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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

What to Do

Pablo Katchadjian

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To purchase What to Do

Title: What to Do
Author: Pablo Katchadjian
Genre: Novel
Written: 2010 (Eng. 2016)
Length: 97 pages
Original in: Spanish
Availability: What to Do - US
Qué hacer - Canada
What to Do - UK
What to Do - Canada
Quoi faire - France
Qué hacer - España
  • Spanish title: Qué hacer
  • Translated by Priscilla Posada

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Our Assessment:

B : constant surreal flux makes for a wild (and just short enough) ride

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Kirkus Reviews . 1/12/2015 .

  From the Reviews:
  • "This slim, surrealistic novel is utter nonsense, but at least it’s literary gibberish that’s quite fun to read in the right frame of mind. (...) An aesthetically pleasing but perplexing experiment that may prove too improvisational for many readers." - Kirkus Reviews

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:

       Pablo Katchadjian's What to Do opens:

Alberto and I are giving a lecture at an English university when a student, in an aggressive tone, asks: When philosophers speak, is what they say true or are we dealing with a double ? Alberto and I look at each other, somewhat anxious for not having understood the question. Alberto reacts first; he steps forward and responds that it's impossible to know. The student, dissatisfied with the response, stands up (he's two and a half meters tall), approaches Alberto, grabs him, an stuffs him into his mouth. Even though this looks dangerous, the students and I laugh, and Alberto, with half his body inside the student's mouth, also laughs and says: It's fine, it's fine. Then Alberto and I are suddenly in a plaza.
       Yes, naturalism this -- and pretty much all of What to Do -- ain't. In 50 chapters, covering less than a hundred pages, the narrator and Alberto find themselves again and again in situations that mutate into the absurd -- and, even more often, they are physically (metaphysically ?) removed from one place and find themselves somewhere entirely different.
I'm also on the floor and try to get up, but can't. Then, we're suddenly in an English university and we teach. Then we run through a forest. Then we're in a tavern with eight hundred wine drinkers. Then in a plaza where there's an old man who is also a pigeon.
       Alberto and the narrator's experiences aren't completely random; there's a circularity to them, as they repeatedly find themselves in the same place -- a classroom or elsewhere at "an English university", a ship (that itself occasionally: "looks like an English university" ...), a plaza -- and in similar situations (over-sized antagonistic students frequently feature, and Alberto is often mummified; sometimes they carry cold butter in their pockets). Constant, however is a lack of any lasting constancy: everything is flux, the ground beneath them -- or any hold -- unstable, no situation seen through before it mutates into another.
       At times, they can (sort of) understand the reasons for the failure of full apprehension:
I notice that much as I try to look, I can't see anything because the view is blocked, that's to say, because there are holes in the depth of the dream that prevent us from seeing what would be there if the background were complete.
       Alberto and the narrator would seem to be academics, a double-act of lecturers -- about literature, philosophy, and politics. At various times, they: "lecture on Latin and Modern Greek" or the "new relationship we invented between John Donne and Lawrence of Arabia"; they argue because: "I want to talk about Stevenson, but Alberto wants to continue with Bloy". One of the more amusing (and more true-to-life) scenes begins:
I'm furious and indignant because Alberto won't stop talking about Borges in front of our students at the English university, who are enraptured with all the talk of mirrors, labyrinths and doubles. Alberto isn't into these subjects, but knows they're good for captivating English students. Not only am I annoyed that he's talking about these things, but also that I, despite being knowledgeable about this subject, can't do what Alberto does because I refuse to talk about these things.
       There's also a political and activist undercurrent to much of this -- as also the Spanish title Qué hacer is also the one given to the famous Lenin-work that, in English, is known as What is to be Done. It is a question Alberto and the narrator constantly face -- yet that is also denied them, since the world sweeps them up regardless of their (re)actions. Faced with choices, they are unable to make them; choices are made for them:
The system of contents doesn't answer to our needs, it follows its own logic, without taking us into account; like this, it's not possible to devise a plan. We stay silent without knowing what to do, and this lasts until we're suddenly in a trench.
       They are near constantly on the move -- or rather: being transported -- but get no closer to taking control: "Alberto and I are sitting on a bench in a plaza and we don't know what to do". Eventually:
We're in an English university, and even though we have to give a lecture, we don't know what to talk about, nor do we even know whether we should give the lecture or not. We ask the students what to do.
       If they eventually reach some form of understanding -- of their lot, and of the world -- it's as Alberto recognizes:
So then what one does, almost always, is something that happens to one, not something one decides, except in cases in which the only possibility is to decide
       What to Do practices the unpredictability it preaches. There's no chance for the reader to settle in, as expectations for the story are undermined at every turn. The fiction of fiction as a neat construct is exploded: Katchadjian re-sets the story, again and again, but it also continues to loop around itself; there's no comfortable story-arc, no logical (or emotional or other) progression. Though many of the outlines, of characters and situations, are true-to-life -- anchored by the protagonists, two university-lecturers -- the reality of What to Do is like crudest cartoon-animation, where anything -- any transformation and transportation -- is possible.
       It makes for a surreal story -- kept short enough (less than a hundred pages) not to get too annoying (that is, if you're not the kind of reader who is put off by the whole approach, for whom presumably a paragraph of this stuff is more than enough). What to Do isn't just empty play, either, and its literary and political allusions (and name-dropping) are a welcome secondary layer -- and one that's not overdone, either, so as to threaten to make it all too academic.
       What to Do is obviously not for everyone, but it's not just an empty literary exercise either.

- M.A.Orthofer, 20 September 2018

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What to Do: Reviews: Other books by Pablo Katchadjian under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Argentine author Pablo Katchadjian was born in 1977.

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© 2018-2021 the complete review

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