On Hernán Ronsino's Glaxo

and Why Big American Publishers Like Their Books Thick

 

 

Review by Michelle Meyers

Argentinian writer Hernán Ronsino’s Glaxo is the only one of his works yet to be translated from Spanish to English [1], and the first paragraph of this unsettling novella immediately demonstrates how powerfully his simple, barren language can create a sense of apprehension in the reader:

"One day the trains stop coming. Then a work team arrives. Six or seven men get out of a truck. They wear yellow helmets. They begin pulling up the tracks. I watch them from here. I watch them work. They work until six. They leave before the workers from the Glaxo factory punch out. They leave behind a few metal drums with burning rubbish, to block off traffic. When they leave, I close the barbershop."

The distant tone, sparse language, and deliberate use of repetition combine to generate a slew of questions in my head, none of which I imagine would garner cheery responses: why do the trains stop coming? Why are the workers pulling up the tracks? Do the men leave before the workers from the Glaxo factory punch out because they want to remain unnoticed? And aren’t there less ominous ways to block traffic than with metal drums of burning rubbish? (For me, this brings about thoughts of thick black smoke spewing into the air and the gagging stench of smoldering garbage.)

     Glaxo is divided into four parts, taking place in December 1959, July 1966, October 1973, and December 1984 (though the sections themselves do not follow chronological order). Each part is narrated by a different resident of Glaxo, a small industrial town in the rural Argentinian pampas. We hear from Vardemann, the town barber; Bicho Souza, the town butcher; Miguelito Barrios, a parcel carrier for the railways; and Folcada, a member of the military coup that overthrew President Juan Perón in 1955. Folcada has been sent to live quietly in the town of Glaxo as punishment for a botched assassination attempt.

     Glaxo is in many ways reminiscent of one of the great Latin American novellas of the 20th century: Chronicle of a Death Foretold by Gabriel García Márquez. True, the two novellas vary noticeably in the themes they seek to explore and the writing styles they employ. Chronicle concerns itself primarily with the complexities of collective complicity and guilt, while Glaxo seems more interested in examining the nuances of friendship and betrayal against the backdrop of Argentina’s tumultuous political history from the late 1950s through the mid-1980s. In addition, Chronicle is written in a pseudo-journalistic format with a wealth of detail; in contrast, Glaxo uses jumps in time with no intention toward metafictional commentary but instead as a device by which to generate tension and force readers to continually recontextualize their understanding of the town’s social dynamics. Both novellas, however, use four non-chronological section that shift focus from one character to another as a means of developing suspense around an unexpected tragedy. Another obvious parallel between Chronicle of a Death Foretold and Glaxo is that they are novellas, with their brevity allowing for tight, precise narratives where every detail eventually pays off, important to the mysteries that occur in each.

     Except...is Glaxo a novella? Its length would suggest so. I don’t have a word count, but at 91 pages with a large font size, I would imagine it falls somewhere between 15,000 to 30,000 words. Yet on the back cover, Glaxo is said to be “a haunting novel of lust, betrayal, and murder,” and Kirkus Reviews calls it “a brooding novel set on the windswept edge of the pampas…” I then tried an experiment, typing in “best novellas of all time” into the Google search browser, and I was surprised to find books like Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol and Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange included. My surprise did not necessarily derive from the length of these books, but I have never heard of either of these works referred to as a “novella” rather than a “novel.”

     Of critical importance here, of course, is that many of these labels are more a function of marketing than anything else, and there are no laws preventing a publisher from calling a narrative under a certain word count a short novel instead of a novella. Even then, traditional commercial publishers tend to want novels of at least 60,000 words and preferably closer to 80,000 words or above. The rationale is not based on content but appearances, and specifically appearances in relation to cost. As noted in a 2013 Forbes article entitled “The Novella Economy: Making Novellas Profitable,” publishing industry expert Gillian Redfearn remarks: “When you typeset a novella and turn it into a book, it can look very slight. So if you are...looking for something to read, the number of pages you get for the price can look rather unappealing.” [2]

     Indeed, there is an irony in the fact that many of the books taught most frequently in American schools, lauded for their continuing relevance and resonance, would probably be rejected as too short by most traditional publishers today--Heart of Darkness, The Old Man and the Sea, Of Mice and Men, Animal Farm, and Fahrenheit 451, to name just a few. The economic rationale behind this is obvious. Newly released hardback novels published by large commercial presses are often sold at bookstores for somewhere between $25 to $30, and if customers are going to be paying that much money for a single book, they expect it to last them longer than a couple sittings to justify the cost. The problem, however, is that longer books are not necessarily better books, and while some content merits a full 500 or 600 or 700 pages to fully explore, other lengthy novels would benefit from the generous use of a red pen crossing out whole paragraphs and chapters of extraneous material. The issue is that what makes sense from the marketing standpoint of a traditional commercial publisher and what might appeal more to readers are often at odds--a traditional commercial publisher that is seeking to maximize their profits would do better to sell the thicker hardback novel for which they can charge substantially more relative to their investment of resources. Conversely, plenty of readers enjoy short books and would purchase them if they were sold at a lower price point.

     Returning to Glaxo, it does not matter to me how it is categorized, as the haunting, resonant images evoked by Ronsino’s writing will linger with me regardless. The essence of Glaxo can be epitomized by the following observation at the end of Vardemann’s section: “The cane field no longer exists, they’ve cleared it completely, and where the tracks once were, now there’s a new road, a link road, which looks more like a closed wound. It’s a road that looks like the memory of a wound in the earth that won’t heal.”

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NOTES

1 Translated by Samuel Ruetter

2 Charman-Anderson, Suw. “The Novella Economy: Making Novellas Profitable.” Forbes, Forbes Magazine, 29 Aug. 2013.

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