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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Ariadne in the
Grotesque Labyrinth

Salvador Espriu

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Title: Ariadne in the Grotesque Labyrinth
Author: Salvador Espriu
Genre: Stories
Written: (1935) (Eng. 2012)
Length: 166 pages
Original in: Catalan
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Ariadna al laberint grotesc - España
  • Catalan title: Ariadna al laberint grotesc
  • Translated and with a Note by Rowan Ricardo Phillips
  • First published in 1935, but revised in 1949, 1964, 1967, 1974, 1980, and 1984

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Our Assessment:

B : dizzying, but appealingly strange

See our review for fuller assessment.

The complete review's Review:

       Ariadne in the Grotesque Labyrinth is a collection of almost three dozen short pieces of loosely (and elusively) connected fiction. First published in 1935, Espriu continued to revise the collection over the following decades; he also added several texts to the collection over the years -- the last of which is the explanatory opening story, 'The Young Man and the Old Man', in which he notes that now (in 1974, when he added this last bit): "It's the same book, and yet, at the same time, another." He also notes: "This little book forms an essential unity" -- but, despite some recurring characters and some instances of continuity from one story to the next, this isn't necessarily obvious; certainly it's not your usual story collection.
       Even at their most straightforward, these stories have a tendency to take abrupt turns, the tangential suddenly central. Trains of thought tend to pull these narratives in different directions, often veering sharply (or careening straight over cliffs ...). Even where a story remains focused on a single set of events or group of characters, bursts of digression constantly vie for attention; 'The Literary Circle', one of the most approachable of the texts, has proud parents showing off their prodigy of a son, Tianet (beginning with recitations of the pharaohs and the Roman emperors) and then imagining his future while the boy wanders off to his room and dreams of "normal perils, a bicycle to mess around on, and Emilia, who had incredible legs, at his side." The six quick pages range from debates of how appropriate reading Proust might be to a beautiful description of adolescent longing and uncertainty.
       More typical, perhaps, is an opening such as that of 'Psyche':

     «Slowly, the path of a hydrosol to a hydrogel or, if you'd prefer, the coagulation of a colloid. Or perhaps he died, he the beloved, wretched body. Perhaps only the reflection of him on the waxy surface: conscience. And then I found myself -- lost within an alien, difficult, bizarre geometrical realization.
       These stories are about passages and paths, a labyrinth that is indeed grotesque, a: "difficult, bizarre geometrical realization". Espriu's thread isn't quite as obvious or clear-cut as Ariadne's was -- and he plays with mystification even where he suggests clarity. Indeed, he sums the book up perfectly in this short passage:
     «It is life's path,» said Xanna the coachman, philosophically.
     But, passing through, he said it in a language so dense that no one understood him.
       Well aware of what he's doing -- "«Don't digress so much,» I warned him" he interrupts one of his friend's accounts -- Espriu has some fun at his own expense in this regard too -- "«Lyrics now ? I'm tired, sit down,» my skeleton commanded" -- and it's certainly not all just wilful linguistic obfuscation. Indeed, Espriu makes a point to show that:
no action makes sense without commentary and the luster of the word.
       A poet, he is clearly constantly aware of language and the 'luster of the word', something that can be difficult to convey in translation here, especially as Espriu positions himself and so much of this in Barcelona, his Catalan language (and identity) in danger of being overwhelmed by long-dominant Spanish. The final piece, on 'The Moribund Country', seems to sum up the Catalan struggle, and is a lament about the degradation of the language:
I've been turned into a literary patois, into a Volapük with neither intimacy nor refinement, without nuance, hardened by cold, pedantic, enigmatic, unbearable words. No one reads it, and the writings a few people craft -- in general terms, they're rickety, shapeless, gray, with no personality, no rigor, not even craft, and often propose to do nothing more than serve bastard interests.
       Espriu certainly means to shake things up -- and does so quite effectively throughout here. Much remains puzzling and some is frustratingly opaque; overall, passage through the book can indeed be likened to making ones way through a labyrinth, with all its twists and dead ends. Nevertheless, there are considerable rewards along the way, too, and though Ariadne in the Grotesque Labyrinth is unlikely to be fully accessible outside its Catalan and historic contexts (which includes how the text was adapted to the times over the decades) it is a quite fascinating work.

- M.A.Orthofer, 9 September 2012

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Ariadne in the Grotesque Labyrinth: Salvador Espriu: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Salvador Espriu (1913-1985) was a leading Catalan poet.

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© 2012-2021 the complete review

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