Luis Othoniel Rosa reviews ‘Two Sherpas’ by Sebastián Martinez Daniell (Argentina)

What to say to the abyss?

Sebastián Martínez Daniell. Two Sherpas. Translated by Jennifer Croft. USA: Charco Press, (February) 2023.

[Mi reseña de la edición original en español acá]

This book by Sebastián Martínez Daniell defies the hard readers. It pushes us to ask ourselves, what  is this thing we call literature? What does fiction do in this world? It is a novel that undresses itself, naked fiction, so we can see the matter of literature, without distractions, without deception or verisimilitude, without that damned mandate of “write what you know”. It is a novel that mocks our own inclinations as readers to find an ideological program to everything we read. It is not a novel for entertaining us, nor to teach us, although it can be quite funny at times, and at times we admire the research behind it. Two Sherpas is a novel meant to make us suffer at the sigh of that literary form we love. A terribly beautiful and problematic novel, written to answer and ambitious question; what to say to the abyss?

In about 220 pages a singular frozen scene is sustained without resolution. Two sherpas in Mount Everest observe from a cliff the motionless body of their white British client who just fell. With the indifference of the natives towards the tourist they wonder: is he dead? The entire plot of the novel is developed around this allegorical, macabre, and hilarious instant. Four narrative lines give context to this scene, creating a solide architecture that converges on a pyramidal peak that is an allegory without a definitive resolution. The first narrative line is a flashback to the older sherpa, who one day, at a tourist destination in the beach, sees a woman cry while working at a kiosk. The second one is the story of the younger sherpa who is rehearsing in the school a play (Shakespeares’s Julius Cesar). The third narrative line tells the history of the thrill seeking whites from the first world who, with imperialistic nostalgia, venture themselves to “conquer” Mount Everest. And at the same time, this narrative line tells the history of labor of the sherpas who after so many decades of exploitation and death at the hands of the necro-industry of tourism start to organize in unions. The fourth and last narrative line is scientific and geologic. It explores that fascinating natural phenomena that happens in the peak of Mount Everest. These four narrative lines are there to power up the allegorical scene that the novel stubbornly insists in sustaining without resolution; two sherpas peaking at the abyss, looking at the (dead?) body of the Englishman, with indifference, asking themselves how are they suppose to proceed. The quote bellow belongs to the fourth narrative line, the scientific one, but it also alludes to the allegory that is the fundamental question of the novel. It is a quote about that micro-organism that is so old, resilient and interesting: lichen.

“In its double scaffolding of fungus and alga, two-faced Janus of the botanical order, with its effective alliance against sterility, lichen colonices, dominates the high peaks. But it is a king without subjects: it has sovereignty, it has territory, but its dominion is diluted in the vastness of mineral abstraction. There are microorganisms, of course. But there is no merit in subduing those too weak to depose us. It is said that there are lichens that survive even suspension in the cosmic void. There is no reason to disbelieve this. But lichen desires something else. Its pride is not resistance to hostility, but rather expansion – imperial lust. The same could be said for the climbers.” (pag. 57)

I read the first Argentine edition of this novel (Argentina: Entropía) in 2018 during a long stay in my native Puerto Rico, in the house of my parents in the mountains of Bayamón. Just a few months before, a mega-hurricane potentiated by global warming and cruel austerity measures, had ruined the life of my communities there. My old folks in the island still didn’t have electricity and had just gotten their water service back. The island was broken, without a real state, without services, without hospitals, for 9 long months, and yet, tourists were already enjoying it with indifference towards our suffering. I returned to the island to help my family rebuild. In that context, having many books to read, I ended up reading this one. Why this book? I couldn’t put down, and the more I read the more I asked myself the question, why am I reading this allegorical novel about sherpas in the Himalaya written by an Argentinean who has never traveled to Tibet? My island is beautiful. In all of its chaos and precariousness caused by 5 centuries of unabashed colonialism, my island is tremendously beautiful. Only the tourists ruin its beauty, and “tourists” is just the euphemism we use to not offend the colonizers. There I am reading this novel by Sebastián Martínez Daniell, who not only is a writer I admire (I reviewed his previous novel, in Spanish,  here), but who is also a dear friend. It wasn’t either my friendship with him, nor his obvious literary talents that kept me reading that novel in that context. What can this Argentinean really know about the colonized peoples of Nepal that are forced to barter the natural beauty of their lands with tourism, in order to survive? It does not matter how much research he did, how much he challenged himself to translate that context in Nepal to his own historical reality in his country (Argentina, with the memory still recent of brutal rightwing dictatorships and in a permanent neoliberal crisis). The author of this novel knows that he does not really know. The author is a stranger in his own plot. And there it is, that is the magic of this novel, that is the reason I couldn’t put the book down. Because I was so overwhelmed with the unbearable reality of my own country that I needed… breath… escape is not what we are looking for in literature, it’s perspective. To bet on fiction, on the literary artifice, to bet on the invention of a singular literary voice in the face of so many different apocalyptic realities happening at the same time. Here is a courageous writer that resists the mandates of the literary market, and lets himself go to where his poetic craft is taking him, what his literary project is demanding of him: finding the right words to say to the abyss. It is a novel that possessed his author, and it decided, not its creator, what its form was going to be. Sometimes courageous are not just those who resist, but does who let go. Courageous, or mad,  because there needs to be a bit madness to write a novel like this.

“The ocean in retreat. An orb covered in water slowly draining away, leaving the Earth naked. Exposed to the gaze of the Creator. A world of inundations stabi­lizing. An emerging planet that is surfacing to breathe: whale of half an eternity of submergence. The echo of the biblical Flood and the prevalence of water as punishment that was already meted out. A totally aquatic sphere, in which the dissolved minerals keep creating solidarities until eventually they’re solid. A world where firmness has had to make its own way over the course of aeons. Dryness as the conquest of time. Interesting, sure. But there is a problem with neptunism. Not where the original water came from, but where it’s headed. Where is all that sea that covered the Pyrenees, the Andes, and the very Himalayas where two Sherpas peer out over a crag?” (pag. 84)

Four years later and a few ends of the world, I am getting ready for a trip to Buenos Aires in July 2022. I read again my notes on Two Sherpas. A new edition just came out in Spain (Jekyll and Jill, 2022) and Charco Press picked up the task of publishing it in English with a translation by the talented Jennifer Croft. (Charco Press is a fascinating, relatively new, publishing house specializing on experimental and “literary” Latin American writers, that although well known in their countries are mostly ignored by Anglo presses precisely because of what makes them amazing. Check out Charco Press here, this is some of the very best Latin American literature translated for the first time to English).  My fascination with the novel I read 4 years earlier in another crisis that seems so long ago, returns. I still struggle explaining it. There are two sherpas looking at the motionless body of an Englishman down the abyss, two spectators of the stupid decadence of a tourist. “I think he moved” says one Sherpa to the other, but the body really didn’t move. There is an allegorical scene here that wants to tell us something about our world, about our abyss, about our decadence. There is also a writer of novels who is convinced that his art has something to tell to the world, although the way he says what he says, seems to resist saying it, it resists explaining the allegory that it develops for more than 200 pages, it says a lot, and long, while not saying. And without saying, it says so much, about our world, about what cannot be said.

“Everything we’ve grown accustomed to calling life is, in reality, a symptom. Actions, thoughts, interpretations, dialogues and soliloquies, sufferings… are nothing more than intermittently surging projections, stamps on the surface of the knowable. Symptoms. The real is in the out-of-sight, permeating from an aberrant beyond. It’s inaccessible. And yet we keep conforming to the merely perceptible. Somewhat like the way astron­omers infer the presence of an invisible black hole by means of its gravitational effects. The real is missing: we can only begin to glimpse its consequences.” (122)

As I usually do, I end this review with a longer quote, one that is more narrative than the previous ones. It is a quote that follows a flashback of the old sherpa, when he was young, vacationing in a coastal town (being a tourist!), and while at a kiosk in the beach, he realices that the cashier is crying. He doesn’t know how to approach her pain. Again, this recurrent theme of how to look, how to approach, the pain that is not my own, that I can’t fully understand. What to do when a stranger cries? How can we connect with the unknown suffering of peoples happening in far away lands? What can we say to them? What can we say about that which we know nothing about, yet that demands a response? (and the answer here is not Wittgenstein. “The deafening noise of the wind raveling over the ridges of the Himalayas” can’t be considered silence.) This is the abyss in the novel, the pain of the people we don’t know, of which we know nothing. For this too literature exists: to create a language that approaches the pain of others, even at the height of the Mount Everest, the most remote pain.

“The old Sherpa thinks how he doesn’t know anything. Seriously, he asks himself: what could he have done? The sun was strong on the beach. The sea must be lukewarm now, this evening. Regulator of temperatures. Like crying. Isn’t crying also a regulator of temperatures? Doesn’t it help everything recover its equilibrium? What if he changes course and goes back to the beach and gets in the water now, when no one else will be there? But crying like that: she was pretty, that cashier. Even crying. Or was she pretty because she was crying? But afterwards it will be cold, and there will be no one to hand him a towel, he thinks. Besides, it’s windy. On the sea it’s always windy. He’d be better off heading back to the hotel. Dessert and a little reading, and then he’ll fall asleep. Should he have said something to her? he wonders. What if she took it badly. He’ll take a shower. A few spoonfuls of dessert first, and then get in the shower. Perhaps save a few spoonfuls for when he gets out of the shower.” (pag. 174)

Luis Othoniel Rosa was born in Bayamón, Puerto Rico in 1985. He is the author of two novels, Otra vez me alejo, (Argentina Entropía 2012; Puerto Rico: Isla Negra 2013) and Caja de fractales  (Argentina: Entropía 2017; Puerto Rico: La Secta de los Perros, 2018). The last one was recently translated as Down with Gargamel! (USA: Argos Books, 2020). He is also the author the academic book Comienzos para una estética anarquista: Borges con Macedonio [Beginnings for an Anarchist Aesthetics: Borges with Macedonio (Chile: Cuarto Propio, 2016; 2nd expanded edition with a new prologue in Argentina: Ediciones Corregidor, 2020). He studied at the University of Puerto Rico (Río Piedras) and holds a Ph.D. in Latin American literature from Princeton University. He is the editor of El Roommate: Colectivo de Lectores. He is currently associate professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, and works on three book projects: a long sci-fi novel about a hivemind titled  The Cat in the Downward Spiral, a series of philosophical essays titled, On Unruliness and a compilation of his many essays and articles on Puerto Rican literature titled Los fines de la literatura: Poéticas anticapitalistas en Puerto Rico. For El Roommate he has reviewed, mostly in Spanish, sometimes in English, books by Michelle ClaytonRaúl AnteloLorenzo García VegaMargarita PintadoRafael Acevedo,  Mar Gómez,  Isabel Cadenas Cañón,  Romina Paula,  Mara Pastor, Julio Meza Díaz,  Sergio ChejfecBalam RodrigoJuan Carlos Quiñones (Bruno Soreno)Sebastián Martínez Daniell,Colectivo Simbiosis Cultural y Colectivo Situaciones,  Margarita Pintado (¡otra vez!), Ricardo Piglia  , Francisco ÁngelesJulio PrietoJulio Ramos,Federico Galende, Julio Prieto  (¡otra vez!), Áurea María SotomayorNoel Black, Marta Aponte Alsina (varios que se pueden encontrar en este Dossier), Naomi KleinMara Pastor (otra vez), Nicole Cecilia DelgadoCristina Rivera GarzaCarlos Fonseca, Luis Moreno Caballud, Margarita Pintado, Raquel Salas Rivera Joy Castro.

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