Belén Gopegui - with its Borgesian/Nabokovian exploration of desire and place; loneliness and connection; and Sergio Prim’s attempt to “map the void” so that he and his lover can withstand it all—never disappoints

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Belén Gopegui, The Scale of Maps, Trans. by Mark Schafer, City Lights, 2011.

First three chapters: download here

Sergio Prim is a staid and solitary middle-aged man who finds himself suddenly in love. A geographer by trade, but with a broken radar when it comes to navigating human relationships, he is thrown into a psychological crisis by the romantic advances of Brezo Varela, a lively young woman who shares his profession. Haunted by a series of hallucinations in which he's relentlessly pursued by a cynical, vampire-like seductress whose promises of pleasure fill him with horror, Prim attempts to seek refuge by immersing himself in an obsessive metaphysical quest: he determines that he must map the way to a place in which love never results in disillusionment. The Scale of Maps is the story of Prim's struggle to choose between living in the external world that his lover inhabits or continuing to hide in the "hollows" of his inner world; an intimate and mercilessly revealing examination of a meager and fearful life challenged by desire.

"A fable of love-laid-waste, an almost scientific story of the anguish of existence, a profoundly and deliberately distorted image of perverse reality, its space and time, a tragedy replete with tenderness and humor."—ABC literario

“Gopegui is one of our most outstanding young names [in Spanish literature].”—El País

Another book that seems to have fallen under the radar, Gopegui’s debut novel is so impressive and unique that the translated literary world should be wringing their hands in impatient anticipation for her next work in English rather than not knowing her name. Any novel whose narrator begins by admitting that he’s lying is sure enough to get my attention, and The Scale of Maps—with its Borgesian/Nabokovian exploration of desire and place; loneliness and connection; and Sergio Prim’s attempt to “map the void” so that he and his lover can withstand it all—never disappoints. Gopegui’s prose moves seamlessly from philosophical diatribes to poetic passages that are infinitely quotable; Schafer’s translation is superb. A book for lovers, dreamers, readers, and those who are more than a little obsessed with maps. - K. Thomas Kahn

A geographer falls irredeemably in love with a flighty mapmaker in this graceful, peculiar Spanish tale. Sergio Prim, at 39 a self-described "small man" set in his bachelor ways, has begun an affair with a woman nine years his junior, Brezo Varela, whose vitality and passion for Sergio astonish him and wreak havoc on his orderly life. Being loved so fiercely by Brezo has disoriented him, and the narrative moves between the third and first person, depending on Sergio's increasingly unstable state. His instinct is to slip away and find his "hollow," a sanctuary safe from intrusion, "unencumbered by worry and marked by an intimate and benign invisibility." He takes off, ostensibly to do research in the mountains of Cuenca, and is haunted by thoughts of Brezo, even seeking the advice of a psychologist, while Brezo, wary of his absence, takes up with a Basque jai alai player. Gopegui's work is beautifully composed and elegantly translated, though Sergio's fundamental elusiveness leaves the reader empty-handed and lovelorn, which, depending on the reader, will be a disappointment or a stroke of brilliance. - Publishers Weekly

Belén Gopegui, in The Scale of Maps, quite elegantly rejects time and space. Consider:
…today you hear that an old friend has returned whom you had long ago decided was lost forever to a distant continent. It’s eight in the evening, you leave your house imagining the meeting, your happiness so irrepressible that you are laughing under your breath as you walk, because in the blink of any eye you have seen your past with that person and your future, the joy of being close. You board a bus, going down the list of places you are thinking of bring your friend, arm raised, hand gripping the dirty metal pole… But in fact it was all a false alarm. The person who had told you your friend was returning had mistaken the date or the name. Where were you while you were planning this meeting? If you answer “on the bus,” aren’t you committing a sin of imprecision, to say the least? What was the emotion you were feeling composed of and where was it located: forty-five minutes of palpable happiness incited by an illusory event?… to whom does that span of time, running counter to reality, belong?
Gopegui’s novel stalks this idea obsessively. The main character, Sergio Prim, calls it a “hollow,” a kind of pocket within the fabric of your surroundings into which you can retreat.
Sergio, is a shy, fidgety man. He is a cartographer by trade, but a cartographer who, while he finds comfort in maps -- “They establish a unique relationship between us and the world, as do books” -- doesn’t think they tell the whole story. His basic discomfort in the world leads him to believe that the world has some other nature that no one else sees, or no one else is looking for. He’s a little crazy, but he might be a genius.
What really throws him into a conniption is that there’s a girl who likes him. Her name is Brezo, and she is Sergio’s opposite. Her unfettered desire to be with Sergio -- to spend time in his company and make room for him in her life -- baffles him. When she proposes they go on a trip together, he protests, “I, who have spent just short of half a decade mastering the five hundred square feet of my apartment… it occurs to Brezo to propose an odyssey of train cars and luggage, unfamiliar beds and unpredictable breakfasts.”
From a purely practical standpoint, Sergio’s reactions are maddening. “You’re a hypochondriac cartographer!” one wants to shout, “date the pretty woman!” But Brezo’s attention puzzles him, and their differences puzzle him, and he spends most of the book puzzling about them. From a loftier standpoint, his befuddlement, which he elevates into an existential dilemma, is the tableau on which Gopegui muses.
Like Swann, Anna Karenina, and Don Quixote (all invoked) before him, Sergio’s relationship is Gopegui’s point of inquiry. But rather than examining social norms and constraints, she uses Sergio’s hand-wringing to question the very fabric of humanity, “to refute the links human beings habitually establish with their surroundings.”
It’s an ambitious novel, to be sure, made beautiful by Gopegui’s liquid prose, and made accessible by her ultimate refusal to answer her own questions. No matter how much Sergio keeps chewing on his theories -- removing himself from Brezo, and then from civilization, to focus on finding “hollows” in the world -- he never quite finds them, although he falls farther in love with the idea. “But isn’t it better, my friend, to go mad over nothing, over the leaf falling slowly through the air, over the pale cold, over the slightest thing?”- Janet Potter

“Trembling” is how protagonist Sergio Prim first appears to the reader.  “His hands fluttered like a bashful magician’s,” the Spaniard Belen Gopegui writes of her fictional creation.  Gopegui’s first novel, The Scale of Maps, is a story about a magic trick that Prim never quite masters, an ambitious disappearing act that ends in irredeemable failure.  After all, as another character, the enchanting mapmaker Brezo Varela, warns Prim, “the problem with escape artists is that they never escape.”
Prim is no Houdini—he’s just a stubborn love-struck geographer battling his passions.  He’s taken with Brezo, and though she returns his attentions, their relationship is less than simple.  In Prim’s eyes, reality is no more than a cheap actress whose charms must be resisted—and for Prim, the prospect of requited love (with its seductive promise of  “the things we already know are lies: eternal adoration, the invisible charm of normal life”) poses a particular threat.  So he sets off in search of a “hollow,” an “unknown dwelling place” that he imagines can offer refuge from the assault of frail, vulgar reality.  What results is a gradual, lyrical descent into eccentricity and isolation.
Nine years his junior, the beautiful Brezo— “a woman with ideas, outlandish and particular, all her own”—is a troublesome object of passion for Prim.  Though she flits in and out of Prim’s life as in a dream, she adores him with a constancy that defies explanation.  Prim is enamored—even obsessed—with her, but he doesn’t know how to let himself go.  For one thing, he suspects a union like theirs is fated for destruction (“How might a woman with ideas of her own be placed in my discreet life in such a way that both of us would come out unscathed?” he asks).  He harbors some more abstract reservations too.  “Passion is chancy,” he says more than once, as if to reassure himself (and the reader) that his struggle against love’s tide is completely rational.   And perhaps for Prim—a man who lives in a fortress of abstruse metaphors, abstract puzzles, savored emotions (‘’Like those old men who wrap leftover bread in napkins to take with them, I must take small steps when I leave the restaurant with my feelings in my pocket”) and solitude—it is.
Prim’s strange private world of thoughts and feelings is not without its peculiar charms.  He keeps a “prayer book of evasion” filled with whimsical sketches representing misplaced eyeglass cases, holes in flat tires, and phrases like “exit right.” He reflects on a story about a man who charts a course through all of the world’s backyard swimming pools.  He daydreams of becoming a simple agriculturalist and producing apples, round, radiant and wholesome.  He tells fanciful stories that make Brezo laugh.  He ponders mathematical myths:
It is said, my friends, that a number located between seven and eight was lost with the writings of Diophantus, the algebraist.  Of course this is a legend, but I do not have to remind you of the theory that there can be no sign without a referent. It is tempting indeed.  Imagine, my friends: another number, an hour every day outside the flow of time, a month unaccounted for every year between July and August.
For Prim, the temptation to remain outside the flow of time is irresistible. “I don’t want to leave my sanctuary and enter life,” he confesses.   So he studies his affair with Brezo from afar, cultivating an inner remove that at times seems to serve only to amplify his emotions.  For example, opening a letter from her he finds at his desk, he pauses:
As if at a concert, silent, trying not to cough, I listened to the music of her correspondence: letters, anachronistic declarations, quotations taken from books, little jokes . . .
The bulwark of his inner world may offer a kind of escape, but with its symphonic acoustics, it’s by no means a tranquil space. “What torture it is to hold on to reason as desire intensifies,” Prim thinks.  But still, he can’t release himself.
Who is this strange man charting a fantastical, solitary course?  Gopegui has been compared to Cervantes and Nabokov, and it’s easy to see Prim as a kind of windmill-battling Pnin.  Prim’s labyrinthine imaginings could easily place him in a work of Borges as well.  Prim is a geography student who doesn’t like to travel; he’s a young old man “sporting his first gray hairs, a short man with a large head, a man alone and full of sorrow.”  After abandoning architecture studies and joining the army, “a general lack of direction” brings Prim to the study of geography.  He gets a job writing reports for a government agency that serves to “thicken the purportedly indispensable annals of bureaucracy.”  He marries and then separates from a dark-haired woman named Lucia.  He keeps to himself.
Initially, Prim hopes his connection with his beguiling old classmate Brezo will assist his quest: “She would provide me with the scientific touchstone or black siliceous rock against which I would rub the gold of my imagination,” he thinks. Only later in the novel does Prim begin to square with himself. The experiments he’s designed in his search for the “hollow” are a farce.  His elusive “hollow,” he admits, only exists as a metaphor.  And yet he still imagines propositioning Brezo with it:
Let’s hide in a metaphor.  When the pain comes, when it presses its sharp blade against us and covers the windows, when offense and misfortune come, we shall hide, warm and curled in a fetal position in a metaphor.
Prim predicts, accurately, that Brezo is far too practical for such proposals, and ultimately for him.  Her adoration—and patience—for him eventually runs dry.  “You will spend your whole life,” she tells him, “untying the knots you are tying yourself, looking for that hollow you have made up. And what use will it be to you?”
Indeed, the knots of Prim’s figurative world aren’t easily untangled.  Many of Prim’s metaphors dangle with a precarious opacity: Mark Schafer’s agile translation gives Prim the fitting voice of a polished academic who has lost his bearings.  “The man who examines his own love is like the merchant who sells perishable foods,” Prim suggests inscrutably.  Is the reader to understand that Prim’s survival depends on his ability to shill the ripened fruits of his passion before they spoil?  And to whom is he selling the harvest of his inspection?  It’s just one of many alluring metaphors that quietly collapse upon inspection, evading scrutiny.
When Prim’s metaphors do hold up, their hopeless extravagance is almost laughable. The miles Prim puts between himself and Brezo are “sweet and bitter miles like orange marmalade, her favorite marmalade, so she had said one afternoon in my apartment.”  It’s as though the more he grasps for purity (“Why in the world do you love me?” he silently asks Brezo, and “What in the world can I give you that can’t be corrupted?”), the more absurd and impotent his love becomes.  So who can blame him if in the end, the perfect “pale and brilliant whirlwind” of Prim’s solitary construction is no match for that floozy, reality.
Gopegui’s ability to trap Prim in his own game is The Scale of Maps’s greatest strength and weakness. The book’s driving force comes from the power of Prim’s idiosyncrasies—and Goepeui deftly crafts her main character into a formidable literary device unto himself. Prim is incorrigibly odd, relentlessly consistent, and never at a loss for elegant words. Gopegui provides Prim with the self-awareness to appraise his own flaws, too.  He realizes, for example, that the feelings he places so much importance on are of limited value:
. . . a man is alone with his feelings.  And they—in the end, just sensations in his mind—are volatile, are diaphanous, fickle creatures, undulations that might possibly be useful for composing music but not for living.
But she stops short of letting him conquer his shortcomings, and here it becomes difficult to distinguish Prim’s excesses from the novel’s. "Trust me, Mr. Prim, one cannot lock oneself within a conviction as one might within a book," Prim's psychologist says, her sympathies for her patient dwindling.  But in the final pages of The Scale of Maps, Prim does just that, retreating into those diaphanous notes of his feelings and thoughts like a solitary artist answering the call of his creativity.  But of course it’s ultimately a failure of imagination that drives Prim into reclusiveness; in the end he can neither picture nor push himself to try to live a life that exists outside the world mapped in his mind. Is it Prim’s fault or the fault of Gopegui’s vision? In The Scale of Maps, it all depends on the reader’s perspective. - Mythili G. Rao

Sergio Prim, protagonist of Belén Gopegui's first novel, The Scale of Maps, is a shy, middle-aged geographer thrown into a hallucinatory quest by the romantic advances of his coworker, the somewhat younger, vibrant Brezo Varela. Fearing heartbreak, he searches for a concrete way to locate a refuge where he and Brezo might be safe from disillusionment. Prim's need to map that refuge raises questions about the nature of space and our understanding of it, as well as about love, reality, and storytelling.
Originally published in Spanish in 1993, The Scale of Maps is the first of Gopegui's seven novels to appear in English. La escala de los mapas won both the Tigre Juan and the Iberoamericano Santiago del Nuevo Extremo prizes. Made up of short chapters of varying length, the novel calls attention to itself as object. Words are consciously selected—not arbitrary—and the reader's attention is drawn to the visible presence of the printed letters, their size, scale, and spacing, much as one might notice the marks or legend on a map.
The novel places the reader, uncomfortably, within the disjointed experience of Sergio Prim. We see through his eyes—the more so, paradoxically, given the continual shifting of perspective between first and third person narration. The novel is full of arresting images and sentences to share aloud, and Mark Schafer's word choices bring the book into a suitably stark and unsettling English. One memorable description: "I had gotten out of bed in the key of Brezo, and all day Monday resembled a mountain pass she had seized." As Prim observes of the shift between nook and look, "one letter can alter a man's entire life." Prim is struggling to delineate his own experience, but that letter-by-letter shift is also at the heart of translation.
Prim calls the space he is looking for a "hollow," which seems to me an apt rendering of the Spanish hueco, which might also be a hole or a cavity; hollow is more forgiving, more spacious in its ambiguity, which is exactly the tone this novel requires. Moreover, as well as being a possible refuge, the hollow begins to describe the ongoing presence of the absent lover, continually present in imagination, in memory, in the physical sensations of longing.
This is a novel to read not for plot but for the movement between moments, the startling observations, the ambivalence of a narrator by turns sympathetic and maddening. Though Prim is not an unheard-of surname in Spanish, it seems particularly well-suited to this character in English. It is often difficult to tell just what is real, what has happened and what has been imagined. Prim himself observes that to imagine is also a way to possess. Seldom explicitly stated, this understanding is an important thematic thread in the novel, as the reader also comes to possess an imagined Sergio Prim. The lonely, unbalanced narrator is at times so wholly persuasive that the reader is caught up in the twisting logic of his loss and his hope:
When alone, I would argue with myself, employing felicitous phrases like 'perpetual help' and 'our lady of the abandoned.' When alone, I could bear the knowledge that no man is a maiden, that maidens are figments of literature. I have no comfort to offer you, my friend. I scour the closets, rummage through my past and in books, imagine promises, but who can replace the things you wish you had done with your father and will not do.
The use of "maiden" in English carries not only the necessary gender information, but a welcome echo of Donne's "no man is an island," a subtle, geographical note that both reinforces and clarifies Sergio Prim's predicament. Sound is important to narrative as well as to poetry, and the attention to sound is a strength of Schafer's translation. The Scale of Maps is a meditative, obsessive novel, rewarding in the clarity of its expression and the provocation of its questions. As the end of the novel makes clear, it is the posing of those questions—the journey—-that is most important. My favorite line, perhaps, is the last: "Lift your hand and watch space stop." - Amalia Gladhart

The most indispensable writer of the 20th century, Jorge Luis Borges, included a short story about a mythic map in A Universal History of Infamy. The story is about one hundred words long and concerns a “Map of the Empire whose size was that of the Empire, and which coincided point for point with it.” The map is impractical and the imperial advisors discard it. In the end, both the discarded map and the incomplete story are cast as Ozymandias-type fragments:
In the Deserts of the West, still today, there are Tattered Ruins of that Map, inhabited by Animals and Beggars; in all the Land there is no other Relic of the Disciplines of Geography.
Cartography as quixotic undertaking is also a theme of the indelible first novel of Belén Gopegui, a Madrid-based writer. The Scale of Maps, owing partly to its short, honed chapters, is brisk, taut storytelling. Its protagonist-narrator, Sergio Prim, describes his unusual love affair with another cartographer, his troubles at work, and the metaphysical debates he has with other mapmakers. Throughout the novel he openly questions both his own psychological reliability and ability to handle human relationships. At times, he clearly fabricates conversations and events. This novel of ideas never feels contrived or schematic.
As in Rivka Galchen’s Atmospheric Disturbances or John Lanchester’s great The Debt to Pleasure, the first-person narrator is mad, and his madness defamiliarizes the banal rituals of intimacy. Throughout the novel, Sergio Prim, a quixotic mapmaker in the Borgesian tradition, makes repeated claims for the explanatory power of myth, abstraction, and non-empirical truths. As a geographer and as a madman, he blurs the line between sign and referent.
It leads Sergio to produce off-kilter flourishes like this: “I have always liked examining people’s topographical features, catching them unawares as they rest their hands in a moment of inattention, their sonorous and pensive profile or their black moustache, their dark tragedy.”
Belén Gopegui
Belén Gopegui
The reader comes to realize that the narrator’s intellectualism is a self-defense mechanism. He describes himself this way: “I am Albania. My natural climate is temperate, it is composed of scraps of unsanitary plains, rugged plateaus, and a collection of abrupt mountains. In my republic, we practice the autarchy of retreat: production for the purpose of self-sufficiency and to protect ourselves from foreign influence.”
Sergio is preoccupied by a theory of the “hollow”—a negative space that gives order and meaning to his life. As a geographer, he compares it to the time before maps, before the first world map created by Anaximander, when the world was “exaggerated and self-absorbed.” He is paralyzed by doubt, though no less loquacious for it: “Circumstances always get the better of men. I completely understand those admirals who never manage to engage a single ship in battle, who fight the elements their whole lives long.”
The woman that the protagonist pines for is Brezo Varla, whose smile “is as wide as a gong.” Here, Gopegui, a committed Marxist, is playing some of the same post-modern name games that have come down to us through Pynchon. In Spanish, “Brezo” means “to fall asleep,” and Varla is the name of a 19th-century priest in Cuba whose name has been taken up by an organization calling for political reform there.
Shafer’s translation recreates the humor and intelligence of Gopegui’s novel. The Spaniard’s humor is distinctly literary, always specific, and never condescending. By taking up the evocative language of geography—its “errors in scale,” the “architects of utopias”—Gopegui runs the risk of dull metaphor, but her narrative instincts are sharp enough to avoid that pitfall. Instead, gratefully, Brezo or Dona Elena, Sergio’s supervisor, are wry foils to Sergio’s grand theories.
At one point, Sergio Prim tells Brezo, “Don’t believe anything because, at the least, you will be protecting a sensitive, almost liquid, shifting, and turbulent system that is somewhat mysteriously called your sense of humor.”
The novelists Roberto Bolaño and Francisco Umbral and the critic Idoya Puig are not alone in placing Gopegui among the finest Spanish-language writers working today. After The Scale of Maps made a splash on the Spanish-language literary scene in 1993, she went on to write over ten other novels, including The Conquest of the Air (1998) and The Father of White (2007), though unfortunately only The Scale of Maps is available in English. She shares some of the rueful tone and brazen stylistic improvisations of her contemporaries, Enrique Vila-Matas and Javier Marias, but her work has taken much longer to find its way into Anglophone bookstores.
In an interview in El Mundo, Gopegui asked which of her books to start with and she answered The Scale of Maps, “if you are interested in the possibility of intervening and changing reality.” Perhaps a translator is churning out pages of her other celebrated novels as I write. The Scale of Maps is a rapturous and dazzling achievement, and I, for one, am waiting impatiently for the opportunity to read more of Gopegui. - John Yargo


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