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Saturday 23 April 2016

The Story Of My Teeth - Valeria Luiselli (translated by Christina MacSweeney) - Best Translated Book Award 2016

The teeth are the true windows to the soul; they are the tabula rasa The teeth are the true windows to the soul; they are the tabula rasa on which all our vices and all our virtues are inscribed.

Last year Valeria Luiselli was shortlisted for the Best Translated Book Award for her novel “Faces In The Crowd” (translated by Christina MacSweeney) and she backs up with a further shortlisting in 2016 for “The Story of My Teeth” (also translated by Christina MacSweeney). A few days ago I wrote about young female writers, pushing traditional literature’s boundaries, and Luiselli definitely sits in that boat.

In the Afterword to this work, our author explains that the book is the result of several collaborations. Working with a serial novel style (a la Dickens’ “The Pickwick Papers”), Luiselli released low-budget chapbooks for distribution to factory workers in a juice factory, and a reading club was established. Recording the worker’s discussions about the chapbooks, their insights and discussions dictated the course of the narrative for future instalments. As Luiselli says “The result of these shared concerns is this collective “novel-essay” about the production of value and meaning in contemporary art and literature.”

Our story opens with Gustavo Sánchez Sánchez, or ‘Highway’, our protagonist narrator, telling us of his obsession with collecting, from his father’s finger nail clippings, drinking straws given to him by an unfaithful wife, rubber bands and paper clips from his desk job at a juice factory, to collecting courses for managing possible staff crises?

You are hooked from the first page, here are the opening two paragraphs:

I’m the best Auctioneer in the world, but no one knows it because I’m a discreet sort of man. My name is Gustavo Sánchez Sánchez, though people call me Highway, I believe with affection. I can imitate Janis Joplin after two rums. I can interpret Chinese fortune cookies. I can stand an egg upright on a table, the way Christopher Columbus did in the famous anecdote. I know how to count to eight in Japanese: ichi, ni, san, shi, go, roku, shichi, hachi. I can float on my back.
This is the story of my teeth, and my treatise on collectibles and the variable value of objects. As any other story, this one begins with the Beginning; and then comes the Middle, and then the End. The rest, as a friend of mine always says, is literature: hyperbolics, parabolics, circulars, allegorics, and elliptics. I don’t know what comes after that. Possibly ignominy, death, and, finally, post-mortem fame. At that point it will no longer be my place to say anything in the first person. I will be a dead man, a happy, enviable man.

Our narrator becomes an auctioneer and learns that “there are four types of auctions: circular, elliptical, parabolic and hyperbolic.” These names become the names of the books in our novel, along with “The Story (Beginning, Middle End)”, “The Allegorics”, see literature construction above, and “The Chronologic”, which is actually a section added by the translator, in the theme of being a truly collaborative piece, with a timeline of Gustavo Sánchez Sánchez’s life aligned to significant (?) literary and art events (for example, 2004Posthumous publication of Uruguayan author Mario Levrero’s La novela luminoso, which includes a 450-pahe prologue recounting how the writer spent the grant awarded to him by the Guggenheim Foundation. Or March 2012 – New York-based artist Ugo Rondinone curates an exhibition that includes Hans Schärer’s Madonna, in which the teeth are replaced by yellowing pebbles.) For the real literature nuts – Mario Levrero’s novel has not been translated into English, but it is referenced in Andrés Neuman’s “Talking To Oursleves”.

Each “book” within the novel opens with a fortune cookie quote and a circular conundrum of an epigraph, adding to the many layers contained here.

For sheer reading joy the work is absolutely peppered with quotable gems;
It’s a mystery why all female Mediterranean bodies look like eggplants after the age of fifty.

That’s politicians for you, clergy included: their heads are so full of themselves that they aren’t the least bit curious about other people’s lives.

I’ve got an unparalleled talent for resignation, like all Catholic men.

Find photos of all the writers you respect, and you’ll see that their teeth remain a permanently occult mystery. This is in reference to respected writer’s never showing their teeth (noting Luiselli’s photo on the back inner sleeve shows no teeth)

This is a novel that references numerous writers, numerous artists, well read, or art fans will find many sections they can revel in;

What auctioneers auction, in the end, are just names of people, and maybe words. All I do is give them new content.

Is that what Luiselli is doing here? With the numerous references, epigraphs about language or words or the nonexistence of language relationships, containing conundrums, the metaphysics of words, is she giving old words and themes “new content”? Is she selling the unsellable? Is this a story that already exists?

A many layered work, a pleasure to read, a celebration of both the art world and the written word, there is no simple way to describe the book, other than to recommend readers of translated books to get a copy and revel in its joy. I do know of a number of fellow bloggers who were less than enthused about this book, maybe comparing it to her “Faces In The Crowd”, but for me, it read easily, it brought a smile to my face, it had enough ambiguity and “puzzles” to keep me thinking, in other words it satiated the main reading pleasures.

What could be more poignant than yet another quote from this amazing work? All the parameters we normally use to measure our actions seem trivial.

As our author said in her own words, this is a “novel-essay” about the production value and meaning in contemporary art and literature. In my opinion, a highly rated and enjoyable novel that I think is in with a fighting chance of collecting the Best Translated Book Award main gong, not having read the full shortlist it could be a bit premature to make that statement but I have it towards the top of the pile from the ones I have read.

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