The No Variations (originally published in Spanish in 2007), is described in Darren Koolman’s Translator’s Preface as “an omnium gatherum of obscure references, cryptic anagrams, parenthetical remarks, indecipherable aide-mémoire, overblown critical extracts, imperfectly-wrought poems, bewildering drafts of unfinished stories, characters with unpronounceable names…everything, in other words, a reader might expect to find in the diary of an impenetrably difficult unfinished novel, the result being a book that seems to resist all acts of interpretation” (VI). I think the key words in there, for me, are “bewildering” and “impenetrably difficult.”

This book was a slog for me: I struggled to find a way to approach it, to follow it. It’s not particularly linear or narrative; plots are introduced and cut off by the NO of the title. It’s not character-driven, either: there are plenty of names, but I didn’t really get a sense of any of the characters as distinct people: they’re all contributors to a fictional literary journal that’s big on plagiarism and pseudonyms, but we don’t learn much more than that. There are some brief early character sketches (in which we learn, for example, that one character “is short and stocky” and “writes in longhand” and that another “affects elegance to conceal indigence”) and there’s a list, later, of which characters like which alcoholic beverages (“Red without question. And lots of it” for one; “Fernet or Negroni” for another), and I could maybe tell you which pairs of characters were lovers or spouses, but I don’t have a sense that I’m meant to understand any of these characters as people (4-5, 41). A lot of the book is concerned with writing and style, and sometimes this leads to humor: there’s mention of a book “in which there wasn’t a word that couldn’t have been dispensed with” (11); different versions of the same paragraph appear multiple times at different places in the text; there’s a section of the book in the style of Henry James. There’s a concern with what gets said: in the Jamesian section there’s a bit about the story a writer/narrator originally wanted to tell vs. the story he now wants to tell vs. the story he is actually telling. There are lists: I particularly like a list titled, in part, “List of places in London I should have seen during my first visit and their order” (185) and another list of “Ceremonies/Liturgies” that includes such items as “On Elena’s way of cutting the uncut pages of a book” (189). Overall, though, I am definitely not this book’s ideal reader, and ended up feeling fairly overwhelmed by it.

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