Untranslated: La derrota de lo real/The Defeat of the Real by Pablo Brescia — Thomas Nulley-Valdés

In his short story collection La derrota de lo real (The Defeat of the Real), Pablo Brescia presents a genre-crossing range of uncanny texts which probe “realities” both familiar and distant, as part of a postmodern questioning of the real, the imagined, epistemology, and normativity. This collection concludes a trilogy of short story texts –– La apariencia de las cosas (The Appearance of Things) and Fuera de lugar (Out of Place)–– which explores the basic metaphysical principles of time and space. And yet, while a number of Brescia’s stories deal with some serious philosophical questions such as life, death, reality versus fiction, and literary creativity, his writing is delightfully ironic, even ironizing his own metadiscourse. Brescia’s stories are also quick to capture and sustain the reader’s attention as the recounted mysteries are revealed — albeit in many cases only opaquely, preserving a good measure of doubt and the possibility of multiple readings/misreadings. 

Central referents from the rich Argentinian short story tradition are apparent –– Jorge Luis Borges, Julio Cortázar, and Brescia’s former university professor the late Ricardo Piglia –– and particularly evident in Brescia’s skilful recreation of the many genres and registries his predecessors also called their own: the detective story, science fiction, surrealism and realism, as well as metafiction. The book is divided into four sections each linked through an overarching theme: “Maneras de estar muerto” (Ways of Being Dead), “El resto es literatura” (The Rest is Literature), “Sin moraleja” (Without a Moral), and “Bonus Track”, although their ingenuity lends them to multiple interpretations and meanings, and can thus be read as much in isolation as in how they relate to their respective section or the entirety of the collection.

In one story, the reader is introduced to a list of bizarre fictional authors whose lives, oeuvre, and deaths are the subject of entries in a brief encyclopaedia of idiotic writers, “Pequeño Larousse de escritores idiotas” (Idiots: A Dictionary). These authors’ “literary” contributions include the collected works of a public restroom vandal Urinals 1, Urinals 2, and Plato and the Pants, as well as the collected (and translated!) birthday cards of an unhinged housewife. Brescia satirizes the academy’s modus operandi in the construction of meaning in which certain texts, anecdotes or even part of an author’s life are completely overlooked or, inversely, selectively overrated — such is the case with the academy’s appreciation of Elizabeth Denmore’s birthday cards over her lengthy first novel which, we are notified, has attracted no critical commentary from the literary intelligentsia. These heavily satirical anecdotes are the means by which Brescia ironizes his own profession as a literary critic given that he is also a professor of Latin American literature at the University of South Florida. Beyond the humor however, akin to Jorge Luis Borges and Adolfo Bioy Casares’ “discovery” of Uqbar in the Anglo-American Cyclopedia and their ensuing search for Tlön recounted in Borges’s story “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” (1940), Brescia’s story invites his readers to participate in a similar metanarrative journey of fictitious discovery. 

The tension between the real world and realist literary aesthetics explored by many critics including Walter Benjamin and Theodor Adorno is narratively explored by Brescia. As the imaginative, heterogeneous, and fantastic nature of his stories suggests, Brescia responds in favor of a valorization of story telling over any attempt to capture a certain (complete or objective) reality through literature. While some stories take place in real locations, many other settings are either unnamed, invented, assumed or represent no-places such as in “Nada personal” (Nothing Personal). Rather than presenting a clear-cut fable, the story has multiple alternative readings and interpretations. For example, readings of “Nada personal” might extend from a political critique of hardline migration policies —especially in the recent context of United States’ President Donald Trump’s wall-building and DACA/Dreamer-expulsing policies––, to a hellish afterlife of limbo, or even an alien abduction. 

Returning to the problem of realist aesthetic and reality, Brescia also gives space to this discourse in his work through one of his characters in “Melting Pot”, Jonathan, who is similarly troubled by this very debate between art and reality, a dilemma tempting him to abandon writing altogether due to its apparent irreconcilability with life: ‘But something bothers him in regards to literature, that thing of immersing yourself in other worlds made of ink: they seemed false to him, worthless, another thing which left him indifferent. So he returned to his life and dedicated himself to listening to conversations, observing birds and people, and buildings. And nothing. Life is to flow, it’s chaos, one event after the other. What was wrong with that? Life was the problem, art can’t handle it […] Life is too real, it can only be lived and not be represented’.

Brescia takes this tension even further by narratively exploring the origins and effects of literary creativity through an uncanny mixing and reversal of logic. In “Gestos mínimos de arte” (Small Artistic Gestures), the reader is presented with a connected series of superimposing (hi)stories (much like Russian Dolls) spanning centuries and countries, which appear to be the imaginings of a present-day author inspired by a mundane yet serendipitous event. This same preoccupation with this literary creativity and reality is taken up in “Melting Pot”, in which the anti-mimetic proverb that life imitates art is questioned ad absurdum when a struggling writer’s own story appears to become his own tragic reality. 

In the first section of the book “Maneras de estar muerto”, a number of the stories deal with the topic of death, life and beyond. In “Takj” and “Las que lloran” (The Weeping Women), myths are both recounted and demystified, as death is explored in its rituals and epistemologies. Inextricably related to death, life is another theme explored most creatively in “Los monólogos de la placenta” (The Placenta Monologues), which jumps back and forth between a narration of a scientist’s experimental quest for the principle of life, and texts which juxtapose medical knowledge and the beliefs and rituals surrounding the placenta around the globe. Once more, the academic text or encyclopedia resurfaces as a significant paratext in these stories, as in “Takj” where the reader is informed that encyclopedias, while accounting for the mythology of the red lake, cannot confirm its existence; and in “Las que lloran” where the truth regarding the mysterious funereal ritual of the weeping women is finally uncovered in a National Geographic article. As is also apparent, these myths also interplay Western and Eastern epistemologies surrounding life, death, life after death, the real, and the imagined.

As Pablo Brescia has expressed a number of times (once again channeling Borges), he inhabits a liminal literary space in the periphery of the periphery of the periphery: as an Argentinian author writing as an outsider in the United States in Spanish, a language with significant spoken currency in the U.S. but reduced literary existence. Nevertheless, Brescia does not begrudge his situation: “I think one of the good things about living in the United States, for someone like me who writes, is that we don’t matter to anyone. Writers aren’t very important generally and the writers that write in Spanish much less”. And while it is well known that countless extra-literary forces from political commitments, to commercial survival, as well as long-standing aesthetic traditions and current fashions, influence authors’ literary strategies, La derrota de lo real demonstrates remarkable literary autonomy and experimentation. Brescia’s deterritorialised existence and self-imposed isolation from his national literary field, provide him an advantageous “nomadic” position from which to write. As he states: “I don’t belong to any national or regional tradition, I don’t participate in any market, I am a nomad in publishing and aesthetic terms, as a newspaper in Mexico once described me quite well. In that sense my poetics or my aesthetics could be those, of the nomad, of the peripheral figure, of the weirdo: far from the genre conventions, of movements, from the new and old, and close to invention, imagination and the sublime pain of being alive”. 

In the same way in which the unusual story of Rajiv, a dweller in a remote Nepalese village, is paradoxically introduced as a story “like so many”, Brescia’s stories, while not completely isolated from the Argentinian literary tradition, represent a unique literary style and creativity, for their exploration of diverse aesthetics and genres, discourses and debates, which in a distinctive way enrich the short story genre. 


Pablo Brescia was born in Buenos Aires and has lived in the United States since 1986. He has published three books of short stories: La derrota de lo real/The Defeat of the Real (USA/Mexico, 2017), Fuera de Lugar/Out of Place (Peru, 2012/Mexico, 2013) and La apariencia de las cosas/The Appearance of Things (México, 1997), and a book of hybrid texts No hay tiempo para la poesía/NoTime for Poetry (Buenos Aires, 2011), with the pen name Harry Bimer. He teaches Latin American Literature at the University of South Florida.

Thomas Nulley-Valdés is a Chilean Australian who lives in Canberra. He is a doctoral candidate and sessional academic at the Australian National University in Latin American literatures and cultures.

La derrota de lo real is published by Suburbano Ediciones, Mexico.

Image: IllusionApplication créative de l’illusion du mur du caféGroume, Creative Commons.