The Paris Review, Spring 2006 – Alessandro Baricco
Posted February 2, 2007on:
I’ve decided to mine back issues of The Paris Review. I chose the spring over summer because the cover promised John Ashbery poems.
Alessandro Baricco’s “Overture to the Twentieth Century”, translated by Ann Goldstein provided a memorable opening experience, similar to what I felt when I read Mohsin Hamid in the fall. The disbelief competed with the awe and enthrallment that fiction this good, providing this kind of moment could be found outside the pages of a “proper” book: written by an author, published, reviewed and placed in shop window. Other fiction in alternative venues I subconsciously deemed “lesser”. It’s difficult for me to eliminate this prejudice. The tendency to underestimate raises my fictional encounters in journals to something almost mystical; I imagine a heavenly ray of light resting my reading spot, the sacred silence around me deepening in reverence to this event. It does not lessen Baricco’s and Hamid’s talent and skill but one should probably temper expectations if one tries either of their works.
So far the Paris Review editor shows a knack for deciding in what issues any of the short fiction is impressive enough to start readers off and which can be shuffled in among the other pieces. The T.C. Boyle and Gish Yen selections in Winter 2006 are good enough, the second more appealing–I may blog about her stuff if I try any more–but none were stunners.
“Overture to the Twentieth Century” is a stunner. It’s a fictional re-imagining of the Paris-Madrid road race in 1903. The point-of-view changes among a variety of speakers: the third-person narrator who tells us most of the details on the race and the people involved; a headwaiter at the royal tent in Spain, elegant, meticulous and proud in his position, preparing for the celebrations at the end of the race; and a changing roster of characters picked out from whichever scene is currently depicted, interjecting their thoughts.
Ignorance of the facts about this “race of dreams” make the progression of the story from its enigmatic, romantic start to its descent into death. Thousands of Parisians leave their homes early in the morning to witness this swift procession of the “AUTOMOBILES” as “QUEENS”. The idea that cars could surpass the speed of trains was extraordinary at the time. Every one had to go to pay tribute to the machine that “hadn’t yet been thought of as a servant”.
So you have the glamour, the prestige, the excitement and romance at the outset. The yearning, lyrical notes of an anonymous speaker who pleads “Let me go and see the dream, the speed, the miracle, don’t stop me with a mournful look, tonight let me live on the edge of the world, just this night, then I will return.” The setting of the royal table with crystal goblets. Then death starts to permeate the atmosphere, not first seen as an intrusion but as an honorific, the death of Marcel Renault lending the game refinement, giving it its proper stature. But the telegrams keep coming, telling of more and more deaths, many involving spectators, men, women and children. Eventually the French government halted the race despite the risk of upsetting the Spanish King.
The other thing that initially contributed to the work’s enigmatic impression was the formatting. In place of traditional paragraphs Baricco inserts breaks into groups of sentences that indicate slight digressions in focus rather than distinct shifts in theme. At first I thought, Whoa he’s gotten all experimental and obscure on me, I don’t know why he’s done this and no doubt the reasons are beyond my reach. Help! (I’m silly and instinctively conservative when it comes to such things, I’m ashamed to say.) Once I got past the panic and settled down to reading I saw how it worked beautifully and wasn’t any kind of obstacle at all; it just provided something else to consider. Oh, how we can be so resistant to authors who give us something unexpected or unfamiliar to consider. (I’m like that, anyway, sometimes.)
…Three million people, it was said, assembled to see the marvel, and were hypnotized by the miracle. In the offices in Paris, little by little, the telegrams sketched the image of a long serpent descending through France, out of control, blind with fury or weariness, spraying poison randomly, exasperated by the dust and the din of the crowd. While on the notice board in Madrid there was still a feverish sliding of cards, clean and silent, from which no one could have deduced anything other than the proper animation of a race, the fierce competition of a sporting event. The bands rehearsed music for brass under the sun, and the first to dance rediscovered steps learned as children and rose to an unexpected beauty. Will the dusty cavaliers dance with us? What do you say, will they dance with us? I have just a handkerchief that I would like to give, and in reserve a kiss to hold dear.
I have not sought more factual accounts of the event. I’d like Baricco’s to stay with me a little longer.