I knew Jean-Claude Carrière primarily as the scenarist for films such as The Tin Drum, The Unbearable Lightness of Being and Birth, but most especially for his collaborations with Luis Buñuel throughout the final two decades of the great director’s career, during which time the pair co-authored the scripts for Belle de jour, The Milky Way, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie and That Obscure Object of Desire. The only literary work I’d ever attributed to Carrière was Buñuel’s memoir My Last Sigh—one of my all-time favourite books—which Carrière assembled from transcripts of interviews with Buñuel and no doubt had a large part in shaping. So I was surprised to discover only recently that Carrière, now in his late 70s, has written a novel, and it was no disappointment to realize in just the first few pages of Please, Mr Einstein (Vintage, $21.95), that this novel was very much informed by the dictates of cinema.
“Let’s follow that girl who’s walking down the street…” As he describes his heroine, an attractive, intelligent, and most of all curious young woman who shall remain nameless, Carrière reminds his readers that we will never learn anything about her that can’t be observed through action and dialogue. As in a film, television show or play, or whatever sort of time-based medium, we’re to be swept along, without internal voices to guide us, gathering clues only as they’re presented, ideally without inclination to ponder “subsidiary questions.” I read Please, Mr Einstein quite pleasurably over the course of a single day, so I guess Carrière’s gambit must have worked. I wasn’t very concerned about anything except what was happening in the scenes playing out on the page, which were sufficiently extraordinary to hold one’s attention. Our heroine after all pays a visit to none other than Albert Einstein, and the fact that he’s been dead for over 50 years doesn’t keep their exchange from being lively. The great German physicist always insisted that contradictory facts can be equally true, so why not be both dead and alive, still at work in an office in an unnamed Central European city, with Sir Isaac Newton in the waiting room? (Add an appearance from Liz Taylor or Dante to this anachronistic convergence and you’ve got yourself a new verse of ‘Desolation Row.’)
The conversation between Einstein and his visitor is intellectually playful and only slightly flirtatious, sliding from Tyro Brahe’s attempts to prove the Earth immobile to the secret life of the moustache, from the basics of relativity to lessons gleaned from Shakespeare’s Prospero, from the enduring mysteries of light to the puzzle of dark matter, from the nature of celebrity to the elusive meaning of the word “everything.” Occasionally they exit Einstein’s office through one of a series of doors concealing spectacular surprises, like in an old game show. In the last third or so they discuss Einstein’s complicated culpability for the development of the atom bomb. All the while the allure of science remains infectious. “The universe is irresistible,” Einstein says as he and his visitor gaze upon a field of stars. “It’s seduction itself… The sight of it is a cruel, permanent reminder of how diminutive we are. It crushes us. At the same time, it amplifies us by making us welcome. It opens our eyes and, even more so, our minds.”
With Carrière, my familiarity with his films led me to his book, where as in the case of Miguel Littín, a book leads me to wonder why I’ve never even heard of the guy’s movies. Littín had already made a number of features before he fled his home country of Chile in 1973 following the coup that tore apart Salvador Allende’s still young, democratically elected socialist government. Littín returned to Chile in 1985 disguised as a Uruguayan businessman, meeting with an international film crew and covertly gathering material for a documentary about life under dictator Augusto Pinochet. What became of the resulting film I’ve no idea—in his helpful and erudite introduction, even Francisco Goldman claims he’s still never met anyone who’s seen it. No matter, since it could hardly be more fascinating than the book describing the process of making the film, Gabriel García Márquez’s Clandestine in Chile (New York Review Books, $17.95), newly back in print. Coming after a long period of silence for García Márquez, prompted by a somewhat misguided show of solidarity with Chileans living under Pinochet’s reign of terror, the book marks a return and a sort of farewell, since it could be argued that Clandestine in Chile is the last overtly political work in the author’s career, which would henceforth focus on themes of love and desire.
Gabriel García Márquez
However, García Márquez is not the author of this book in any conventional sense. As with his earlier Story of a Shipwrecked Sailor, Clandestine in Chile is a work of literary reportage, with all of the content ostensibly coming directly from conversations with Littín. Yet Littín’s adventures are such that those familiar with García Márquez could be persuaded that Littín was in fact the author’s invention. Whatever the case, this is the story of a director who perhaps imagined he might become not just an actor but the actual protagonist in his own thriller, only to find the masquerade almost unbearable. It’s a story of genuine guerilla filmmaking, of anguished nostalgia and suppressed identity, with Littín never feeling entirely comfortable with his transformed visage, particularly where grooming was concerned: “My uncles had worn beards and no doubt that increased the allure of beards for me. I had shaved mine off in Mexico a few years before but never managed to get my friends and family, much less myself, to accept my new face. All had the impression of being with an impostor…” Beardlessness renders Littín so distorted that, in what constitutes the book’s climax, his own mother doesn’t even recognize him. Whether this is the product of exaggeration on the part of Littín or García Márquez is impossible to say, but the effect holds: when your homeland has been stripped of its sense of self you really, truly can’t go home again. Or, as Littín himself puts it, “those who stayed behind are also exiles,” and not even the sudden reappearance of their loved ones can stir them from their forced internal hibernation.