(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

The nature of art and the artist has long fascinated novelists, especially so in the postmodern age. They wonder where artists, whether painters, composers, or writers, get their inspirations. They ask whether the resulting art is a reflection of their lives, or are their lives irrelevant, as has been the most fashionable literary theory over the past thirty years. (Julián Ríos acknowledges his awareness of such concerns with a passing reference to French structuralist critic Roland Barthes.) Monstruary is a commentary on such questions as it presents the works created by a Spanish painter living in Berlin, examining the artist’s friends and lovers who have played some part in the creation of the paintings and the way he uses and abuses such relationships. Also acting as a commentary is Ríos’s narrative technique itself, whereby he presents his disconnected story as a series of fragments which the reader must piece together to create something akin to a unified whole.

Victor Verdugo is an illegitimate nine-year-old whose father is unknown when, in 1945, his mother, Carmen Verdugo, marries Marcel Mons, a Belgian businessman living in Madrid and a friend and patient of Carmen’s physician father. His mother influences Victor Mons’s development as an artist, and his beloved stepsister, Ara, is the first of several women he loves who serve as inspirations for his art. This information appears early in Monstruary and is one of the few instances when Emil Alia, who narrates most of the novel, presents the details of the artist’s life in chronological order. A critic and one of Mons’s closest friends, along with the sculptor Klaus Holzmann and the art dealer Uwe Wach (known as Double Uwe), Emil writes the catalogues for the painter’s exhibitions. He presents Mons’s story almost as a series of catalogues, with each chapter of the novel focusing on a different set of paintings, friends, and lovers/muses.

Monstruary opens with an “accident” that leaves Mons hospitalized. He has also destroyed, for no clear reason, the series of paintings which gives the novel its title. It seems as if Emil’s goal is to explain the causes of Mons’s destructive behavior, but Ríos’s approach is hardly so conventional. Emil refers to “the enigma” of Mons’s “final days and nights in Berlin” but is misleading about the artist’s fate. If Mons is an enigma, Ríos asks, can he truly be understood? Is it the goal of the reader or critic to understand a work of art fully? Is interpretation even necessary? In the case of Mons, does his life aid in appreciating his art, or does his art elucidate his life? Rios’s point seems to be that the two are inseparable, and if knowing about the life can help in understanding the art, so much the better. In the case of a real artist, the life would be of little interest without the art, but Mons is a fictional character whose life is the essence of Ríos’s narrative. Such self-reflecting questions are central to Ríos’s highly self-conscious novel.

Mons’s first name recalls Mary Shelley’s Dr. Victor Frankenstein, and the painter is like the scientist who creates an accidental monster except that Mons deliberately paints monstrous images in his exploration of the demons within humanity. One of his paintings, It Isn’t Good for the Monster to Be Alone, depicts what Emil calls a “Frankensteinized” Adam and Eve, images that look as though they had been carved by an ax: “Mons had heard the complaint of Dr. Frankenstein’s creature: I am alone, terribly alone.’ Like the true artist, I told him, who is unique.” The artist also resembles Dr. Frankenstein in being unable to control his creations. Unless he keeps or destroys them, Mons’s paintings leave him to go out into the world, where anything, such as wrongheaded interpretation, can occur. Such a lack of control may have contributed, after Emil has begun writing the catalogue following months of work by the artist, to the...

(The entire section is 1629 words.)