Reading Romanian writer Dumitru Tsepeneag’s Vain Art of the Fugue is like having a dream, and then remembering it in that diaphanous, vague, next-morning way a dream is recollected. This is a good thing.
Maybe if this strange novel means to say anything, it’s comparing the experience of music to the experience of dreams. As the title hints, the novel’s structure is based on the musical theory of multiple themes used repetitively. Tsepeneag’s themes are disguised as plot lines: a man is late for a train, carries some flowers, sees a pig being slaughtered, begs the bus driver to drive faster so he can make his train. Sometimes someone (as in the chapter-length first sentence) is looking through iron bars, watching someone who doesn’t see him (though sometimes the person is aware of being watched and doesn’t want to turn around). Tsepeneag takes this skeleton of a plot and reimagines it, over and over again; however, this isn’t Queneau’s Exercises in Style—one, none, or all of these strands might appear in various combinations, seeming to affect different narrators and characters.
It’s actually all incredibly difficult to describe.
First-, second-, and third-person are used interchangeably (and change frequently), most often centered around the point of view of the unnamed protagonist—so that there can be a shift from narrator (first person) to puppet (third) to reader (second), often within the same chapter. This, combined with the book’s sense of time and chronology, which are utterly chaotic (to the point that events directly contradict one another within in a chapter), contributes to the strange, dreamlike style of Tsepeneag’s structure.
And if that wasn’t enough, characters seem to inhabit various bodies within chapters.
The language is purely descriptive exposition, merely conveying information, with few metaphors, similes, or poetic indulgences, so it’s like hitting a landmine when Tsepeneag unleashes a passage like this:
The fish was about the size of a time bomb. I told this to the ticket-seller, who smiled and took a fish the size of a rifle bullet from her own breast; it was greenish and slightly rusty. She flashed it at me and put it back again. My fish had nodded off in my arms: it was sleeping quietly, its blue scales as tiny as a baby’s finger nails.
I don’t know if Tsepeneag was consciously working toward giving his book a dream’s logic and/or feeling, but I keep coming back to it because it seems so correct in terms of the way I experienced the book. The language abets this, so bare and stripped of artistic flourishes that it moves the narrative along as quickly as possible, with no time to stop and ponder anything. In fact, Fugue’s quite the high-octane read—it’s almost like a brainless action movie in the sense that the narrative stops to consider nothing at all, it’s just plot plot plot going fast fast fast.
Almost, but there’s the key: explaining any real “plot” in this book is nearly impossible, which seems to contradict the fact that the book is all plot, which shows that the plot itself isn’t even close to the main idea of the book. Plot seems here to be a conveyance for creating an experience of full-body immersion inside the text.
At times it can become quite difficult to understand what’s going on, or following who is who, or which “M.” (Maria or Magda, or one of a few others) the narrator is infatuated with, or if indeed it is infatuation, but despite this the work is never less than very interesting. There’s much to enjoy here, not in the least the many comical scenes, as when a ticket-collector attempts to illustrate the futility of sticking to the engineer’s schedule by using Zeno’s Paradox.
It’s a hectic, hazy, sometimes frustrating reading experience, but in the end I think that’s what this book is—an experience. An experience that works very hard to defy description. Thoroughly engaging while you’re reading it, the book becomes something quite different when you’re done, after the sheer randomness is forgotten, as you’re grasping at barely recalled strands of plot; the novel’s dreamlikeness is what’s left, justifying the story of the dream by using the common understanding of the weirdness of dreams.
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