Reviewed by Helen Parry
The philosophy that a text is created by the reader as well as the writer is well known and widely shared these days. However, few authors have pushed it as far as Nanni Balestrini in his novel Tristano, now newly translated into English by Mike Harakis. First published in 1966, it’s only in the last few years with the advent of digital technology that Tristano has been issued in the form the author originally desired. And that form is unusual because every single copy of the book is different.
Tristano consists of ten chapters divided into fifteen pairs of paragraphs, and in each copy those pairs of paragraphs are shuffled. There are, the publisher explains, 109,027,350,432,000 possible versions of this book, and since the print run is rather short of that number, no two copies are the same. The book I am reviewing is not the one that you will read. It is the result of a combination of chance – the algorithm which decrees the order in which the paragraphs appear – and control – the author has selected and ordered the text within each paragraph and the pairs and the chapters within which those paragraphs will appear. He has also chosen the title, which alludes to the mediaeval legend of Tristan and Isolde, and therefore sets up certain expectations in terms of meaning. And each copy, once made, is fixed, unlike some of the experimental works of B.S. Johnson (The Unfortunates) and Raymond Queneau (Cent Mille Milliards de Poèmes), which could be further physically altered by the reader. So Balestrini retains a certain amount of control over his novel and our reading of it. This pattern of chance and control is reflected in his prose, which provides a basis for a narrative but then leaves much to the reader’s imagination. His text is elliptical, poetic and very occasionally nonsensical and demands a lot of intellectual and creative effort to interpret, breaking down the boundaries between writer, reader and character.
To give the reader the greatest creative freedom, Balestrini denies us a continuous narrative. The text circles round certain images, scenes and phrases, whirls away from them, rejoins them later. Some sentences connect to make a snippet of story, others are fragments isolated from each other. There’s a mixture of dialogue, domestic detail, scientific or technical information. Journeys which are usually interrupted, books which are endlessly being unpacked. Balestrini has also eliminated all punctuation bar full stops, apostrophes and hyphens, so that the reader decides on the emphasis, the tone of a sentence. The characters and place names are all indicated by the letter C. This sometimes leads to ambiguity: who crossed the room? who just spoke? The lines between the characters thus can become blurred. The narrative voice flickers between first, second and third person, perhaps to show characters, author and reader as complicit in creating the story and part of that story, as inseparable from each other.
Here is an excerpt which I picked more or less at random and which I think gives you a flavour of the way that the text works:
There were some flowers in a vase and a long sofa in front of the fireplace. He headed off slowly along the gravel -covered path. He dropped his coat on the chair. The lights were on in the rooms on the ground floor. C turns. He took the street lined by trees.
Initially struggling to get to grips with this, I looked for clues scattered in the text to help me. In Chapter One I found this:
A map strewn with thoughts that chase after words that never conclude in a definition. All this seems to mean something but in reality has no meaning whatsoever. […] It might look like a game and to a certain degree it is. An apparently weightless dance whose limit is the very lightness of this undisciplined movement which knows no consensus and leaves the precise translation of the meanings to others. Sometimes I think I understand you a little. The provisional nature of the assemblage of the materials from different sources not connected together by integration but by association. Then everything vanishes for an instant. The associations of pictures and ideas follow an arrhythmic cadence provoking impulses and inhibitions that are at odds with each other.
There’s a lot here, but I want to focus on the idea of assembling materials which are connected by association. It seems to me that the best approach, at least initially, to this novel is to think of it as a collage you are making, a collage of the impressions evoked by the sentences you read. So if I look back at the piece I quoted earlier, in my mind’s eye I see a sitting-room in an old house at dusk, a man leaving, a man arriving – the same man? is he thinking of leaving as he’s arriving? – and C, I decide C is a woman here, turning to look at him. And all of these things happening at once. And that is my part of that part of the story.
Of course, whatever I construct is very personal to me, like my copy of the book, and the interpretations I offer can only ever be very tentative. You don’t even need to read it the way that I do: it’s a dance ‘which knows no consensus’ after all. Balestrini frequently returns to descriptions of an archaeological site, and Tristano requires the patience and imagination of an archaeologist to dig down, piece evidence together and interpret it. It’s also intriguing, frustrating, demanding and oddly beautiful. Come and join in the game!
Helen Parry blogs at a gallimaufry.
Nanni Balestrini, Tristano: A Novel, translated by Mike Harakis (Verso: London, 2014). ISBN 978-1-78168-169-5, 120pp, paperback.