Tr. by Shelby Vincent
Time, like Gaul, is divided in three parts, and none of them actually exist. Past, present, and future are a paste of perception, a construction of our language that allows us to relate to one another, to meet on a street corner at the same time and know we are there together. Carmen Boullosa’s novel Heavens on Earth too is divided in three parts, coexisting, intermingled, and recurring within one cover. Each separate strand occurs in a different time period: future, past, and present. Rather than a paste however, these three assignations exist very separately as narrative constituents. Heavens on Earth is only secondarily — or even tertiarily — about time. Its primary conceptual scrutiny is applied to the capacity of language to organize and ground aspects of our human civilization, like time, but also perception, relationships — all of our shared understanding of reality, if you will. It is absurdly obvious to point out the pervasive role of language in our lives, though perhaps less so to reflect on its fragility, its ever-loosening bond with all that it has constructed for us.
Although I plan to spend little time on the narrative itself — you can read it — it is helpful to present the basic schema. The first narrative strand, located in the future and told by a woman named Lear, concerns and contains a post-language society living in some type of ephemeral state in the sky. In this cultural vacuum, all of the facets of culture, perception, and physics that are governed and enabled by our shared foundations of language have been eliminated. This future tends to an enlightened, immaterial savagery, a graduation from the constraints of culture into a terminal state of useless liberation in which the beings gesture away the memory of their entire evolutionary history. The more actively deleterious effects of language’s hegemony, found in colonialism and religious persecution, are primarily dealt with in the narrative warp of the past, which is comprised of a document ostensibly written — originally in Latin — by Hernando, an indigenous Mexican Indian who has become a Franciscan monk. The weft of the book, which takes place in a time as close as possible to what we can identify with as the present, is the narrative of Estela, who is translating Hernando’s text from Latin to Spanish. Lear, in the book’s ultimate future, has knowledge of both of these texts. To a certain extent, this tactically establishes the book in the unreliable translator tradition, though it is significantly more complicated due to the plurality of the three texts. As Boullosa herself says in a preface, “At the end of the book, these two separate novels embark on a dialogue — one that excludes the author and that allows Estela to reveal herself, a dialogue that occurs elsewhere, one that does not exist in these pages.”
The shared binding, or framing together of a narrative that holds other narratives by other authors is a conceit found everywhere from Borges to The Notebook. The most common rhetorical function of multiple parallel narratives is to provide each with a specular quality that allows the reader to re-view the others. One of the most didactic examples of the approach, although still lovely in its execution, is Nabokov’s Pale Fire. Ostensibly the (fictional) publication of a poem by John Shade and an attendant critical apparatus by Charles Kinbote, the entire amalgam, like most of Nabokov’s best work, is of uncertain veracity. We cannot be certain that “Pale Fire,” Shade’s poem, is presented as intended, for Kinbote stole the drafts after his death. Nor can we be certain that Kinbote’s critical commentary has any relationship to the poem. Nor can we even be sure that Nabokov meant for this to seem as though we are finding a book called Pale Fire that was published legitimately and that he appropriated — for what legitimate publisher would release such a bizarre volume — or whether it is meant to be seen as a self-reflexive construct by Nabokov, which we know that it is.
All texts are found texts. Some give us stronger lenses to view them as such. In this way, Pale Fire is twice removed, twice augmented, by Kinbote’s reading of Shade’s poem, and by our reading of the whole volume. Each refraction of the text allows us to consider the narrative content as embodying more than a limp romp. As Doris Lessing says of The Golden Notebook that her, “major aim was to shape a book which would make its own comment, a wordless statement: to talk through the way it was shaped.” The conceptual instability of Pale Fire, Kinbote’s colonization of Shade’s poem (can we even be certain that he did not change it to suit his whims) and his manipulation of its reception through the construction of an artificial critical apparatus around it (“That is not what I meant at all; That is not it, at all.”), is at such a conspicuous level that our efforts are driven towards propping the novel up again, Nabokov spotting us in the shaky bench-press of his text.
Unlike in Pale Fire, the three strands of Heavens on Earth are not mirrors, nor are they lenses. Their involution is of self-allusion. In a sense those narrative strands in Boullosa’s novel are too disparate, too independent to function as an effective literary contraption, yet not so distinct as to demand a readerly joint compound to backfill the negative space between, the anastylosis of the open work. The book occupies a Borgesian tradition in which possible and impossible exist simultaneously in one text. Yet there is a seamlessness found in Borges, a sense that science fiction, or the impossible, is more an aspect of history than prognostication in that it is woven with, or enabled by, a conversational present. By contrast, here the parts do not have a seamless or monolithic tendency, they do not masquerade as a singularity like the paratextual costume of Pale Fire’s annotated poem. They do not prop each other up or actuate each other. Their accounts are figures of distinct realities as established by separate consciousness processes, separate hands. It is not quite so simple. They are aware of one another, but not in a didactic sense. It is left to the three tales, by virtue of pure narrative content, to encode a sense of these interrelations, or at least for the reader to mine for that sense.
One way that this is accomplished is through the manipulations the protagonists make of each other’s narratives. Implicit in any type of multifoliate found text, one in which the texts are conscious of one another as texts, is the unreliability of their content. This is especially true in Heavens on Earth when we are informed early on by Estela that she has not faithfully translated Hernando’s text. From a section by Estela, “Hernando de Rivas, former student of the Colegio de la Santa Cruz Tlatelolco . . . was alive at one time, but he no longer exists. I’ve blurred him with my liberal translation, I’ve erased his characteristics by imposing my own intentions and ideas upon him, my expectations of what he should say, what he should have said.” Similarly, Lear exemplifies the colonialism of elision, the manipulated potential of power found in the storyteller, “I will be with Estela and Hernando until the end of time. I’ll erase the announcement of Hernando’s death. I’ll take out the paragraph in which it is mentioned.” Thus, the three pieces have a somewhat simple, though inextricable surface relationship — their matte contours do not interlock, but where there are peninsulas, they are clad in hook-and-loop. They lie there in their unbreachable distances.
The structural relationships between the strands tell us the most about how to augur the book’s contents. But the reflexive contribution of the stories themselves calls the whole assembly into question. The pivotal narrative moment of Heavens on Earth is contained in the future tense, from Lear, when her community abandons language altogether:
A meeting was being conducted on one of the high peaks of the once-snow-covered cordilleras of the Andes. I drew near. They were all communicating in their new code — they were wiggling around doing their grotesque contortions, gesticulating obscenely.
This is not so much different than sign language. Sign language is not written. It exists only as a performance like speech, but to surrogate the absence of speech’s sound, and exists only in the moment, is not a record, hence the fluidity of the oral tradition, its evolutionary quality. So the abrogation of language is more the abrogation of language that is able to transcend time and be a comparative mechanism. In this light, the three strands of the book coexist; they are a performance, a book: simultaneous.
Books themselves, even without the thickness of their words, comprise our archetypal memory. The fact that they are being written at all constitutes the advancement of human culture. As objects, they flicker into coalescence with our situation. Standing in the basement of an academic library, in forgotten stacks that students no longer visit — truly, they do not — amidst the books, without reading them, is a physical sense, like a skin, that I do not need to see from within to know how it binds me into form, this hum of the whole of human endeavor, placing me where I am in the present, atop the heap, like a house atop a swelling cryptodome, rising further into the sky.
When the books disappear, when language is implicit in our understanding, are we left with any recollection? The mind’s eye: a wordless image theater, less demanding of language than the world around us that demands to be organized. Conjure the face of your beloved. Words are not required. One thinks of the cat dreaming, its paws running in place after an image in her mind, raw and without the contours of language. Inarticulate silence is a willful eschewal of the biological evolution of language. In that silence all things lose their shadings. Our shared ground, our complex human desires in the erotic lens of language, our most fundamental relationships, are desaturated. The end of language, all the texts in the library are sealed, the image of the book is meaningless, the marking of passing time in text is suppressed. The recognition of change, or its articulation by comparison only possible through language, culminates with the end of perceived time.
The endurance of language, in its ability to be understood as a consistent and unchanging record, different than the spoken word, or the stream of digital words (the internet, especially in the age of social media, has pushed the written word closer to the spoken word, diminishing its authority and persistence, overlaying it with itself in time in such a way that what was written days hence is seen as not having the currency, or effect of what was written seconds ago, even though they are both the written word, the written word from days hence seems like the memory of a spoken word and is not trusted), is responsible for staving off the drift of humans, who have evolved to a consciousness that is dependent on language, from drifting into psychosis, in which we do not share a world foundation with our fellows.
The function of language, not just culturally, but in its real time shaping of the world, is that we can compose, compare, and gauge, rather than just react. The opposite of language is instinct; instinct is not a function of culture or abstractions of time. In much the same way, the stripping away of language is an act of control. We are observing it at this very moment in the destabilization of our shared reality through the stability of language, what it means and how permanent it is. This is not necessarily a new concept, in that it has always been the powerful — but for the few surreptitious voices, an Anne Frank here, an Osip Mandelstam there, who have been able to materialize language outside the boundaries of the narrative of power — who have written the words that cast our perceptions. Immigrants from Latin America who are faced, in the United States, with the mandate of speaking English or returning home, are being stripped of the manner in which they have perceived the world around them. Language is as much for sharing, being together, as it is for suppressing, delegitimizing.
Lear asserts that through the text she and the others will not die. The aspiration of encoding oneself into the endurance of language is the inscription on the tombstone. Imagine your existence through time being dependent upon the oral perpetuation of your memory by your family into the future. Most people do not have in their working memory a family tree that goes beyond their great grandparents (at best). So in this way it is time, as Sterne says in Tristram Shandy, that, “wastes too fast: every letter I trace tells me with what rapidity Life follows my pen,” inseparable from language and its construction, from language and its consumption, a measure, in the pliable past, present, and future, that is the true victim of silence. It is Lear, finally, that gives us hope beyond silence, but also the sadness of its inevitability:
But we won’t dissolve, we won’t get trapped in the net of idiocy my community has fallen headlong into. / We’ll save language and the memory of man, and one day we’ll shape the hand that will tell our story, and we’ll wonder about the mystery of death, the foolish absurdity of men and women. We will feel horror, though our bodies will experience neither cold nor pain.
John Trefry is an architect and the author of the novel PLATS, the caprice THY DECAY THOU SEEST BY THY DESIRE, and the forthcoming APPARITIONS OF THE LIVING, his work has appeared on The Fanzine and forthcoming on Black Sun Lit. He contributes to Entropy Magazine and Minor Literatures. He lives in Lawrence, Kansas.