Laura Erber’s “That Wind Blowing Through the Plaza” (“Aquele vento na praça”; tr. from the Portuguese by Alison Entrekin) is the eighth story in Granta 121: The Best of Young Brazilian Novelists. For an overview of the issue and links to my reviews of its other stories, please click here.
Besides being a writer, Laura Erber is also a visual artist, and this ambitious story, filled with representations and doubles, in part deals with the purpose — or, rather, problem — of art and its ability to represent reality and come to mean something, the difference (maybe) between fetish and genuine desire.
This story takes place shortly after the death of the famous Romanian visual artist Paul Neagu, who died in 2004. Neagu liked to play around on the boundary between life and art, going so far as to invent names of other artists and assuming their identities. Our narrator, a visual artist also, has assumed the name Philip Honeysuckle, which was one of the fictitious members of the Generative Art Group created by Neagu in 1972. We don’t know the narrator’s true name, and most art critics wouldn’t care.
The Tate commissions Honeysuckle to go to Bucharest to purchase some of Neagu’s censored works for a display in London. He reinforces in the first paragraph that he went to Bucharest only to collection this work, but somewhere along the way he is waylaid: “I went to Bucharest for Neagu’s boxes, I met Martina and returned with old Stefan’s things.”
Martina and Stefan Ptyx, daughter and father, perhaps have a box of Neagu’s work, but when our narrator meets them he stops caring much about Neagu. First, Martina is an enigma. He loves the smell of her hair and knows she casts a spell on all those around her. Second, Stefan himself turns out to be old and not all there. He now spends his days writing out, word for word, the complete works of Balzac. The person who gave Stefan the works of Balzac? Barthes. That is Roland Barthes, who analyzed Balzac’s “Sarrasine” line by line in his famous S/Z, a landmark work that is located more or less on the line between structuralism and post-structuralism, or, in other words, a transition from the idea that meaning is derived from larger structures to the idea that everything is simply too unstable and complex and, therefore, deriving meaning is impossible.
So how does that fit in here? I find it interesting that the story is about a quest to collection some art but is entitled “That Wind Blowing Through the Plaza,” a physical sensation that is not derived from art — except, of course, it is here since we are merely reading these words. The title tears us away from a reading that focuses simply on Honeysuckle’s encounter with the Ptyx. It suggests that inside this small story is larger world. Yet, within this story is a very small world, the Ptyx’s world. Martina watches over her father, purposefully avoiding the larger world, not even interested in tending their garden; meanwhile, old man Ptyx “has no apparent ambitions besides the alienating pleasure of manually copying the printed words of his favorite author.” Honeysuckle finds this “a far more powerful sight” than any performance art he’s every witnessed.
And perhaps the Ptyx family actually is just putting on a show:
Perhaps this was an elaborate drama put on especially for idiot visitors like me. Perhaps those boxes weren’t even Neagu’s, perhaps the old man wasn’t hurt or sick, perhaps that wasn’t the house where they lived, perhaps they weren’t even father and daughter, perhaps they weren’t even named Martina and Stefan. What kind of name was Ptyx? It was too poetic a surname to be real.
What does all of this mean? Honeysuckle, relieved, doesn’t know.
Not art, not travel, not Pythia at Delphi, not the constancy of mourning, not scandalous visions, not divine manifestations, not mobile wealth or heavy metals, not true genius, not the calculation of pleasure, not the mortal child sucking a lollipop next to me, none of it made up a web of significance. Nothing guaranteed that life was more than a collection of fake men and copied novels.
As readers, we may not be satisfied thinking this story was little “more than a collection of fake men and copied novels,” that “none of it made up a web of significance.” But of course the object of the story is to see if it even can add up to anything more. With the large and small worlds contained in this small story, we get the sense that it can — at least, it feels like it can.