A Note Regarding Intertextuality in Simon Collings' Sanchez Ventura
It was a curious experience for me to read Simon Collings' short narrative Sanchez Ventura (Leafe Press: Nottingham, 2021). This episodic text, all of twenty pages in length, managed to evoke so many fleeting images lurking on the margins of my memory and consciousness that I decided that it (the text, and the evocations) warranted further investigation. All the more so since – though the blurb on the back cover states that the narrative's episodes are "linked by the logic of dreams" – these images seemed to spring from various transitory and/or vaguely hallucinatory experiences, readings, viewings, etc. That is, the images evoked were not from dreams but from perception, even if what was perceived came from art, literature, or somewhat off kilter versions of reality.
I might be able to relate this phenomenon more directly by first briefly describing the book, and then those images it elicited. A short, partial plot summary of the first few pages of the book – a curious thing for a book that can't really be said to have a plot – will give a sense of Sanchez Ventura. It might read as follows:
C is browsing for books at a used bookstore and pulls down a slim novel by an unknown Latin American writer titled In the Shadow of Dreams … (p.7, first page of narrative) / Teresa is woken by the clatter of hooves and sound of voices in the street below, and looking out her window sees a group of young gauchos parading in the road. One of them looks up at her, this is Sanchez Ventura … (p. 8) / A young woman sits in a late-night cafe across the street and cuts words and phrases from a pile of magazines, the only other customers were two men playing cards, who were an exact likeness of the two figures in Cezanne’s painting Les joueurs de cartes (p.9)… / After the gauchos had galloped off, Teresa, unable to get back to sleep, picks up a book she’s been reading, a book from which someone had snipped out random words and phrases, leaving behind a curiously limping narrative… (p.10) / (etc.)
And this fragmentary, juxtapositional narrative conjured up some equally fragmentary, juxtapositional images in myself, which were as follows (and I want to emphasize here that when I say "evoke," it means that the image or reference came to me, spontaneously, while I was reading the text, I wasn’t trying to make such connections):
a) The book's opening (p. 7), in which C is "browsing the shelves of a second-hand bookshop, searching for something out of the ordinary to read" conjured up for me the opening of the Czech writer Michal Ajvaz’s fantastical (and sometimes Irreal) novel The Other City, in which the narrator too is in a bookshop, and, just as happens in Sanchez Ventura, finds a book whose content, or nature, is key to the development of the narrative.
b) The appearance of the gauchos on the next page (p.8), "waving their boleros and whooping," instantly conjured up for me some short stories by Jorge Luis Borges that made reference to gauchos (e.g., "A Biography of Tadeo Isidoro Cruz (1829-1874)" and "The End"). This is no doubt because, so far as I can recall, the only time I had previously come across gauchos in a work of literature (or, practically speaking, anywhere else) was via these stories. And, as I understand it, their appearance in such a fashion in Sanchez Ventura is entirely apropos to this, since, as the Buenos Aires-raised, European-educated Borges himself pointed out, the tradition of gauchesque poetry was largely a product of educated, urban writers.
c) In Sanchez Ventura, we learn that "Random words had been deleted from official circulars and posters pinned on the noticeboard at the public library. A copy of Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France had also been defaced [p. 18] … Graffiti employing the texts excised from the volume of Burke had begun to appear on bus stops and walls across the city…” such as, e.g., “a thousand uses suggest themselves to a contriving mind” or “prejudice is of ready application in the emergency" [p.22]. These excised texts appearing on bus stops and walls brought back an experience I’d had in late January of 1991, when I and a friend had, over a couple of nights, used goat's milk to plaster a poster all over Chicago’s elevated train system that we’d created in protest of the first Persian Gulf War, and President H.W. Bush’s declaration that the war represented the birth of a "new world order." The poster, consisting of text and citations of ubiquitous phrases being bandied about, read something as follows (I’ve had to reconstruct it from memory):
NEW WORLD ORDER, SAME OLD SHIT!
Presented by the Committee for the "Out of these troubled times -- a new world order", "I seem to smell the stench of appeasement in the air", "America will not be intimidated", "The great duel, the mother of all battles has begun", "The skies over Baghdad have been illuminated . . .", "The dawn of victory nears as this great showdown begins!", "Continuous coverage of the war in the Persian Gulf will resume in a moment", ...
d) On p. 20 of Sanchez Ventura, Collings describes a scene in which the woman in the yellow coat leaves the cafe after her evening stay there and catches a bus, in which: "a group of party goers in fancy dress occupied the rear seats but the bus was otherwise empty. The woman took a seat near the driver, a Bengali man who began to sing an elaborate ghazal. The passengers at the back were dressed as wildebeest, and were talking excitedly in a language she didn’t recognize" but soon, lulled to sleep by the opaqueness of the dust storm that engulfed the bus, she falls asleep. This fragment of the narrative picks up again on p. 25, according to which "Sunlight was slanting in through the bus windows when the woman in the yellow coat woke up… The bus was half buried in sand, but the passenger door was open and she alighted to find that someone had laid breakfast for her on a small table: a bacon sandwich, still warm, a thermos of coffee, and a glass of orange juice." This evoked for me, perhaps all too obviously for those familiar with contemporary irrealist literature, the memorable concluding scene of Kazuo Ishiguro’s 1995 novel, The Unconsoled, in which, on p. 533-34, the novel’s protagonist, Mr. Ryder, pursues a woman and boy who may or may not be his wife and son, to a tram that they, and then he, board. After he takes a seat, he relates that: "Turning, I saw a crowd of passengers standing at the very rear of the tram where some sort of buffet had been laid out… Various aromas came wafting towards me. A number of people were in the act of serving themselves, but peering over their shoulders I saw a large buffet presented in a semi-circular arrangement directly beneath the rear window of the tram. There was on offer virtually everything one could wish for: scrambled eggs, fried eggs, a choice of cold meats and sausages, sautéed potatoes, mushrooms, cooked tomatoes."
e) The passages from Sanchez Ventura in which "Coming out of the library Teresa was nearly trampled by a herd of wildebeest thundering past. A stranger seized her arm at the last moment, pulling her back onto the pavement…[p. 13]" and "A series of minor earth tremors shook the city. No one could remember such a thing happening before…The authorities blamed the seismic activity on a mysterious herd of wildebeest recently seen terrorizing the city…[p. 15]" brought to my mind a couple of short fictions by the Czech writer Tomáš Přidal that we published in The Cafe Irreal in 2006, "The Reflection of a Stag in a Display Window", in which "Every Friday afternoon, when the people abandon the city, the animals move in...They roam about the streets and sidewalks, looking with wonder at the displayed goods and sniffing the cash machines in the hope that they will dispense food. The city square reverberates with animal calls and the clapping of hoofs..." and the story "Sheep City", in which: "Just an hour ago it would have never occurred to her that she'd be in hiding like she was now. But that's the way it is sometimes, you go out to do a little shopping and a few minutes later your life has been turned upside down. Admittedly, she'd heard about them, and what they were like, but she'd never actually encountered them before. Not before she tried to cross at that intersection. She'd only wanted to cross it so she could get on a city bus when she suddenly found herself in the middle of a throng of them. The sheep didn't look at all like sheep. It's true that they had sheep's heads, but underneath they had human torsos, arms, and legs. They crashed into each other and into her, emitting bleating sounds and finally knocking her to the ground...” The Cafe Irreal #17: Selections from The Coconut Ape by Tomas Pridal
f) In that late night cafe in which a young woman is cutting out the words and phrases, we additionally learn that "the only other customers [in the cafe] were two men playing cards. The one to the left had a clay pipe in his mouth. Both were wearing hats. They were an exact likeness of the two figures in Cezanne’s Les Joueurs de cartes. [p. 9]" Indeed, the image of card players and clay pipes has additional recurrences in the text (pages 13, 16 and 17). When I read these passages, the perceptual image of another painting I'd seen at an exhibition some years ago materialized for me, painted by a very young Pablo Picasso. It too showed some men sitting at a table, in a cafe of that period (the Picasso painting was painted in the late 1890s, the Cezanne in the early part of that decade). This was a curious thing, as I had, as I later realized, seen the Cezanne, as it is in the collection of the Museé d’ Orsey, which I had visited during a trip to Paris in 2003. The fact that it was the early Picasso that came to mind is not only a result of the fact that I’d seen it more recently but, especially, because I’d seen it as a part of a visiting exhibition in Tucson, Arizona, and a Picasso, any Picasso, stands out more in a place like Tucson, Arizona than a Cezanne, any Cezanne, can stand out in Paris, especially to a tourist taking in the whole city, and all of its art, over a period of seven days.
g) And finally, we find, perhaps not surprisingly given that it is from my consciousness that these images are being evoked, a couple of cases in which the evocations relate to characters or settings from works of fiction that I have myself have written. In the first of these cases, the occasional glimpses that we get of the titular character, Sanchez Ventura (who besides being a gaucho, is also seen to be a used car salesman, a man of letters, and a waxwork figure, the latter two in one and the same manifestation), were evocative, for me of a character from the manuscript of a novel of mine, titled The Assignment. In this novel, the protagonist is called out on a temporary assignment, but never quite manages to catch up with the contact person for the assignment, whose name is Mituf Kutumbo. Like Ventura, Kutumbo, that is to say, is an enigmatic character who, though he is central to the narrative, is only ever seen fleetingly, and from afar.
h) The second of these cases centers around the noir feeling of Sanchez Ventura that gives everything a certain opaqueness. Examples of this include such passages as: "From her third-floor window she could see a group of young gauchos parading around the road … one of them glanced up at her, then they galloped off down the street and disappeared into the night" [p. 8]; "In a late-night café across the street a young woman sat in a pool of yellow light…" [p.9];"After leaving the café the woman in the yellow coat walked to a nearby bus stop. The city had been enveloped by a thick fog and she could barely find the stop … The fog became increasingly opaque until it turned into a dust storm …" [p. 20]. Such imagery evoked similar images from a novel I'm currently working on titled Another City, in which the protagonist, a visiting travel writer, is wandering around a city (most likely Prague) night after night, taking in the sights and sounds around him in the darkened streets of the city that, however, also become a springboard toward further, more unusual imaginings.
I will note here once again that none of these evocations came directly from a dream, and indeed the evocative quality was not precisely dream-like. And Collings' text itself, despite its frequent references to dreams, does not really take on the quality of a dream narrative, at least in the Kafkan sense that Antony Johae (another The Cafe Irreal contributor) defined it in his article "Towards a theory of Kafka’s dream narratives" (Journal of the Kafka Society of America, vol. 40-41, 2016, pp. 102-17). In the article, Johae highlights "the dream principle of Kafka's fiction, its narrative distancing from conscious life, its linguistic metaphor, and the expressionistic mode of its delivery" (103). In Kafka's dream narratives, Johae argues, "[t]here is a sense of energy without cause; a need for punctuality where no time has been specified; a feeling of guilt without a crime; a sense of pursuit and harassment for no reason" (104). Following on Adorno's idea of the "liquidation of dream through its ubiquity," he additionally argues that "the dream narrative does not allow for a full awareness of the technique being employed until such moment as the narrator gives information of an alternative level of consciousness. This Kafka never does in his fiction; the work remains set in the minor key of dream and never switches to the major key of concrete reality." (105)
But the text of Sanchez Ventura is not in the “minor key” of dream, as it is very self-referential about dreams (viz. the key role played by the putative text/film In the Shadow of Dreams). Furthermore, it defies the dream narrative in that there are multiple protagonists taking their turns as the point-of-view character, which is most unlike a dream (people generally report a dream from a first person point of view, sometimes a third person specific, but rarely if ever from a third person omniscient point of view). And, finally, in dreams (and in Kafka's works) we generally don’t come across actual concrete references to existing artists or books, and we certainly don't come across multiple references that play off of each other, as is the case with Collings' text, in which work by Cezanne, Burke, and the I Ching play key roles.
And yet neither does Sanchez Ventura ever switch to the major key of concrete reality. Even when, in the text, we read a description that might reflect concrete reality, such as (p. 11) during a brief recapping of the plausible life story of Aki, the cafe owner, we then learn that he ultimately realizes that "repetition is the enemy of eternity" and begins to live his life according to endlessly changing patterns, allowing his schedule to be governed by a daily consulting of the I Ching. This caused time to move so slowly that "small details preoccupied him for hours, like the hard 'o' and sibilant 's' sounds of the word 'concupiscence.'" And in case this doesn't divert us sufficiently from the major key of concrete reality, it is on the next page that Teresa was nearly trampled by a herd of wildebeest while coming out of the library.
Instead of a dream metaphysics, then, in Sanchez Ventura, we find a kind of cultural metaphysics which is filled with textual and cultural references. Thus it is perhaps not surprising that it evoked in me such culturally-based imagery. And, even when it did evoke something that had actually happened to me – such as when I helped to plaster Chicago's elevated train system with anti-war posters – what it primarily evoked in me were the memories of us bringing textual fragments into a concrete reality against a dream-like background (nighttime on the Chicago El, the vague, but real, menace of being caught in the act by a policeman or transit authority security guard) and not the broader context of the activism of the moment, such as the meetings and the marching in mass demonstrations in the bitter January cold of Chicago, not to mention the war itself.
But then how might dreams figure into this work, given the great emphasis that it placed on them? After all, the putative text "In the Shadow of Dreams" not only opens Sanchez Ventura but also closes the work, since on the last page it seemed to be the name of a film being shown in a cinema, in which a woman is seen "browsing the shelves of a second-hand bookshop [and then] takes a book from the shelf." She opens this book up, upon which we are led to believe that she might have clipped out some snippets of text, including one that reads "removed his clay pipe."
We might perhaps say that in the context of Sanchez Ventura, being "in the shadow of a dream" is not the same thing as being in a dream or even, as in Kafka, to be writing in the minor mode of a dream (which implies a high degree of integration with a dream). Furthermore, in Sanchez Ventura it is not so much our perceived reality that seems to be in the shadow of dreams, as might be the case for a surrealist text, but various artistic and literary constructs, such as words, snippets, texts, images from paintings, indeed the very figure of the titular Sanchez Ventura in his manifestation as a gaucho.
Or, more specifically, we might even say that it is intertextuality that lies in the shadow of dreams, that which, in one author's definition of the term, "is the process whereby one text plays upon other texts, the ways in which texts refer endlessly to further elements within the realm of cultural production" (Nick J Fox, "Intertextuality and the writing of social research," Electronic Journal of Sociology, 1995) and thus it is not surprising that Sanchez Ventura – necessarily thanks to the fact that the fine writing of Simon Collings engaged me and thereby drew me into its fragmentary story-line – triggered in me a process of one textual element eliciting another, culminating in a very satisfying (not to mention intriguing) reading experience.
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