by Sergio de la Pava
review written when book was still self-published | it was rereleased in 2013 by University of Chicago Press
“How strange how if you burrow deep enough all you seem to find is connective interrelation” (155). This quotation almost three quarters through Sergio de la Pava’s second novel, Personae, seems to encourage the reader to continue following the thread of meaning in a book that contains a detective story, aphorisms, a hundred page play, a short story, articles on Bach and Gould, a novella, and obituaries. How do these styles, with different plot lines and characters, come together?
While not intentionally obfuscating, Personae asks that the reader do some work. What begins as a police investigation into the death of a man more than a century old turns, not ungracefully, into a meditation on the dynamic between art and artist, death and rebirth. Stylistically the genres work together as each creates something new while containing threads of a core argument or question: “Is the artist cursed, blessed, blessed to be cursed, or cursed to be blessed?” (153), and what has potential and what is realized?
When taken apart or viewed as parts, ten sections divide Personae. The narrative begins with Detective Helen Tame investigating the death of a man more than a century old, one Antonio Arce, Colombian immigrant, businessman, and writer. The stories contained in Personae, including the play of the same name, are all ascribed to him. Tame has an uncommon gift of perception. She also is able to hide in plain sight, conveniently, which she attributes to “understand(ing) the behavior of soundwaves…” (12). In a prior career she was a virtuoso pianist who performed widely and published influential articles on, among other things, contrapuntal melody.
Personae is self-published and as of this review has yet to be picked up, though A Naked Singularity, de la Pava’s first work, was published earlier this year by University of Chicago Press. That is only important because Antonio Arce’s work was left to posterity and “His influence, if any, is not yet known” (163) The aphorisms in chapter three, especially Arce’s lambasting of Rabassa’s translation of One Hundred Years of Solitude is not initially apparent until we learn that Arce the immigrant, wrote exclusively in English and was fanatical about doing it well. This led to his seclusion and death. At this point I have to imagine de la Pava writing about himself, and he may have been, though certainly not exclusively. The cursed or blessed argument invokes Woolf, Hemingway, Dostoevsky, Melville, Cervantes, writers who placed their art above self-interest, which led to their early demises. They survive because language has the power to rewrite itself and to be reimagined. (Hence, blasting the translator is more akin to posing a challenge.)
“Learn a fact today and marvel tomorrow at how ubiquitous it then seems, how crucial to the edifice of human knowledge and how negligent of you to only then have learned it” (155). In context this is Helen Tame solving the investigation. Sequentially it comes before the novella, Energeias, where two stories run in parallel along with the concepts of potentiality and actuality. Hopefully for de la Pava, his potential remains while also being realized.
Review by Craig Chisholm