The Obstacles is the first novel translated into English by Mexican writer Eloy Urroz, who is one of five Mexican writers who took part in writing the Crack Manifesto—a manifesto which declares its signatories against the Latin American literary tradition of Magical Realism. The Obstacles is the story of two writers, Elias and Ricardo, who live in different towns and are writing novels about each other (and each other’s city). Both writers are also searching for love, whether it be through violence, religion, abstinence, or more traditional venues.
The novel’s structure is complex but not confusing: four or five narrators alternate, there are a few typographical experiments, and much of the story is told through poems, short stories, and a novella, all of which are woven into the narrative (some more seamlessly than others). The Obstacles (Urroz’s novel) is also Las Remoras (Ricardo’s novel), and as characters sometimes seem to step right out of the writers’ novels, Urroz has set out to make fiction and reality interchangeable, or at least to make the reader consider the possibility that they are. With its sharp pronouncements about love and a bravura first chapter in which after his father’s death a young man hides in his mother’s closet to watch over her every night, The Obstacles starts off very strongly.
In the first chapters, the narrative is laced with gorgeous apothegms and musings on the subject of love: “But it’s true . . . love can reduce you to a most imbecilic and undignified state,” and “That, then, is love: a dizzying descent into the pure silt of hell.” In the early chapters, there are also wonderful (and wonderfully astute) philosophical conversations on love and sex—in these moments, the novel is brilliant and very difficult to put down.
But the novel has a lot of trouble living up to its initial promise. At first there’s an effortless elegance, but, unfortunately, the last vestiges of that grace are found at the mid-point with phrases like “love is pure animalistic coexistence: fortuitous, ephemeral, and circumstantial.” By the time we get to the end of the novel, the prose and story have eroded into groan-inducing forehead-slappers like “So when we’ve got it ready, we can send it out to a publisher under the title The Obstacles, as written by Eloy Urroz!” Furthermore, the characters seem fairly interchangeable and ill-defined. Everyone is known by their career (the writer, the lawyer, the prostitute) and not a lot of differentiating detail is provided.
Another major problem with The Obstacles is the first of the implanted texts, a novella entitled Bodily Prayers that is being read by Elias. Bodily Prayers (like The Obstacles) starts out well, but nosedives quickly; it is worsened by its length and the unabating excitement Elias feels every time he breathlessly picks it up for a read. In an interview with Urroz reprinted in the back of the book, the author admits that he wrote the novella first and then later planted it in the novel, and this is exactly what it felt like when reading it—like it doesn’t really belong there. It’s labored and though in some ways it thematically and tangentially fits the overall narrative, it’s very hard to take Bodily Prayers seriously when the characters act so grave about deciphering its meaning and talk about how great and wonderful and well-written it is (especially since we know that this is Urroz unironically writing about his own writing). Perhaps the latter is a artifact of the Crack Manifesto, which seemed written to get the attention of The Establishment; either way, there’s not a lot of humility in either the manifesto or Urroz’s novel.
In what is a painfully tidy final chapter, everything comes together neatly. Amazing coincidences abound, and all the characters sit around explaining to each other what’s happened in the novel we’ve just read. Likewise, the prose declines: the dialogue gets extremely wooden and the language, which is so careful and precise in the early parts of the book, descends into quick recaps, “telling,” summary, and cliché.
Throughout The Obstacles, I kept hoping that Urroz would get more philosophical and complex in his ideas and less concentrated on plot and metafiction, but the reverse happened. He spends a lot of time creating a complex structure and a complex plot, seemingly to try and blur the lines between fiction and reality, but the ideas and the juice of the novel just dry out and die. Sadly, it becomes all plot.
Initially, the subjects of love, relationships, and sex loom large. They are subjects that are endlessly fascinating, items that all artists will consider in their careers, and one gets the idea that Urroz has a lot to say on this topic. But instead of becoming more metaphysical and ponderous and exploring his trains of thought wherever they might lead, he gets hung up on revealing unknown fathers and the truth about a murder and having everyone explain everything. It’s as if he didn’t trust his readers to keep reading if he got away from the plot and story for very long. Perhaps in its original language there’s something going on in this novel which is lost in its translation, but in English The Obstacles is just an average story that lacks the insight or philosophical intrigue to sustain it. A little magical realism maybe could have livened things up a bit. Dalkey Archive Press, the novel’s publisher, retains one of the most impressive backlists of any American publisher. They offer scores of crucial books of immense importance that should be read before this one.
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