Book review: 'The Museum of Eterna's Novel (The First Good Novel)'

The Museum of Eterna's Novel (The First Good Novel) Macedonio Fernández Translated from the Spanish by Margaret Schwartz Open Letter: 238 pp., $14.95 paper

"I'm confident that I won't have a single orderly reader." So begins "For the Reader Who Skips Around," a chapter in "The Museum of Eterna's Novel (The First Good Novel)," in which Macedonio Fernández warns us that, because he is a "skipping-around author," any skipping around we might do while reading will result in an orderly experience of his disorderly book.

That this proclamation comes midway through the novel is part of the pleasure of "The Museum of Eterna's Novel," available now for the first time in English. Its peculiar Argentine author, known to his countrymen simply as "Macedonio," was a much-loved figure in Buenos Aires literary circles and was something of a mentor to Jorge Luis Borges. "The Museum of Eterna's Novel" is Fernández's masterwork, a book that took him several decades to finish and wasn't published until 1967, 15 years after his death.

"The Museum of Eterna's Novel" is an unconventional work divided into multiple fragments that occupy two "wings" of a metaphorical Museum. The first such wing consists of a hilarious series of prologues, more than 50 in all, with such titles as "Metaphysical Prologue," "Prologue of Authorial Despair" and "For Readers Who Will Perish if They Don't Know What the Novel Is About." The second is dedicated to the "novel" proper. Here, largely allegorical characters, several of whom are stand-ins for the author, assemble at a country house called "La Novela," which is presided over by The President. Under his direction, they anxiously go about the work outlined for them, while frequently interacting with the author himself, characters borrowed from Fernández's other works and even the reader.

In his foreword, Adam Thirlwell calls the book an "anti-novel," but this certainly isn't Fernández's intention. Rather, "The Museum of Eterna's Novel" is a meditation on the reading, writing and inhabiting of novels, both "good" and "bad." In the author's view, "bad" novels are realist or conventional: "[M]irror-artwork," he writes, "calls itself realist and intercepts our gaze, imposing a copy between reality and ourselves." This book, then, is Fernández's attempt to transform the novel into something new. Ergo, "The First Good Novel."

In its split personality, "The Museum of Eterna's Novel" is reminiscent of Flann O'Brien's "The Third Policeman," a novel in which an army of critics and commenters are set loose in the footnotes. But Fernández's metaphysical manifesto is less conventional than O'Brien's, and a good deal more meta-fictional, as can be expected in a work where the author appears on equal footing with his characters.

"[T]he second I leave off writing," Fernández observes, "they stop doing things; when I'm not working everything stops.… [T]hey were looking for me all over the Novel because I had left Don Luciano while he was putting one arm into his overcoat, and this posture had resulted in unbearable cramps."

One gets the sense that Fernández would be disappointed in the "progress" of the contemporary novel. Ours is a culture that values orderly stories, but "skip around" readers will enjoy meandering about Fernández's cabinet of wonders.

Ruland is the author of the short story collection "Big Lonesome."

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