by Héctor Bianciotti
Published by The New Press
Published April 1, 1995
288 pgs. • Find on Amazon.com
Reviewed by Stephen O. Murray
June 6, 2001
Héctor Bianciotti (1930–2012) was a French novelist and literary correspondent for the French paper Le Monde, and a rare non-native speaker of French elected to the Académie Française.
I thought that his first book published in English, What the Night Tells the Day [Ce que la nuit raconte au jour, 1992] was a novel about gay life in Paris. I was very wrong. There only a few allusions to living in France within the book, and whether it is a novel is unclear. The cover categorizes it as a novel, but the inside jacket copy says that “Bianciotti turns from the fiction for which is widely known [widely in France, perhaps…] to what is in many sense a classic autobiography, coming-of-age story in which the narrator gradually discovers his homosexuality.” A foreword by the Mexican poet Octavio Paz (who was the Mexican ambassador to France for a time) also treats the book as a memoir rather than as fiction.
I am not sure what the “many senses” are and wonder about the choice of “the narrator” rather than “Bianciotti,” but “in which the narrator gradually discovers his homosexuality” is blatantly false. The narrator (fictional or not) discovers his attraction for males quite early—part way through the first of the three sets—and then obscures whether he “outgrew” it. The only fully consummated sex mentioned is with a woman (within the final part of the book).
The book, like Gaul, is divided into three parts. The first and most lyrical part recalls childhood on the vast and flat Argentine pampas. The narrator is the son of Italian immigrant parents. He recurrently recalls that Italian immigrants were viewed with contempt by Argentines of Hispanic origins (those of German descent are never mentioned) without providing any concrete examples from his own experience. He was raised entirely in Spanish and did not learn the Piedmontese that his parents spoke to each other.
Seeing the ranch-hand Florencio masturbating stimulated a sexual awakening (homosexual desire, entirely autoerotic practice). The most interesting character in the book (not just in the first part), however, is his father’s vagabond sister La Panotta. His mother is a wispy, devoutly Catholic figure in the memoir and his father a very anticlerical tyrant whom the boy tried to avoid.
At the age of eleven, the narrator escaped his father and the desolate pampas to pursue the vocation for the priesthood that he claimed. In the cloister library he discovered literature—French literature, Paul Valéry in particular. This was the dawn of his later “true” vocation. First, however, there was an intense love for a slightly older seminarian—intense, but chastely kept above the waist. When the older youth refused to leave holy orders with the narrator (17 years old by that time), the narrator left without him and moved (through some intermediate stages, including his childhood home) to the capital, Buenos Aires.
The third part of the book recalls a mildly bohemian life among self-proclaimed artists who considered themselves exiles from European high culture, loved the theater, and treated Rilke’s Letters to a Poet as their breviary. How homosexually active he was is carefully obfuscated. I have already mentioned his one affairette with a woman.
The dominant theme of the third part of the book, and what I consider the most interesting aspect of the book, is recalling what it was like to live in the terror of the Peron era of the early 1950s. It seems that some secret policeman used the narrator as a decoy to snare others and that the man the narrator most cared about was a higher-up officer in the secret police. All this is murky, but it seems that the dark cover illustration is of a man walking by one of the trench-coated undercover champions of official civic virtue (not Parisians cruising each other, as I thought before reading the book).
Bianciotti recalls the atmosphere:
After nightfall, it was vital to walk with a brisk step and a straight back, to avoid any casual behavior, and never to turn uneasily to see if the shadow glimpsed in a doorway as you passed was now following you, for that alone might lead to your arrest…. Were you introduced to someone? You would sniff at each other cautiously, suspiciously, cowed by mutual distrust, and if you should happen to look one another in the eye, you would discover—with shame and chagrin—that each of you was the other’s policeman. The small change of denunciation jingled behind doors, passing from hand to hand, pocketed by informers; there was a perpetual bad smell everywhere, but people did not yet feat torture and disappearances. That was coming, however, and they knew it.
Bianciotti evokes the loneliness of childhood on the pampas, the exhilarations and repressions of seminary life, and the climate of all-pervasive fear in a relatively corrupt and inept would-be police state. There is very little continuity across the parts, or cumulation of a particular self, so any one of them could easily be read separately.
I would have like to know more about the author’s attitudes to the Spanish language and becoming a French literary figure. However, the book ends with his patron shipping the then-25-year-old off to the relative safety of the land of his ancestors—specifically, a ship bound for Naples, a city particularly noted for organized and disorganized crime. These ironies are unexplored.
And what does the night tell the day? I am not at all sure. Octavio Paz provides an answer I find opaque:
Between the limitless and the grotesque, the formless and the deformed, he seeks not a norm, but a form. Freedom is a thirst for incarnation, a quest for form. This is what the night tells the day.
Does the day understand? I doubt it! The form of the recollections is fairly amorphous and the incarnation quite vague and abstract. Nevertheless, the prose is lyrical (in ways that seem in English more Spanish than French). And Bianciotti remembers or invents considerably more concrete, sensuous details about his youth and childhood than I do about mine, even though mine was less long ago than Bianciotti’s. (He was born in 1930). Although I remain mystified about who he is and how he became who he is, I did not lose interest in reading about the narrator’s first quarter century.
Before his opaque finale, I think that Paz’s foreword has at least one insight:
The resurrection of the past implies its alienation [as Salter also noted]: the person I was does not understand my words [and views], but I understand his…. My former self speaks in me…. Writing is a bridge that allows me to communicate with my past—and to exorcise it. (vi)
published on epinions 6 June 2001, while Bianciotti was still alive
©2001, 2016, Stephen O. Murray