Fear and violence, war and sex, eroticism and philosophy, and flawed characters grappling with the messiness of life in a fragmented digital world.
Of the many savage theories thrown around by the characters who enliven Pola Oloixarac’s transgressive novel of revolution, desire, and academia, one of the most devastating is delivered by the narrator:
The Spanish word for mirror, espejo, shares a root with the word species; the mirror shows each species for what it is, and lays bare the shoddy reasoning that has led each to think itself unique.
The perversions of language is one of Oloixarac’s central themes, and this, along with the nuanced references to Argentina’s Dirty War and the country’s political history following Peronism, plus the characters’ tenuous interpretations of various philosophers expressed in murky academic syntax, must have made the book particularly challenging to translate. Roy Kesey succeeded in creating a text that is immersive, multilayered, sensual, and cerebral, and it captures Oloixarac’s wicked brand of humor, which often triggers bark-like laughs followed by pangs of guilt.
Throughout the book, Oloixarac presents scathing criticisms of the belief in one’s individuality, as performed or clung to in three main activities: online interaction, hooking up at parties, and psychoanalysis. As young academics and artists, her central characters vacillate between attempting to disprove the fiction of individuality and falling victim to it, due to an oversupply of both self-awareness and narcissism. These opposing drives toward self-erasure and the desire for recognition often trigger the action of the novel, and they yield a series of sexual adventures rendered with frank details that are variously thrilling and disturbing.
There is a nightclub bathroom scene with Kamtchowsky, involving a ketamine-induced paralysis and two men she names Beanie and Curls, of whom Kamtchowsky thinks, "They are like bears, and I am the honey.” There is an impromptu roadside tryst between a man named Andy and a transexual woman, during which Andy’s companion, Kamtchowsky’s boyfriend Pabst, unhappily masturbates while the other two have sex. Kamtchowsky and Pabst also share many orgies with Andy and his girlfriend Mara, a photographer whose work transforms the landscape of Buenos Aires, where they live, into a vision of post-apocalyptic destruction. Mara’s themes later come into play in a collaborative project conceived by Kamtchowsky, a filmmaker who explores the intersections between autobiography and her country’s revolutions while living a somewhat wilder life than the narrator, Rosa—an academic who spends much of her time at home with her pet fish Yorick and her cat Montaigne.
Savage Theories compels with its energetic, spleen-filled characters, and the seamless blend of desire and theorizing is contagious on both fronts, but the book is a difficult read. There are many digressions and red herrings. It takes time to get one’s bearings and identify the themes and action that are at work under the surface and eventually tie everything together. The effect is destabilizing, and prevents the reader from sharing a knowing smirk with Rosa when she lands a sharp linguistic barb. We are implicated along with everyone else, which I believe is Oloixarac’s intention, and the effect deepens the experience of her novel.
The book opens with a synopsis of an Orokavian rite of passage called the Cult of the Wolf, in which children are traumatized in order to confront their deepest fears. This is juxtaposed with a brief introduction of Kamtchowsky, followed by the life stories of her parents. The narrator emphasizes the role of psychology in Kamtchowsky's upbringing. When her parents met, her mother was studying the subject and psychoanalysis had entered the culture as "a sort of linguistic vanguard [that] had managed to insert [itself] into the moist cavities of the middle class." The reasons for presenting aboriginal initiation rituals and the history of modern psychoanalysis in Argentina are unclear until we understand the book's premise. At this point, we have no choice but to surrender to the next character introduction, a man of Kamtchowsky's parents' age named Augusto García Roxler, whose interest in pursuing a Theory of Egoic Transmissions is cause for another jump.
Roxler's theory originates with a Bolaño-esque anthropologist named Johan van Vliet, who performed a series of experiments on people in remote West Africa. Van Vliet’s disciples are reminiscent of the cult of Archimboldi from the first part of 2666, in terms of their devotion to an author who has disappeared from the world, although in this case we find them attempting to publish his work rather than uncover his hiding place. As the quest of the disciples mirrors the narrator’s own efforts to improve on García Roxler’s theory for her own glory and recognition, we begin to understand the significance of the backstory, as well as the anthropological passages.
Rosa is obsessed with García Roxler, and has become one of those people who take a professor’s class over and over and over again, though her crush is based on more than infatuation. She needs one of her university’s old, washed-up “pictures of Dorian Gray” to acknowledge her existence, and she believes she has something to contribute. We are fifty pages into the book before we first see her, arriving at an embassy reception to confront the professor. She is pulsing with purpose and “emotion has given a rosy tint to her cheeks.” The scene is rendered in a tone of satire, which Rosa overplays in order to contain her spiking self-consciousness, going so far as to liken herself to “a débutante from imperial Russia, [blinking] delicately at the…world her glaucous feet do not yet dare to enter.”
The secret action of Savage Theories, hidden behind the antics of Rosa’s alter-ego Kamtchowsky, is her re-writing of García Roxler’s work, but the book is most engaging when Oloixarac crosses the line from Rosa's formal language of critical theory to the third-person dramatization of theorizing. Amidst the rich emotional interplay and battle scars racked up between lovers Kamtchowsky, Pabst, Mara, and Andy, theorizing is practiced to explore desire as well as to construct lines of defense. Near the end of the book, their collaboration culminates in a subversive plot that involves a video game modeled after the Dirty War and a cyber attack on Google Earth that appears in the form of political theatre and functions as art. Kamtchowsky’s story ends triumphantly, and her fearless rebellion seems to strengthen Rosa’s conviction in the importance of her own work. Kamtchowsky’s example is equally empowering to the reader, in a time when rebellion and personal freedom have become coopted to promote hate and apathy.