fictions, autofictions and other ways of counting