The Novels of Jorge Volpi and the Possibility of Knowledge

By Anderson, Danny J. | Studies in the Literary Imagination, Spring 2000 | Go to article overview

The Novels of Jorge Volpi and the Possibility of Knowledge


Anderson, Danny J., Studies in the Literary Imagination


?? Como comprenderan los hombres su propia identidad en un mundo sin las viejas polaridades subjetivas y objetivas? How will people understand their own identity in a world without the old subjective and objective polarities?

--Carlos Fuentes, La nueva novela hispanoamericana

On June 24, 1999, novelist and essayist Jorge Volpi, during a round-table discussion about the situation of the contemporary novel, stated that the genre is not in danger of disappearing but of becoming banal. The novels that matter today are those that offer, together with a certain pleasure for readers, the possibility of knowledge rather than the search for absolute truths (Jimenez). Since 1992, Volpi has published six novels that explore the possibility of knowledge and exemplify how to avoid banality: A pesar del oscuro silencio (1992), the nouvelle "Dias de ira" in the volume Tres bosquejos del mal (1994), La paz de los sepulcros (1995), El temperamento melancolico (1996), Sanar tu piel amarga (1997), and En busca de Klingsor (1999).(1) The last of these received the Premio Biblioteca Breve, a distinction the Spanish publishing house Seix Barral began to award again in 1999 after a lapse of twenty-seven years.

Volpi's novels interrogate the possibilities of knowledge in various ways. They address knowledge in genres and discursive styles--often employing the conventions of the thriller--and they all stress research and detection. The range of discourses varies: A pesar del oscuro silencio relies on literary criticism, La paz de los sepulcros on the nota roja, and En busca de Klingsor on quantum mechanics and game theory. Along with a group of writers who published "novelas del crack" in 1996 and 1997, Volpi seeks to "devolverle a la narrativa esa capacidad de encontrar la poesia no en el lenguaje sino en las acciones de los personajes" ("return to narrative that capacity for finding poetry not in language but in the characters' actions"; Castro 55). Through accents placed on characters and actions, Volpi's novels construct complex systems of interrelations as did the novelas totalizantes of the 1960s. Volpi's novels alternately challenge and captivate as they instruct readers in specific ways of imagining the world. For this reason, Volpi and the other "novelistas del crack" eschew the early 1990s vogue for literary entertainment known in Mexico as literatura light, a literary practice that, from Volpi's point of view, trivializes the relation between literature and knowledge.(2)

Volpi's novels do not represent knowledge attained. Rather, they portray a search: knowledge is a possibility, a journey never completed. Moreover, the paths on such a journey cross a common terrain: the enigmas of identity and human behavior. Volpi's novels, with their focus on the poetry of actions, explore what was once called "human nature." Literary theory today more comfortably approaches this topic in terms of subjectivity and agency. Volpi usually writes about identity in terms of caracter, temperamento, and voluntad (character, temperament, and will). Although his novels point toward a philosophy of uncertainty, they nevertheless enact a search for an underlying arithmetic of identity and behavior. This arithmetic of character develops from a simple relationship between subject and object into a complex view of situated actors in a social field of interacting forces.

SUBJECT AND OBJECT: RESEARCH AND IDENTITY

The Cartesian dualism of subject and object--res cogitans and res extensa--has sustained rational discourse since the seventeenth century. Replicated throughout Western culture in oppositional pairs--mind and body, spirit and matter, observer and observed--such a dualism views the world as an object to be known and the subject as a human observer capable of knowing. Although twentieth-century mathematics, physics, and, more recently, poststructural literary theory and contemporary anthropology problematize this dualism, the sedimented history of a knowledge-seeking-subject with a knowledge-bearing-object weighs heavily upon "rational" thinking in Western discourse.

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