tr. Mary Ann Newman

[Open Letter; 2010]

Heribert Julià, the first of two eerily similar artists in Quim Monzó’s Gasoline, is counting down the days to his next art show. There are three weeks to the opening, and all of the paintings have been named and sold. Unfortunately, Heribert hasn’t painted them yet, and while he struggles to discern a hawk from a handsaw, another artist, Humbert Herrera, has already begun to take his place, and not just at the gallery. At one time or another, Heribert and Humbert may be in the same bed, with the same woman, having the same dream.

Looking at a copy of a picture of René Magritte’s The Treachery of Images, which depicts a pipe and the statement “Ceci n’est pas une pipe” (“This is not a pipe”), Heribert Julià cannot help but agree. Indeed, nothing is what it seems to be in Heribert’s world, where consciousness and dream twist together like a Möbius strip, and reality is created and discovered at the same time. Returning home from following his girlfriend and another man, Heribert decides to turn on every light, device, appliance, and noise maker in the house. He becomes annoyed with his stereo, which claims to be a radio and cassette player yet refuses to be both at the same time, but moments later, as he stands outside ringing his own doorbell, Heribert thinks, “If in this precise moment the telephone rang, I’d be a truly happy man.” Then it rings.

While Heribert loses himself in the din of life, the up-and-coming Humbert Herrera considers reality a step backward that he can’t afford to take. Overflowing with ideas, Humbert complains that there is not enough time or space to get them all out, and with his predecessor’s former muse sleeping by his side, he takes out a notebook and begins planning films, novels, symphonies, and performances in which every person on the planet has a part. When the notebook is full, Humbert goes to the bathroom for the paper towels, and when those run out, he moves on to the toilet paper, the floor, and the ceiling. He soon spills out into the next room, turning every surface into a palimpsest of makeup and mania.

With a surreal blend of absurdity and objectivity, Monzó succeeds where his characters cannot and creates a work that is much more than the sum of its parts. Juxtaposition is used for counterpoint, not comparison, and self-referentiality, rather than showcasing self-consciousness on the part of the author, emerges harmoniously from the text. The result is a masterful gestalt that transcends its mirrored parts like a Rubin vase, an Escher print, or a Bach fugue.

As Heribert exits and Humbert enters, both men pause in front of Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks. Humbert faces the original, Heribert a copy. The effect is heightened by the fact that the book itself is a copy, a versatile translation from Catalan to English by NYU’s Mary Ann Newman. It took twenty-seven years for Benzina to become Gasoline, but unlike Heribert and Humbert, Quim Monzó easily stands the test of time.


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