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History According to Pao Cheng

Author(s): Salvado Elizondo and Bruce-Novoa


Source: Latin American Literary Review, Vol. 6, No. 12 (Spring, 1978), pp. 119-125
Published by: Latin American Literary Review
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History According to
Pao Cheng
by
Salvado Elizondo
TRANSLATION AND INTRODUCTION
BY BRUCE -NOVOA

With the publication of Farabeufo


la cr?nica de un instante1 [Farabeufor
the Chronicle of an Instant.],\965,
his first novel, Salvador Elizondo won the
and first at
prestigious Villaurrutia prize for best novel of the year inMexico
tracted the attention of serious students of Mexican
literature. Farabeuf
seemed to have no precedent in the national literature. Its obsessive repetition
of a few scenes, the attention to minutiae,
the mixture
of ritual-violence
the complete
of the settings and the concerns,
the
eroticism,
foreignness
in the language itself, all of this and more con
studied foreign undercurrent
tributed to the impression of a strange new genius having erupted on the
scene. Superficial comparisons were made
to Robbe-Grillet
(a fashionable
thing to do in the sixties) because of the similarities with Last Year atMarien
bad. Others pointed out its affinity to the work of Georges Bataille. But no
substantial criticism was forthcoming. His second novel, El hipogeo secreto2
[The Secret Hypogeum],
1968, a text about a writer writing a book in which
characters read a book about a writer writing a book in a room where a woman
reads a book about a writer writing a book, etc. shifted the comparison toWit
tgenstein, substantiated the impression of Elizondo's
genius, and contributed
to the image of him as an anomaly inMexican
letters. Meanwhile,
his reading
public expanded slightly, while European critics, especially the French, were
studying his work. His subsequent books of short stories, El retrato de Zo?3
[Zoe's Portrait],
1969, and El graf?grafo*
[The Graphographer,
1972, have
added to his fame and demanded a degree of critical interest, though itmust be
admitted that both his reading public and his critical following are not large,
especially in the United States, where he is still relatively unknown.
The lack of popularity among U.S. readers and critics has its explanations.
In part it is due to the difficulty of his work. Linguistically they tax the common
reader and the literary expert alike, often employing esoteric terminology.
school"
Stylistically the works make no pretense of continuing the "Mexican
of prose as represented
in Y?nez, Rulfo, Fuentes and Company. One is hard
lexicon in his prose. Thematically
it's the same case.
pressed to isolate Mexican
As will be seen in the interview, Mexico does not interest him as a subject for

120

LATIN AMERICAN LITERARY REVIEW

his work does not readily fit into the well-publicized


his writing. Moreover,
BOOM, and in this he shares his fate with most of the writers of his generation
in Mexico.
Thus, critical attention by those critics who set the pace in the
themes and his treatment of
Elizondo's
United States is lacking. Moreoever,
them, if not esoteric, are of interest to a very reduced circle of thinkers in any
country, as are the works of the writers which whom he has the most in com
mon.
with whom
is a
In the line of Georges
Bataille,
Farabeuf
a presence in El hipogeo secreto,
?\d\o%\xQ-hommagey or Ludwig Wittgenstein,
or the many other little know philosophers of whom Elizondo often speaks as
all of whom are more well
if they were personal friends?writers?thinkers
creates difficult texts in which the mind
than actually read?Elizondo
intellectual constructs, with no mercy
fabricates
joyfully, erotically
unmitigated
for the common man. He is not a "popular writer" in any sense of the term.
The following excerpt from an interview I did with Elizondo several years ago
his attitudes towards writing and his audience, as well as
clearly demonstrates
known

some of his thematic concerns.5


B. N.: Why do you write?
S. E.: For a very simple reason: only and essentially for vanity. It interests me
to be able to submit something, which before only existed as an idea in my
to a reflective analysis of the sensations. That is the operation I achieve
mind,
through writing. I like to disassociate myself from the concept of literature. It
if you will,
bothers me, even the word. Much more
interesting is the notion,
it's written.
or the operation. My interest in literature ceases in the moment
interest me.
What happens after that doesn't
B. N.: You don't care if the work is read?
itwets my curiousity. But ?n the order of the operation
S. E.: No. Sometimes
which a writer carries out, I think his mission fundamentally ends?or my mis
it's out and exists out there in the written universe.
B. N.: So for you literature is the act of creating, not the created object.
at all, but the act of con
S. E.: Yes, yes, yes. Not the act of communicating
sion?when

cretizing.
B. N.: You have said, "It interests me that in the novel the author participate
more clearly as a character, to constantly remind the reader that the writer ex
ists and doesn't have to be a silent convention, and that the most important
"
dialogue is the one established between the reader and the writer. Doesn 't this
imply a desire to communicate?
S. E.: Yes, but as it applies to me I don't think that content matters. To me it
matters a great deal. I'm talking to you in ideal terms, that is to say, I'm not r
reader. It interests me that there exist a reading activity
efering to the Mexican
to
the writing activity. ... In the order of literary life, I
correlative
absolutely
from the reader; if not I couldn't write anything,
have to separate myself
a
reader
what
typical
requires. I prefer to consider everything as an
thinking

"History

According

to Pao Cheng"

by S. Elizondo,

translation

by Bruce-Novoa

121

ideal situation. I couldn't do it any other way, because I think that with respect
to my books, I am the ideal reader. No one can read them as well as I can.
B. N.: But your books are not at all simple. You could be accused of. . .
S. E.: Obscurantism.
B. N.: Perhaps, yes, but more likely of being an intellectual who writes for in
tellectuals.
S. E.: Fine. I'd rather write for intellectuals than for the masses.
It would be
horrible to write for the masses.
B. N.: What is your definition of the novel?
S. E.: I think that in all its characteristics it should fit exactly the conditions of a
in a novel should be a lie. It shouldn't be provable.
lie, but longer. Everything
A lie is also a pure mental formulation,
since it is not possible to demonstrate
... So I
the existence of its factual correlation.
It's a pure verbal construct.
should function according to that mechanism.
I shouldn't
include anything, anything that can be proven.
B. N.: And it can take any form?
S. E.: Yes, any. Personally I prefer exhaustive,
analytical forms or synthetic
forms; but always extreme ones.
B. N.: It's been said that your novelistic world is very limited, very closed.
S. E.: I agree. Limited to itself. ... there are certain points of view in Farabeuf
that are exactly those which allow many fixed combinations,
like that of sta
tionary cameras; they can only register those happenings which take place
within that line of vision....
everything is explained in terms of a special ques
tion which can only be defined from an absolutely fixed point of view. I don't
want to say that during the course of the book that point doesn't change. . . .
think that the novel

is contained within a
narrators, many points of view,
types of cinematographic
forms,
.El hipogeo secreto is limited to

The world

corridor. What happens is that there are many


but none of which allows panning, or those
.
but rather they are like stationary cameras..
the mind, to the extent that you can say some

I think it's the most limited thing I've found.


thing is limited in the mind.
B. N.: You seem to like to select a well defined space and then search out all of
its possibilities.
S. E.: Yes. I start there, by finding a space and then seeing what can happen
there; once you find the space, things happen by themselves.
B. N: Somewhat
like Borges'"E\
aleph"
S. E.: Yes. "El aleph" is not a space, but a point where all time and space are
visible as in a panorama. It's amarvelous
story, but it's different, because in it
the characters look for that point in which everything
is visible, a panoptical
want
to
a
I
What
is
to
circumscribe
point.
space in which happens only
myself
what can happen there.
B. N.: Then play it out completely.
S. E.: Yes, completely.
But then there are the writer's vices that reveal the

122

LATIN AMERICAN LITERARY REVIEW

style; although the concept of style bothers me very much. More than of style
there are vices of writing. In Farabeuf there's a great deal of speculation, and I
say "there is" because I don't know who speculates. I only know that one of
those pages speculates about the possibility that they
about the possibility in function of a previous reality
him to speculate about that reality. That's to say it is
think, therefore I exist. But in El hipogeo secreto all
of that is excluded to assume from the outset that none of it is
consideration
real, absolutely none of it. It can't be real, because naturally it can't be; but
neither is it symbolic. It has the pretension of constructing a lie, perfect within
those who passes through
aren't real; but he thinks
that is the one that allows
I
stated as in Descartes:

itself, self-sufficient,
constituting an organism of fallacy.
B. N.: Another constant in your work is the solipsistic character. Is this preoc
cupation strictly literary or also personal?
S. E.: Of the author and the person. Yes. I have no basis for affirming the exis
tence of the world outside myself.
B. N.: Sometimes you toy with the concept of characters who are ideas in the
mind of another as in "El hipogeo secreto "and "La historia seg?n Pao Cheng"
to Pao Cheng]. S. E.: Yes. It's a possibility I don't exclude.
[History According
There's only one thing that disturbs me a lot and which I can't resolve?the
fact of the book itself. For example, El hipogeo secreto is a world considered
is the book?
inside thought; where does the book come from? Or where
with
it. From
an
out
of
been
there
has
Because
operation
something
bringing
are
course
these
come
it
Of
towards
where
does
it
and
where does
prob
go?
lems I can't resolve. They are very difficult. I'm satisfied with just pondering
the questions.
B. N.: Do you find much interest in your work in the United States?
I don't think these novels stir much interest there.
S. E.: Unfortunately
as well
of the great universities
States?that
level in the United
for a
interest
the
There
still
is
different.
interest
smallest?the
persists
as
and
Novel"
the "Mexican
form known
everyone automatically

At any
as the
specific
expects

characters and all that; and there's nothing


things like Rulfo, obvious Mexican
an
interest me as a
is
element that doesn't much
like that inmy work. Mexico
I'd never want to write about Mexico.
phenomena.
A year after Farabeuf Elizondo published his first collection of short sto
ries, Narda o el verano6 [Narda Or Summertime, five stories written between
1953-1965 which clearly display his interests and range. Already present is the
fascination with the photographic
image as well as the significance of the
camera's presence in the world of the fleeting image. "En la playa" ["On the
almost as if the
the technique of limited perspectives,
Beach '] demonstrates
cameras.
The
title
actions were filmed
story employs
through stationary
an
scent. "La
of
erotic
ritualistic violence centered on the photographic
image
an
set
in
insane
is
asylum.
puerta"
["The Door']

"History

According

to Pao Cheng"

by S. Elizondo,

translation

by Bruce-Novoa

123

to Pao Cheng"
figures in the collection. One of
"History According
Elizondo's personal favorites, he chose to include it in his Antolog?a personal7
constant fascination with
[Personal Anthology]. The story reveals Elizondo's
as well as the idea of life as the im
the Orient, which reappears in Farabeuf
agining of some character who writes about another character who imagines
the author, and as such it constitutes a direct antecedent of both El hipogeo
secreto and "El graf?grafo." The story may appear Borgean on first reading,
and Elizondo shares many of Borges' literary concerns; but what seems to dis
tinguish it is the purity of the intellectual content. Elizondo refuses to give the
to the reader. It is not
text an anecdotal filling. Thus he offers no compromise
a "good story" in the common
sense of the term. What matters here is the
in language, with the bare
of the concept
concept and the concretization
of "reality" allowed. Perhaps the author's predilection for the story
minimum
stems from this purity, which in some later works is somewhat attenuated by
the anecdote, until he achieves clearly his cleanest form in "El graf?grafo."
It ismy hope that the publication of Elizondo's work in translation will
stimulate a wider reading public for his works in the original, attract critical at
tention to the degree he deserves,
of the translation of Farabeuf.%

and perhaps hasten

the eventual

publication

BRUCE-NOVOA

Yale University

FOOTNOTES

?FarabeuJ o la cr?nica de un instante (Mexico: Joaqu?n Mortiz,


2El hipogeo secreto (Mexico: Joaqu?n Mortiz,
1968).
3El retrato de Zo? (M?xico: Joaqu?n Mortiz,
1969).
4El graf?grafo
1972).
(Mexico: Joaqu?n Mortiz,
5Bruce-Novoa,

"Entrevista

tubre-diciembre,
1975),
6Narda o el verano

con Salvador

Elizondo,''

La Palabra

1965).

y el Hombre,

No.

16 (oc

51-58.

Era, 1966).
(M?xico: Ediciones
1974).
7Antolog?a personal
(M?xico: Fondo de Cultura Econ?mica,
"Puente
HFarabeufha& been translated by John Incledon and awaits publication.

Narda

o el verano was

rors: Fiction

translated

by Hortense

de piedra," from
'
as "Bridge of Stone'
for Doors and Mir
and Janet
Ed. Hortense
1920-1970,
Carpentier

Carpentier

and Poetry from Spanish America,


1972). "Grunewalda
Publishers,
(New York: Grossman
in The Denver Quarterly,
retrato de Zo? is to appear shortly

Brof

or A Fable
translated

of Infinity,"
by Bruce?Novoa.

from El

124

LATIN AMERICAN LITERARY REVIEW

History According
Pao Cheng

to

On a summer day, over three thousand years ago, the philosopher Pao
Cheng sat down beside a brook to read his fortune in the shell of a turtle. The
soon made his thoughts wander
heat and the murmur of the water, however,
and forgetting little by little the spots of the tortoise-shell,
Pao Cheng began to
foretell the history of the world from then on. "As the waves of this brook,
thus flows time. This little groove widens as the water flows, soon it becomes a
torrent, then it empties into the sea, crosses the ocean, rises to the clouds as
as rain and flows down into this same
vapor, falls again on the mountains
So flowed, more or less, the stream of Pao Cheng's own thoughts,
brook...''
and after having foreseen the roundness of the earth, its movement
around
the sun, the systems of the other heavenly bodies and the very rotation of the
galaxy, "Bah!", he said, "this way of thinking draws me away from the Land
of Han and its people that are the unwobbling
pivot of all who inhabit the
world ..." Having come round in this thoughts toman, Pao Cheng's attention
turned to History. He followed, as if they were written on the turtle shell, some
great events of the future, wars, migrations,
plagues and epics of all peoples
Before the eyes of his imagination great nations fell
throughout the millennia.
and small ones were born that later rose to be great and powerful before being
razed to the ground. All races sprang up and the cities they in
themselves
and then tumbled to the dust to lie in
habited grew for one majestic moment
the ruins and rubble of their preceding generations. One among all the cities
that appeared in that vision of the future which he imagined attracted Pao
attention very strongly; his wandering mind became fixed and he
Cheng's
could make out the smallest details, as if this strange city held a riddle closely
related to his own intimate being. He sharpened his inner sight and tried to ex
landscape. The power of his imagination
plore the crevices of that uncreated
was such that he felt himself walking down the streets; he raised his eyes con
founded by the height of the buildings and the beauty of the public monu
ments. Pao Cheng wandered for a long time, mingling with the strangely clad
natives who spoke a slow, incomprehensible
tongue. Suddenly he stopped at a
that drew
front there seemed to be inscribed some mystery
a man
a
one
of
he
windows
of
the
glimpse
caught
irresistibly. Through
con
was
moment
that
that
Pao
felt
here
In
that
very
something
Cheng
writing.
and in his fancy passed
cerned him deeply. He rose above the pavement
through the open window as a fresh breeze that slightly stirred the stacks of
papers with incomprehensible
signs that lay on the table. Not making a sound,
Pao Cheng approached the man and holding his breath so that he would not
notice his presence looked over his shoulder. The man would not have noticed
house

in whose

him

him, since he seemed absorbed in the task of covering those sheets with signs
still lay beyond Pao Cheng's understanding. Now
and symbols whose meaning

ltHistory

According

to Pao Cheng"

by S. Elizondo,

translation

by Bruce-Novoa

125

and then the man stopped writing, stared thoughtfully through the window,
sucking on a small white cylinder burning at the end and blowing a puff of
and through his nose, then went back to his
bluish smoke from his mouth
at
the
finished sheets that were strewn on the table,
Pao
looked
writing.
Cheng
tomake out the meaning of the words written on them his
and as he managed
face darkened and a shiver of terror, like the slithering of a deadly snake,
is writing a story", he thought. Pao
through his body. "This man
on
the sheets. "The story is called 'History
Cheng reread the words written
"
to
Pao Cheng'
he said to himself, "and it is about an ancient
According
one
day sits down beside a brook and begins tomuse about..
philosopher who
in this man's mind and if he
."he trembled, "then I am only a memory
should forget me I would die!. . ."
The man, having just written the words ". . .if he should forget me I
crossed

die", paused, puffed on his cigarette and as he exhaled to smoke, his


face darkened as if the shadow of a black cloud had fallen on it. At that mo
ment he knew that he had doomed himself forever to go on writing the story
of Pao Cheng, for if this character was forgotten and disappeared, who was no
more than a thought of Pao Cheng, would also disappear and die.
would