One recent trend for small presses seems to be to have a geographical focus, and Charco Press, a small independent Scottish publisher, have chosen South America as their region of interest. It seems to have worked out well for them so far, with Ariana Harwicz’s Die, My Love longlisted for the 2018 Man Booker International Prize, and Julián Fuks’ Resistance very unlucky not to make this year’s list. Today’s choice is another of the press’ short South American works, albeit in a slightly different vein. It won’t take long to read, but you may well spend days working out what it’s all about…
Luis Sagasti’s Fireflies (translated by Fionn Petch, review copy courtesy of the publisher) is a short book with very big ambitions. It’s divided into a number of short chapters, and the brief first piece, an introduction of sorts, sets the tone by pondering the mysteries of existence:
How do we know when there are no more secrets? When do we find that out? Or is there nothing to learn?
There are secrets that make the world work in a particular way. But they shouldn’t be called secrets. Omissions would be more prudent. For the machine to keep running, it’s better not to mention certain things. Every family holds a terrible secret that, as soon as we sense what it might be, is no longer mentioned.
p.2 (Charco Press, 2017)
In the midst of this conspiracy theory, we are introduced for the first time to the writer’s favourite metaphor of fireflies, brief spots of warmth and light in a big, cold universe.
From here, the mood changes and the writer plunges into a lengthy section introducing us to a number of famous people. We learn of the German painter Jospeh Beuys and the ‘truth’ of his aeroplane crash in World War Two, move on to Kurt Vonnegut and see how his wartime internment in Dresden helped inspire Slaughterhouse Five, before spending time with a philosopher (Wittgenstein) and a haiku poet (Bashō). There’s obviously a reason for their presence in Sagasti’s writing, a connection between these notable names – now, if I can just find it…
Fireflies is hugely enjoyable to read, but not so much to review. At times, it’s almost as if Sagasti is trying to write an example of Vonnegut’s Tralfamadorian literature – it’s certainly one of those books that will provoke a fair amount of head-scratching:
The hare understands art.
Is there anything to understand?
Without the slightest doubt, art is the answer.
What we can’t be sure about is the question. (p.25)
Right… The constant name-dropping is at the heart of a series of short essays tying together improbable people and events, forcing the reader to be on the hunt for potential links between them, yet despite (because of?) this, it actually all makes for an absorbing and calming reading experience.
Luckily, some common threads do gradually emerge from the collection of tangled lives, and one of the most prominent is an obsession with flying and falling. We are introduced to a Brazilian priest, Adelir de Carli, who decides to tie balloons to his chair and soar off into the atmosphere (Sagasti imagines his flight, and his screams…). This is juxtaposed against a scene of Primo Levi falling to his death and Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s aeroplane being shot down (The Little Prince is mentioned several times over the course of the book), with Amelia Earhart and Charles Lindbergh also making a number of cameo appearances.
A logical extension of this theme is an obsession with space. 2001: A Space Odyssey almost acts as a recurring motif, so it’s little surprise to see appearances from Laika and Yuri Gagarin, whom Sagasti characterises as an atheist in space. Less familiar (to me, at least) are Zhang Yun, a Chinese philosopher chosen to go into orbit, and Sun Ra, a musician who takes this idea to the next level by claiming to actually be an extra-terrestrial…
There’s a sombre tone to Fireflies for the most part, with an underlying sense of human mortality. One of the most memorable passages focuses on the photograph of a man diving from a window after the attacks on the World Trade Center, before the author follows that up with the story of an Argentinian writer who killed himself days earlier. Many of the people Sagasti chooses to discuss come to an untimely end, whether that involves suicide, tragedy or simply mysterious deaths. In examining these sad cases, he seems to be suggesting that flying too high, metaphorically and literally, is a rather dangerous thing for us weak humans to attempt.
For many readers, one of the main attractions of the book will be the bizarre cast Sagasti assembles. While they’re all real people, there’s a feeling that not all of these stories hold up, and other reviewers have commented on some of the discrepancies between the writer’s take on events and what really happened. This is another of those books treading a fine line between fiction and reality, so caution is definitely advised. As for what it’s really all about – well, I’ll leave you to be the judge of that 😉
All that matters in the end, though, is that it does work, in a strange kind of way. Fireflies gradually coalesces into a compelling story of making sense of the unknowable, and speculating about why we’re all here. The final brief piece, a coda to the short collection of musings, circles round again, bringing us back to the image of people gazing up at the sky, and the stars:
Who would have been the first to look up to the night sky without seeking anything at all, not even tranquillity? Free of questions, just standing quietly, in a state of total defencelessness, a rock-like innocence. Why would they have done such a thing? (p.83)
Sagasti’s certainly one of those who has thought to look up into the heavens, and even if we’re not, we can just enjoy his stories. Hopefully, if we listen carefully enough, we’ll catch a little of their reflected warmth in this cold, cold universe…