Centuria: 100 Ouroboric Novels
Translated by Henry Martin
Kingston: McPherson, 2005
216 pp. $24.00, cloth.
Originally published in 1979, Giorgio Manganelli’s Centuria: 100 Ouroboric Novels is the kind of fiction novelists had been threatening to write since Poststructuralist thought drastically altered the landscape of literature. But if this English-language translation of an Italian text comes to readers fifteen years after the author’s death in 1990, the book’s affiliation with the aesthetic and historical mores of its time, as well as its common association with absurdist literature, are easily transcended by its rigorous intelligence and sustained structural ingenuity.
The formal design of Centuria is at once original and straightforward: the book is comprised of 100 two-page narratives that serve—for lack of a better term—as digests of full-blown fictions. Each narrative, then, is ostensibly a novel. It’s the sort of trick one might expect from Manganelli’s peer, Italo Calvino—and certainly the sheer rapidity of these stories, plus the overwhelming fullness they achieve as each stacks against the others, resembles a highly-caffeinated version of If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler. The linkage is not accidental. Like Calvino, Manganelli’s concern with language and, more precisely, matters of signification, is examined through slippages in formerly-secure dualisms, such as the hunter and the hunted, lover and beloved—slippages which are often exposed by tensions between a novelist’s struggle to render his story as originally as possible while simultaneously relying on the conventions of narrative discourse. Consider the dilemma in novel seven: a “gentleman dressed in a dark suit” (like all the characters in these fictions he is unnamed) knows he is, at all times, the subject of another’s pursuit. In Manganelli’s own words,
The gentleman also knows that the chase is very fast, and that since his gait is slow, he will inevitably overtaken . . . He does know, however, that the pursuer will never reach him, not even if he sits down on a bench, pretending to read the newspaper . . .[the pursued man also realizes that] The pursuer knows that on reaching him he would cease to be pursuer and the scheme of creation holds no possible place for him except as pursuer . . . [Thus] The target asks himself whether the pursuer is unhappy, since the horror of their mutual condition lies in an unperformable task. He wonders if there’s a way to turn around, and to begin to pursue the pursuer.
Structurally, this passage betrays a circular motion that—like the ouroborus who swallows its own tail—demonstrates how initial extensions in narrative ultimately fold back on themselves in a gesture of self-conscious revelation. In other words, all time and space assertions can be deconstructed through the very means by which they were asserted. It is a testament to Manganelli’s originality and intellectual rigor that this persistent structure does not get tiresome; rather, the inevitable arc of the narrative serves as a thematic thread that unites all the “novels” as one under a single title. Moreover, the author’s fondness for absurdity and paradox place him in direct descent of Kafka and Borges—two writers whose influence on Calvino and Manganelli was enormous. Like his mentors, Manganelli is furthermore concerned with matters of history; at times, his wry and expansive allusions to myth, folklore, epic literature, and various subgenres of fiction enable Centuria to function as an intriguing commentary on this history of narrative as it has evolved in Europe over the last several-hundred years.
As an armchair historian of the novel, I was titillated by Manganelli’s playful variations on well-established conventions for fiction. I was, moreover, impressed that the sheer energy of his prose survives beautifully in Henry Martin’s translation. Nonetheless, I find the author’s insistence on calling each micro-narrative a “novel” problematic; unlike most novels—and certainly unlike some of the genres Manganelli slyly parodies—none of these fictions employ sub-plots; instead, each story proceeds with an unwavering focus one associates with short fiction, prose meditations, and fables. Even run-of-the-mill plot summaries of novels will include mention of peripheral narratives, thus “novel” here seems more a gimmick than a well-earned epithet.
This aside, English-language readers have much to celebrate in this fresh translation of a classic fiction. After all, Manganelli’s Centuria does more than dramatize some of the prevailing aesthetic and intellectual concerns of its time, it provides a remarkably innovative shape for those very problems.