Providence (2009) is Juan Francisco Ferré’s most ambitious novel, his longest and more complex fictional work to date. Written during one of his stays at Brown University, Providence, as much as Ferré’s previous books, is a deeply erotic, abrasively satirical, gargantuan fiction dealing with both contemporary American culture and Spanish literary tradition. But rather than focusing on cultural differences, Ferré investigates the common literary roots of the new global culture, producing a true “transatlantic” fiction—in some sense. Providence could be considered as much a Spanish novel about America as an American novel written in Spanish.
Providence is a haunting glimpse into a labyrinth of imaginary spaces assembled together by, among many other things, the spell of H.P. Lovecraft, the remembrance of Alain Resnais homonymous film, a personal interpretation of Spielberg’s Jaws, and the sexual drive and misguided efforts of the Spanish independent filmmaker Álex Franco. After being lured by a mysterious female producer, Franco travels to Rhode Island with the purpose of writing a script about “Providence.” However, like in a wicked Cronenberg-inspired bio-game, “Providence” starts mutating to become something quite different from what he expected. Forced to confront a new set of otherworldly relationships he can no longer dismiss, Álex will find himself trapped in a surreal multiverse of fictional/mythical “Providences” made up by Lovecraftian secret societies evolving from steampunk into cyberpunk; from The Age of Mechanical Reproduction to the Age of Digital Simulation. The adventures of Álex Franco constitute a metaphor of the ongoing transition from reproduction technologies that render external sophisticated representations (Pro videns) to embodied simulation technologies “happening” through our flesh (Providenz).
In a forthcoming article on contemporary Spanish fiction, I write about authors who face the challenge of the mediation and digitalization of culture by locating their creative and critical practice “at the edge of chaos.” Writers who are creating new metaphors, possibilities for narrative innovation, interdisciplinary border crossings, hybrid networks and capacities for establishing new connections. Who are absorbing and processing information from traditional and electronic media, market dynamics, science and technology, philosophy, metacreation, and the avangardist tradition of modernist, postmodernist and avant-pop literature. The work by Juan Francisco Ferré stands out among them. It best exemplifies what’s going on in 21st-century Spanish literature. I hope that this sample of marks the first step of the English translation that Providence deserves.
— Germán Sierra-Paredes
PVD Case, Report # 1
It could have happened differently, but it happened this way. They stopped him at immigration when he tried to cross the border without a visa. Someone undoubtedly gave him away. Maybe a university committee member; the rumor insinuated that the accusation against him had something to do with his cinematic activities. The Federal Bureau of Investigation had received a report informing them of Franco’s intentions to film illegally on American soil, backed by a person of influence. What’s more, in the grandiloquent style of a village preacher, it solemnly warned of the moral danger of permitting the entry of this individual into a country he hated and that he hoped to destabilize with his actions.
The two agents charged with his detention brought him, under custody, to a private office under the pretense that he was to strip and empty his luggage for inspection. He had the sensation of being in an abstract space, erased from all official maps, in an inaccessible part of the arrivals terminal. Panels with ventilation grilles on the ceiling, padded walls, false mirrors perpendicular to the right corner, facing the doorway. A worn out poster of Paris Hilton, mute witness to the inhumane tension penned up in the room, smiled at him as he entered: the system’s incongruous joke. Or a false promise, if the suspect cooperates with the authorities. They misled him into thinking that they were after drugs. They submitted him to a thorough anal cavity search with the intention of encouraging him to believe that a false tip had them convinced that he was attempting to smuggle narcotics into the country. When it was clear that they could no longer look for anything, they locked him in another, similar room for two hours in the dark. They watched his behavior, using a sophisticated system of infrared cameras, from an adjacent room separated by a false mirror of reinforced glass. They later interrogated him, without turning on the lights, with a system of microphones and speakers hidden in the walls: his place of origin, his professional activities, his private life, his criminal record, his reasons for coming to the country, his work plans, his local friends and relatives, etc.
Each time, in spite of his rage and impotence, his fury and indignation, he answered honestly. He neither distorted nor omitted any fact that could be considered relevant. He imagined that his only chance of escaping without irreparable harm depended on his honest, cooperative attitude. For exactly thirty minutes and fifteen seconds they maintained a funereal silence, letting him believe that they were deliberating and would not be long in releasing him. When they noticed that his level of impatience and anxiety reached dangerous extremes on the monitors, they demanded that he calm down and reminded him that a violent or aggressive attitude would not help his present circumstances. But Franco, sixty-five minutes later, had exhausted his tolerance, uncharacteristically, started to feel violent impulses take over him. They reminded him that if he continued in this actively uncooperative attitude—he had begun beating on the walls and the door with his fists and bellowing denouncements of his abusive and intolerable detainment—they would be forced to resort to drastic measures.
When they pushed him as far as he could go, they told the prisoner that they were preparing to open a side door to his left; he was to stand and be in position to go through the door as soon as it opened. If he did not do so, his detainment could be extended for many hours, even days or weeks. They reminded him that it was in his best interest to cooperate without resisting. Franco tamely obeyed, believing that soon this unpleasant experience would be behind him and he would be able to focus on what had truly brought him here, as he had shouted over and over, beating in vain against the walls of his isolated cell. I am a filmmaker and a professor. I am not a terrorist. Without achieving anything other than the unnecessary extension of his detention at the hands of his captors, and one or two secret guffaws. As announced, the door automatically opened, and Franco hurried to cross the threshold before it shut again, trusting that on the other side, still in darkness, he would find the exit to the terminal, the reentry into the normalcy of airport life. The door closed immediately, leaving Franco locked again in the adjacent room, momentarily unable to clearly discern its characteristics, imagining them to be similar to the previous one.
Unlike the other room, the air in this one smells quite bad, a penetrating stench of urine and excrement assaults him as soon as he enters. Franco becomes alarmed. He expects to find the foulest example of human nature shut up inside the four walls of this new room. If not the foulest, at least something sufficiently bad to force a him to step back before blindly advancing through. His captors don’t hesitate to clear his doubts, turning on florescent ceiling lights that gradually show him a scene that will turn out to be piercing to his sensibility. The grand dimensions and dilapidation at first surprise Franco as he recovers from the blindness induced by the flickering lights, just as he is now surprised by the prevalence of corrugated metal in the back wall and the presence of four wrapped wooden boxes. In front of him, tied to a wooden chair and gagged, his face swollen but still recognizable, his eyes swollen as well, nude as well, he finds a man with a strong complexion and of probable Arab origin. The prisoner had wet himself a number of times, judging by the puddle in which he splashed his feet until then without realizing. His ankles were also bound so that he could not use them against his captors or attempt an escape. Through a loudspeaker he receives instructions in English that he at first refused to acknowledge. A voice identifies the man in the chair as a dangerous terrorist, someone who had been detained the previous day while attempting to infiltrate a flight bound for London, armed with an explosive device hidden in a laptop computer. He was presumed dead in a shootout with the airport police, which meant he no longer officially existed, his name had been erased from the international list of most-wanted terrorists. The voice continues its sinister tale without changing its tone, with that consistently authoritative inflection in both affirmation and recommendation, that admonitory tone that one could deduce was the consequence of a pragmatism that for convenience’s sake reduces saying to doing, or that equates the two in a perverse inversion of values. So that is all it’s about, Franco understands. About doing something to the supposed terrorist, who wets himself again. The liquid between his thighs flows slowly down to the floor where it shines like fear materialized and bottled in that sinister room, like a metaphor for the terror Franco, bewildered by the pain and stupidity of a scene so unthinkable, could not help but admire, fascinated as he is by the power that humiliates and thus destroys, annuls anyone weak enough to be caught in its legal nets. The loudspeaker again quiets his doubts and moral reflections, interrupts them from above with the grand inquisitor’s monologue, a hierarchical imposition of the system.
—Don’t be alarmed. On the table, if you’ll be so kind as to look, you’ll see an automatic weapon, very easy to use. In any conflict region—Palestine, Afghanistan, Kosovo, Bosnia, Iraq, Chechnya or Lebanon—in any of them, and there are so many, even in some of our urban ghettos, children are trained to use them from very early on. You won’t have any trouble. You’re familiar with our most popular movies, and your own have their uses. We know that in your country it’s harder to get your hands on firearms than here, but (as the voice insists, demonstrating a disconcerting amount of knowledge) isn’t it true that in one of your movies they organize a game of Russian roulette to resolve an election? And in another a woman is riddled with bullets in front of her child? You know something about these things, don’t you? So don’t claim to be a pacifist now. Realize that you have in front of you a very dangerous terrorist who would not have blinked before annihilating two hundred passengers 36 hours ago. A mass murderer. Take the pistol and put an end to him once and for all. He represents the dregs of humanity; harmful, it’s true, but the dregs in the end. You’re not going to tell us now that your morals won’t let you, are you? None of your acts show that you have faith of any kind or particularly strong political convictions. We don’t know exactly which way you vote, you’ll understand that our informants have to respect certain limits, but we have some idea of your lifestyle, your habits, your tendencies. Know that we do not look upon you favorably, despite being Western, it would be impossible for us to like you. But we respect you, we tolerate you to the point that we wish to protect you even from yourself. Don’t fool yourself: you are not our enemy. You’re not our friend either, but if you cooperate you might become our ally. We don’t ask much, just that you try your luck. Other passengers have tried before without success. Since yesterday five have passed through here, not all Spanish, don’t think we discriminate or have special preferences despite what has been said about us internationally on occasion. No luck with any of your predecessors, anyhow. We’re only asking you to try. Try to take care of the serious problem represented by the existence of this man, whom you see weakened and harmless, but who would slit your throat in an instant if it would save his own. Human life is worth nothing to these people, like we keep saying in the media, yours and theirs. Maybe because the lives they live aren’t really worth it. But who really lives? Do you know? It’s hard to answer when you live in hiding all the time, cultivating hatred for an enemy who is in part an invention of the same hatred, you know? On the other hand, for us human life is precious, as we show every day. What about for you? Have you ever asked yourself that question? Would you be willing to sacrifice it, like he would, for something nobler, a cause higher than your own hedonistic way of life? Or do you just think about preserving it so that you can fulfill your destiny without risking it at all? Think about it before taking the pistol and aiming at this individual’s neck. Think about it before you fire: which side are you on, Franco? Admit that it’s not a bad question to be asked in order to enter the country. You’ll have time later to develop and expand upon your answer, of course; what university did you say hired you? It doesn’t matter. For now, just think about the most essential part of the question, reduce it to its most basic. Are you with them? Against them? Against us? Against your own country and its allies? Enough with sanctimonious lies: do you really think it’s possible not to be with them or against them? Does it seem conceivable that you can be against them and not with us? If it does, if you’re prisoner of that kind of dilemma, I recommend that you pull that trigger right away to dispel your doubts. It’s the only way. As they say in the film world that you come from, action is the only way to forget about the script, especially if the script contains legal challenges, right? I assume you understand me. Don’t believe the lines you’ve been given in your second-rate role. Believe in action. Put it into practice. Execute it with courage. It’s not an order. It’s advice, a friendly recommendation, if you prefer. You choose, Mr. Fucking Director . . .
Trembling, Franco picks the gun up off the table, and, while the loudspeaker reduces the senselessness of the world and offers a delirious rationality that hardly leaves room for thought, he positions himself behind the man, who remains in the chair with his hands bound. Now he can see and smell the excrement of the prisoner as a repugnant symbol of the state of affairs that the executioner’s abominable words described point by point. Now he knows that no matter what happens there will be no consequences, they assure him that all will be immediately forgotten. Gripping the pistol in both hands, like a vengeful character in a black and white movie, Franco aims at the prisoner’s back neck and fires without hesitation. The trigger’s metallic click and Franco’s moans are the only noises heard in the room, now that the inquisitorial voice has fallen silent and the door at the back of the room opens itself opened just enough to let in the cacophony of the airport, voices indicating arrivals and departures, the murmur of passengers, the acoustic life of the terminal, so full of promises, announcements, and inane invitations. The presumed terrorist hangs his head and dramatically closes his eyes, as if he was hit once again with the terrible reality of the situation, knowing that other passengers will come, that nothing ends so easily, that they will have better luck, while Franco lets the gun fall to the ground feigning innocence, impunity, or any other concept corrupted by the circumstances, imitating so many gangster and gunmen movies, and is still, not knowing what to do or what to say. There are no words, no acts.
—Don’t take it the wrong way. It’s for your own safety. You may go, if you wish. Don’t forget to take all your belongings.
Juan Francisco Ferré is the author of numerous books, including the collection of fictions Metamorfosis® and the novels La vuelta al mundo, I love you Sade, and La fiesta del asno. Kyle James Matthews is a Ph.D. candidate in the department of Hispanic studies at Brown University, and a lecturer in the department of Spanish at the College of the Holy Cross. He is completing his dissertation on the ways in which bodies are deployed in recent Mexican historical fiction to formulate and question conceptions of the nation. Germán Sierra-Paredes is the author of four novels, El Espacio Aparentemente Perdido, La Felicidad no da el Dinero, Efectos Secundarios, and Intente usar otras palabras, as well as a book of short stories, Alto Voltaje. Efectos Secundarios received the Jaen Prize in 2000.
image © TSA
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