As part of an ongoing series on the twenty authors from The Best of Young Brazilian Novelists issue – which was first published in Portuguese by Objectiva – Laura Erber is introduced by previous Best of Young American Novelist Dara Horn.
Do yourself a favour: do not read Laura Erber’s ‘That Wind Blowing through the Plaza’ only once. If you do, you might imagine that you’ve just read an aimless story about an artist who meets a senile old man. But when you read it again, you will plunge into a rabbit hole that leads to the looming question of the purpose of art.
Erber’s narrator goes to Romania to buy works by the actual artist Paul Neagu, a sculptor whose dance on the boundary of art and life included inventing alter egos whom he passed off as actual artists. In Erber’s story, Neagu’s works are being hoarded by a former French Cultural Institute janitor named Stefan Ptyx – whose name is an ancient Greek word referring to a folded writing tablet, and who may or may not be a double of the dead Neagu. The demented Ptyx owns a complete set of Balzac’s novels and spends his days copying them out, word for word. The novels were given to him by ‘a Mr. Barthes’ – that is, Roland Barthes, the literary theorist whose central work is a book-length copy of a Balzac story, analyzed line by line. (Barthes actually did teach in Romania, adding to the braid of reality and fiction.) Ptyx lives in the Romanian countryside, near where Prometheus was punished for stealing fire from the gods. One could write a Barthes-worthy analysis of every phrase in Erber’s story. Or perhaps that would give it no more meaning than Ptyx’s copying of Balzac in his happy resistance to mortality. Or would it?
Erber is a visual artist, and one senses here the wrenching disconnect between the physical world and art that pretends to represent it. ‘I wanted to show that language is an intensely physical force,’ Erber once wrote of her artwork. In this story, among the flies and the beets and a girl’s fragrant hair, one touches a reality that seems divorced from any artist’s glorious attempt to wrest fire from the gods. Beneath every detail is a profound and raw truth: the agony of mourning, and the strange freedom it allows. To the mourner, the world can seem meaningless, but also liberated from the burden of meaning – less grotesque than picaresque. Or as Erber’s narrator puts it, in words that seem an apt description of both art and life itself, ‘None of it made up a web of significance. Nothing guaranteed that life was more than a collection of fake men and copied novels.’
No, there is no guarantee. But in Erber’s hands, it feels real.