“The Museum of Eterna’s Novel” by Macedonio Fernández is engaging and hilarious, light-hearted and profound. The one non-contradictory aspect of the work is its overt attempt to win the reader’s time, attention, praise, and awe—a goal at which it succeeds beautifully. As the author himself describes it, “This will be the novel that’s thrown violently to the floor most often, and avidly taken up again just as often. What author can boast of that?” The novel is written in a unique form, consisting of dialogues between the author and his readers, which take place over a series of prologues.
‘The Museum of Eterna’s Novel’ is a meta-novel that goes so deep into the swirl of metas that it loses itself, its characters, and us in the process. And yet it is all about the relationship between reader and author, and what fiction can and cannot do. “The Museum of Eterna’s Novel” is a proverbial Wonderland of wit and explicitly enunciated confusion, where forward leads backwards, and where a word is synonymous with its opposite. As the novel progresses, Fernández constantly shifts voice and tone in a self-conscious attempt to disorient his reader.
Fernández writes in the first of about fifty playful prologues introducing his novel, “Let the Reader take charge of my agitation and trust in my promise of a forthcoming goodbad novel, firstlast in its genre, in which the best of the bad of ‘Adriana Buenos Aires’ and the best of the good of ‘Eterna’s Novel’ will be allied, and in which I will recollect the experience gained in my efforts to convince myself that something good was bad, and vice versa, because I needed it to finish a chapter of one or the other...” He then mentions that he wrote a page of the good novel and a page of the bad novel per day, and sometimes the pages got mixed up. It is now up to the readers, he says, to collaborate and sort out the confusion.
Fernández, born in Buenos Aires in 1874, worked on this novel between 1925 and 1938. A philosopher, humorist, writer and poet, he started “The Museum of Eterna’s Novel” when he was about fifty and rewrote it five times before his death. Fernández was very concerned about writing, but not nearly as concerned about publishing his own work.
Among English speakers he is better known, not as an author, but as a character in the works of Jorge Luis Borges. Fernández was a close friend of the South American literary giant, and Borges cites Fernandez as one of his most important mentors and influences. The two share a desire to discover what actually lies at the core of the accepted concepts of time, structure and pattern, and the less accepted ones of metaphysics and the unconscious mind. Borges draws the analogy that in his conversations with Fernández he was like Plato who listened to and transcribed the ideas of Socrates. The ideas of the latter were later used to form a new Argentinean literary movement. This new translation of “The Museum of Eterna’s Novel” marks the first opportunity for English speakers to read Fernández and encounter one of Latin America’s most influential writers.
The translator, Margaret Schwartz, has preserved Fernández’s subversively humorous tone, evident even in the titles of the prologues, such as, “Prologue to eternity,” “Letter to the critics,” “Prologue for a borrowed character,” “Prologue of authorial despair,” “What do you expect: I must keep prologuing,” and “Prologue that stands on its tiptoes to see how far away the novel begins.” The prologues continue for the first 122 pages, until Fernández includes a blank page with the question “Were those prologues? And is this a novel?” The fine print reads: “This page is for the reader to linger, in his well-deserved and serious indecision, before reading on.” What follows on the next page is not a novel but a love poem. When Fernández finally arrives at his novel, it is surprisingly short and just as self-reflexive, centering on a group of characters who live in a place called La Novela. In a final prologue, Fernández once again defies expectations, providing an open invitation for the reader to rewrite the whole thing.
As he plays with form and layers of meaning, Fernández generates utter chaos within his novel, but it is a kind of creative chaos. “The Museum of Eterna’s Novel” is a dismissal of the novel, but also a dismissal of the notion of being. It leaves things open and unfinished, because the claim that anything can be definite does not seem feasible. Yet at the same time as Fernández pushes and questions the limits, he shows that there are none. Out of non-sense, sense is born, and out of non-being, eternity.