By Daniel Guebel
Translated by Jessica Sequeira
Daniel Guebel’s novel—his 15th, though the first to appear in English—is a quixotic venture that deals with a quixotic venture based on a desire to understand and commemorate a succession of quixotic ventures. For most of its length, “The Absolute” takes the form of a group biography, a labor of love by an unnamed female narrator who attempts to preserve the lives of five outsized male ancestors—what her son calls a “chronicle of the geniuses of my family’. ” The result, published in Argentina in 2016, is both exhausting and exciting, not alternately but thanks to the same choices and flourishing.
The story opens with the unveiling of a tacky sculpture commissioned by twins: the narrator’s father, the pianist Sebastian Deliuskin; and her uncle, Alexander Scriabin, a real-life composer admired by Stravinsky and Glenn Gould and who—for reasons never become explicit—is included in this heaving fictional genealogy. The narrator rejects the “cubist eyesore” and offers without gules, apologies, or segues by way of compensation or repo his own “tribute” – verbal in form, corrective in purpose (“treacherous progeny” is endlessly given to error) , tenacious yet degressive in its habits, inherent conjecture, spanning two centuries and both hemispheres, portraying Napoleon Bonaparte, Franz Ferdinand, and Madame Blavatsky along the way.
The title bares the theme. Each successive story revolves around the quest for transcendence, with the chosen areas of research being sex, theology, theosophy, political action, and above all musical experimentation, beginning with the “xylophonic performance technique” developed by the narrator’s great-great grandfather, Frantisek Deliuskin, in the 18th century. century. The atmosphere is tirelessly cerebral, both engaged in erudition and dependent on it. An accompanying “note” from Guebel’s translator, Jessica Sequeira, contains 16 pages of exegesis, including a section entitled “Egg (Philosophy)” explaining the image on the front of a broken eggshell (“a symbol of the absolute, both contain whole and origin”).
The novel of ideas often depends on the counterintuitive analogy – symbolic preferences that wipe out superficial attributes. In this case, the inherited thinking about the opposition between theory and practice, the mystical and the materialistic, is tested and found to be inadequate. Frantisek’s son Andrei, for example, a student of ballistics, numismatics, archaeology and metaphysics, produces annotations of Ignatius Loyola’s “Spiritual Exercises” which, by revealing group prayer as “a conspiratorial activity,” serve as inspiration for Lenin.
If Guebel’s penchant for clashing paradoxes and collapsing dichotomies points to Borges’s guilt, the worldliness, wild comedy and encroachment on recorded facts recall Saul Bellow, who specialized in the hapless hero, convinced that erudition would help crack the code of existence. Or it could be characterized as a tribute to ‘Sunday in the Park With George’, the Sondheim-Lapine musical about obsessive creativity that crosses generations, but reimagined by the Tom Stoppard of ‘Jumpers’ and ‘Travesties’.
Central is the satisfying congruence of theme and form. The book we are reading, or the invented book that envelops it, is an embodiment of the questing syndrome under scrutiny, while Guebel himself, in composing a late-modernist hybrid of essay, psychoanalytic case study, history lesson, saga and farce, more shows. then its part of the symptoms. The final part of the novel takes a decisive turn, revealing the human cost of the biographical legwork and also hinting at its deeper purpose. The past is defined not only by its telling, but also by the lessons it can leave behind, Guebel reveals, completing his own Deliuskin-esque grand vision in the process.