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the complete review - fiction
The Way Out
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- Spanish title: El camino de Ida
- Translated by Robert Croll
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A- : deceptively casual, and considerably bigger in sum than its pieces might suggest
See our review for fuller assessment.
From the Reviews:
- "Ricardo Piglia se muestra como el excelente narrador que es, seguro y apasionado en sus reflexiones literarias, siempre sugerentes. El registro autobiográfico confiere al conjunto una mayor autenticidad." - Joaquín Marco, El Cultural
- "Munk enthält unter anderem eine Kritik des neuen, technologisch gestützten Überwachungsstaates, nicht im Sinn jener billigen Paranoia, mit der sich europäische User über die NSA empören, sondern indem er zeigt, wie abstrakte Kontrolle in die gesellschaftlichen Mikrostrukturen einsickert und entsprechende Verhaltensweisen erzeugt. (...) Zumindest für gebildete Leser sind die von Piglia immer wieder inszenierten Literaturgespräche ebenso spannend wie die Kriminalgeschichten, mit denen sie verwoben sind." - Leopold Federmair, Neue Zürcher Zeitung
- "A pesar de la aparente inocencia de la primera parte de la novela, que parece prometer al lector otra crónica más de la vida del campus académico con sus imbecilidades burocráticas, sus envidias, sus amoríos y sus borracheras, ciertos indicios jalonan las páginas de El camino de Ida para advertirnos que otra cosa acecha en las sombrías páginas finales. (...) En las últimas páginas de la obra, el lector no atina a saber si Renzi posee la lucidez de Conrad. No cabe duda de que Piglia." - Alberto Manguel, El País
- "Die fast mühelose Verbindung von dichtem psychologischem Realismus, Genreplot und postmoderner Metafiktion ist charakteristisch für Piglia (.....) In Munk geht Piglia dem Zusammenhang von Theorie und Terror nach und erzählt, wie der Drang nach radikaler Aufklärung in gefühlskalte Mordlust umschlägt. Der Ausflug in die Gegenkultur der amerikanischen Westküste ist nur Fallbeispiel des dem menschlichen Geist innewohnenden Potenzials an monströser Hybris." - Richard Kämmerlings, Die Welt
- "Piglia interessiert sich nicht allzu sehr für das Dokumentarische, sondern mehr für die großen Zusammenhänge von Munks Worten und Taten. (...) Den Schlaf raubt dieses Buch dem Leser nicht wegen der Thrillerhandlung der Unabomber-Geschichte, wie der Klappentext der deutschen Ausgabe suggerieren mag. Vielmehr entsteht ein beunruhigender Effekt durch die so allgegenwärtige, aber untergründige Gewalt, durch die Irritationen der Liebesgeschichte und durch eine stark in der lateinamerikanischen Tradition verwurzelte, an Borges und auch an Roberto Bolaño erinnernde Lust am Spiel mit den Grenzen von Realität und Fiktion." - Leonie Meyer-Krentler, Die Zeit
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:
The Way Out is narrated by Ricardo Piglia's fictional alter ego, Emilio Renzi, and is set in the mid-1990s.
The four-part novel begins with him accepting an offer to spend a semester abroad, teaching at the: "elite and exclusive Taylor University" in New Jersey -- a thinly-veiled Princeton, where Piglia taught from 2001 to 2011.
Little holds Renzi in Argentina -- he's separated from his second wife, living in a borrowed apartment, and hasn't published anything in ages -- so he takes up the offer, pushed into it by Ida Brown, a controversial: "star in the academic world" at Taylor who had already attained fame and notoriety as a graduate student for confronting Paul de Man and putting him in his place ("De Man never came back from that").
The first two parts of the novel seem mainly like a visiting-professor-campus-novel.
Renzi is an outsider in this suburban New Jersey town but readily takes to it: "It was like being in a luxury psychiatric clinic, just what I needed at the time".
He observes everything with dispassionate interest and, in settling in, at least, finds: "My exterior life was peaceful and monotonous".
He has comfortable -- borrowed -- lodgings, living in the house of a professor on sabbatical, whose car he is also free to us.
He gets to know some of the local characters, like lonely Russian expatriate neighbor Nina, the author of a multi-volume "monumental biography" of Tolstoy who fled the Soviet Union in 1938, or the local homeless man, Orion.
Renzi is not asked to do much at the university, teaching only for three hours a week, his lone seminar one on W.H.Hudson -- born and raised in Argentina, before settling in England -- which attracts all of six students.
The story meanders forward amiably, digressively but not too loosely.
There's a fair amount about Hudson -- Renzi had been working on a book about him already back in Argentina, and displays a thorough knowledge of his life and work, making for some interesting literary observations, along with the students' takes on him and his work --, some typical university quirkiness -- notably in department chair Don D'Amato's Melville-obsession --, as well as Renzi's frequent comparisons to conditions in his native Argentina and the difficult times the country had lived through recently.
Renzi also begins an affair with Ida, though they conduct it in relative secret, careful to keep it separate from university-life and everyone there -- with the consequence, also, of Ida remaining something of a mystery-woman to Renzi.
Nearby New York City, where Ida also has an apartment, is also a frequent escape and retreat.
Quite early on, however, Ida dies, under somewhat mysterious circumstances, in what appears to have been an accident in her car.
The death is suspicious enough for the FBI to investigate, a Special Agent John Menéndez coming to interview Renzi.
There have been a variety of letter-bomb killings of scientists and academics recently, and Menéndez is leading the investigation into them; something about Ida's death suggests a connection.
It's a serious investigation: even though Renzi is just a peripheral figure here, he finds that they've gone so far as to talk with his doctor in Argentina and they seem to have searched the house he's living in as well.
Curious about Ida's death, as well as these investigations, Renzi goes so far as to hire a private investigator, Ralph Parker, to look into all this.
The letter-bombing campaign described here is, as becomes clear even before the perpetrator gets his manifesto published in The New York Times and The Washington Post, closely modeled on that of the so-called Unabomber, Ted Kaczynski.
Called Thomas Munk here, the third part of the novel begins with his capture, and with Renzi learning much about his background -- presented here as very, very similar to Kaczynski's own.
Fascinated by the case, and still wondering about a possible connection to Ida, Renzi continues to sniff around -- eventually going so far as to basically play PI himself, heading to California and even visiting Munk in prison.
(It's interesting to see how the title of the novel, in its various versions, reflects on the content: the Spanish original, El camino de Ida ('Ida's Path') makes clear to readers from the beginning that, despite Ida being killed off so early in the novel, she -- or at least her path -- will remain central to Renzi's story.
The English The Way Out is much more open-ended -- and interestingly, too, the publishers, while mentioning: "a bizarre string of attacks targeting scientists and researchers" on the back-cover copy, carefully avoid any Unabomber references.
Contrast that to the German title, Munk, -- a name that is not even mentioned in the novel until two-thirds of the way through, but which they choose to bring to the front and center, the Unabomber angle highlighted from the get-go.)
Renzi's investigations are also textual: it's the manifesto that gave away Munk's identity -- his brother recognizing the style -- and he quotes repeatedly from Munk's diaries; Renzi also comes to see Joseph Conrad's The Secret Agent -- an annotated copy of which Ida had given him -- as central to understanding Munk's life and actions:
It was Thomas Munk who put this creed into practice.
Isn't it remarkable that it's possible to describe a series of events and a particular individual's character by transcribing fragments from a literary work ?
It wasn't reality that allowed a novel to be understood, it was a novel hinting at reality that for years had been incomprehensible.
This insight of course applies also to Piglia's own literary endeavors, especially his Renzi-work, the relation of fiction and reality one that he has constantly worked with and around.
Somewhat in awe, Renzi sees Munk as a true Quixote, in his belief in fiction -- and willingness to act on that.
The Way Out is very much a novel examining the individual's place in society.
Most of the characters are isolated and don't have family or close connections, from Nina and Orion to Ida, Renzi himself, and, of course, Munk, who tries to cut himself off almost entirely.
Among the interesting questions are those concerning the connections that remain: Munk does keep in touch with his brother over the years, Ida and Renzi do have an affair (albeit one conducted in almost complete secrecy), and, of course, the big question: of the possible connection between Ida and Munk.
Meanwhile, it's noted repeatedly that society no longer allows the individual much secrecy -- with Renzi having no doubt, for example, that the authorities know practically every last detail about his affair with Ida before they even speak to him.
Though set in the mid-1990s, the concerns about the surveillance state are already central here -- Renzi already familiar with an all-too-effective version of it from his experiences in Argentina in the 1980s but now encountering it in the US as well.
It's no coïncidence that very early on in the novel Renzi mentions seeing: "a website running a special search engine, WebCrawler, that had just been released".
As is hammered home repeatedly: information can't be hidden any longer.
Even Munk, living as far off the grid as possible, understands:
"In this country, secrecy is impossible," he said.
"A man can hide for a while, but will always be filmed and observed, no matter what he does, and they'll read his mail, monitor his bank account, and secretly break into his house and his friends' houses.
PI Parker's understanding of the way things work isn't very different:
"There are two United States," said Parker.
One, visible, the country in which I'm a voting citizen, the founding fathers' democratic republic.
And another one, underground, with an unchecked central power that eliminates everything that puts national security at risk."
Renzi can't help but admire Munk's absolutism (even if it wasn't absolute enough ...), taking the (almost completely) individual path:
He acted on his own, a self-made man, expressing his culture's values, a pure American, yet his private life expressed not the success but failure of the system.
The fact that he alone held the secret to his actions, that he'd never confided in anyone for years and years, was the most extraordinary but also the most North American part of the whole story.
Renzi is fascinated by -- and not unsympathetic to -- Munk's motives and life-choices.
Their ultimate manifestation -- in terrorism -- is, of course, a disturbing one, and not necessarily the inevitable one, but Renzi is not without understanding for why Munk went down that road.
He's also intrigued by Munk's choice to (essentially) reveal himself by publishing his manifesto -- another choice that was not inevitable.
Renzi's own path always leads down and into the literary -- ultimately also into this record and book -- but, of course, there are alternatives .....
The Way Out is a deceptively casual novel.
Renzi rarely seems in any way emotional.
He is an observer -- a reader.
He engages with people -- turning to Nina and Orion, for example, and ultimately so driven by his curiosity that he even seeks out Munk --, but the engagement remains largely on an intellectual level; a personal distance always remains.
Much of the novel seems digressive, too, -- not least, the bits on W.H.Hudson -- and many mentions -- of experiences in Argentina, of Nina's experiences with and opinions of the Soviet experiment, of the hitchhiker he picks up while in California -- seem incidental, but it really is all of a piece -- one that, in its sum, is surprisingly powerful.
The Way Out is meant to be thought-provoking -- and Ida's path, and Renzi's, and Munk's prove surprisingly (and rather disturbingly) relevant in the present-day United States.
A fine and interesting work.
- M.A.Orthofer, 29 January 2021
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The Way Out:
Other books by Ricardo Piglia under review:
Other books of interest under review:
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About the Author:
Argentine author Ricardo Piglia lived 1940 to 2017.
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© 2021 the complete review
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