domingo, 29 de mayo de 2011


Knowing that Cheever’s first short story is entitled Expelled, one can be tempted to read his last novel Oh, What a Paradise It Seems as the symbolic return of the writer to the Garden of Eden. One example of this biographical kind of reading of John Cheever’s titles, largely based upon some personal facts of his life narrated on The Journals of John Cheever, is Rodrigo Fresán’s epilogue for the Spanish edition of Esto parece el paraíso, called Apuntes para una teoría del paraíso recuperado. In this text, Fresán suggests a parallelism between Cheever’s symbolic expulsion from Paradise and his “alcoholismo, (...) adicción a las pastillas, (...) desordenada vida sexual y (...) expulsion del hogar familiar” (134) to conclude that Oh, What a Paradise It Seems embodies the “final y feliz retorno al edén” (133-4) whose biographical correlation is Cheever’s return to his family and his literary recognition.[1] This interpretation, in which Cheever’s private life and novels are blended and described as “una odisea mística”, however tempting it could be, assumes a Paradise that shares the same values I have commented before (heterosexuality, personal success, ordered life, family) and, by reducing the issues of the novel to the spiritual journey of his author, it renders its political concerns insignificant, as if they were a mere illustration of Cheever’s soul’s last triumph. It is undeniable they are something much more relevant: even from a biographical perspective, Cheever’s definition of Oh, What a Paradise It Seems as “la primera novela ecológica” (Fresán, 140) and the fact that his first thoughts about the novel and his first impressions over Reagan’s election are developed in the same fragment of his journals[2] are a cue for it. Moreover, and despite the mythical atmosphere that surrounds the narrative[3], the book offers conclusive textual evidence about its political agenda and openly criticizes the militaristic and nationalistic paradigm of the 1980’s. In the following passage, Mr. Chisholm, the chemical expert Lemuel Sears has hired to investigate the pollution at Beasley’s Pond, is confronted by the mayor in a public audience and has his arguments rejected. The main objection to these arguments, as we will see, is that they do not seem American enough, which is to say, they appears to come from a place out of Paradise:

“You, Mr. Chisholm, have, I happen to know, never served in the armed forces of your great country and you have no understanding, of course, of our wish to raise a memorial to our patriotic dead. You would like, I know, to prove that our fill in Beasley’s Pond is comprised of leachates and contaminants. My father was an honest Yankee fisherman. He was a soldier. He was a patriot. He was a churchgoer. He was the husband of a contented, loving and happy wife and the father of seven healthy and successful children. If I spoke to him about leachates and contaminants he would tell me to speak English. ‘This is the United States of America, my son’, he would say, ‘and I want you to speak English.’ ‘Leachates’ and ‘contaminants’ sound like a foreign language, and to bring governmental interference into our improvements of Beasley’s Pond is like the work of a foreign government.”

The speech of the mayor both condenses a great deal of the American Paradise of the 1980’s I have already mentioned (patriarchal system, personal success, family, patriotism) and opposes to these values the figure of the foreigner as a threat. Interestingly, one of the key features to detect this foreign figure is the use of language. Ultimately, if language and discourses reflect ideologies, what it is implied here is that any type of criticism will “sound like a foreign language” and will be classified as promoting non-traditional American values and, therefore, as an enemy voice. The American Paradise, seems to say Cheever, expresses through its pride of being monolingual its dismissal of any criticism. As Ricardo Piglia wrote: “El Estado dice que quien no dice lo que todos dicen es incomprensible y está fuera de su época.” The violence of this rejection is both symbolical and physical (Chisholm, the ecologist, is killed right after the audience) and the failing of the legal action gives way to a sabotage as the last –and successful- attempt to preserve Beasley’s Pond. Interestingly, this sabotage is carried out by poisoning some sauce bottles in a supermarket, so that through the repetition of the same act by different agents (poisoning the pond by the government, poisoning the sauce by a citizen), Cheever shows how legality is structured as a way to deny not just the right of acting differently but also the right of acting exactly as the government but with other ideals, other Paradises in mind. Regarding this issue, I would say that the alternative Paradises that Cheever proposes in the book through his alter ego Lemuel Sears, however pastoral and mediated by the art they could seem[4], are not built upon a defense of a nostalgic contemplation of nature but, on the contrary, on the basis of an active engagement for a democratic integration with the environment. To Sears, Beasley’s Pond is not an idyllic image but the place where he ice skates “in the company of perhaps fifty men and women of all ages and (…) all walks of life” (1984: 91). Since ice-skating is seen by Sears as a distinctive feature of the Homo sapiens’ civilization, Cheever’s Paradise could be thought as a social construction where men and women should take part on the debate about their symbolic representation and should create strategies to protect what they perceive as cultural values. Therefore, what Cheever’s characters struggle to stop is not only the contamination of the water but also the governmental decision of changing the way society wants to represent itself and its values –from ice skating to a memorial of national wars- as a reflection of a deeper change. To some extent, Oh, What a Paradise It Seems suggests that the increasing cruelty and individualism may be read as a civilizatory step one has to actively refuse. One example of this civilizatory movement could be traced on the novel through the symbolic presence of dogs, whose taming coincides historically with the raising of agriculture that has largely defined our civilization. The millenary alliance seems to be broken by the new rules of mankind, and we move from “notice the number of dogs” (1984:3) living in the city to discover, first, a dead dog lying among the garbage in Beasley’s Pond and, later, that one of the characters (Sammy Salazzo) murders his own dog to save a few dollars. The irrational and destructive character of this new civilization, based upon the use of violence for economic purposes, seems both to mirror the American Paradise of 1980’s and to be one the central aspect of Cheever’s criticism against it.

(1st corrections: 30/05/2011)

[1] “Cheever no se acerca ni a frascos ni a botellas ni a cigarrillos, ha vuelto al santuario familiar en Ossining (...) y la hasta entonces tan desaforada como culposa faceta homosexual de su vida (...) se limita a una sentida y sentimental relación con el joven Max Zimmer (…). En el terreno profesional, Cheever ha alcanzado, por fin, la consagración universal (…). Sí, Cheever está de moda (…) Cheever es cool (…)”. (134-5)

[2] “El Times trae una nota sobre el depósito de residuos tóxicos del otro lado del río. Tal vez pueda utilizarlo. (…) Leo en The New York Review of Books que, al elegir a Reagan, el pueblo norteamericano ha votado por un pasado irrecuperable, un personaje que ya no existe…” (2004:467)

[3] Cheever opens and closes his novel highlighting its fictional character. The book starts with “This is a story to be read in bed in an old house on a rainy night” (1984:3) and it finishes “and as I said in the beginning, this is just a story meant to be read in bed in an old house on a rainy night” (1984:100).  

[4] “The illusion of eternal purity the stream possessed, its music and the greenery of its banks, reminded Sears of pictures he had seen of paradise” (1984:84)

No hay comentarios:

Publicar un comentario