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from the February 2011 issue

Belen Gopegui’s “The Scale of Maps”

Reviewed by Mythili G. Rao

“Trembling” is how protagonist Sergio Prim first appears to the reader. “His hands fluttered like a bashful magician’s,” the Spaniard Belen Gopegui writes of her fictional creation.

“Trembling” is how protagonist Sergio Prim first appears to the reader.  “His hands fluttered like a bashful magician’s,” the Spaniard Belen Gopegui writes of her fictional creation.  Gopegui’s first novel, The Scale of Maps, is a story about a magic trick that Prim never quite masters, an ambitious disappearing act that ends in irredeemable failure.  After all, as another character, the enchanting mapmaker Brezo Varela, warns Prim, “the problem with escape artists is that they never escape.”

Prim is no Houdini—he’s just a stubborn love-struck geographer battling his passions.  He’s taken with Brezo, and though she returns his attentions, their relationship is less than simple.  In Prim’s eyes, reality is no more than a cheap actress whose charms must be resisted—and for Prim, the prospect of requited love (with its seductive promise of  “the things we already know are lies: eternal adoration, the invisible charm of normal life”) poses a particular threat.  So he sets off in search of a “hollow,” an “unknown dwelling place” that he imagines can offer refuge from the assault of frail, vulgar reality.  What results is a gradual, lyrical descent into eccentricity and isolation.

Nine years his junior, the beautiful Brezo— “a woman with ideas, outlandish and particular, all her own”—is a troublesome object of passion for Prim.  Though she flits in and out of Prim’s life as in a dream, she adores him with a constancy that defies explanation.  Prim is enamored—even obsessed—with her, but he doesn’t know how to let himself go.  For one thing, he suspects a union like theirs is fated for destruction (“How might a woman with ideas of her own be placed in my discreet life in such a way that both of us would come out unscathed?” he asks).  He harbors some more abstract reservations too.  “Passion is chancy,” he says more than once, as if to reassure himself (and the reader) that his struggle against love’s tide is completely rational.   And perhaps for Prim—a man who lives in a fortress of abstruse metaphors, abstract puzzles, savored emotions (‘’Like those old men who wrap leftover bread in napkins to take with them, I must take small steps when I leave the restaurant with my feelings in my pocket”) and solitude—it is. 

Prim’s strange private world of thoughts and feelings is not without its peculiar charms.  He keeps a “prayer book of evasion” filled with whimsical sketches representing misplaced eyeglass cases, holes in flat tires, and phrases like “exit right.” He reflects on a story about a man who charts a course through all of the world’s backyard swimming pools.  He daydreams of becoming a simple agriculturalist and producing apples, round, radiant and wholesome.  He tells fanciful stories that make Brezo laugh.  He ponders mathematical myths:

It is said, my friends, that a number located between seven and eight was lost with the writings of Diophantus, the algebraist.  Of course this is a legend, but I do not have to remind you of the theory that there can be no sign without a referent. It is tempting indeed.  Imagine, my friends: another number, an hour every day outside the flow of time, a month unaccounted for every year between July and August.

For Prim, the temptation to remain outside the flow of time is irresistible. “I don’t want to leave my sanctuary and enter life,” he confesses.   So he studies his affair with Brezo from afar, cultivating an inner remove that at times seems to serve only to amplify his emotions.  For example, opening a letter from her he finds at his desk, he pauses:

As if at a concert, silent, trying not to cough, I listened to the music of her correspondence: letters, anachronistic declarations, quotations taken from books, little jokes . . .

The bulwark of his inner world may offer a kind of escape, but with its symphonic acoustics, it’s by no means a tranquil space. “What torture it is to hold on to reason as desire intensifies,” Prim thinks.  But still, he can’t release himself.

Who is this strange man charting a fantastical, solitary course?  Gopegui has been compared to Cervantes and Nabokov, and it’s easy to see Prim as a kind of windmill-battling Pnin.  Prim’s labyrinthine imaginings could easily place him in a work of Borges as well.  Prim is a geography student who doesn’t like to travel; he’s a young old man “sporting his first gray hairs, a short man with a large head, a man alone and full of sorrow.”  After abandoning architecture studies and joining the army, “a general lack of direction” brings Prim to the study of geography.  He gets a job writing reports for a government agency that serves to “thicken the purportedly indispensable annals of bureaucracy.”  He marries and then separates from a dark-haired woman named Lucia.  He keeps to himself.

Initially, Prim hopes his connection with his beguiling old classmate Brezo will assist his quest: “She would provide me with the scientific touchstone or black siliceous rock against which I would rub the gold of my imagination,” he thinks. Only later in the novel does Prim begin to square with himself. The experiments he’s designed in his search for the “hollow” are a farce.  His elusive “hollow,” he admits, only exists as a metaphor.  And yet he still imagines propositioning Brezo with it:

Let’s hide in a metaphor.  When the pain comes, when it presses its sharp blade against us and covers the windows, when offense and misfortune come, we shall hide, warm and curled in a fetal position in a metaphor.

Prim predicts, accurately, that Brezo is far too practical for such proposals, and ultimately for him.  Her adoration—and patience—for him eventually runs dry.  “You will spend your whole life,” she tells him, “untying the knots you are tying yourself, looking for that hollow you have made up. And what use will it be to you?”

Indeed, the knots of Prim’s figurative world aren’t easily untangled.  Many of Prim’s metaphors dangle with a precarious opacity: Mark Schafer’s agile translation gives Prim the fitting voice of a polished academic who has lost his bearings.  “The man who examines his own love is like the merchant who sells perishable foods,” Prim suggests inscrutably.  Is the reader to understand that Prim’s survival depends on his ability to shill the ripened fruits of his passion before they spoil?  And to whom is he selling the harvest of his inspection?  It’s just one of many alluring metaphors that quietly collapse upon inspection, evading scrutiny. 

When Prim’s metaphors do hold up, their hopeless extravagance is almost laughable. The miles Prim puts between himself and Brezo are “sweet and bitter miles like orange marmalade, her favorite marmalade, so she had said one afternoon in my apartment.”  It’s as though the more he grasps for purity (“Why in the world do you love me?” he silently asks Brezo, and “What in the world can I give you that can’t be corrupted?”), the more absurd and impotent his love becomes.  So who can blame him if in the end, the perfect “pale and brilliant whirlwind” of Prim’s solitary construction is no match for that floozy, reality.

Gopegui’s ability to trap Prim in his own game is The Scale of Maps’s greatest strength and weakness. The book’s driving force comes from the power of Prim’s idiosyncrasies—and Goepeui deftly crafts her main character into a formidable literary device unto himself. Prim is incorrigibly odd, relentlessly consistent, and never at a loss for elegant words. Gopegui provides Prim with the self-awareness to appraise his own flaws, too.  He realizes, for example, that the feelings he places so much importance on are of limited value:

. . . a man is alone with his feelings.  And they—in the end, just sensations in his mind—are volatile, are diaphanous, fickle creatures, undulations that might possibly be useful for composing music but not for living.

But she stops short of letting him conquer his shortcomings, and here it becomes difficult to distinguish Prim’s excesses from the novel’s. "Trust me, Mr. Prim, one cannot lock oneself within a conviction as one might within a book," Prim's psychologist says, her sympathies for her patient dwindling.  But in the final pages of The Scale of Maps, Prim does just that, retreating into those diaphanous notes of his feelings and thoughts like a solitary artist answering the call of his creativity.  But of course it’s ultimately a failure of imagination that drives Prim into reclusiveness; in the end he can neither picture nor push himself to try to live a life that exists outside the world mapped in his mind. Is it Prim’s fault or the fault of Gopegui’s vision? In The Scale of Maps, it all depends on the reader’s perspective

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