Agustín Fernández Paz – This Strange Lucidity
I should admit from the outset that I am ideologically opposed to stories that have either an animal or a child as their primary perspective character. In general, such decisions are made by the author so as to allow for an ironic or satirical or faux-innocent viewpoint of ordinary events in a manner which is intended to enlighten the reader as to some social issue or sexual proclivity or moral quandry. The classic example is a scene in which a child views his parents having sex and, uncertain as to what is occurring, refers to the act with all sorts of “hilariously” wrong examples and suggestions. Virtually without fail, stories such as these fail for me because they require a kind of knowing falsity on part of the reader – the author knows what is really happening, the reader knows what is really happening, but the narrator does not. And that's the entire joke, such as it is.
There are a few exceptions, but unfortunately Agustín Fernández Paz's This Strange Lucidity is not among them. Henry James' What Maisie Knew is an intense psychological examination of the effects of Maisie's childhood as she grows up in a dysfunctional family involving liars and cheaters. Maisie is innocent but not ignorant, and is in fact remarkably perceptive – she may not understand the physical details of a mature adult relationship, but she is certainly receptive to the complex emotional and psychological issues. Her viewpoint is clear rather than muddled, gaining clarity because she is at two removes – the first because she is not technically a part of her parent's and their lover's relationships, and the second because she does not have a sexual drive or physical desire to muddy up her attempts to understand what is occuring about her. In short, Maisie as a child creates a sophisticated extra-awareness to an already complicated situation.
This Strange Lucidity, on the other hand, takes the perspective of a dog examining his master's life. The unnamed dog relates the story of his master from when he met “the Woman” until they broke it off and then, later, when they both died in a car accident. Given that the overall plot of the story is fairly straight forward it falls, then, to the effects of narration and characterisation to create a meaningful (or not) story. Unfortunately, the dog is an unbelievable character, both for what it knows and what it does not. Two prime examples include one comment the dog makes concerning irony (of course: how would the dog know how to recognise irony, or its absence), and the second, when the dog's master goes from being very sad to less sad: “Perhaps there's truth in the saying 'time heals all wounds.'” - How does the dog know about this saying, and how could it recognise the current situation as an example of such?
Of course, of course - we know the saying, and we can see that the dog is struggling to discover exactly what has occurred to its master. But what does this third-hand narrative structure add to the story? What are we being told her, either intellectually or aesthetically, that couldn't have been done in a clearer or more artful manner via an ordinary narrative path? The dog as narrator has to be justified by the story in order for the piece to work – and that never occurs. There's never any reason why the dog is chosen as narrator over, say, an omniscient narrator, the master's cleaner, the Woman, or even just a lamp-post. The dog needs to earn its function as a narrator, which unfortunately never occurs.
Her lights go out early, they're rarely on any time after midnight. Some days, though, they stay on late and then he starts to get worried, you can see it in his expression. But that doesn't happen often, the lights are normally off at night. He never takes his eyes off them, as if the world were nothing more than those three dark rectangles.
As mentioned above, the story revolves around the master's initial courtship with the Woman, their eventual break-up, and its effects on both master and animal. Thus we are subject to scenes such as the above, which are couched in an unnecessary level of confusion – unnecessary because we, as people, immediately understand what is happening, yet the dog, as an animal who remains ignorant of romantic love, must fumble through explanations. It's tiresome and it doesn't work, and – rectangles? What does a dog know of rectangles?
Because the dog is, well, a dog, it needs must over-explain things to itself in order to discover what has actually occurred with its master. Thus we are subject to needlessly lengthened paragraphs of explanation in which ordinary, routine situations are described artlessly and ignorantly, all to show that the dog is having trouble understanding. Thus:
Rarely had I seen my master so happy, he was positively radiant. I don't mean he was normally a bit sullen, it would be wrong to suggest such a thing. I just mean there was a special happiness about him that day which I'd never seen.
...my attention was dran to the noise and muffled laughter coming from my master's bedroom. I ran toward it, but found the door closed. This surprised me, the doors in our house were never closed. “Off you go, Argos, back to the lounge.” His order was obscured by the Woman's giggles. I left with my tail between my legs. I'd never felt so humiliated, he'd never done this to me before. It took them some time to emerge. When they did, they both had a strange glazed look on their faces and were clearly sharing something that didn't include me.
Yes, yes – they've had sex. The reader knows it immediately and is forced to suffer through several lines of the dog's confusion. What gain, to read this instead of plainly knowing? Again, the author, by choosing to show his story from the perspective of the dog, needs to earn it in order for it to be effective. Kafka, in his magnificent, A Report to an Academy, takes as its narrator an ape named Red Peter who, via a vast effort of will, has mastered human speech and mannerism in order to avoid remaining in captivity. Red Peter's account of his life as an ape and subsequent career as an almost-human is a fascinating story in its own right, but it also functions as a critique on identity and memory, and the individual's need to assimilate into society in order to be accepted, even if this is at the expense of their true self. In short: Kafka earns his narrator, and does with Red Peter something that would be much more difficult and much less effective if the narrator was simply a primitive human turned into a first world citizen.
Agustín Fernández Paz never succeeds in raising This Strange Lucidity above its artificial conceit. The story is well written in that it's never jarring or unpleasant to read, but one must ask more from a story than it simply failing to be unpleasant. Throughout, the dog makes strange references to how things “now” allow it to better reflect on things “then” - this is explained away as the dog's ghost reflecting on the months before it died, which is to say, we aren't given much of an explanation for the little suspense the story creates. Overall, This Strange Lucidity is a failure, fundamentally flawed from the outset.
This Strange Lucidity by Agustín Fernández Paz is a short story from the Dalkey Archive Press' anthology, Best European Fiction 2012
Other stories from the Dalkey Archive Press' anthology, Best European Fiction 2012, include:
------Belgium (Flemish): de Martelaere, Patricia - My Hand is Exhausted
------Croatian: Hrgović, Maja - Zlatka
------Polish: Rudnicki, Janusz - The Sorrows of Idiot Augustus
------Irish: Rosenstock, Gabriel - “...everything emptying into white”
------Hungarian: Bán, Zsófia - When There Were Only Animals
------Swiss (Rhaeto-Romanic and German): Camenisch, Arno - Sez Ner
------Portuguese: Zink, Rui - Tourist Destination
------Georgian: Dephy, David - Before the End
------Irish: Hogan, Desmond - Kennedy
------Russian: Davydov, Danila - The Telescope
------Czech: Kratochvil, Jiří - I, Loshaď
------Estonian: Kõomägi, Armin - Logisticians Anonymous
Best European Fiction 2011 short stories under review
Best European Fiction 2010 short stories under review
Index of titles by The Dalkey Archive Press under review
Index of short stories under review