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Monday, February 17, 2003

Book Reviews

Classical Eye Candy

The Eye of Cybele by Daniel Chavarría. Translated by Carlos López, New York, Akashic Books, 2002, 463 pages, $27.

Although born in and still a citizen of Uruguay, Daniel Chavarría emigrated to revolutionary Cuba over 30 years ago, motivated by a feeling of political solidarity, and today considers himself a Cuban writer. And certainly, his acclaimed Adios Muchachos qualifies him as a full-fledged member of the Cuban literary community. The novel explores a visible truth of Cuban reality: prostitution as a mode of survival that predates the Revolution and which, in our time, has made a manifest comeback. Yet, despite the fact that prostitution is also the profession of one of the more memorable protagonists in Chavarría’s most recent novel, The Eye of Cybele, readers well-versed in Cuban literature might be hard pressed to find a place for this novel in the Cuban literary milieu or to claim that it somehow amounts to a commentary on the state of contemporary Cuban reality.

Another Cuban writer (who, like Chavarría, was born elsewhere), the Baltimorean Calvert Casey, abandoned the Revolution in the Sixties and settled in Rome, a city that, for Casey at least, bore an uncanny resemblance to Havana. For Chavarría, apart from the common insularity of Cuba and Greece, and their place of prominence in the culture of their respective seas, it seems unlikely that the fifth-century Hellenic empire under Pericles, the setting and subject of The Eye of Cybele, serves as an allegorical echo of Cuba. Seems unlikely, that is; for, in truth, there are many Cuban literary predecessors to Chavarría’s project, both in terms of substance and style: the great Alejo Carpentier’s “Like the Night” begins with a Greek soldier sailing off for the Trojan War. More significantly, the virtuosic density with which Chavarría processes historical minutiae is unmistakably reminiscent of Carpentier, Lezama Lima, and other practitioners of the so-called Cuban baroque.

Suffice it to say, however, that Chavarría’s central preoccupation in The Eye of Cybele is not Cuba but rather all things Attic. The novel amounts to a near mind-boggling compendium or tapestry of quotidian life in Periclean Athens. Religious obsessions, sexual practices, political intrigues, imperial factions, epistolary culture, and urban planning are described with such a degree of material precision that the narration virtually groans under the weight of so much historical detritus (a fact that convinces me even more of the legitimacy of the comparison with Carpentier, especially in Explosion in a Cathedral).

Chavarría is a professor of Latin and Greek literature at the University of Havana, and The Eye of Cybele seems almost like a private urn overflowing with his knowledge on the subject. All of the epoch’s historical personages are present in the novel, such as Alcibiades, Socrates, Pericles, Nicias, Euripides, Sophocles, and many others. In the novel’s epilogue, Chavarría claims that he has observed the dates and chronology supplied by Thucydides with the strictest rigor. (Another connection to the Cuban tradition: Carpentier makes an almost identical claim about the exactitude of dates, names, and events surrounding the Haitian Revolution in The Kingdom of this World.) And yet we are speaking of a novel, not a chronicle or textbook of names and events; so, the question is, What is the narrative center of gravity in this volume bursting at the seams with historical material?

The answer can be found in the title: Cybele’s eye refers to an ocular amethyst stolen from the likeness of Athena in the Parthenon. Through circuitous routes, the amethyst passes through the hands of both citizens and slaves, who all share the intention of profiting from it either financially or through heightened civic reputation. The ultimate trajectory of the amethyst is spiritual, however, rather than material or political. One protagonist, Atys of Pamphylia, thanks to a religious epiphany, founds a New Church devoted to a hybrid divine trinity, a composite of Aphrodite, Dionysius, and Pandemos: “This was the first time the metragyrtes heard the voice of the Great Mother of the Gods. She told them that the three of them were one God, a single, indivisible God. The Cybele of Mount Dindymon would again be worshiped throughout the Ecumene.” (p. 43) For Atys then, the stolen amethyst excised from the eye socket of Athena’s likeness is rightly intended for this nascent, obscure divinity.

Metonymically, the amethyst’s voyage signifies Chavarría’s metadesign of presenting a panoramic view of everyday life in Periclean Athens, from the most elite of its citizens, such Alcibiades and Socrates, to its downtrodden slaves, merchants, soldiers, and whores (both heterae and pornai). The privileging of Cybele over Athena represents a move downward from the elite toward the popular; more often than not, Aphrodite is referred to by her “vulgar” epithet, Pandemos. Despite this vertically panoramic view of Athenian society — and the wealth of information, names, topoi, practices, and theories all explored with unbridled descriptive opulence — the novel falls into the mystery genre: that of the missing amethyst. And yet the best representatives of this genre are novels in which the mystery itself is the author’s central preoccupation. For Chavarría, the missing amethyst, it seems, is a mere pretext to unburden himself of his teeming classical imagination.

That is no doubt the novel’s primary shortcoming. The amethyst’s odyssey almost seems like a novelistic afterthought, and does not therefore particularly summon enough concern on the part of the reader. Taking center stage, rather, are the lively portraits of the various dramatis personae, especially the particularly vivid rendering of the protagonist, Lysis, who starts off as an extremely gifted courtesan, but who later becomes Cybele’s high priestess. The portraits of the superbly arrogant Alcibiades and that most admired of Athenian citizens, Socrates, are also very enjoyable. In one episode, Chavarría recreates Plato’s The Symposium, but the topic under discussion is no longer the nature of love but rather the whereabouts of the amethyst, which Socrates, putty in Chavarría’s hands, deduces in a splendid performance of his “obstetric” method, whereby his interlocutors “labor” their minds to “give birth to the truth.”

Another allegorical aspect to the figure of Cybele’s eye is the relationship between vision and ancient Greek subjectivity, which constitutes one of Chavarría’s primary themes. Martin Jay has described the “Hellenic affinity for the visible” (Downcast Eyes: The Denigration of Vision in Twentieth-Century French Thought, p.21), and Chavarría seems to exploit this in a dual sense, by having us see what fifth-century Greeks saw. This is especially the case in the description of Lysis, which not only evokes the erotic power of her beauty, but also its effect on her fellow Athenians, who exalt her to unprecedented heights of prestige. Yet, in our epoch, we tend to associate visual clarity with enlightenment, and the several episodes dramatizing Socrates’ use of crystal reason to arrive at the truth, as well as the numerous references to logos as a highly venerated attribute, might lead the reader to believe that Chavarría, à la Adorno in Dialectic of Enlightenment, seeks to bring out the Enlightenment virtues of Periclean Athens. Sight, vision, and visual clarity in The Eye of Cybele, however, are more often than not interpreted as auguries, religious signs, and omens rather than harbingers of clear thought. Chavarría champions Protagoras, father of sophism, which favors rhetoric over vision, and seems to relegate vision to the realm of superstitious conjecture, a Hellenic opiate of the masses.

Finally, a word about the translation. The Eye of Cybele can be at times exceedingly difficult to read due to constantly shifting points of view, episodes, and modes of speech (Chavarría renders the speech of characters not from Greece proper into a kind of pigeon Spanish), as well as an abundance of Greek words, ideas, and place and proper names (requiring an 80-page glossary, whose entries, rather than clarifying identities and concepts, tend to add yet another level of textual density to the reading experience). If the writing here represents a technical tour de force, Carlos López’s translation is no less so (Reinaldo Arenas once commented that translating books is the dirtiest job in the world). Some of López’s solutions to the numerous translational quandaries are more successful than others, but, all in all, his translation can only be described as heroic.

Paul B. Miller is a professor of Latin American and Caribbean literature at Vanderbilt University.
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