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opinion

Brod insults Brod

‘Magma’ is a powerful send-up of the hogwash that dominates the "literary life" of our times

The crisis does not mean we have to be old-time realists when we turn our hand to literature. Or that we have to hand out medals to those who are good boys and give us faithful reflections of reality, in disregard of the fact that reality, in its chaotic evolution and monstrous complexity, is impossible to grasp or narrate.

If you would like to escape our dreary national panorama for a while, I propose a dip into the tragicomic satire given to us in Magma, the first novel by Lars Iyer, a professor of philosophy at Newcastle University in the northeast of England, recently translated into Spanish by José Luis Amores and published by Pálido Fuego. It is a powerful send-up of the hogwash that dominates the "literary life" of our times.

In Magma two intellectuals are touring a Europe where literature has become just another product on the market, a thing that is seen as interesting, distinguished, valuable, respected, but also quite insignificant. The characters, Lars and W., drink a lot and have a great mutual affection, which finds expression in a language of insults -- an art they practice with great skill, as if remembering what Nietzsche said, that in our best friend we ought to have our best enemy.

W. says: "Look what we have become." These men are two European intellectuals, adorably pathetic, who hark back to other famous comic duos (Quixote and Sancho, Vladimir and Estragón, Finn and Sawyer). Lars is the narrator, but his discourse basically consists of informing us of the insults delivered by his friend W., implacable to the pathetically cultured situation of two travelers, prostrate amid the disaster of any modern literary life.

Without a relation with modernism, there is no future. Without an admission that the relation with modernism is totally impossible, there is no future"

The voices often grow confused. "We are Brod and Brod, and neither of the two is Kafka. This is the End of the World, but who but us knows it?" Lars Iyer describes a literary world adrift, where one can cling only to the certainty that the circumstances that gave rise to the vanguard movements of the past no longer exist: those conditions, bound up with the ambitions of modernism, have vanished, and with them the whole dream of great literature. He insinuates the need to save yourself by connecting with the missing link of that modernism, but at the same time narrates the impossibility of achieving this connection.

All this, which might be immensely negative, is after all highly creative. "Without a relation with modernism, there is no future. Without an admission that the relation with modernism is totally impossible, there is no future," Lars Iyer said the other day. In his view the future exists only for those who possess a discourse that includes an awareness of the end of the road. Limbo awaits the others. Iyer builds a zany narration out of his theory that today's problem is not the impossibility of writing (so typical of the 1940s) but the impossibility of experiencing the impossibility of writing. What is missing is the ambience of the old order of the literary world, which is why the Brod-to-Brod insult sessions unfold in an exasperated but creative atmosphere of laughter in mourning for all that is lost.

It is a novel in which we attend the penultimate funeral for the disappearance of our intellectuals. "We are lost in Europe, two monkeys, two idiots, though one is infinitely more idiotic than the other." It is terrifying, but Lars and W. not only have no readers; they do not even have anyone to whom to give a simple report on the train they are traveling in.

I remember the two of them bringing each other to life in a train car, advancing through a nocturnal Europe in fumes of gin, while they desperately wonder aloud what is their place in the world. Well, none.