Escape Attempt review: others suffer for our art
DeLillo and Ballard are two major influences on this unpretentious Spanish novel, which takes a humane look at the some of the nastier sides of human nature
Desperate: African immigrants are arrested after their dinghy is intercepted on a Spanish beach. In Escape Attempt, Montes plans to exploit Omar, an immigrant living in vile conditions. Photograph: J.Ragel/AP
Miguel Angel Hernandez, translated by Rhett McNeil
Artists entertain, provoke, inspire and often challenge our complacency. Some actively set out to confound, even repel. Marcos Torres knows all about the evolution of art, having reached his final year in the study of fine arts. His social skills may not be up to much, but he can usually be relied upon to say something intelligent when a professor or lecturer decides to push the boundaries.
Helena is an art lecturer who also runs a gallery and is not on the university staff. As part of the penultimate presentation in her edgy course, she includes an image of a penis being nailed to a wooden board. Most of the students are shocked and angry. Good old Marcos, the nerd, decides to have his say. He is so cautious that he even makes notes before he speaks. “What I think is that if the image surprises and outrages us, it’s because we didn’t expect it. The complete opposite of the cruel images on TV. We’re used to living with those.”
Helena is rapt as Marcos (who admits in an aside to the reader, “It’s always taken a lot of work for me to start talking, but often it is even more difficult to stop”) develops his thesis. “I don’t believe that we are blinded by images and that we can no longer see anything. It isn’t the media that’s deceiving us. We’re the guilty ones . . . We’re vampires who take pleasure in blood . . . And sometimes we pretend that we’re moved by what we see. But we aren’t the least fucking bit moved . . . ”
His little tirade earns snorts from his fellow students as well as “a few seconds of silence”. Then Helena announces that she is going to end the course with the work of a performance artist, Jacobo Montes. Marcos knows most things, but it is the first time he has heard the name, and it becomes one he is unlikely to forget.
There are two obvious influences imposing their respective presences on this assured, thriller-like dissection of the world of modern art and the motives of the artists who operate within it. One is Don DeLillo, the custodian of the visual image in prose, who has always maintained that we see before we feel or even think. The other is the laconic ghost of the great surrealist JG Ballard, who dictates the deadpan tone and whiff of corruption.
Escape Attempt is chilling and very good, another of the consistently intriguing titles being published in English translations by the pioneering Hispa publishers in Madrid and proof that there is so much more to contemporary Spanish fiction than the overblown, self-regarding and thematically repetitive narratives of Javier Marias.
Miguel Ángel Hernández, a professor of art history, is no stylist; his narrator has a strange, queasy story to tell, and he delivers it in a suitably flat, business-like and direct prose, ably translated by Texan Rhett McNeill. The strength of this sophisticated and deliberately non-pretentious novel lies in the slightly horrified candour with which his uneasy narrator recalls the episode and dealing with his own part in it.
Marcos is aware of his thinning hair and unimpressive physique. His sexual experience is non-existent and his best pal, the lovely Sonia, is a lesbian. Life for Marcos, originally from a village, is about reading and spending hours in his room, confident that his housemates will ignore him. His crush on the ultra-cool Helena intensifies when she recruits him to assist Montes, whom she has persuaded to come to town.
Considering that the main weakness of Hernández’s writing is the dialogue, it is interesting that he manages to allow Montes not only to hang himself but to offer convincing criticisms of the modern art scene through his every utterance.
Montes is a monster, a possibly insane towering egomaniac straight out of Ballard land, though he never quite becomes a caricature of the mad artist. Instead, he is lucid, ruthless, disturbing and as ambivalent as his violent sado-masochistic art, which has left his body – “his canvas” – cross-hatched with self-induced marks, including “[t]hree small scars on his left cheek . . . in the late 80s, Montes tattooed three small scars on his cheek. Then, with a scalpel, he tore them out, skin and all and placed them in a tiny reliquary . . . The traces of those tears were no longer easily visible on his face, but they were still there . . . and conferred a troubling aspect upon his gaze.”
The juxtaposing of the domineering artist and the mild-mannered, sympathetic Marcos and his sexual fantasies injects some humour, although possibly not intentionally. Marcos reports the artist’s detached way of firing off questions: “What are the inhabitants of this city like? Are people happy here? Can you hear birds at night? How many suicides are there per year?”
Trapped in his own car with Montes, who makes it clear he has no interest in answers (“He didn’t seem to hear anything”) Marcos, for all his learning, soon realises he is merely there to aid the great man. “So, you’re going to be my assistant . . . I just hope you’re not an aspiring artist.”
Probably not since Gilbert Osmond and Madame Merle joined forces in Henry James’s The Portrait of a Lady (1881) has a shady pair of former lovers proved as duplicitous as Montes and Helena. Her zealous belief the artist is cleverly handled, as is her characterisation.
When the nature of the installation Montes is planning is revealed, the bewildered Marcos moves away from art theory and far closer to humanity and the world from whence he came. The artist wants to pay an African immigrant, one from whom he has purchased a journal for display purposes, to crouch in a crate without food or water, for as many days as possible – the more days, the bigger the pay-off. All of this is outlined as casually as if the artist was designing a pleasure garden.
Omar, the immigrant, is desperate for money and living in vile conditions, yet is aware of what it going on: “[W]e are not idiots . . . You all think that we don’t speak Spanish and don’t know anything.”
The notion of artists in general being cold and in possession of Graham Greene’s famous chip of ice is central to the narrative. “I’m going to tell you a secret,” says Montes to Marcos. “Everything is done for money. Art is the most important thing. But art is money.” He also makes it clear that art requires sacrifices. Omar’s fate, which had been decided by money, is also tied to the idea of his dignity as a commodity.
Escape Attempt is a narrative of ideas and responses. The ambivalence of the art world is not merely explored but exploded. German writer Gert Hofmann’s The Parable of the Blind looked at the way Flemish Renaissance artist Pieter Breughel the elder coldly exploited six blind beggars for the titular painting. It is a powerful polemic expressed in an elegant and atmospheric tale.
Hernández’s approach is closer to our grubbier epoch. Marcos has his illusions damaged, yet his humanity surfaces in this intelligent, cerebral and well-paced study of the nastier side of human nature.
Eileen Battersby is Literary Correspondent