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Salvador Elizondo's "Farabeuf"

Review by: George R. McMurray


Hispania, Vol. 50, No. 3 (Sep., 1967), pp. 596-601
Published by: American Association of Teachers of Spanish and Portuguese
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HISPANIA

La estafeta literaria, 360-61 (1966/7):

dedi-

Manuel Cepeda Vargas, of Colombia, and a

catedto Rub6nDario.No. 362: MosheLazar, review of the Russian version of CksarVallejo's


"Erosy Gronosen la poesiade Rub6nDario." Heraldos negros, of 1966.

Filologia, x (1964, rec. '67): A. D. Deyermond,


"El hombre salvaje en la novela sentimental";
M. A. Morinigo, "Futurode la dialectologiahispanoamericana."
Germanisch-RomanischeMonatshefte, xvia, 1

Insula, No. 241 (dic. 1966): Jorge Campos


on Con las primerasluces, de Martinez Moreno
(Barcelona 1966); No. 243 (1967), on "Los
contemporaineos mexicanos," dealing with the

poetry of Villaurrutia,Gorostiza,and Novo.


Journalof Inter-AmericanStudies, xx, (1967):
gegnung mit G6ngora (Gleim, Jacobi-Herder)."
T.
Mistral: '.

(1967): Walter Falk, "Die erste deutscheBe-

HispanicReview, xxxv, 1 (1967): "Rub6n

. . temMargaret
Rudd, "Gabiela
blor de alma en temblor de camrne.'" No. 2:

Dario and the Hispanic Society: The Holograph


Ruben Vargas Ugarte, S.J., "Don RicardoPalma
Manuscriptof Pax;" by T. S. Beardsley;A. K. y la historia."
G. Paterson,"Two BibliographicalStudies."
Kentucky Foreign Language Quarterly, xiixx,
Hispan6fila,29 (1967): R. E. Lott, "Una 4 (1966): Carlos G6mez del Prado, "Jose
cita de amor dos cuentosde uan

Valera";J. Cadalso de Noches


y
y el determinismo
Villegas,"El leitmotivdel caballoen Bodasde literario";Fortune L.lWgubres
Gordon, "The Theater in
sangre."

Humboldt,28 (1966): "La concienciabur-

Brazil Today."
Latin American Research Review,

ra, 2
Trends in Folklore Research";also another segSchtitz) and El Colegiode M6xico(Udo Ruk- ment of the American bibliography.i1, 2 (Supser).
plement) lists dissertations,by disciplines, counInostrannaiaLiteratura, 1966, I1: poems by tries, universities, with indices.

guesa en el Quijote," by Santiago Montserrat;

also articleson InstitutoCaroy Cuervo (Giinther

(1967):

Stanley

L.

Robe,

"Contemporary

BOOKS OF THE HISPANIC WORLD


Conducted by DONALDW. BLEZNCK
SALVADOR ELIZONDO'S "FARABEUF"
GEORGER. MCMURRAY
Colorado State University

A combined climactic moment of orgasm


and death, with the resultant atmosphere
of eroticism and sadism, is analyzed
throughout the entire length of Farabeuf.
The charactersare a man, usually a vague,
fictionalized Dr. Farabeuf (a famous nineteenth-century French anatomist), and a
woman of variouspossible identities: nurse,
nun, mistress, prostitute and Farabeuf's
wife. These two become obsessed with a
photograph depicting the agony of a
Chinese Boxer being dismemberedin 1901.
For them, intense pain and the final death
spasm (the picture was supposedly taken
at the instant the man died) are synonymous with physical love and orgasm. In
*Publishers and authors may send their books his efforts to depict the "instante," the
to Prof. Donald W. Bleznick, Book Review author
suppresses all logical concepts of
Editor, Hispania, 352 McMicken Hall, Univ.
time and space, constantly repeating in
of Cincinnati, Cincinnati, Ohio 45221.
In 1965 Salvador Elizondo won the
Villaurrutia prize with his first novel,
entitled Farabeuf o la cr6nica de un
instante, a bizarre work deserving of special attention as a major landmark in the
contemporary Mexican novel.' Born in
Mexico City in 1932, Elizondo has also
published an excellent collection of short
stories entitled Narda o el verano (1966).
In addition to being well versed in European and American literature, he has
studied painting and Chinese, written for
several Mexican literary journals and
directed experimental art films.

OFTHEHISPANIC
WORLD
BOOKS
kaleidoscopic patterns the following three
basic scenes:
(1) The one which lays the groundwork
for the other two describes in nauseating
detail the torture of the Chinese as well
as the victim's haunting facial expression
of pain suffused with ecstasy.
(2) The two characters strolling along
a beach toward a cliff encounter a child
building a castle in the sand. The woman
begins to run, and when she turns around,
the man is shocked to discover her appearance radically changed; she has become "la
otra." Moments later she picks up a dead
starfish and discards it in disgust. In a
house near the beach, they find an envelope containing the photograph of the
dismembered Chinese which arouses their
carnal desires and leads to coitus.
(3) The most confusing scene depicts
the couple's reunion in an apartmenthouse
in Paris, apparently many years later. The
woman has chanced upon the picture of
the tortured man and summons Dr. Farabeuf, now old and arthritic, who arrives
with his bag of surgical instruments and
finds her seated in a corridor before a
Ouija board seeking the answer to an
enigmatic question. As he enters, he hears
her drop three coins belonging to a Chinese puzzle. A mirror on the wall reflects
the repeatedly mentioned objects in the
room: a marble-top table, worn velvet
curtains, a painting depicting divine and
profane love, a phonograph, and on the
floor a copy of the North China Daily
News dated January29, 1901. The woman
runs toward the window but suddenly
stops and remains "inm6vil" at the sight
of a strange Chinese symbol traced on the
steamy pane. As she goes past the table
her foot strikes the leg, producing a sound
that reverberatesdown the passageway to
a closed door. Ultimately the doctor, wearing rubber gloves and brandishing surgical
knives, leads the woman through the door
into his laboratorywhere she is or will be,
not unwillingly, dissected alive.
Perplexing and devoid of orderly plot,
Farabeuf requires the reader to reconstruct
the story himself. Moreover, as the novel
progresses,each scene is repeated with new
or altered details, often borrowedfrom one

597

of the other scenes, creating many contradictions. The reader is led to believe, however, that the woman went to China as a
nursing nun during the Boxer Rebellion,
was seduced by Farabeuf, may have become his wife, and perhaps a prostitute.
The work could have various interpretations, but it assumes greater plausibility if
one supposes that the woman is insane
(this is suggested more than once) and
that all the action (partly real, partly
imagined and partly anticipated) takes
place in her mind. The obscure question
that she asks of the Ouija board and the
Chinese puzzle turns out to be "Quien
soy?"Thus the novel chronicles a deranged
woman's search for identity by evoking an
obsessive "instante, a fabulous moment of
simultaneous orgasm and death or of
physical love and dissection.
In spite of the implications of the preceding paragraph,it should be emphasized
that Farabeuf is not primarily a psychological novel. The characters,their actions,
and the motivation for their actions are
never clearly analyzed, the author refusing
to admit that he knows any more about
them than the reader or the characters
themselves. Elizondo's work is above all
an aesthetic experiment in novelistic technique with philosophical overtones inextricably linked to its aesthetic objectives.
It is similar to the "nouveau roman" that
has been appearing in France since the
publication of Alain Robbe-Grillet's Les
Gommes in 1953.
While the "new novel" is characterized
by a reaction against rationalistic and
scientific philosophical systems and psychological analysis by the omniscient author,
in its quest for artistic innovations it has
felt the influence of two twentieth-century
philosophies: phenomenology and existentialism. In their subjective approach to
reality Elizondo and other "new novelists"
reveal the influence of the German philosopher Husserl, the originator of phenomenology, who influenced existentialist
thought. In order to understand Elizondo's
novelistic technique and aesthetic objectives, a basic understanding of Husserl's
philosophy is essential.
Phenomenology is the description and

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classification of phenomena or acts of perception as the only objects of knowledge


possessing ultimate reality. It denotes the
study of the varying forms in which things
appear as opposed to considerationof their
causal origins. It is concerned with the
immediate confrontation of what presents
itself to the consciousness as it presents
itself and suppresses everything that has
nothing to do with consciousness and the
object. Thus phenomenology is not scientific or analytical but rather intuitive and
descriptive. The phenomenologist suspends
reality and attends only to what manifests
itself to his immediate sense of awareness
so that he may scrutinize, describe and
account for the essential structure of daily
life. His suspension of common-sense
reality bars him from using any judgment
that concerns spatio-temporalexistence and
brings him to the pure streamof consciousness, the dynamic psychic processby which
unities of meaning are grasped prior to
being expressed in linguistic form. The
phenomenologist, as well as the existentialist, considers man's consciousness as
essentially flux-like in its relation with
reality, each individual's vision of material
existence being unstable and subjective.
While a behaviorist might explain one's
anguish by past events, the phenomenologist considers this phenomenon (one's
anguish) an immediate presentation of
consciousness with sovereign status. For
the phenomenologist creatorof fiction, the
suspension of his belief in common-sense
reality is the key to creation, and the
achievement of fictive consciousness-that
is, the revealing in literature of the transcendental structure of everyday life or
reality-is his principal objective.
Farabeuf is an excellent fictional illustration of Husserl's philosophy. By repetition of opaque objects such as the doctor's
surgical instruments, his rubber gloves, the
marble-top table, the velvet curtains, the
door at the end of the corridor, and the
dead starfish, Elizondo captures the immediate, superficial appearance of these
objects which gradually lose their false
mysteries and surrender their symbolic
secrets. For example, Farabeuf's surgical
knives and the "dedos afilados" of his

stiff rubber gloves become phallic symbols.


The hall door represents the line between
life and death, and the dead starfish
which the woman picks up and casts
aside evokes an eerie prophecy of death.
Other objects merely provide compositional effect or atmosphere and appear
deliberately inserted as anti-symbols.Thus
the novel contains a curious mixture of
meticulously described but limited reality
and of suspended, subjective awareness.
This subjective attitude toward reality is
the psychological basis for character presentation in Farabeuf. Instead of considering the self (here the mad woman's consciousness) as a permanent, hard kernel of
personality, Elizondo sees it as an everfluid stream of sentiments evoked by its
relationship with reality. The essence of
the woman's character,then, is ephemeral,
subject to change from one moment to the
next according to her visual experiences,
memories and fantasies. These fleeting visions, which comprise the entire work, illustrate the impermanent nature of the
consciousness and are the cause of the
woman's various identities. Moreover, as
previously mentioned, when she flees from
the man on the beach, she becomes "la
otra" and on another occasion when Farabeuf approaches her with a knife, she
glances into the mirrorand notices that she
is "la otra, la que el deseo de aquel hombre
habia creado . . ." (p. 120).
The mirror in the apartment scene is
often the focal point of the woman's
vision and an ingenious device for displaying her shifting consciousness. Reflecting ever-changing surface reality (due
to lighting effects and the character'smobility), it unleashes a constant stream of
psychic currents. If at times the woman is
revealed as "la otra,"on other occasions she
is reflected as unreal or even dead. Sometimes the mirror offers proof of her physical being, soothing her haunting fear of
death, but even more often it recalls the
past-that is, the beach scene and the face
of the Chinese-which in turn provokes
the imagined scene of dissection. Finally
at other times the mirror calls forth
questions about man's true identity and
illusive human reality, suggesting such

BOOKSOF THE HISPANIC WORLD

themes as fictitious existence, reincarnation and supernaturalism. "Ella, desde el


fondo del pasillo, se pregunta la misma
pregunta mientras nos mira reflejados
turbiamente en ese espejo . . . Es que
somos la imagen de una fotograffia. . .)
?Somos el recuerdo de alguien que nos
esti olvidando? ?O somos tal vez una
mentira?" (p. 84). Other possibilities also
occur to the woman: "me refiero al hecho
posible . . . de que seamos los personajes
de una novela . . ., o que estemos muertos" (p. 62). "Somos una pelicula cinematografica . . . el pensamiento de un demente . . . una premonici6n . . . Somos
seres y cosas invocados mediante una
f6rmula de nigromancia" (pp. 93-4).
Man's illusory identity is closely related to a favorite phenomenologist and
existentialist theme, the shifting temporal
realm which replaces the traditional concept of time, i.e., clearly delineated past,
present and future, with an amalgam of
memory, imagination, and anticipation. As
the mind registers visual perception, memory and imagination come into play,
blending the past and future into the
present. Thus Farabeuf fuses the woman's
haunting memories of the photograph and
sexual love, her fantastic visions of the
present, and her anticipation and horrorof
being dissected. The temporal realm becomes more complicated when one realizes
that the past (memory) is subject to
change, the present (imagination) remains
subjective and unstable, and the future
(anticipation) ever ambiguous. This suppression of logical time and space concepts
is illustrated by the following passage in
which the three scenes merge in the woman's mind as she is being addressed by
Farabeuf.

599

This passage not only exemplifies the


chaotic chronological and spatial structure
but also demonstratesthe recurrent use of
the conditional and pluperfect subjunctive tenses which cast doubt on the actuality of the action.
At the beginning of the novel a cleavage
in time accompanied by a baffling dichotomy of each of the characters into
young and old becomes evident when
Farabeuf is greeted by the woman, "Has
vuelto despues de algunas horas-tii, yo-;
has vuelto despues de muchos afios--1,
ella" (p. 14). From this statement and
the subsequent use of these pronouns, it
appears that "thi" and "yo" indicate a
younger version (or perhaps the reincarnation) of the characterswhereas "dl"and
"ella"represent them in their old age. This
variation of pronouns on almost every
page intensifies the atmosphere of ambiguity.
Finally, the shifting temporal realm
finds expression in the mirror's reflection
which reminds the characters of past experiences, stimulates their erotic desires
and sadistic anticipations, and contributes
to the psychic vibratory quality of the
work. For example, at one point in the
apartment scene, the woman
se ha detenido ante la puerta reflejada en el
espejo . . . El otro la contempla . . . mientras
juega . . con un viejo bisturd manchado de
El la
sangre,. . . corrol'dopor los afios...
mira con tanta pasi6n. . . El le dice: ?Recuerdas . ..?', y ella se queda quieta . . . su

mirada todo lo invadiria con una sensaci6n de


amor extremo,con el paroxismode un dolor que
esti colocado justo en el punto en que la tortura

se vuelve un placer exquisito y en la muerte

no es sino una figuraci6nprecariadel orgasmo.

(pp. 41-42)
Like many "new novels," Farabeuf has
borrowed techniques from music, art and
Tratarias de reconocer en el brillo de aquella
the cinema for stylistic effect. The repecuchilla afiladisima los reflejos que produce el
sol . . . pensariastal vez que yo habia recobrado tition of scenes, juxtaposed or merged into
la estrella de mar que tu habias
multiple patterns, recalls the rhythmic
arrojado...
abririas aquella puerta y penetrarias
. . en
leitmotif and contrapuntal arrangements
aquel cuarto . . y yo te seguiria, .
pre- of modern music. Words have often been
... y tu
figurando . . . en mi mente tu abandono
chosen for their tonal and alliterative attu
muerte.
entrega,
"Hubieras tratado de huir al verte cara a cara tributes and their vague or diabolical imcon un desconocido [the Chinese] cuya sola pre- plications: "el tumbo
acompasado de las
sencia lienaba aquella casa con el dolor . . . de
olas . .." (p. 80); "el golpe de las gotas
una tortura que se recuerda como si se hubiera
contra los cristales . . ." (p. 152); "Era
. y que de pronto asalta la
presenciado
una mirada capaz de infundir un terror
memoria . . ... (p. 118)

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HISPANIA

infundado." (p. 131); "Era indudable que


se trataba de un ruido, si, remotamente
metailico, producido tal vez accidentalmente por el roce de algo impreciso y humano contra algo definido e inanimado
.." (p. 72); "el bisturi recorre la piel
como una caricia apenas perceptible, pero
inequivoca en el florecimiento de las visceras que brotan a
de las incisiones
travys
153).
(p.
.."
The delineation of objects with emphasis on their geometrical forms and linear
and spatial relationships, enclosed in a
frameworkof circumscribedreality, convey
the compositional qualities of a picture. In
addition, phrases such as "instante congelado," "mano g6lida," 'se detiene inm6vil," "rostro paralizado," and "sangre
coagulada"bring to mind the quiescent nature of painting and the plastic arts.
Elizondo's direct vision of things and his
camera-eye technique of presenting closeups, fade-outs, angle shots, flashbacks and
dramatic lighting effects, utilizing the mirror as a photographic lens, suggest the influence of the cinema. Moreover, the repetition and blending of scenes, the violation
of chronology and logical space concepts,
and the lack of communicative dialogue
create the chimerical impression of a surrealistic movie.
Because of the rambling style, the repetitions, contradictions, variation of personal pronouns and suppression of logical
time and space, the reader feels immersed
in the confused, suspended and dreamlike
atmosphere generated by the stream of
consciousness. Only in dreams or the subconscious are things seen in patches of
exaggerated realism accompanied by the
sensation that all rational connections are
dissolved; only in dreams or the subconscious does the mind operate without intellectual bias or interference. Thus,
walled up in the mad woman's consciousness, the readerof Farabeuf sees the world
refracted through her psychic lens and
becomes the victim of nightmares and
hallucinations.
Elizondo's work conveys the phenomenological "reflection,"that is, it tries
to reconstruct an experience retained by
memory and arrive at its significance by

describing it as fully as possible. The attempt to analyze the "instante" is designed to aid the woman in her search for
identity. "Algo en tu vida se te escapa. Un
instante quizai . .. que puede darte la
clave de lo que realmente eres o de lo que
has dejado de ser para turbarte tanto" (pp.
129-30). In her demented state she imagines that she will attain this key moment
only at the instant of death, the result of
her dissection which becomes synonomous
with sexual love. "Vas a iniciarte en un
misterio cuyo arcano te ha obsesionado sin
que nunca lo hayas entendido . . . Debes
abandonarte en sus manos [Dr. Farabeuf's] para poder comprender el significado de tu vida, . . . Sacrificas tu pudor
y tu cuerpo . . . para lograr aprisionarlo
que siempre te ha fugado" (p. 173).
As the novel draws to its close, the
scenes are arrangedin increasing intensity,
the final chapter setting the stage for the
climactic moment, the "instante" so assiduously sought. While awaiting the arrival of the old doctor (il), the younger
Farabeuf (yo) straps the woman into a
coffin in front of the mirror. In hypnotically seductive language he prepares her
for her "suplicio" and anticipates the
moment when the knife will touch her
skin: "Tu boca abierta en un grito hecho
de tensos alambres y de potentisimos
resortes descubriri hacia el techo de este
cuarto las encias lividas y la dentadura
aivida de morder la noche en una convulsi6n de bestia fuertemente bridada"
(p. 178). And why experience this illusive moment? "Con el fin de encontraruna
respuesta; . .. '(Quien soy?', diris, pero
en ti misma descubriraisal fin el significado
de esas silabas que siempre habias creido
sin sentido" (pp. 178-79).
In the final lines, the woman is told that
Farabeuf (dl) has arrived, but the climactic moment is still anticipated-never
attained. "Ha llegado . . . En tu mente
van surgiendo poco a poco las imaigenes
ansiadas. Un paseo a la orilla del mar. El
rostro de un hombre que mira hacia la altura [the face of the tortured Chinese].
Un nifio que construye un castillo de
arena. Tres monedas que caen . . . Una
estrella de mar . . . recuerdas?. . ." (p.

BOOKS OF THE HISPANIC WORLD

179). Thus the woman's question remains


unanswered as she continues to recall the
three scenes once again synthesized into a
series of phenomena appearing in the
stream-of-consciousness sphere of suspended reality.
Upon completion of Farabeuf the reader
is likely to have experienced a combined
sensation of bewilderment and horror, the
former because he wonders what really has
happened and the latter because he suspects what might have happened. In many
respects Farabeuf resembles a puzzle more
than it does a novel, with pattern and
craftsmanshipsubstitutedfor plot. Elizondo
joins the "new novelists" in his belief that
the convention of the omniscient author is
unsound, that absolute truth cannot be
known. In his book phenomenology replaces psychology; the interior monologue
reveals the protagonist's mind more dramatically than the orthodox means of
psychological analysis. For Elizondo the
reality and truth he is seeking are, like
the present moment in time, immediate,
evanescent and fluid.
Farabeuf strengthens the current trend
in Mexican letters away from the traditional concept of the novel and in its subjective concern with limited reality, its
diabolical subject matter, philosophical
overtones, technical structure and irrational style, it represents a significant achievement in this literary genre. The recurring
themes of love, violence, death, madness
and horror,and the implications of sadism,
masochism, magic, and reincarnation establish atmospheric dimensions both spellbinding and repulsive. The tenacious reader will read Farabeuf with curiosity, discouragement, disgust, fascination, and ultimate aesthetic appreciation.
'Salvador Elizondo, Farabeuf o la cr6nica de
un instante (Mexico: Joaquin Mortiz, 1965).
All page references to quotations from this work
will appear in the body of the text.
0

Hispanic Studies in Honor of Nicholson B.


Adams. Edited by John Esten Keller and
Karl-Ludwig Selig. University of North Carolina Studies in the Romance Languages and
Literatures, No. 59. Chapel Hill: The Uni-

601

versity of North Carolina Press, 1966. 197


pp.
The pleasant custom of the volumen de
haomenaje honors in this case the distinguished
career of Nicholson Barney Adams, the beloved
"Nic" of the University of North Carolina and
American Hispanism. Professor Adams' biography
and publications are resumed in the introductory
tribute by John E. Keller. Fifteen additional
articles comprise the volume, among which it is
difficult to choose for special comment.
Impressive for thoughtful exposition is F. S.
Escribano's "Relecci6n de los primeros pirrafos
de Niebla de Unamuno," which rescues Unamuno and other Generation of '98 writers from
the confines of a topical nationalism to raise
them to the plane of the humanly universal.
Professor Escribano shows how, at this level,
Unamuno plunged into the clouds of NeoKantian antinomy in a transmigration between
the real and the fictitious, between the me and
the not-me.
Somewhat polemic is Otis H. Green's "Melancholy and Death in Cervantes," which refutes
Americo Castro's earlier principle of muerte
post errorem by substitution of a physiological
muerte post melancholiam, the former allegedly
stemming from the Stoic precept sequere
naturam, the latter derived from "the GraecoMedieval-Renaissance theory of the passions."
The reader finds himself obliged to draw his
own conclusions, since the nature of the uestion involves the ever-present possibility of arbitrary judgments on the significance of commonplaces; in the present instance the commonplace of death by sadness or broken heart,
and the explanations thereof.
Remarkable for clarity of presentation as well
as interest is Lawrence B. Kiddle's "Religious
Hispanisms in American Indian Languages," a
piece of linguistic expertise made intelligible to
the layman. Modestly identifying this as "nothing more than an introduction to the study of
Spanish loanwords in American Indian languages," Professor Kiddle nevertheless makes
that introduction highly explanatory, and follows
it with a working bibliography of sixty some
references.
Also of interest to the linguist is Jos6 Juan
Arrom's "Origen y semintica de la palabra
chivere," which performs a lexicographical service while offering a tenuous theory regarding
the origin of the world.
John Kenneth Leslie's descriptive notice of an
earlier, eighteenth-century travel account complementary to the book by "Concolorcorvo;"
J. H. Parker's penetrating analysis of Lope's
Arte nuevo de hacer comedias; Ruth Lee Kennedv's review of attacks on Lope and his theatre
in the 1617-1621 period; Edwin B. Place's article
welding the link between the Amadis and
Cervantes; the culturally-rich examples of epigrams from the Greek Anthology found by
Irving P. Rothberg in Baroque reflections in
Lope de Vega; "Cara y cruz de la novelistica