Op Oloop by Juan Filloy; trans. by Lisa Dillman
One noticeable absence from 20th century literature is the tragic hero in Aristotle’s mold—a truly good and great character who due to some tragic flaw (a weakness concomitant with the strength) is brought to an unsavory, inevitable end. Oedipus’s unyielding demand to know the truth yielded his undoing, Antigone’s unswerving loyalty. What modern character fits this mold? Certainly not Joyce’s Stephen Daedelus. Nor Nabokov’s Humbert. The closest in Proust may be M. de Charlus, and even he is not close. It is rather remarkable then, to find in Optimus Oloop a character so thoroughly modern that his very modernity also spells a prototypical tragic flaw.The novel starts as if it would be the record of an otherwise ordinary day, but already something is wrong. Op Oloop, the eponymous character has failed to finish addressing his invitations by the end of his scheduled time for writing. He is the “begotten son of method and resolve.” And as strange as his compulsive inability to write another letter once the allotted time has passed, it is stranger that method personified would fail to finish within his allotted time.
Op Oloop is a statistician living in Buenos Aires, having been in exile from Finland since his abortive participation in a satellite revolution of 1917. His tragic greatness is his conviction that the lives of human beings can be radically altered for the better with the correct application of modern technologies and methods. This is the systematic tragedy of modernity, that the very means for making our lives better make our lives only more mechanical and less human. As such, his participation in a Bolshevik revolution and his later career as a statistician are not at odds, nor mere coincidence, but points to a deep isomorphism between Marxist revolutionaries and rational choice theorists.
Oloop’s drive to improve the lot of all humanity is explained by love types, similar to blood types, and Oloop is a “D”, one of
the “altruists,” or universal donors, whose love can be given to anyone in the world but who can only receive it from other Ds in turn. Jesus and Don Quixote, for instance. They possessed enough warmth to fill all of humanity, but they were spiritually celibate, due to Mary Magdalene’s pettiness and Dulcinea’s coarse pastorality.
The problem with this sort of all-captivating love is that the lover of humanity often loses touch with love of in its particularity. All the sudden irregularities in Op Oloop’s behavior, like his suddenly being late for parties (even his own) are the result of his having fallen in love with someone in particular, Franziska Hoerée, the daughter of a plywood magnate. Eric Joensun, a submarine captain—a stalwart for honor and all that despite his very modern method of waging war—quips “Instincts wage open war, while reason goes in for trench warfare.” Open warfare is not something Op Oloop found himself ready for.
The submarine captain is speaking at a banquet which is the central episode of the novel. There are seven guests, to celebrate something or other at Op Oloop’s behest, although they are all held in the dark until after the desserts are finished and the cigars are handed out. The occasion is not his engagement with Franziska, celebrated earlier in the day (to its own set of disastrous consequences) but Op Oloop’s imminent consummation of his 1000th visit with a prostitute since he began his record keeping.
With these data, I could give you a rundown of the most prostituted races, regions, and nations on the planet, in the blink of an eye. I could give you indices of the age of defloration, length of time in the profession, and stages of disillusionment reached by its victims….
Little wonder then, that the statistician’s most kindred spirit at the banquet is the Maquereau, Gastón Marietti. When love is “order, computation, records, numbers,” it elides easily into merely sales. When the topic of the evening turns to love, the married man, Peñaranda the air traffic controller proclaims its purity while the remainder of the guests speak of it as a trap infested with venereal disease. Op Oloop, who is clearly no stranger to the merely physical side of love, is completely blind to what it has to do with his love for Franziska, which he insists is merely pure.
As the evening goes on, and as Op Oloop and the mac go to the whorehouse, where Op Oloop will become disabused of his distinction between animal love and angelic love—precisely how is a plot twist I leave for the reader. After that, there is only one more requirement to meet for Op Oloop to be a truly tragic figure, but the chain of events finally falters. His death doesn’t stem necessarily from his character. There are too many chances for him to be saved from the precipice. There is a touch too much melodrama to it. But Op Oloop is the closest to a modernist tragedy as I’ve found.
Reviewed by James Liu
Op Oloop by Juan Filloy; trans. by Lisa Dillman
Dalkey Archive Press, 2009
Paper, 252 pp, $14.95
Posted in Reviews