Saturday, 4 February 2012

leaving atocha station [ben lerner]

It might be hard to explain how much pleasure this book has given me during the course of various frenetic, pre-departure days, punctuated by alcohol, hospitals and multiple viewings of The Tempest.  

Lerner's mendacious anti-hero poet is something of a blood brother to Alan Pauls' anti-hero in The Past. Both are addicts, both are unhinged. Lerner's narrator is perhaps funnier. His self awareness is lacerating. He lies with all the panache of a dromedary, if indeed dromedaries lie.

Amongst its many brilliances, this is a brilliant book about the pleasures and pains of inhabiting a second language. The way in which a foreign language acts as a cloak, behind which the stranger can allow him or herself to be reinvented as an enigmatic, fascinating character. Even though the enigma represents nothing more than ignorance and insecurity. 

The counterpoint to all this is that Lerner's narrator, feckless though he is, is also given by the author language which reveals a mind of unfettered brilliance. Out of the soup of words, he conjures those phrases which great writing nails, the ones that make you go: Exactly! That's exactly right!

This is of course Lerner's brilliance on show, rather than his narrator's. It is Lerner who instructs the reader in how to read John Ashbery, how to misread a woman's words, or even your own, how to meditate on the relationship between politics and poetry. It's quite a skill. You don't have to have been to Atocha station with its unmentioned jungle to appreciate all this. Or even Madrid. If you have, it's an added bonus.

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