When the Mexican boys of Monterrey get bored, they have an outlet that is disconcerting and brilliant: they become the characters of Russian novels or stories translated into Spanish and this transformation, which is the major characteristic of David Toscana's novel, takes place in a surprising and absolutely effective way. So much so, that the "real" characters cease to be so in the course of history and become nothing less than the characters of Tolstoy, Pasternak, Pushkin and other Russian works that we know. The transformation they undergo is comprehensive, very smiling, and readers continue to be delighted and amazed by such a story.
I have just read this novel by the Mexican writer David Toscana that has won the Biennial Novel Prize that bears my name, held in Guadalajara, and I think it is one of the most original texts published in recent years. It deserves this award (I had no participation in the jury or the decision, of course, and I did not find out about the content of the novel until there was the ruling) and many others.
As I mentioned, the transformation of these small characters into the great and irreverent Russian characters is perfect and is supported by a humor that is sustained from the first page to the last of this extraordinary novel. I will say, in passing, that the excess of humor has never seduced me despite the fact that I am the author of a couple of novels that pretend to make use of it, but that I have read this book from Tuscany with fascination and that, of course, I recommend to the most sophisticated and demanding readers that literature has.
It should be noted that the author's humor is complex, very deep, and that the novel has a characteristic that, although it has its origins in Russian novels and stories, presents very particular subtleties and convolutions. This book reveals that all the novels that have been written have a certain similarity, and that the difficult thing is to discover it and mount on it a structure of its own. Tuscany has achieved this and that is why The Weight of Living on Earth deserves to have many readers in our language and other languages.
There is a subtlety that reveals a very close contact with Russian literature. The games of words and works are always unexpected and seductive, and readers get major surprises all the time. I still do not fully understand the methods used by the author to produce the transformations that at every step dislocate and amaze us in this ingenious novel. There is a humor that allows all excesses and that never abandons David Toscana in this narrative. The characters change their nature, their name, and jump happily from Mexican reality to a Russian eccentricity, and they do it with absolute naturalness, perhaps the most difficult and successful of this company.
There is even a station in space that allows the author to send his characters to the moon and stars, and the dialogues held there are always virtuous and unusual. One of the most compelling aspects of this book is that in games where its characters change personalities, we acknowledge their humble origins. These origins are present in all its transformations and changes. Humor, to which Tuscany constantly resorts, is not a simple humor but convoluted and multiple, but, even so, it fulfills its function, which is to arouse laughter in readers and make them celebrate the findings.
The novel is not at all tolerant of the excesses that were committed in the periods of both Lenin and Stalin, in the Soviet era. The accusations are fierce and the writers are not safe from criticism, as they often collaborate with the ruthless vigilantes who, in the name of the Revolution, send them to Siberia for several years. But this is far from the main purpose of the book, because what is at stake, in this remarkable text, is, as I say, humor. A strange and incandescent humor that sweetens life because, in the philosophy of the novel, there are always those transformations that turn the characters into their opposites or pave the way for them towards sexual encounters of which there are numerous examples in the pages of this literary story.
It is a book that, in many ways, is revolutionary. For the treatment of the characters, without a doubt, because they often change names and personalities without the seasoned reader failing to recognize them because, despite their multiple changes, they all retain a distinct personality. And, as I mentioned, although it floats on every page, grace does not lessen criticism, which can be fierce. Although they usually end with unexpected moves, they never stray from the depths of Russian literature. Here appear Tolstoy, Chekhov, Anna Karenina and Dostoyevsky, the characters of Oblomov's The Gentle Don, whom we see imprisoned in the Salyut space station, from which he and his companions contemplate the distant earth while talking, despite their diving suits and iron dresses.
The truth is that on each page of this book there are unexpected encounters for the readers, the characters change their identity and the story also moves within the tragic and the laughing, without the disorders seeming far-fetched. Well, all these leaps are perfectly adapted by David Toscana to the immediate reality of his readers. I say this with a certain malice because, in this eccentric book, the changes of personality and mood are always very refined and bold, to the point that a mercenary and repellent character can suddenly become a man or a woman full of tenderness and solicitude who bursts into tears for the miseries that this life has. And, at the same time, these conflicts do not reveal the most sinister side of existence, but a lightness that has a lot of charm because it shows how simple happiness can be thanks to a sunny day in the forest, among beneficial animals and with dear friends. Perhaps this is the most remarkable thing about The Weight of Living on Earth, which belies the novel, because it shows in its pages how simple life is and the good relationships that can be established between neighbors and compadres, even if they exercise the same trade. There is no reference in this book to mitigate the savage excesses that were committed in Russia in the years of Lenin and Stalin, and yet, behind the horror, there is a sympathy for life, in which the author always finds a way to justify existence, showing that it is beautiful and worth enjoying. even if she comes surrounded by energúmenos.
Perhaps this is the most admirable thing about this book, that everything is there, in those pages that always intrigue us, the horrors of captivity and injustice, and, despite this, a result that is beneficent, made of a secret happiness that men and women always find in their existences. One of the original aspects of this book is, precisely, that game through which, in the depths of the tragedies that the characters live, there is always a light to which they can cling, the laughing charms of life.
I believe that David Toscana has written one of the best novels in the language and I invite my readers to judge it for themselves.
© Mario Vargas Llosa, 2023. Spanish-language press rights in Spain and Latin America reserved to Ediciones EL PAÍS, SL, 2023. Press rights in Spanish for other territories and for other languages, reserved for Mario Vargas Llosa c/o Agencia Literaria Carmen Balcells, SA.
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