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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

    

Filosofía y letras

by
Pablo De Santis


general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

To purchase Filosofía y letras



Title: Filosofía y letras
Author: Pablo De Santis
Genre: Novel
Written: 1998
Length: 207 pages
Original in: Spanish
Availability: Filosofía y letras - US
Die Fakultät - Deutschland
Lettere e filosofia - Italia
Filosofía y letras - España
  • Filosofía y letras has not yet been translated into English

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Our Assessment:

B : good fun, if ultimately not entirely successful

See our review for fuller assessment.




Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
La Nacion A 28/7/1999 Guillermo Saavedra


  From the Reviews:
  • "Con estas piezas, Pablo De Santis hace funcionar el ajedrez formidable de su última novela, Filosofía y Letras, quizá lo mejor que este narrador haya publicado hasta ahora y sin dudas uno de los libros más originales de la literatura argentina actual. Relato policial, por organizarse en torno a un enigma que va empapándose en sangre, cumple la paradoja de traspasar el género gracias a las limitaciones que se impone. (...) Si hubiera que definir esta novela admirable por un rasgo que eludiera al mismo tiempo la psicología y el afán metafórico, podría hablarse, literalmente, de su humedad: una lógica de agua que no fluye, de habitaciones mal ventiladas y papeles mojados para siempre." - Guillermo Saavedra, La Nacion

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

[Note Filosofía y letras has not yet been translated into English; this review is based on Claudia Wuttke's German translation, Die Fakultät (Unionsverlag, 2003), and all translations are mine, based on this German translation.]

       Filosofía y letras is narrated by Esteban Miró, thirty years old and working -- none too hard -- on his doctorate. Eager to finally move out of the apartment he shares with his widowed mother, he asks her to help him get a job, and she uses her connections to call in a favor from Professor Emiliano Conde, the director of the Institute of National Literature. Conde even hires Esteban sight unseen, after repeatedly not showing up for the scheduled interviews of the applicant -- not that the job as the director's secretary proves very demanding. Basically, Esteban oversees the four rooms of the Institute -- or rather the three that are open to students and others who come to use the Institute's library; the fourth is Conde's private office, and always kept locked; Conde himself rarely shows up.
       Conde's specialty is the author Homero Brocca, who (self-)published five books during his (apparent) lifetime. Conde read two of them, many years earlier, but they were stolen; these and all other copies of Brocca's books have now vanished: "The trail of Broccas loses itself into nothingness, as if he never existed". Only a single story has been preserved, titled 'Substitutions'. But the lack of primary source material has not deterred the academic: Conde has already published two books on Brocca and is working on a biography
       Conde is not the only Brocca-obsessed academic; he has rivals -- in particular, one Selva Granado, who tries to convince Esteban to help her break into Conde's office, certain that the director essentially has Brocca locked in there, at least in the form of copies of the missing books. There's also Victor Novario, who organizes an academic conference on Brocca, and desperately wants Conde to take part; Conde, of course, wants no part of it (and actively tries to undermine it). (Esteban amusingly contrasts the official record of the proceedings with his own observations of the conference (which he did attend) -- including that the number of participants was not quite as impressive as claimed (only seven people showed up, including himself, Novario, Granados, and a helper) and that an empty seat of honor reserved for Conde, should he deign to show up, was in fact a chair missing a leg and with its upholstery ripped open.)
       Conde does enlist Esteban for a special project, too: helping to prepare a scholarly edition of that one surviving Brocca story. The problem with 'Substitutions' is that it is all too surviving, but not in any one single form: there are apparently countless different versions. Brocca was close to an extremist organization at the time he wrote it, and the text -- or rather variations, slipped into the text -- were repeatedly used to transmit secret messages among the group members; as the story was republished again and again things got completely out of hand. Esteban is charged with trying to determine what the story looked like in its most original form -- whereby Conde warns him that simply following the trail backwards would be misleading, since Brocca slipped in the original version as yet another variation late down the line as well.
       When the time comes, Conde does not properly credit Esteban for the editorial work he does on 'Substitutions' -- as usual, taking essentially all the credit for himself --, pushing Esteban further into the arms of Conde's rivals and their efforts to get a piece of the Brocca-pie themselves. If not entirely enthusiastic, he's nevertheless game for some of the expeditions in search of any traces of Brocciana.
       A major element of the novel is the building that houses the Institute, expeditions into the essentially off-limits fourth floor, with its collapsed bookshelves and huge heaps of books and papers -- that might, however, include the precious missing Brocca texts -- have already taken a terrible toll. The building is dilapidated, with water damage seeping through the walls; even the third floor rooms of the Institute suffer increasing damage during Esteban's time there. Readers are forewarned that collapse is inevitable: Esteban's short introductory chapter to his account begins with what is left of the building only a ruin, it having entirely collapsed -- Esteban returning to the scene of what he describes as the catastrophe to write the account that then makes up the rest of the novel here. The novel then culminates in that final cataclysm, itself the culmination of what amounts to a university-trial of Esteban and Novario, whom Conde accuses of libel and fomenting a conspiracy against him.
       The phantom-author is a significant presence (and absence) throughout, a shadow-figure about whom it long remains unclear just how real he might be. Conde is certain that he died more than twenty years earlier, but there is no proof of this -- no body was found -- and for all Conde's insistence that he knows all there is to know about the man, Brocca often seems merely a construction of his mind. Meanwhile, any traces of Brocca's written work beyond the near-infinite variations of that one story remain elusive -- with tantalizing claims and possible glimpses of it, but no one ever quite managing to have the work remain in reach (right down to the spectacular conclusion).
       Along the way, the trails lead also to a psychiatric institution that Conde regularly visits, while searches for the missing books take characters into the far reaches of the Institute building with its expanses of heaps of mounds of printed matter (and more and more water ...). Many of the characters are single-mindedly obsessed -- including peripheral ones suffering from graphomania ('Van-Holst-syndrome') and from 'Marconi-syndrome' (whose sufferers conceive of enormous, elaborate literary works in their mind's eye but are incapable of writing down a word of them). And on the rare occasion Esteban does some research for his dissertation he finds surprising potential overlap with the mystery of Brocca, a report on a psychiatric patient identified only as 'H.B.' who wrote a story whose description matches that of 'Substitutions', and who was apparently convinced that the act of writing was capable of changing reality .....
       The Brocca-obsession also turns deadly, with a soon rapidly escalating body-count and culminating in the cataclysmic resolution. As suggested by the fact that everything winds up in ruins, it's not exactly a happy ending, but does deliver some satisfactory answers about Brocca (though the self-styled Brocca-experts do not fare well in the process).
       De Santis offers up and plays with a lot of fun ideas in Filosofía y letras, including skewering academia (and, not least, the lack of investment in infrastructure and repairs), considering the nature of fiction (including questions such as authenticity, authorship, and what makes a work definitive), as well as variations on what it means to write (or not write). A few deaths along the way add a bit of a thriller element that doesn't hurt, but it does all become a bit much that he tries to juggle here, and parts of the story lose itself in the somewhat messy bigger picture so that the resolution also ultimately doesn't pack quite the punch it might.
       It is all entertaining enough, with some very amusing scenes as well as some clever ideas, but doesn't quite hold up as an entirely satisfying whole.

- M.A.Orthofer, 17 September 2020

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Links:

Filosofía y letras: Reviews: Other books by Pablo De Santis under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Argentinian author Pablo De Santis was born in 1963.

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© 2020 the complete review

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