Have you ever looked at someone’s face, someone you have known for a while, and been surprised by what you saw? I do it all the time. Often the brain takes a quick, sloppy, snapshot of something and manages to convince you that what you think you see is that thing as-it-is, is the fullest expression of its reality. Yet, frequently that isn’t the case. There have been many occasions when I have had an oracular epiphany and thought to myself my God, I really didn’t know what X looked like at all; I only had a vague understanding of the nose, the shape of mouth, etc. The thing is, unless you have really focused on something, really tried to see it for what it is, you can’t know it as-it-is only as you imagine-it-is.
Philosophers [of course] have wrestled with this tendency for imprecise perception. I remember during my A-level classes being asked to consider a red postbox, to imagine it, and then to describe the shade of red. Neither I, nor any of my classmates, could do it, because, although we had an idea of the shape of the postbox and its main features, we hadn’t taken much notice of the colour beyond it being a general red. Jose Lezama Lima would be able to describe that red for you though [in gorgeous, sensual detail], of that I have no doubts.
If you read any of the reviews of his one and only novel, Paradiso, you will come away with only a rudimentary idea of what it is about. There are a few reasons for this, firstly because the story is of secondary importance in comparison to the prose or the style, both for the author and the reader; it is the prose/style where Lima flexes his muscles, and it is that which holds your attention, and generates your admiration, as the reader. Secondly, the prose/style is often difficult to follow, it requires great concentration, and even if one concentrates with as much intensity as one is capable of one might still, in places, not have a clue what is going on. Reviews then tend to gloss over the plot of the novel, either because it doesn’t interest the reviewer or he or she is unsure of their footing.
You need to treat this novel as though it is a man or woman that you’re trying to seduce. Remember that hottie you once had a crush on, remember how you really listened to what they had to say? That’s the kind of focus I’m talking about.
Carlo Emilio Gadda was once asked about his baroque prose style, and why he wrote the way he did. His response was something like the world is baroque. I love that. The world is baroque, it is mysterious, astonishingly complex, stunningly abundant. Lima’s prose is probably the greatest evocation of that abundance and that complexity that I have yet encountered. His sentences are engorged with references, with detail, with meaning. I spoke at the beginning of this review about whether we perceive things as-they-are, about whether we are able to be surprised by the appearance of well-known objects and people. Well, Lima constantly surprised me, made me look at ordinary things with new eyes. His writing is so sensual that one often feels exhausted, or overwhelmed by stimuli, after a couple of pages; Paradiso hammers your brain like the eighth round of Tequila Slammers, but in a good way.
Apt. Paradiso is paradisiacal; the plot [we’re going to ignore my silly joke above, for the time being] is simple, it concerns, for the most part, the familial lineage of Jose Cemi, and, whilst the lives and experiences of Cemi and generations of his family are not without sadness or tragedy, the overriding atmosphere of the novel is one of joy. Lima pulls off a neat trick: he makes you feel that joy, makes you warm to these charismatic, garrulous characters. Not since Swann’s Way have I been so in love with a family, so charmed by their foibles. No one is without faults, but Lima’s approach, his treatment, is so loving that they never feel as though they descend into unpleasantness. Childhood is a paradise; adolescence is a paradise; Cuba is a paradise; hell, I nearly believed it all.
The book progresses like a drunken slow dance with your childhood sweetheart.
Lima approaches the world with the kind of wide-eyed wonder that most people reserve for looking at the Grand Canyon [or, if you’re a nerd, Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy]. He is bursting with a passion akin to a lifer’s first conjugal visit.
The Imagery [simile bingo!]
I had made more than one attempt to read Paradiso prior to completing it. A feature of those unsuccessful attempts was my ranting dismissiveness of what I like to call simile bingo. What this means is that there are certain writers and novels that give me the impression of trying too hard with their imagery, of their comparisons being too absurd, of being, essentially, nonsensical. You can actually play this game yourself, just think of something random, like an envelope. Envelopes are mostly rectangular in shape, are thin and flat; they have a primary function, which is to allow information to be sent from one person to another. Now, if you were going to say that an envelope is like something you’d most likely want to find some connection between the properties of an envelope and something else. However, some writers, those who like to play simile bingo, would compare the envelope to something that shares absolutely none of its properties, and then sit back and grin smugly to themselves, in the belief that they are some kind of poetic genius. And it’s fucking annoying. So, if you want to play simile bingo just try and think of something that shares none of the properties of an envelope:
The envelope was like the corruscating mane of a resting lion.
Some shit like that.
During my previous attempts to read Paradiso I was convinced that Lima was a peerless exponent of simile bingo. Only a small proportion of his imagery actually made sense to me, and so I flung the book down and gratified myself with disparaging the work to all and sundry. However, while there are undeniably times when the words simile bingo did still occur to me, during my reading this time I understood, and enjoyed, nearly all of his imagery. The key was focus and concentration. Paradiso makes demands of you, but it does offer up its secrets if you persevere. In fact, if you trust the author [he was a poet, so you ought to] half the fun is in trying to work out what similarities Lima has found between X and Y.
There are parts of this novel that are madder than a box of frogs you have thrown down three flights of stairs [think Mariah Carey crazy. Yeah, that crazy]. The crazy kicks in around 250 pages into the book. It is at this point that the adolescent Cemi engages in conversations with his school friends. That’s all: just conversations.
Huh? No, seriously, huh? I have to confess that there are long sections of the book [post-page 250] where I had not a single fucking clue what the characters were talking about. The conversations are set-up like mock Platonic dialogues; the boys [how old are these boys? They are loquacious beyond all reasonable expectations] communicate in a manner reminiscent of Stephen Dedalus at his most obtuse. However, it, this way of speaking, still sounds great in the mouth, in the head; it’s preposterous, nonsensical, but it’s also exciting. Does anyone talk like the characters in Paradiso do, in real life? No, of course not. Truth be told, I’d smother myself with a pillow if I had to spend any time with these kids myself, but as part of a reading experience it’s novel and strangely engrossing.
One of the school kids has an enormous penis. His reputation spreads and he becomes prey for the local adult women [and some of the men]. At one point, he experiences his first blowjob. Lima describes the boy grabbing the woman’s hair and pulling her head up, away from his cock, as like Perseus holding up the head of the Gorgon Medusa. I fucking loved that.
There are a lot of great books that have comforted and impressed me with their wisdom and insight, with their philosophical umph, but very few have forced me to consider the world in new ways, have actually changed the way I see the world. That very small library of books includes In Seach of Lost Time by Marcel Proust, The Lost Steps by Alejo Carpentier, and, now, Paradiso by Jose Lezama Lima.