The invincible innocence of John Barth

There is a street in charming, cold and lonely Iowa City where you must walk reading. This is because, as in a particular and exclusively literary walk of fame, on that street, the central Iowa Avenue, here and there, the floor is full of quotes from the writers who once walked that same street on their way to a supermarket , because, of course, they lived there. It is a bit far from its almost only cocktail bar, that myth of sticky bar and dilapidated wooden booths called Foxhead, in which a whiskey called Writer’s Tears is still served, in honor of all of them..

The fact is that, among all those quotes, and thinking at the same time of the copy of ‘Letters’, the seven-headed novel that John Barth took seven years to complete, and in the basement where Brandon Sanderson produces, at breakneck speed, each new installment of his ‘Cosmere’, there is one that measures the effort of one and the other in its fair measure. “We are what we pretend to be, so choose wisely what you pretend to be,” he says. The author of it is the guy who sued a tobacco company because tobacco hadn’t killed him and ended up falling to his death when he went out for a smoke soon after: Kurt Vonnegut.

There was a time when John Barth would get up at 6 a.m. each day and make a pot of coffee—a family pot of coffee—to force himself to periodically abandon whatever he was writing for a cup of coffee.. The smell of coffee kept him, somehow, in touch with the world. And maybe she will still do it; I mean, she might still be getting up at six in the morning, making all that coffee, and trying to write until noon. Because John Barth (Maryland, 1930), like Thomas Pynchon and Robert Coover, the other pair of illustrious survivors of the postmodern classic, is still alive. Although, in his case, he hasn’t published for 40 years. Exactly, nothing has been heard from the most outstanding of Pedro Salinas’s students since 1982 – aha, the poet taught at the university Barth attended, Johns Hopkins, when he still wanted to be a musician, and it opened his eyes. “He, an old wise man, a refugee from Franco’s Spain, convinced me, convinced that naive and innocent me of that time, that dedicating one’s life to constructing sentences and telling stories could be the most dignified and noble”he said on one occasion.

That was the year he published ‘Sabático’, a novel that has just been published by Piel de Zapa, and which had remained unpublished in Spanish to date. Barth wrote ‘Sabático’ to escape from ‘Letters’, the almost mythological creature –it is not easy to see, the last time I saw it, it took the form of an old edition that was waiting to be rescued on a shelf in the leafy El Lector bookstore of Arequipa– or epistolary monster that marked a peak, and at the same time, a descent in his mutant, and before, nihilistic, but always absurd and brilliant narrative. A figurative descent, to the very center of the Narration. Because the letters that Barth –who is sometimes a certain Lady Amherst– writes in ‘Letters’ are written to five of his characters, including the powerful Todd Andrews, the protagonist of ‘The Floating Opera’, the soldier who, a day, at the front, he runs into an enemy soldier and, fearing the worst, hugs him with all his might, and covers him with kisses because he is alive, alive!, and so is he, and neither of them has to stop being. They’re going to heal their wounds, they’re going to laugh and cry and share cigarettes, because nothing but being alive matters.

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Barth was late to everything, even to war –unlike his contemporaries, he never set foot on a battlefield– and that, he says, endowed him with “an invincible innocence” that explains every last one of his reckless steps. “My novels do not know that they are novels. They pretend to be very well, as I pretend to be their author”he said on one occasion. He did not quote Vonnegut himself when he said that we are what we pretend to be, but rather Scheherazade, the first writer character that literature produced, and epicenter of a proto-postmodernism prior to ‘Don Quixote’. The sailing trip of the leading couple of ‘Sabático’, a literature professor more than likely a descendant of Edgar Allan Poe and a former CIA agent obsessed with a beret, is a tribute to the way stories contain stories in ‘ The Arabian Nights’, and for her, Barth invented a new type of narrator, something he himself called “first person duo”, an intermittent prodigy that has nothing to do with the basement from which Brandon Sanderson raises funds to become an Author Company that avoids the publishing system once it has placed it at the top, because both have chosen to pretend to be something very different.

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