Fiesta in November

by Eduardo Mallea

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 970

In a graceful style, rich with vivid, precise images, neither pretentious nor overly decorated, Eduardo Mallea tells the moving story of two people struggling to communicate with each other while lost in the midst of a shallow, violent world. Although the painter Lintas and Marta Rague are the two most sympathetic characters in this short novel, both are held back by their pride from the honesty and openness that would liberate them and enable them to achieve an authentic relationship. They are the only individuals in Fiesta in November who even care about moral concerns, except for the poet, unnamed and doomed, whose brief story alternates like an almost subliminal theme with the main body of the story, illuminating and commenting upon it.

The two fiestas, one social, the other of blood, are linked thematically by Lintas’s account to Marta of the fatal beating of a Jewish bookseller in Buenos Aires by a group of Argentine fascists. An undercurrent of violence also lies behind the conversation and actions of the guests in the house of Marta’s mother, Eugenia Rague. The fragments of the condemned poet’s story are in italics, a sign of emphasis, suggesting that in spite of its shorter length, this narrative is the more important of the two.

The opening arrest of the poet could be that of Joseph K. in Der Prozess (1925; The Trial, 1937). There are more than casual similarities between the work of Kafka and this novel. The contrast between the scene with the poet and the luxurious setting of Eugenia’s home is shocking. Eugenia is a vain, acquisitive character. Her only passions are for her collection of objects from the past and for power. “Power is power,” she thinks, “and damn all the rest.” She detests sentiment and everything connected with it, so it is not surprising that she is completely alienated from her two daughters. Her husband George, despite his wealth, feels no fulfillment or peace.

A sultry, perfumed lushness pervades the novel, the heat of summer and passion—and of violence. Objects seem to have lives of their own. The opening picture of the dinner party is a devastating glimpse of empty lives and futile social ritual. The characters are struggling with an inner tyranny, a psychic trap more terrible than the cruelty of society, if they only realized it. “All art,” thinks Lintas, “is a great and terrible demand for response.” Indeed, this unusual novel demands a response from the reader.

Lintas appears on the scene like a breath of fresh air in the stale world of the Rague mansion. Mr. and Mrs. Rague and their guests would be lost without their ceremonies, but Lintas deliberately walks over their carefully plotted maneuvers. Marta and Lintas recognize each other from the beginning as two of a kind—exiles in a world they detest. Marta, at the age of twenty-seven, still is filled with a passionate curiosity, still is eager to experience life. Human beings, she reflects, only seek their own private ends, only hope to satisfy their appetites. Marta hates the pretense of society, the constant betrayal of her own nature. A dream—unknown but tragic—burns in the depths of her spirit, stifled by daily compromises.

Mirrors, windows, and polished surfaces constantly reflect faces, oblique views of people, and staring eyes. The reflected images seem more real than many of the actual figures and faces. Mallea seems to be asking, what is the reality and what is false?

Brenda Rague, Marta’s sister, is having an abortion while her mother’s fiesta is in progress. This revelation causes Marta to think in a new way about their lives, and her meeting with Lintas continues to stimulate her chain of thoughts. Lintas himself was made suddenly aware by the episode of the brutal beating of the bookseller. Are there social castes, they ask, or only moral castes? Where is the moral answer? The word “serve” appears to Marta as she walks down the empty city streets before dawn. What does it mean? Could it be the answer for her? She realizes that each individual must be heroic and walk alone, bravely and honestly, toward fate.

The inner dramas of the novel are not resolved. They move from climax to climax, cumulatively, charged with great lyric tension. Seemingly insignificant individual lives are transformed by Mallea into the essence of the human condition. Fiesta in November is an extraordinary novel by a great author. It is a book that haunts the reader, as Mallea intended, for the questions that it raises are not easily answered.

Mallea’s view of life is religious and moral. His works often suggest the European existentialists, although most of his writing anticipated their novels and dramas. He was descended from an old Creole family and attended an English school in Bahia Blanca, where the majority of his classmates were the sons of immigrants. (He never lost sight of the fact that Argentina is a melting pot.) At the age of thirteen, he moved to Buenos Aires with his family. The city was a revelation for the withdrawn adolescent. His first published stories won immediate attention, and he eventually became an acclaimed public figure. In the 1930’s and 1940’s, he was director of some of the most influential literary publications in Latin America. He was a steadfast opponent of the Juan Perón regime. After the revolution that overthrew the Perón dictatorship, he was named ambassador to the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in Paris. Subsequently, he returned to private life to devote himself exclusively to writing and lecturing in Europe and the United States. Fiesta in November and other novels and stories established Mallea as one of Latin America’s greatest writers and one of the outstanding prose stylists in the world.

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