Kawabata, reviewed

by craigepplin

I’m still thinking about Mario Bellatin, and building on my previous post on piracy I want to describe one of his “critical” interventions from a couple years ago, when he played a trick on the editors of ADN, the cultural supplement of the Buenos Aires newspaper La Nación.

Having been commissioned to review the Spanish-language translation of Yasunari Kawabata’s novel Kioto, Bellatin constructed a text called “Kawabata: el abrazo del abismo.” It reads like a chain of aphorisms on the work of the Japanese writer, winner of the 1968 Nobel Prize in literature. The caption under the essay’s title promises a reflection on “the nakedness of a world closed in on itself, where fiction owes quite little to reality.” This phrase echoes one that appears in the body of the essay. “On more than one occasion Kawabata said that the key to his work was creating worlds apart, closed universes, indebted only to the fiction that holds them up.” An attentive or suspicious reader familiar with Bellatin’s novels and with the criticism that circulates around them might have recognized that phrase as an adequate description of the writer’s own work, in particular of the way he himself presents it in interviews and public conversations. Of course, that Bellatin’s thoughts on Kawabata might dovetail with his and others’ conceptions of his own work is in itself not necessarily surprising. Kawabata appears as a reference at various points in his oeuvre, and it is common knowledge that writers’ essays and reviews often reveal more about their own work than they do about the putative objects of their reflection. Bellatin, in writing about Kawabata, could very well have been writing about himself.

As it turns out, Bellatin was writing about himself, though perhaps the term “writing” fails to capture the nature of this particular activity. Two days after its appearance in ADN, Bellatin’s essay was reprinted on Daniel Link’s blog Linkillo (cosas mías). The review is reproduced in its entirety, along with a footnote from Bellatin himself. “Dear L,” it reads, “i wanted to let you know that a text i wrote on kawabata came out in yesterday’s ADN… i sent it in with a footnote saying it had been made with the technique of copypaste (copyright 2008), a footnote that, sadly, was not printed.” He then goes on to explain what he means by the “technique of copypaste”:

i made that text by putting together a series of fragments that different critics have written about my books… i changed the word bellatin and put kawabata in its place, i changed the name of some works and there you have it… a stupendous article about kawabata, impeccable in its verisimilitude and accuracy.

The attentive or suspicious reader who detected echoes of the criticism that surrounds Bellatin’s own literature would thus have been correct. Bellatin draws out the ultimate consequences of his experiment, affirming that the critics he “cites” in his essay “have written exceptionally about kawabata without realizing it” and that his essay thus inserts itself into a kind of feedback loop: “i think that this is a reappropriation… just as the critics felt they had the right to write about my books, so i recuperate the words that my books have generated.”

This is a story about intertextuality, of course, but more importantly it is a story about technique, about how to make (hacer, not escribir) a text. Bellatin is explicit about the material relationship between himself and his writing machine, calling our attention to his use of the copy-and-paste function. His readers will have encountered versions of this emphasis before, in Underwood portátil, for example, when he characterizes his work as a sort of obsessive typing in which all that matters is the mechanical act of pressing keys. The writing machine, an old Underwood typewriter in that particular case, extends his body and makes this desire manifest. These representations, in which the scene of writing and the technology that makes it possible are placed at the fore, are central in his poetics. They are representations of his nonhuman becoming. It is not the same thing to write on a typewriter as it is to copy and paste in a word processor. Katherine Hayles says it best in How We Became Posthuman:

The relation between striking a key and producing text with a computer is very different from the relation achieved with a typewriter. Display brightness is unrelated to keynote pressure, and striking a single key can effect massive changes in the entire text. The computer restores and heightens the sense of word as image—an image drawn in a medium as fluid and changeable as water. Interacting with electronic images rather than with a materially resistant text, I absorb through my fingers as well as my mind a model of signifier and signified. I know kinesthetically as well as conceptually that the text can be manipulated in ways that would be impossible if it existed as a material object rather than a visual display. (26)

The computer-mediated word is an electronic image, susceptible to disappear or mutate with the pressing of a couple keys, drawn as it is in a “medium as fluid and changeable as water.” This is the image that Bellatin evokes when he reproduces and modifies a series of quotations, redirecting them to produce a commentary on Kawabata’s novels rather than his own. It is an image of the text as a mutating body, and as the product of a nonhuman assemblage of human and machine.