Good Company for a Polyglot: On Pola Oloixarac's DARK CONSTELLATIONS
by Tess Crain
Certain writers assault you with their intelligence, not as, or only as, a performance, but rather out of necessity: they simply cannot stop thinking.
Nell Zink (The Wallcreeper, in particular) is one, as are Thomas Pynchon, David Foster Wallace, Martin Amis (especially London Fields), and Ben Lerner. Such writers are also known for being funny, perhaps because humor has long been the balm of metacognition, laughter a scaffolding over the abyss.
As brilliant and hilarious as any of those named above, Argentinian writer Pola Oloixarac also feels warmer than Zink, calmer than Wallace, and less solipsistic than Amis or Lerner. She bears the strongest resemblance to Pynchon, yet her prose has an additional sensuality, her plots tending to pivot where his whirl. Now scathing, now poetic, Oloixarac writes with the polyvocal lyricism of a modern Homer who studied, and has mixed feelings about, Gilles Deleuze. Everything signifies.
Describing one of her own characters as a “polyglot” whose “ability to understand what was being said to him in various languages allowed him to establish immediate bonds of trust,” Oloixarac could be writing of herself. After studying philosophy at the University of Buenos Aires, she pursued a PhD at Stanford. She participated in the 1990s Argentinian hacker scene before eventually being named one of Granta’s 2010 Best Young Novelists and receiving an award from the Fondo Nacional de las Artes. She wrote the libretto for the opera Hércules in Mato Grosso—about a painter and an inventor seduced by serpentine water goddesses in the rainforest—which debuted at Buenos Aires’s Teatro Colón, and eventually made its way to New York City. She is a founding editor of the bilingual Buenos Aires Review and contributes articles to publications including The Telegraph, The New York Times, and América Economía. She is, in short, super and diversely erudite.
While Oloixarac sometimes pens criticism in English, she only so far writes fiction in Spanish.
Her first novel, Savage Theories—published in Spanish by Alpha Decay in 2010 and in English by Soho Press in 2017—traces both the intertwined lives of university students in present-day Buenos Aires and the exploits of a Dutch anthropologist in early twentieth-century Africa. The book thrills and confounds with the strength of its singular, lacerating consciousness.
Her second, Dark Constellations arrived in Spanish from Random House in 2015. Now, finally, we have it in English from Soho Press.
German naturalist Alexander von Humboldt, who spent five years exploring the “the torrid zone” of South America, titled his 1850s multi-volume opus on science, nature, and humanity, Kosmos—a then-forgotten term he salvaged from the Greek. Two hundred years later, astrophysicist Carl Sagan named his beloved PBS series on the stars and our place in them, Cosmos. Between these two works, the colonial frontier evolved into the final frontier of space and frontiers in science. No wonder, then, that Oloixarac calls her tale of early European naturalists, Sagan-informed computer programmers at the inception of the internet, and near-future computational biologists, Dark Constellations.
The book opens on young botanist Niklas Bruun and a party-seeking “Crissia pallida”—“spidery green flowers with nuclei of gold pollen” fabled to have epigenetic and hallucinogenic properties”—in a jungle off the African coast. Plumbing the fecund depths of a volcanic grotto, they meet and “commingle with the natives, entering into the genetic history of the island in a torrent of semen and blood.” It is 1882.
After this lush, disorienting introduction, the narrative telescopes, speaking as a strange omniscient “we” in possession of Bruun’s documents—and his brain. Here the novel gets Houellebecquian (a la The Possibility of an Island, cited by Oloixarac as an influence, and The Elementary Particles): “The commentators have estimated that there were approximately twenty-three girls, as well as a handful of adults with shell-hard skin, that took part in these ceremonies on this island, where trees can live for several thousand years”—Oloixarac paints the natural world vividly, as Michel Houellebecq does not—“(Dracaena draco, vegetal dragons whose dry skeletons branch into cartilaginous crests, and which contain a dark lymph famed for its regenerative qualities).” This section, and those later that revisit the botanist Bruun, present a collection of objects and creatures fit for the Museum of Natural History: six-foot rats, “crustaceans whose meat is transparent,” butterflies the size of human hands.
In a later section we follow the hacker Cassio, born in 1983 to a white Argentinian mother and a black Brazilian father, who metamorphoses from a tender-hearted prodigy—adopting a stray kitten which “he quickly indoctrinated… in the concepts of goodness and mercy; in the language of felis catus, these are rendered as steady purring and conscientious licking”—into a dissociated teen. While the cat’s subsequent death triggers existential dread in him, “The same urgencies that could have turned Cassio into another young Werther merely left him at a certain cognitive distance from other people, an armored eye with which to observe the world.” Ultimately, young Cassio grows up to become a shadowy internet legend.
In the final part, set in 2024, we encounter Piera, a brilliant biologist who joins Cassio’s group, the Project:
She knew that, like all human groups, eventually [the boys of the Project] would stop sniffing around her as if she were some foreign object, would come to perceive her as a person. At some point… everyone was reduced to a molecular sketch of themselves, a minimal quantum of personality. And she’d decided some time ago that being a person didn’t actually make her feel anxious.
Throughout the novel, Bruun’s nineteenth-century narrative intrudes and retreats like the tides of a primordial sea, eroding the landscape of the future beneath the same heavenly bodies that, centuries later, will provoke in others increased anger, sleeplessness, and procreation.
Savage Theories and Dark Constellations have much in common stylistically (a sardonic tone and passages that verge on nonfiction at points—particularly Constellations, which, oddly, repeats nearly verbatim a paragraph from a 2011 book on natural history); thematically (referencing Thomas Hobbes overtly and obliquely); and formally (containing Sebald-like images and illustrations).
Logistically, the books are inverse in drama and size: Theories charts two timelines in three-hundred pages, Constellations three in two hundred. Yet it seems as though, where the former grew to hold its pages, the latter could not shrink, genie-like, to fit inside the smaller volume, or not without losing some of its magic.
Perhaps the problem is that even dark constellations are delineated by stars and stars form through accretion. Without sufficient time—in this case, pages—the planetary bodies remain inchoate. This novel should have been longer. Still, just as protostars unleash beautiful flashes of light and reshape their surroundings, even without yet possessing total coherence, Dark Constellations is well worth a read.
In Houellebecq’s Submission, the narrator attests that, reading an author who writes with the full presence of her mind is to live as though with a friend. And what a friend Pola Oloixarac is on the page! In a recent Kirkus interview, she said of Darwin: “He says men are cannibals without having seen them, and that there are giants; good bird watcher, but terrible anthropologist.” She has also written: “Our attention spans may have shortened, but the robots’ hasn’t.”
Her third novel, Mona, was released in Spanish by Random House this spring. We can only hope an English translation is forthcoming.
Tess Crain is a graduate of the NYU Creative Writing Program, where she served as a Goldwater Fellow. Her writing has appeared in the New Republic. She lives in New York City.