New York, that city of bohemian encounters, has a special place in the history of Spanish-language literature. José Martí, Cuba's national poet, lived for a time in New York. So did the poet and playwright Federico García Lorca, who penned "Poeta en Nueva York," while living there in the 1920s.
Around the same time, the lesser-known, ill-fated Mexican poet Gilberto Owen lived nearby — on the opposite side of Morningside Park from García Lorca, as depicted in "Faces in the Crowd," the first novel by Valeria Luiselli.
Born in Mexico City, raised in South Africa and now a resident of New York, Luiselli writes in Spanish. In "Faces in the Crowd," just released in an exquisite English translation by Christina MacSweeney, Luiselli's fictional alter ego is a young female writer living in Gotham as Owen and García Lorca did — in a kind of literary exile.
The novel is a time-bending ménage-a-multitudes involving Owen, García Lorca, several other poets and artists, real and imagined, from the past and present. The unnamed protagonist of "Faces in the Crowd" works at a small New York publishing house dedicated to literature in translation. She's a young mom too, and she's obsessed with Owen. The late poet had come to New York to serve in the consulate there, and he eventually died in Philadelphia in 1952, destitute and ill from a life of heavy drinking.
"Owen had a distant, gloomy, spiritual face, like that of a religious martyr; high cheekbones, pointed chin, eyes disproportionately small," the narrator of Luiselli's novel says, after hours spent studying his portrait. "The body languid, dispirited, submissive. Traces of Indian ancestry and an aristocratic criollo demeanor: none of the parts added up to the whole."
"Faces in the Crowd" is itself a highly original work of many parts — but one that does, in its own unique way, add up to a satisfying "whole." At the heart of this engaging and often hauntingly strange novel is a wildly original character: Luiselli's protagonist lies to her boss, commits literary fraud and assorted acts of adultery, all while raising a baby and a toddler son.
Or maybe she doesn't do all those things — we can't be certain, since it's clear Luiselli's protagonist isn't just an unreliable employee and spouse, she's also an unreliable narrator.
Our unnamed heroine is constantly being interrupted by her husband, who is reading the book we're reading when his wife isn't looking and pointing out that some things in the book aren't really happening. "Why have you banished me from the novel?" he asks, after reading his wife's account (seemingly made up) that he's moved to Philadelphia.
"So that something happens," she answers.
The novel's plot, to the extent that there is one, revolves around the narrator's plan to push her publishing house into putting out an edition of Owen's poetry.
Owen himself enters the narrative gradually — first as a ghost who appears in subway trains, and then in a series of flashbacks in which the female narrator seems to inhabit the dead male poet's consciousness, the line between storyteller and subject repeatedly and intriguingly blurred. At different points, Luiselli's narrator refers to the book she's trying to write as a "horizontal novel, told vertically," or as a "vertical novel told horizontally," and also as a "dense, porous" novel, "like a baby's heart."
"Faces in the Crowd" manages to be all those things, as the narrator's early 21st century surrounded by bohemian trust-fund "trustafarians" and baby rearing in New York comingles with the dead poet Owen's early 20th century obsession with Ezra Pound and his own separation from his children.
Owen, García Lorca and their contemporaries take over large chunks of "Faces in the Crowd" in the novel's second half, in passages that resemble a more conventional historical novel. This material is not nearly as captivating, but Luiselli manages to craft a vivid narrative from the largely known details of García Lorca's days in New York and from the unknowns of Owen's time there.
Throughout "Faces in the Crowd," Luiselli crafts beautiful sentences, while gleefully thumbing her nose at novelistic conventions. All that makes her an exciting and essential voice on the Latin American literary landscape, as further evidenced by the nonfiction collection her U.S. publisher, Coffee House Press, is simultaneously releasing with her novel.
"Sidewalks" gathers Luiselli's essays, most of which have her wandering about cities and countries (often on a bicycle) in search of literary ghosts in places as diverse as Venice and Mexico City. In "Relingos: The Cartography of Empty Spaces," Luiselli finds meaning and beauty in the vacant, "dead" corners of Mexico City; in the essay "Permanent Residence," Luiselli proclaims she has found inspiration in Joyce, Sebald and Vila-Matas, among others.
Together with "Faces in the Crowd," her essays in "Sidewalks" are a wonderful contribution to the long tradition by which authors re-imagine their cities as dream-like spaces created for them to wander around, daydream and discover.
Faces in the Crowd
Valeria Luiselli, translated by Christina MacSweeney
Coffee House: 154 pp., $15.95 paper