Obscure in its native Argentina, a grand modernist novel finds new life in a vigorous translation.
In Spanish, a caterva is a crowd—just a bunch of people crammed into one place. As Filloy’s novel opens, we find an assembly of drifters under a highway bridge, “not clustered in a heap like stones and boulders that just come rolling randomly along…but rather washed there by virtue of a secret current.” Grumbling about the surroundings and the smell, the lowering clouds smelling, in Filloy’s striking image, like sex, while the wind blows like a “swarm of flies,” the feeling is more Beckett than Joyce, the latter being the modernist to whom Filloy is most often compared. The tale soon explodes beyond even these messy confines, as Abd-ul “Katanga” ben-Hixem—for so one of the wanderers is named—and companions, who, it turns out, have a more political purpose than we might have originally thought, scatter across an aoristic landscape, anarchistic gentlemen of the road. (“Neither drifters, sir, nor lousy,” Katanga politely tells the menacing constabulary.) The novel is very much of its time, born in 1937, which is attested to by some of its references (to fascism, Nazi spies, and that newfangled thing called a Swiss army knife); but as it swirls into allegory, something like a mashup of Cervantes, Bulgakov, and Pynchon, it becomes exuberant in its strangeness: “Oh, the victory of superimposing organic full-frontal nudity, with neither briefs nor maillot, upon the mockery of well-catalogued social perversions!” Ever more hallucinatory, with visions of the heads of South America’s presidents shrunken “to the size of a fist,” Filloy’s big shaggy dog of a tale defies easy description: it’s odd, allusive, and satirical, and it’s also a lot of fun.
Filloy, as translator Riley notes, is scarcely known in Latin America, much less the English-speaking world. This beguiling yarn merits him many new readers.