The Cardboard House by Martín Adán

The Cardboard House BY Martín Adán. New Directions. Paperback, 120 pages. $15.
The cover of The Cardboard House

Beginning in the 1920s, an experimental literary modernism emerged in the small journals and tertulias of the major cities of Spanish America that would come to be known as the vanguardia. Its practitioners, mostly the sons of emergent bourgeoisies, adopted the methods of European modernists and altered them to fit the distinctive historical circumstances of early-twentieth-century Latin America—a moment when the region was both compelled by the imperial whims of the United States and drawn increasingly into the circuits of global capitalism. Few fictions of the vanguardia reflect the upheavals of modernization with the poignancy of Martín Adan’s explosive and intimate novella The Cardboard House.

Adan was born Ramón Rafael de la Fuente Benavides in Lima in 1908. He came from an affluent but spendthrift family of rentiers, who slowly drained their inherited wealth. His father died a day before Adan’s sixth birthday, and the child’s only sibling followed a few years later. From about 1915 until 1927, when he entered university, Adan lived with his mother and aunt in Barranco, a fashionable seaside suburb of Lima that would serve as the setting of The Cardboard House. Perched on the cliffs overlooking the bay of Lima, Barranco became a destination for American and European vacationers in the early twentieth century. The Cardboard House was to be Adan’s only work of fiction, followed by a half-dozen volumes of often hermetic poetry that appeared sporadically over five decades. From 1937 until his death in 1985, the author spent long periods in sanatoria, scrawling fragments of verse on scraps of paper and napkins to be deciphered by his very few intimates.

The Cardboard House, published when Adan was twenty, is a youthful work—both in its sense of play and irreverence but also in its melancholy. An unnamed narrator twines memories and reveries back and forth through his short life. Temporalities ebb and flow quickly. Seasons get named, and the reader almost always knows if a given passage is set at morning or evening. Such details, however, evoke momentary tableaux rather than provide narrative structure. At turns carefully descriptive and cryptically poetic, The Cardboard House is a scenic work, a sinuous succession of vignettes with almost no plot or characterization to speak of.

Human figures—nuns, spinsters, tourists, and venders—appear fleetingly, like apparitions. “The old lay-sisters descend through the fog to their witches Sabbath of trees and poles"; at the beach a woman steps on an “underwater gringo” who surfaces in his diving gear before passing out of view. At times people seem merely the props of atmosphere and activity: “A drunken Charleston shakes a buxom lady,” and “a violin hid its voice behind an obese, unknown Italian millionaire.” The named few include friends, lovers, a high-school teacher and a couple of tourists, sketched with snatches of conversation, slight gestures, or distinguishing details. “Miss Annie Doll, tourist and photographer, a spring dressed in a jersey that sprang out of this Peruvian resort town’s box of surprises, . . . lived on an income that came from far away, like a box of tea.” The most frequently recurring character is Ramón, the narrator’s closest friend and double (recall that Ramón was Adan’s birth name), with whom he shares a girl, and whose death is announced midway through the book.

But Ramón’s death doesn’t haunt the narrator nearly as much as the world around him does. In The Cardboard House, the sun, the wind, the sea, and trees contain as much personality as any person, and we are kept at a distance from the characters’ inner lives. “Let’s play at psychoanalysis,” the narrator says but never does. Thinking back on a conversation with a friend, he confesses, “I feared hearing your secrets—always sincere—so, to prevent you from speaking, I recalled out loud a distant afternoon that, like in a joke, was a huge fried egg.” Instead, we are inundated with references to current and historical figures: movie stars, boxers, philosophers, politicians, and Peruvian national heroes. Writers ranging from Spanish Golden Age poets to James Joyce drift in and out of passages like tourists. Paris, Dakar, Peking, and a “gaunt, grey city of skyscrapers” to the north seem, rather than distant locations, as if they’d arrived in town by ocean liners and streetcars.

Barranco is the novella’s true protagonist. In the book, the town evinces a frenzied and fantastical modernity: global capital comes to Peru. It is also, of course, an uneven modernity, one in which the streetcar shares the same road as the “mestizo cart driver.” A spectacular mingling of the cosmopolitan and the provincial plays out between imports and local commodities. Here, Rolls-Royces, Hudsons, Kodaks, Underwoods, movies, and tortoiseshell frames with yellow anti-reflective lenses co-exist with mule halters, church bells, and a plaster of Paris mold of Eros. In Adan’s Barranco, they are all reduced to a class of equivalent objects, a class that at times seems to encompass nature, people, and memory. We are in a world of things. In this, Adan deliriously reflects Marx’s famous unraveling of commodity fetishism: “material relations between people and social relations between things.” One of the humbler objects, Ramón’s cardboard-covered notebook, whose pages contain the description of a man who may or may not have existed, gives the novella its title.

Katherine Silver’s new translation, modified from a version she produced in 1990, is generally excellent, capturing the kaleidoscopic force of Adan's Spanish. His prose, alternately languid and ecstatic, is supplemented with neologisms and scientific terminology. Precise observation follows the piling up of fantastic, often absurd, metaphors. If Silver’s translation at times fails to capture the fluidity of Adan’s text, perhaps in part because of the decision to render the sections in autonomous chapters, while in the original, they are separated only by section breaks. Even so, The Cardboard House remains transfixing enough to read in a single sitting.

Eli Diner is a doctoral candidate in history at UCLA.