‘Yesterday’ by Juan Emar (Review)

When Peirene Press bring out a new book, you generally know what to expect: a short work by a contemporary European writer, perhaps one whose books hadn’t previously made it into English, and often with a focus on women.  However, readers may be surprised by their latest release as it doesn’t really tick all those boxes.  Yes, it’s fairly short, but this time we’re heading to South America for a surrealist work by a male writer who passed away almost sixty years ago, making me wonder whether this is a new direction for the press or simply a one-off.  Rest assured, though, that some things never change – quality is always important, and this is another excellent read.

Juan Emar is the pseudonym used by Chilean writer Álvaro Yáñez Bianchi, who passed away in 1964, and it plays on the French expression J’en ai marre (‘I’m fed up’).  There’s lots more to learn about the writer and his work in another slightly different addition for a Peirene book, an entertaining introduction by none other than Chilean writer Alejandro Zambra, one of Emar’s biggest fans.  And, of course, where there’s Chilean literature, translator Megan McDowell can’t be too far away, and she’s the one responsible here for bringing both Emar’s novel and Zambra’s musings into English for our benefit.

The book itself, Emar’s 1935 novel Yesterday, is a wonderful work set in the fictional city of San Agustín de Tango, a thinly veiled portrait of the Chilean capital, Santiago.  It takes place over the course of one day as the narrator and his wife decide to go on an outing, see what the city has to offer and visit a few people along the way.  That all sounds harmless enough, and there’s nothing that unusual about a trip to the zoo, eating out when hunger strikes and dropping in on Juan’s family to say hello.

And yet…  Yesterday was no ordinary day.  It’s not often that you head into town to kick the day off with an execution, and while I’m no expert on animals, what happens in the zoo is a rather unusual occurrence, too.  And even if the rest of the day runs smoothly on the surface, in truth it’s what’s happening inside Juan’s head that’s important, and his thoughts on the day and what he sees are anything but ordinary.  Plainly put, Yesterday is a rather bizarre book comprising a mixture of strange events and even stranger thoughts.  It’s a surrealist work that gets stranger as it goes on, morphing from a pleasant day in the city to a study of intense thought.  Reality starts to crumble as the narrator turns in on himself, and we see how bizarre the world can be when examined closely enough.

It’s probably a little easy, lazy even, to pull out James Joyce comparisons, but even if the city is fictional, Yesterday, like Ulysses, is marked by its structure of one day spent wandering the streets of the big city, with its protagonists finding there’s a lot you can experience between breakfast and bed-time.  The first event of the outing, the execution, makes for a rather sobering start to proceedings, and you don’t need Zambra to tell you that the story of a man beheaded simply for having lascivious thoughts, and then telling others about them, is a less-than-subtle jab at the Catholic church.

Rather than anything that happens in the city, it’s Juan’s struggles with his thoughts that really make the book.  Towards the middle of the novel, there’s a scene in a public waiting room, where Juan sits and ponders, trying to come up with ‘conclusions’ while his ever-patient wife waits for him to proclaim these findings.  But just what is the subject of his musings? What is the canvas for his thoughts?  As it turns out, it’s a pot-bellied man sitting opposite him – make of that what you will.

Even a trip to the family home is fraught with danger for a man who can’t stop thinking, and overthinking.  Juan’s arrival coincides with a bit of a gathering, and his elder brother teases him with a simple wager, jokingly betting that the visitor won’t dare look behind the sofa.  But what could be so hard about that?

No, there was something else.  I don’t well know how to define it, but it seems to me something like, let’s say, the fear of being afraid.  And perhaps even better put, fear of finding myself swept up by a succession of states of mind that, starting with my first impression at the sight of the gelatinous thing and then snowballing, growing by its own momentum, might land me right smack in the madhouse.
p.97 (Peirene Press, 2021)

Yes, even this simple request causes his thoughts to spiral downwards, with the writer imagining great dangers and then leading us into a tangential story about a graveyard.

It won’t surprise anyone to learn that Emar rarely plays it straight in his novel, and there’s a lot of fun to be had.  The scene at the zoo has Juan and his wife joining in with singing monkeys and observing a surprising battle of the beasts, while the happy couple later visit a painter friend, one obsessed with the colour green.  In the narratorial tone, and his asides and anecdotes, Juan has the air of a Chilean Jerome K. Jerome, rambling on and around the point in a (vain) attempt to explain himself to the reader.  Of course, it’s his long-suffering wife who’s the sensible one, patiently waiting for him to assemble his thoughts and moving them along when it’s time to go, especially for food.

However, we always return to Juan’s thoughts, and the climax of the day comes in the form of the writer trying to hold onto an epiphany he has:

In that instant ground up to its minimum part, there appeared, simultaneous and interpenetrating but without the slightest confusion, all the events of the day, isolated and clear, free of any chronological order.  And as they so appeared – to my astonishment, my joy, my ecstasy, my supreme delirium – I saw, I felt, I knew, finally, life, the truth stripped of all deceit, all sensationalism, or, better said, of everything that limits life to an unreal sequentiality.
An unreal sequentiality! Yes, that’s it.  I now know that’s how it is. (p.119)

It’s a wonderful moment, but its gravity is somewhat diminished by the fact that it comes when he’s trying not to urinate on a fly in the restaurant toilets.  I’ve already mentioned Ulysses, and the end of the book brings another similarity, this time to Molly Bloom’s famous soliloquy.  You see, there’s something very masturbatory about Juan’s strenuous efforts to return to his moment of realisation, especially as it comes in bed while he’s making his wife wait in the living room…

It’s all slightly bizarre, but certainly entertaining, even if Juan’s train of thought might be a bit slow at times for some readers.  It doesn’t hurt that it’s all in McDowell’s usual excellent work, with the two very different voices of the story and Zambra’s brief introduction expertly done.  Yesterday may not be your usual Peirene book, then, but it certainly belongs in their excellent collection, and there’s one more thing I got from the novel.  After a year or so when I’ve largely been confined to the house, it was nice to get out and about for the day, if only vicariously 😉

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