Written in 1966, La Ciudad (The City) is the first novel of the Involuntary Trilogy of the Uruguayan writer Mario Levrero. The print edition in book format appears in 1970.
In La Ciudad, from the beginning, we enter that disturbing situation, where there are no clear marks of spatial or temporal references but we find a character – he also without a name and without any reference – that in the first person tells us its arrival at an uninhabited house.
We understand that the construction of a space – physical and imaginary – involves complex ideological, writing and rewriting operations of margins and borders. The dispute between cartographies and paths and the need to break with personal alienation is the axis on which the protagonist’s trip is made, the time that one of the pillars of modernity is dismantled: the city as the organizer of the imaginary.
“The house apparently had not been inhabited or opened its doors and windows for many years.” The house image is used on different occasions by Levrero to build the spatial sensation of ruin and collapse. The house is a humid and dark place where things are ordered to the taste of another so the protagonist experiences a permanent climate of discomfort. “The interior was in order although adequate to the taste and needs of the previous inhabitants: equivalent, for me, a disorder.”
The dispute between order and disorder is one of the axes of the Involuntary Trilogy. Faced with the arbitrariness of the imposition, we witness the constant struggle of the protagonist to resist different changes ordered by others. Alienation is understood as the ownership of an order imposed on the individual by unknown forces. In response, the text gives us two alternatives: on the one hand, we are shown the path taken by the protagonist in search of that own territoriality and, on the other, the same novel from its composition aims to establish itself as a poetic of the disorder that is it will be increasing throughout the Trilogy until arriving in Paris -another one of the works of the triology- to build as a fictionalization of the author’s discretion, ignoring almost all the sequential narrative logic. Writing becomes the only possible place of residence, but Levrero also doubts this exit -the ability to represent language- and is content to have a space to deposit waste and pile them up.
The search for the narrator character is based on material and basic needs such as hunger, cold or sexual appetite. This materialistic tendency is present throughout the Trilogy. In the case of the beginning of La Ciudad, the protagonist, then dismisses the idea of leaving the house while it raining to find kerosene to try to make a fire and drink something hot, finally decide to go driven by hunger.
In Levrero, desire as a transcendent manifestation of being is always cornered by regulations or rules of behavior that different institutions (the Company in La Ciudad or the Organization in Paris) impose on the individual. Sexual frustration is then one of the outstanding characteristics.
The routine, symbolized in the tranquility of a peaceful house to share with a woman, is one of the pitfalls that the protagonist must face repeatedly in the course of their inner search. Family routine means the domestication of the love relationship and the closing of eroticism as a transcendent experience.
In this introspective journey, the reader is also challenged by the narrative. It is a double route, that of the protagonist and that of the reader, in search of a territoriality that is based on writing.
In the spatiality of the town there is a service station, a bar, a shoe store and a warehouse. With the arrival at that place, a scenario that seems to conspire against the protagonist is finished.
Fear is conceived in its materiality as an object susceptible to touch, “I felt it as a large object that bumps into the darkness of a closed room,” he tells us anticipating the scene of The Place. That palpable fear is generated from the relocation of the protagonist, a foreigner’s own alienity that cannot make sense in a place where he does not know the codes of sociability. He can’t understand, he feels more and more a stranger, an other. A clear example of this otherness is the unexpected behavior for the protagonist – and the reader – of the shoemaker’s employee: “I approached a little more, and then I could realize that I was not really looking for any kind of shoes, but playing , with some small players, made of plastic, of different colors, similar to trucks, buses and trains”.
The characters of La Ciudad – except the protagonist – lack dramatic thickness, they are like actors who play a role – the regulation. Everything seems to the main character a great theatricalization, a farce / trap mounted, even a mockery.
The Company is only a promise of well-being and progress, a great farce whose unknown determination seems to be that: plunging individuals into that lie. The price to be paid is the loss of personal wishes in order to respect the regulation.
La Ciudad is the writing of an attempt to register its own spatiality on cartographies and traced by others. In this tension the territoriality dispute is conceived. The house ordered by others from the beginning works as a model that replicates and synthesizes the alienation of the individual against urban spatiality. The sinister is the border that separates the inner self from the regulated space. The threat stands on the manifestation of subjectivity.
The novel does not end with the personal realization of the protagonist after a journey in which he reaches inner liberation. The novel has a end circular because when it reaches the railway station it meets another foreign, bureaucratic “place”, also governed by a regulation or is it the same?.
The circular structure of the novel represents the failure of the hero. The leitmotif of the trip does not imply an accomplishment of the protagonist. His career is marked by the verification of the alienation of the city and the constant overcoming of the many traps that the city has to tame his desire. However, it never reaches its territoriality, the regulation seems to apply everywhere and the search becomes permanent, it becomes another waiting.
Still, the end is not entirely pessimistic. The circularity is not closed. The tour has not been completely sterile. The protagonist, stripped from the beginning of the novel of any identity or reference brand, break in the end with that fault. When confronted with the station manager, he manages to articulate a name —Montevideo— as a destination. It is the only place named in the novel. The capacity of representation and communication of language is questioned, but it remains a fissure where it is possible to think about the manifestation of the experience of the self. Language as a fissure where it is possible to think of the person beyond the institutionalized order. Language as a fissure for the manifestation of desire. In La Ciudad the tension between regulated space and own territoriality is not resolved but the journey continues, it is still written.