Yesterday, by Juan Emar (translated by Megan McDowell), tells the story of a day in the narrator’s life – the one before the day on which he is writing down what happened. It opens with the man and his wife rising at dawn that they may attend the beheading of Malleco, condemned by the church for spreading details of the secret of love – for the benefit of his fellow citizens. Tickets to Malleco’s execution are hard to come by, the macabre spectacle proving popular. Much of this first chapter is about how Malleco came to be sentenced to removal of his head. The remainder of the book focuses more keenly on the narrator’s activities and musings.
After Malleco’s gory death, the man and his wife visit the local zoo. This is one of the more surreal chapters. Monkeys sing and the couple join in; observed from the top of a tree, an ostrich swallows a lioness. If there are metaphors to be gleaned they remained opaque to this reader on first perusal.
Following lunch at a restaurant the narrator decides to visit a painter friend, Rubén de Loa, who works only with the colour green. I enjoyed this chapter for how it presented the conceits of art appreciation. There were still plenty of oddities in what was recounted – such as repeated silences of exactly fifteen minutes after which the same nondescript phrases would be uttered. Eventually the visitors study de Loa’s work, the narrator interpreting it based on his past experiences and finding a reflection of his life and philosophies therein. Before such thoughts can cause offence, they leave.
Next stop is a waiting room in which a pot-bellied man sits. The narrator ruminates on how the world changes as one’s mind wanders and time passes. Unable to find the serenity he seeks, he looks elsewhere but is still over-stimulated by minutiae. Exhausted by the direction his thoughts take him, the couple leave.
After a dinner taken at the same restaurant as earlier in the day, they visit the man’s family. Here they become embroiled in a foolish bet set up before they arrived. This leads the man to reflect on the causes of fear and the madness it may lead to – that it’s all in your head but still powerful.
“it is one thing to say that the dead can do nothing to me, directly, personally; it’s another thing, a very different thing, to say that I can do nothing to myself at night, when I am surrounded by the dead.”
“Why not be equally afraid when faced with that chair or that hat?”
I found the ponderings in this chapter of more interest than those woven around the pot-bellied man – although this did offer somewhat depressing nuggets on an individual’s wider value to society.
On leaving the family home, the couple walk through a rain shower before seeking shelter in a tavern. Here the narrator has an epiphany while urinating.
They make their way to their flat where the man, requesting solitude, reflects repeatedly on his day to a point verging on mania.
The detailed digressions, repetitions, observations and considerations wrapped around the bones of a plot set out here reminded me at times of the writing of Simon Okotie. The abstract nature of many of the musings brought to mind a literary Picasso. The wife, a companion throughout the day, remains an undefined shadow by the narrator’s side. There are passing references to: a disgust for all things gelatinous, war and death, a past lover. These appear influential yet remain unexplained. It is a reminder that however much of a day is recorded, there is always more happening – details sidelined.
In the introduction, Alejandro Zambra writes of the author, ‘it’s almost absurd to present Emar as a forgotten writer, since he has never been, so to speak, sufficiently remembered.’ There is much in this book to chew over and I know of many readers who will likely enjoy the challenge. I found it best to read a chapter at a time before pausing to digest and colour with my own interpretation.
An interesting exploration of what constitutes a personal reality that will likely benefit from rereading.
My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Peirene Press.