Tuesday, 19 May 2009

Panic Signs - Cristina Peri Rossi

Genre:Literature & Fiction
Tagline:Loss of Rights & Descent into Terror of an Oppressive Dictatorial Regime

"It is time to say that man, before receiving the benefits of culture, should receive the benefits of order. In a certain sense, it can be said that, historically, the policeman has taken precedence over the teacher." —Benito Mussolini

This is a collection of 46 short texts of poetic prose written just prior to the military takeover of the author's home country of Uruguay in 1972. It is a difficult book, difficult first for its subject matter; it tells of the terrible happenings as a country lets itself slip into a police state, the despair of houses being torn apart in police searches and people being arrested on trumped up charges and presages the horrors that were to come: the disappearances, censorship, repression and torture. The author herself would have her works banned and be forced to leave the country for her own safety, where she lives to this day in Barcelona. 

But the book is difficult for another reason. It is full of metaphor. "Man is a hunter of signs...existence has no meaning without interpretation", but the author's signs are often not easy to interpret. But we are reassured that signs are multiple and this is how it should be. "There is no one reading," she writes "though politicians sometimes do not understand [this], nor even visionaries and mystics." It is understandable if we do not understand, the purpose is to create uneasiness, to evoke sensations of panic through nightmarish visions, and to explore the redemptive power of the erotic and the absurd. 

For example, the reader might rather skip over the horrific description of a body whose organs keep expanding, a metaphor for the organs of the state stifling out all life. The birds in blue feathers represent authority, the higher their rank the more they stink. Blue is the colour of their uniform and is used throughout to symbolize the iciness and desolation of the world outside, unlike the warmth and darkness of the womb. 

"I read your book... It's a bit confusing... Maybe you could explain it to me?" a señora asks an author who is male but represents Cristina Rossi herself (the boundaries of sexuality sometimes blur). "If I knew I wouldn't have written it," he replies, and later "I write it the way I dream." The use of metaphor is supposed to be confusing and alienating, and when the señora asks him if he at least can relieve the uneasiness he has caused by making love to her, he politely refuses and explains why and she is sorry for him. He gives her a ticket to the museum where he will be on display by "state decree", a living image preserved forever of a world in decline. 

This has been a difficult book to explain, to interpret or to review. It is beautifully translated, poetic, satirical, imaginative, multi-layered and Kafka-esque. I hope the above at least gives some idea of the atmosphere of this complex and artistic work.

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