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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Loves That Bind

Julián Ríos

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To purchase Loves That Bind

Title: Loves That Bind
Author: Julián Ríos
Genre: Novel
Written: 1995 (Eng. 1998)
Length: 244 pages
Original in: Spanish
Availability: Loves That Bind - US
Amores que atan - US
Loves That Bind - UK
Loves That Bind - Canada
Belles lettres - France
Amores que atan - España
  • Spanish title: Amores que atan
  • Translated by Edith Grossman

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Our Assessment:

B : grand concept, and pulled off (and translated) quite well, but doesn't completely work on all its levels (notably the surface one)

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The LA Times . 21/6/1998 S.S.Reynolds
The NY Times C- 9/6/1998 Michiko Kakutani
The NY Times Book Rev. . 14/6/1998 Abigail Lee Six
San Francisco Chronicle . 10/5/1998 William Rodarmor
The Washington Post A 24/5/1998 Steven Moore

  From the Reviews:
  • "Like many linguists, Rios has a good time writing, and that is infectious. He chuckles his way through the wordplay in the letters he writes to the woman he really wants, as he follows her from city to city. But a gimmick is a gimmick. The form must be transcended or the reader feels trapped within it. Getting the jokes is essential to transcending the form. That depends, quite brutally, on how well read you are." - Susan Salter Reynolds, The Los Angeles Times

  • "It's a premise that promises the reader a post-modern sendup of the gaps and overlaps of literature and life, as well as some entertaining literary high jinks: what you might get if you commissioned Queneau and Donald Barthelme to rewrite Don Quixote and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Unfortunately, Mr. Rios does not deliver on the enormous potential of his idea. Though Loves That Bind has moments of real cleverness and sleight of hand, it is largely a paint-by-numbers performance, lacking the sort of sustained literary ardor that might have turned it from an experimental curiosity into a tour de force. (...) These portraits are clearly meant to reflect the narrator's state of mind as he pines for his lost girlfriend, but they make for a predictable and monochromatic story. (...) Matters are not helped by the dubious quality of many of Mr. Rios's literary impersonations. Some of his chapters read like little more than flat-footed pastiches of the original author's work. Others read like misconceived -- or very poorly executed -- parodies." - Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times

  • "Rather than a story line, the work has a premise (.....) For all its stylistic innovativeness, it narrates what is ultimately a rather old-fashioned man's attitude toward women. The catalogue of Emil's conquests can be read as a series of literary-linguistic notches on the bedpost, which, like their carved equivalents, can be seen as turning women into commodities. His wish to share these memories with the woman he purports to love might be found to be in singularly poor taste. Who can blame her, one is tempted to ask, for having left him ? (...) Grossman's version manages to render effectively an admirably large portion of the original's linguistic acrobatics. Nevertheless, some problems are genuinely intractable." - Abigail Lee Six, The New York Times Book Review

  • "(A) dense abecedary of literary loves that would be more effective if it were more restrained. (...) Loves That Bind is described as a novel, but it's no such thing. Nothing connects the 26 episodes except that they are all set in or related to London. They aren't short stories, either. They're more like machine-gun bursts of invective. (...) Loves is dense with multilingual wordplay, and Edith Grossman's translation is terrific. It seems effortless in the way that great dancers or athletes make what they do look easy." - William Rodarmor, San Francisco Chronicle

  • "Spanish writer Julian Rios obviously loves both books and women passionately, and in his third novel to be published in English has found the perfect form to express literary love. (...) Even if you don't have much of a literary background, you will be fascinated by this gallery of women and the ways they pursue their sense of the erotic. But it is as a literary tour de force that most readers will be entranced by this book-length love letter to modern literature. (...) Loves That Bind should be the one to win for Rios the large audience he so richly deserves. It's charming, clever, often profound, and frequently moving. I live for novels like this one." - Steven Moore, The Washington Post

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Loves That Bind is narrated by Emil Alia, writing letters to the lover who has abandoned him, Babelle -- two figures familiar from other works by Ríos, notably the (not yet translated) La vida sexual de las palabras. For much of the novel Emil strays around London -- repeatedly imagining catching glimpses of his elusive lover -- but in his letters he mainly concerns himself with the past. His relationship with the now lost lover is part of it -- but only part, as he reflects on a whole parade of previous lovers. More than two dozen of them, in fact .....
       The literary-minded Emil's efforts are homage: to womanhood itself, in the form of these many representatives (with Babelle all the while at the fore); to love and passion (slippery like Babelle, with him left only with these (powerful) memories); and, perhaps most significantly, to literature itself, as Ríos/Emil refracts all experience through a literary lens.
       Loves That Bind is an abecedarium: twenty-six chapters, each devoted to one of the women from his past, each chapter beginning with a word that begins with the next letter of the alphabet (generally succinct ("Gordian knot") and often just a single word -- "Angels ?" or "Lo !" --; generally word-playful -- "Voluptuous little volute, voilà, of her short white skirt" -- and occasionally a bit forced ("Zz ... at first it was the buzz."). But the core of this alphabetized structure is the twenty-six women, as each is very clearly modeled on a (more or less well-known) fictional character, one for each letter of the alphabet, from Proust's Albertine to Queneau's Zazie. Not only are the women modeled on these fictional counterparts, but Ríos/Emil tries to imitate the author's style in their respective chapters. Yes, Loves That Bind is an über-pastiche novel -- a wannabe tour de force of fictional (re)creation (and, in the English version, of translation as well).
       The twenty-six chapters pay homage to these characters and authors:

  • Albertine, from Marcel Proust's Remembrance of Things Past
  • Bonadea, from Robert Musil's The Man Without Qualities
  • Celia, from Samuel Beckett's Molloy
  • Daisy, from F.Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby
  • Ellen Thatcher, from John Dos Passos' Manhattan Transfer
  • Florence, from Ford Maddox Ford's The Good Soldier
  • Grace Brissenden, from Henry James' The Sacred Fount
  • Hermine, from Hermann Hesse's Steppenwolf
  • Ikuko, from Tanizaki Jun'ichirō's The Key
  • Julia Martin, from Jean Rhys' After Leaving Mr. Mackenzie
  • Klara Pollunder, from Franz Kafka's Amerika
  • Lolita, from Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita
  • Molly Bloom, from James Joyce's Ulysses
  • Nadja, from André Breton's Nadja
  • Orlando, from Virginia Woolf's Orlando
  • Pocahontas, from Arno Schmidt's Lake Scenery With Pocahontas
  • (Miss) Quentin, from William Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury
  • Robin Vote, from Djuna Barnes's Nightwood
  • Sally Bowles, from Christopher Isherwood's Goodbye to Berlin
  • Tristana, from Benito Pérez Galdós' Tristana
  • Ursula Brangwen, from D.H.Lawrence's The Rainbow and Women in Love
  • Virginie, from Louis-Ferdinand Céline's Guignol's Band
  • Wanda, from Leopold von Sacher-Masoch's Venus in Furs
  • Xénie, from Georges Bataille's Blue of Noon
  • Yvonne, from Malcolm Lowry's Under the Volcano
  • Zazie, from Raymond Queneau's Zazie in the Metro
       They're mostly works from twentieth-century, concentrated in the first half, with nothing from past the 1950s, and only two works from the nineteenth century (Tristana and Venus in Furs). The selection isn't entirely eclectic but certainly affords (or forces on) Ríos a great range of voices and characters (the emphasis sometimes more on trying to be true to the one than the other).
       Ríos' pastiche is occasionally (unavoidably ?) predictable -- the 'M'-chapter closing: "and she said no I won't No" -- but he (and translator Grossman) variously capture rhythm and feel of some of the works/authors quite successfully -- though the obscurity of some of the characters/works, and the fact that some (the ones that weren't originally written in Spanish or English) go through doubled translation makes for some less easily appreciated variations too.
       On top of it, Ríos isn't satisfied with simple (or complex) pastiche, and feels the need to have Emil (constantly) flex his word-playing muscles too. So Emil speaks of developing: "an oniontological theory, let us call it, in order to peel away being or nonbeing and nothingness, to reach the heart of the problem", or describes the girl fascinated by restroom-wall scrawls as: "my Duchampollion of pornograffiti"; another is described as dreaming of: "becoming the Madame Curieuse of astronomy". Or there's mention of: "A fervent foot fetishist -- a feetishist, to say it once and for all" ..... Or, at its most extreme/prolonged, for example:
Little by lit ... Poco a popocatepittle. Now. Meow. A little via lactea along the black tiles in the kitchen. Milky Way. Milchstrasse. La ruelle de Saint-Jacques ...
       Ríos does quite cleverly ground the novel-as-a-whole around Emil's incidental experiences in London during this period. There's a cat Emil is taking care of, more or less, and he's constantly keeping an eye out and hoping to come across his beloved, hoping that she might still be in London after all:
     Was it or was it not you I saw ... earlier when I was leaving the Earl's Court station ? That is the question, that is the quest ... as I continue to look for you in the labyrinth of London.
       Ríos uses Emil's wishful thinking along the way(s) well -- down to, late in the novel, the amusing sighting at Hyde Park Corner:
I thought I saw you (why do I go on creating illusions ?) near our old scrounging friends who after so many years still sustain and support the same placard, the same ultimatum: THE END IS AT HAND. A happy ending ?
       Emil also happened to read his beloved's horoscope, which warned that: "you should take precautions if you traveled because you were in serious danger" -- and ever since he worries about every report of calamities near and far in the newspapers he constantly reads, concerned that she might have been nearby to these places of disaster. So: "The Times goes on feeding my fears", and he is constantly expressing his concerns: "I hope you haven't gone to Baltimore, where last night's rioting and looting left one dead and two hundred injured", or: "I trust you are not one of the forty thousand tourists trapped in the crossfire on Cyprus", or: "I hope you have had all your shots, because today's Times reports that in the past three months two hundred people have died in Nepal of smallpox". [The concern about smallpox -- it comes up repeatedly -- is an odd anachronism: smallpox was declared eradicated by 1980; it was a long time ago that, say: "cases of smallpox are on the increase, especially in Uttar Pradesh: so far this year 22,556 people have died".]
       Loves That Bind is certainly a ... grand concept -- but it's also very much and obviously a concept. Points for effort -- a lot of them -- for both Ríos and translator Grossman (whereby it's also worth noting that the English translation copyright reads: "© 1998 by Julián Ríos" ...), and certainly there's a lot of fun to be had with this, from the playful language (though certainly there are (many ?) points where readers might groan rather than find themselves ... "Laocoontented" ...) to the literary-allusion puzzles Ríos layers on so thickly. If you like this kind of stuff -- and most serious readers presumably do -- there's a lot to like her.
       Still, as Emil notes of one former fling:
Everything was unreal. Nothing was true because everything was permitted. Permutated.
       Indeed, a little more real-life solidity would have been welcome. Yes, Ríos shows incredible depth and range -- but it can come across as feeling forced and planned. So, for example, -- at its best and worst -- also near the book's conclusion, where Emil, typically, also wants to use locale as frame. It's clever, a nice touch -- but also all so planned and spelled out, so authorial:
Finis. I came from King's Cross to the place where I wanted to end the last letter. To our tavern at the end of the world. But they've changed the sign. The old man and his scythe and the skull and the FINIS are gone. Now it is a ship of madmen or fools who go with lowered eyes through the world that no doubt turns.
       As the recurring/familiar main figures -- Emil and his (absent) beloved -- suggest, Loves That Bind is also part of a larger project, and should probably also be seen as such. (Significant chunks are available in English translation -- notably Larva and Monstruary -- but others are not, including, most regrettably, La vida sexual de las palabras). But it is readily enjoyed as a stand-alone as well -- though more as a work that is intriguing for what it tries to do and how it does it than as a truly compelling work in its own right: the foundations, structure, and concept impress; the overlay -- the surface story -- just isn't entirely successful.

- M.A.Orthofer, 8 August 2020

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Loves That Bind: Reviews: Other books by Julián Ríos under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Spanish author Julián Ríos was born in 1941.

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© 2020-2021 the complete review

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