Secrets and truths of a tycoon

In 1925 Francis Scott Fitzgerald published The Great Gatsby, one of the landmarks of 20th century American literature.

Oliver Thansan
Oliver Thansan
17 March 2023 Friday 23:48
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Secrets and truths of a tycoon

In 1925 Francis Scott Fitzgerald published The Great Gatsby, one of the landmarks of 20th century American literature. Among the book's many virtues is its unprecedented capacity for anticipation: the author was able to glimpse that, under the frivolous joy of the roaring twenties, the disaster was germinating that would end up manifesting itself four years later, in 1929, in the form of a stock market crash. In addition, Fitzgerald forged an indelible myth: the millionaire Jay Gatsby, a magnate with a diffuse past, wrapped in desolation and rancor, whom the reader was discovering through the fascinated gaze of the young narrator Nick Carraway.

Hernán Díaz's Fortuna has many points of contact with this classic. On the one hand, one of the protagonists is an elusive financier who multiplied his fortune precisely because he knew how to anticipate the crash and play his cards. On the other, it also uses the resource of the biased narrator. Although Díaz quadruples the bet, since in his novel we have not one, but four successive points of view, which sometimes complement each other and in others qualify or contradict each other.

By Hernán Díaz, born in Buenos Aires, raised in Sweden, who has spent most of his life in the United States and writes in English, his previous novel, A Far Away (Impedimenta), had already been published in Spanish and was a finalist. the Pulitzer and the PEN/Faulkner. Con Fortuna has generated well-deserved enthusiasm since its publication last year in the United States. The secret of his success is explained, I think, because he has the expertise to turn an ambitious proposal and complex formal architecture into a very fluid reading work with highly seductive twists for the reader. He knows how to make easy and attractive what is actually a meticulous filigree in which each piece has to fit perfectly. Let's say, to situate ourselves, that he moves in the wake of writers like David Mitchell or Richard Powers, experts in assembling frames with many layers that work like hectic clockwork mechanisms.

Díaz adds to these virtues a varied repertoire of literary records that give consistency to each of the narrating voices and a well-orchestrated game of cultural and historical references and winks that he drops throughout the novel. These brushstrokes help to frame the adventures of the protagonists, so that a subtle fresco of several decades of the American 20th century as a capitalist society is generated.

The first thing the reader encounters is a novel, Obligations, written by one Harold Vanner. With a tone that draws from the aforementioned Fitzgerald, but also from the portraitist Edith Wharton of old New York, this work tells the rise of the elusive millionaire Benjamin Rask and his complicated relationship with his wife Helen Brevoort. She is the daughter of a family with a lot of tradition, but also known for her tendency to eccentric behavior. Her marriage to Rask will be shaken by Helen's growing mental problems, which will make her consider committing herself to a sanatorium.

The second part, entitled My Life, is a sketch of an autobiography written by Andrew Bevel, the true millionaire who is clearly inspired by the character of Benjamin Rask, created by Vanner perhaps with a dark vengeful intention. Also the character of the unbalanced Helen is directly inspired by Bevel's real wife, Mildred. And what is told about her in the novel seems especially insulting to her husband.

Bevel, who tries to defend his honor with these notes for a memoir, will not be able to complete them. Instead, he opts to hire a ghostwriter named Ida Partenza, the daughter of an Italian anarchist who emigrated to the United States, to help him tell her version of the story and refute Vanner. The third part of the book, Recuerdos de unas memorias, is narrated by an elderly Ida who has become a consecrated writer, who evokes the years of her youth in which she collaborated with the reclusive millionaire Bevel.

And finally, a fourth piece completes the puzzle. It's about Mildred Bevel's diary, which Ida finds rummaging through old documents. It is a diary written, in effect, during this woman's stay in a Swiss sanatorium, except that what is told there has little to do with what is narrated in Vanner's novel and with what is explained by Bevel in her memoirs. Mildred's voice gives a twist to the story that takes on a new meaning.

Hernan Díaz composes with great skill this game of distorting mirrors in which one story leads to another and each new version amends the previous one, making the reader wonder where the truth is, if there is such a thing.

Hernan Diaz fortune Pure translation. by Javier Calvo and in cat. by Josefina Caball. Anagram / Periscope. 434/472 pages 21.90 euros