Author: José Luis De Juan
- ISBN: 9788495587992
- Release Date: 01-01-2013
-Reviewed by: Piers Armstrong
José Luis De Juan is an accomplished Spanish author of novels and non-fiction travel. His Mallorcan roots presumably afford a sense of distance and of travel in relation to metropolitan society, and this sensibility or habit is deftly utilized in his 2013 novel, La llama danzante.
The novel is set in the present, technologically mediated world (children distracted by video-games, etc.), and recounts a series of wanderings in the American Southwest, centered in Los Angeles and extending to the deserts of Arizona and the Californian coast. This is a sort of “road” novel in the Kerouac tradition (a series of disparate scenes, occuring through the accidents of travel, which may be riffed on, or expanded upon, and are often extrapolated freely into personal meditations), though without any of the avant-garde stylistics, nor the bohemian ambitions of the beat generation. The chief characters are a couple, consisting of a Spanish man, a writer, and a German woman, a typical liberal of the 1970s West German mould, both divorced or separated, who meet in Germany (where he had previously resided) and have now been together for years; he is the step-father to her two children. He is researching the Spanish missions which dot the California coast along the old Camino Real, and are also found across the Southwest of the U.S.
This circumstance justifies the meandering and rather arbitrary set of locations, which are described in a curiously exoticist way. The vast desert-scapes, and the curios of Americana (as consumer cultural wasteland) both fascinate the European perspective. This external gaze inevitably gives way to internal reflection in the form of flashbacks to past moments in their shared life. The narration is in the third person, but its intelligence is very predominantly his, not hers, so that while she is described intimately she is another external entity to be decyphered by him. In other words, the narration delivers information which would normally be afforded through a first-person narrative from his point of view. The purpose of the third-person structure may be to retain the psychological distance appropriate to the themes of travel and memory, both of which are balancing acts of unification and fragmentation.
These dominant veins of visual description of the present, and memories of various moments of family life, are complemented by a series of events involving various others encountered on the road, several of which are menacing. While these suggest a crime novel ambient, they are essentially vignettes of counter-plots, tangential to the central pattern of see-X-and-remember-Y which is the substantive palette of this novel, which presents a sort of education sentimentale for the post-modern fragmented man, built on impressions and ruminations which one hopes are still susceptible to psychological and thematic resolution (a resolution which the novel does in fact undertake).
For that reason, there is little point providing details regarding the sub-plots, which perhaps were triggered in the creative process by a flirtation with the tantilizing aesthetic contradictions of L.A. noir, or, more probably, serve as a yin-yang counterpoint to the bourgeois reality of the protagonists. This frame smacks of privilege and of the conventional. The couple are each instantiations of a general standard European post-war liberal bourgeois order and sensibility. The Spanish text is dotted with German, French and English phrases, and references to canonical literary works, indicating the Euro-cosmopolitanism of the protagonists. The use of German makes sense, as he lives in Germany, as does the English given their current location; the French has no such circumstantial justification and would appear to simply hail back to the old notion of French as the elegant, cross-roads language of well-educated Europeans.
Despite this unintentionally pretentious conventionality, the bourgeois perspective is in fact the strength of this novel. The ruminations are informative and psychologically acute. Their central object is not so much his identity as the nature of a long-term, adult amorous relationship as lived out by a couple. In this respect, one might think of Woody Allen’s films or Henry James’ novels about love relationships, despite the radical differences of genre, tone and focus between Allen’s, James’ and de Juan’s work. The point is that each allows for an extended exposure and psychological investigation of love, albeit ? or rather, essentially ? compromised by circumstance, individual separation and ordinariness.
The difference in the case of de Juan is that his novel is also aspirational in regard to the theme of love. The third element of the structural triangle of the novel, complementing present-seeing and fragmented remembrance, is a vigorous desire to pursue and sustain a fundamental bond which will not be compromised, and to which the travel and the family entanglements, including the children, will merely constitute a background. In short, the possibility of “life-after-children,” and passion in marriage is the object of this work. This positive aspiration, in an age where most deep assessments of our existential conditions are negative, makes the novel prospectively attractive to readers.
The stylistic talent of de Juan enhances this. He is unusually competent in describing ruminations in extenso. These ruminations are of the sort common to modern, Western and well-educated, adult audiences: in this sense, de Juan is articulate in a language which is familiar to many of us, and yet surprisingly underserved in both the youth-dominated, sensationalist, technology-driven cultural marketplace, and the virtuosistic but fragmentary compulsions of “post-modern” novels. If we often find more psychological satisfaction in classic novels than in contemporary texts, this novel is a sort of contemporary tonic.