‘Antón Mallick Wants to Be Happy’ by Nicolás Casariego (Review)

Some of you will have seen the recent posts on my visit to the Melbourne Writers Festival, and as I said in the first of those posts, the main reason I went was to catch up with Spanish writer Nicolás Casariego to hear what he had to say about his first novel in English.  Casariego turned out to be a nice, happy sort of man, which was good to see – especially as his creation is anything but…

*****
Antón Mallick Wants to Be Happy (translated by Thomas Bunstead, review copy courtesy of Hispabooks) is written in the form of the diary in which a thirty-two-year-old Spanish lawyer decides that the time has come for him to set depression and pessimism to one side:

“Enough is enough.  I don’t want to be a pessimist, or a victim, any more.  I reject the status of black hole.  This notebook, which I address and dedicate to Vidor Mallick, inveterate gambler and amateur loan shark, is proof of my will to optimism, that is, my great desire to become a man with a sunny disposition, happy, normal, one of those guys who springs out of bed every morning and has answers for pretty much every single one of life’s many questions.”
p.11 (Hispabooks, 2014)

A noble ambition indeed, but what can Antón do to achieve this goal?  And, more importantly, why does he feel the need for this radical step?

In pursuit of optimism and happiness, Antón decides to begin the search in books, and his family is happy to help out: elder brother Zoltan provides an armful of self-help tomes while younger sister Bela points him in the direction of the classic philosophers.  However, with family disputes and a major contract to work on, finding enlightenment isn’t going to be easy.  And then, of course, there’s the small matter of a woman who claims to be the mother of his unborn child…

Right from the start, Antón Mallick… was a book that just clicked with me, and I greatly enjoyed the time I spent in the world of the confused Spaniard.  What Casariego offers the reader is a picture of a man who understands that he isn’t happy and has decided to do something about it.  First, though, he has to understand what exactly this elusive ideal he’s chasing is, and he quickly realises that happiness is far easier to talk about than to identify:

“…happiness can be everywhere, except right here, the one place in which you and I find ourselves.  It is therefore, an invention, an imaginary refuge, a mirage in the middle of the desert, and it vanishes the moment you get close.” (p.190)

As Antón progresses in his search for happiness, both in his reading and (mis)adventures outside his apartment, the reader feels sympathy for his hopeless cause.

As mentioned above, Antón isn’t completely alone in his quest as his brother and sister are keen to offer bibliographic support; however, Zoltan and Bela aren’t exactly models of happiness themselves.  The brother is a psychologist, one whose professional exterior hides a slightly disturbing character, while Antón’s intelligent, charming sister is trapped in a stifling relationship with a lazy American ‘writer’.  In fact, the only happy member of the family seems to be the Vidor Mallick Antón mentions in his diary entry.  It’s a shame, then, that Vidor, supposed author of the book Confessions of a Once-Hungarian Spaniard, has been dead for well over a century…

Part of the success of the book is the way in which Casariego constructs his novel, using Antón’s diary entries to both inform and deceive the reader.  It’s a sort of therapy, and it’s very easy to fall into the trap of trusting Señor Mallick and taking his assertions at face value.  However, in reality (as Casariego mentioned during his talk at the festival), the diary format allows Antón (and the writer) to be a little economical with the truth.  The careful reader will see contradictions and sense certain omissions, some (but not all) of which will make sense later in the novel.

The diary format in itself could get a little old very quickly, but the writer mixes things up by including several other text types.  In addition to Antón’s thoughts on the books he’s reading (sometimes considered, occasionally flippant and insulting), we see copies of e-mails, transcriptions of conversations on Skype and an unusual take on the life story of a Soviet satellites expert.  It does make sense, I promise.  Sort of…

Tony Messenger, over at the Messengers Booker blog, recently posted on this book and was a lot less enamoured with it, not even managing to get half-way through the novel.  However, while I can see why he didn’t like it (it was around this point in the story that I had a few doubts myself), I think a lot of the flaws he pointed out were actually deliberate.  Antón is meant to be an unreliable narrator, and many of the more absurd plot developments are mere distractions, taking both the narrator and reader further away from the true centre of the book, the reason why Antón needs to go on this journey of discovery in the first place.  For me, at least, it does all eventually come together.

Which is not to say that all the threads are neatly gathered up.  It’s true that the mystery of the woman-with-child is solved, and that the family manages to come together (and we do eventually find out why Antón Mallick isn’t happy), but I wouldn’t say that the end of the novel brings the closure I’d expected.  Which is why my question to Casariego at the festival session was about whether he’d ever considered writing a sequel (he hadn’t, but I’ll take the credit if he changes his mind…).  After all, the search for happiness is a rather long-term project, and I doubt that Antón will be reaching his goal any time soon…

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6 thoughts on “‘Antón Mallick Wants to Be Happy’ by Nicolás Casariego (Review)

  1. It's an interesting concept but since I already have thoughts on the topic, I'll pass on this one. I tend to think that apart from tragedy we are what we are. I know a woman who is all piss and moan no matter what happens to her. If he flowers bloom, they make a mess when the petals fall, that type of thing.

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  2. Personally, this is one of my favorite books from the ones we've published so far at Hispabooks. Casariego's will to negotiate trascendent vital issues with a comic stance, and some of the hilarious situations he creates just win me over to his cause. I also look forward to a sequel…

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  3. It's like I have a Tony on each shoulder, telling me why I should and should not read this book.:-) But I love your summary and it sounds like my kind of thing, loose ends and all. Thanks for the tip.

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