What is that which has one voice and yet becomes four-footed and two-footed and three-footed?
So the Sphinx asked many times, devouring those who gave false answers, until Oedipus came along and said: Man.
The riddle relies on singling out a few properties (footedness) of its answer (man). The air of mystery is removed further, if you see the answer and riddle presented together in a more standard format:
Man, four-footed at sunrise, two-footed at noon, three-footed at sunset.
This sentence (fragment) is now a metaphorical description qualifying the familiar in less familiar terms.
(You can use this principle to make riddles of you own. Take a metaphorical description, remove the familiar thing being described and pose the rest as a question. For example, what first smells of breakfast, then later smells of hell?)
If a joke is a dramatisation of surprise (Will Eisner in Graphic Storytelling), then a metaphor is a dramatisation of viewpoint. We all see the world differently—girl sees food, mother sees an Instagram post, the fly sees what it sees—in a banana split. The topography of salient points varies from viewpoint to viewpoint, trivially, factually, but metaphorically too. (I’m thinking along more conventional lines than personification).
Bananas remind me of palms, plantations, oases, Tunisia, desert roses, and of the rainbow dawn, clear and cold and hungry when even yesterday’s bursting overripe banana is the best split you could have asked for. That’s a single associative cross-section of my life, and I could produce hundreds, as could you, all of which convert into fresh descriptions of banana-related events.
Uniqueness of viewpoint is the writer’s strongest asset—and the only asset, really, apart from technical ability. This is why so many self-help books advise experiencing physical variety (go out, get hobbies, talk to people, live “dangerously”), and mental variety (art, film, poems, short stories, new languages, new skills).
Now, whilst bananas may run riot in your imagination, they do stay essentially fruit, and rarely do they achieve the varied depth of abstract, universal concepts that I call olam: life, death, time, love, infinity, etc. Describing olam is where the literary challenges lie.
For example, if you wish to write about a certain type of life, more specifically a life of crime, you may be advised to do so in a novel, where you would “show” us rather than “tell” us of a nefarious protagonist eventually redeemed. But occasionally it’s necessary to say something about life in a few lines, or a few paragraphs, poetically, magically, without plot and action (indeed, as a description). In which case you resort to an extended metaphor.
The key feature of an extended metaphor is its coherency, which can be achieved in many ways. Last time I discussed Adán’s life is a puddle, where both life and puddle took on various meanings: various lives were exemplified (his, Napoleon’s, Catita’s) and various puddles were employed (beach holes, lakes, oceans).
Today’s Quote coheres differently: Catita, a love interest of the narrator, is the centre of the metaphor and everything is subjugated to her; Catita is gentle hope, round love, she is the sea, she is the letters of the alphabet and the flow of water in a spigot, she is dense light.
Life is a puddle runs on train tracks, in parallel. Catita is love is a mystical circle, where Catita is the centre and love runs a circumference that is never fully defined.
Quote: Catita, love, with fat and gentle hope, love that rises and falls with the moon, round love, close love, love in which to sink oneself, to snorkel about in with open eyes, love, love, love . . . Catita, sea of love, love of sea. Catita, anything and nothing . . . Catita — appearing in all the vowels, whole, complete, in body and soul, in the a and disappearing little by little, feature by feature, in the others; in the e: tender and foolish; in the i: skinny and ugly; in the o: almost her, but not quite . . . Catita is honest and pretty; in the u: albinistic and moronic. Catita, like some consonants, so much like the b, in her hands; the n, in her eyes; the r, in her walk; the ñ, in her personality; the k, in her character; the s, in her bad memory; and the z, in her good faith . . . Catita, a round field in the sea, a round kiss in love . . . Catita, sound, symbol . . . Catita, any old thing and exactly the opposite . . . Catita, in the end, as pretty, sincere, alive, and flirtatious as only she could be . . . To trap her was as impossible as stopping up with the tip of index finger the flow of water from the mouth of a large spigot; flesh firm under the pressure of a touch, flesh that escaped through the cracks in the nail, through the lines on the skin; that jumped out at us; that, if deposited in a receptacle, quietly, would be only dense light, water to drink and to launch paper boats in. Water, water, water . . . And, in the end, a pretty, lovesick girl, a taster of boys, Catita . . .
Meaningful novelty in description is rare. We may debate what constitutes meaningful and novelty, and whether the Quote achieves either, but what struck me when I first read it, was the sheer density of original ideas.
Generally speaking, the ability to think about the familiar in unfamiliar terms is a necessary one, as perspective-changing is essential to innovation across all human activity. Specifically in creative writing, however, short of aliens, time travel, or cryopreservation, any author is stuck describing things to an audience who’s heard it all described before. Viewpoint acrobatics are essential for earning the creative label.
Oedipus reversed the metaphor of the Sphinx. That insight won him the Theban kingdom, and the marriage rights to the old king’s widow who was also Oedipus’s own mother. The rest is history thanks to Freud.
Adán is unlikely to achieve such notoriety through his metaphors (for one, they aren’t neatly reversible into riddles), but then notoriety is hardly the best measure of literary merit. Cardboard House is the most inspired collection of lyrical vignettes I have read, which may not say much. More importantly, I join the pool of people who have appreciated Adán’s work or will do so in the future. The existence of such a pool is a measure of literary merit.
This post concludes the series about Martín Adán’s only novel The Cardboard House (translated by Katherine Silver). My goal has been to showcase his lyrical application of speech figures, as well as, how one might derive poetic inspiration and lessons in technical prowess from choice quotes. The diversity and density of Adán’s ideas surpass most prose authors that I have read.
On Figures of Speech in general:
- Shoes: One Soul in Two Bodies
- Mule: All Things Emanate From Her
- Poles: Fourteen Hours at the Edge of the Sidewalk
- Life: Writing Extended Metaphors
- Love: Writing Fresh Metaphors