Gasoline is a book that messes with your mind, but it’s good fun.
The novella (only 141 pages) satirises the new York art scene, and while it’s true that modern art is an easy target, the way the author has tackled its pretensions is droll indeed. It’s a little like a shorter, more surreal version of Robert Bolano’s The Savage Detectives (see my review) which was a spoof of avant-garde literary movements.
Written in two parts, January and December, the book begins with the artist Heribert Julia who reminded me straight away of Ivan Gonchaarov’s Oblomov. (See my review). Too lazy to get out of his own way, too mired in his absurdist self-preoccupations to make a decision about anything, Heribert is supposed to be churning out paintings for an exhibition that’s coming up, but he can’t muster the motivation. He’s impotent, in more ways than one. And he doesn’t realise until it’s too late that the up-and-coming artist that his wife wants him to help is not only her lover, but is also his rival in the art world.
It’s not until the reader makes the acquaintance of both wife Helena and mistress Herundina, and a bunch of Heribert’s friends that it becomes obvious that almost every character’s name begins with H (and most of them are women). There’s Humbert, Hubert and Hug; then Hildegarda, Hipólita, Hilari, Hannah, Hilda, Henrietta, Heloise, and Hester. (Even the first letter of Heribert’s surname Julia sounds like an ‘H’ in Spanish, and presumably also in Catalan). Methinks the author was playing games with us late in the book when he introduced Xano and Marino del Nonno – because it appears as if there is some meaning to be made out of the difference with these names. But although I’m happy to be enlightened, I suspect that this name play with the Hs is another example of the kind of lists peppered elsewhere in the book, lists which reminded me of the long lists of Mexican poets in The Savage Detectives.
Anyway, we get half way through the book without knowing the first thing about Heribert’s art because he doesn’t do any. His thoughts are a complete muddle and he obsesses over everything from cockroaches to the movement of the clock hands. With the exhibition only three weeks away and most of the paintings sold even before it opens, Hug the gallery owner tries to pressure Heribert into getting his act together, but Heribert is disenchanted with success, with art and with love. The only time he enjoys himself at all is when he dresses in bizarre disguises to pursue his wife with her lover.
The narrative then switches to Humbert Herrera. After the indolence and inertia of ‘January’ , ‘December’ is positively frantic. The reader is suddenly bombarded with Humbert’s ideas for paintings, which he manically records in a collection of notebooks. He churns out paintings in a day, worrying about any time not spent painting as wasted. Even when he’s making love, which he does often. Yes, Humbert has not only assumed Heribert’s identity as the most collectible artist in New York, he has also made off with Heribert’s wife, and it doesn’t take him long to muscle in on Herundina as well.
Humbert is now the darling of the New York scene, and Monzó pokes fun at its poseurs with an ‘interview’ in which Humbert traces his path to artistic fame:
“Thanks to the articles Alexandre Cirici Pellicer* wrote in the section on art in Serra d’Or he learned about the existence of minimalism, conceptualism, happenings, earth art, arte povera. He went through a radical transformation. He abandoned abstraction, canvas, and acrylic (in his later abstract period he had finally, not without regrets, switched from oil to acrylic) and, in light of the sheer expense of other media, had opted for photocopies. His first photocopy was of a package of Avecrem Chicken Soup, which he titled Homage to Andy Warhol.
“Avecrem is a brand of instant soup mix..”
“Pleased with that experiment, he had done photocopies of a package of Maggi garden vegetable soup, and of a package of Knorr chicen noodle soup, titling them respectively, Homage to Andy Warhol 2 and Homage to Andy Warhol 3. He cut out a strip from El Capitan Trueno….”
“EL capitan Trueno means ‘Captain Thunder.’ It was a very popular comic book….” (p.92)
These comic book photocopies become Homage to Lichenstein 1,2 and 3. And so on, you get the picture.
Heribert and Humbert are alter egos of one another: ennui/ambition; impotence/lust; torpor/passion. But Humbert seems to end up in the same state of mind as Heribert – an artist sated by his own success, troubled by the same odd dreams. Perhaps like Oblomov, the artist in the modern world is superfluous, doomed to existential boredom.
I never did figure out why it’s called Gasoline. I thought at first it might be something lost in translation, but the original title is Benzina, so I remain mystified…
BTW There were a few typos which marred the reading of this edition. I didn’t make a note of them all, just two that really annoyed me: Tress instead of trees on p 28, and Her draws her close on p78. The reason this was so annoying was that towards the end there a very long passage is repeated word-for-word, and given Monzó’s style, I really wasn’t sure whether this was intended, or another publishing fault. A pity, because it’s otherwise a terrific book.
* A Catalan writer, politician and art critic
Author: Quim Monzó
Translator: Mary Ann Newman
Publisher: Open Letter Books, 2010 (first published as Benzina in 1983)
Source: Personal Copy, purchased direct from Open Letter Books