Translated from Catalan by Mary Ann Newman
Heribert Juliá is a famous artist with an exhibition in his wife’s gallery to paint for but he’s leaving it to the last minute and he’s lost his mojo. His state of mind can be detected from the opening sequence in which he dreams of Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks and recognises himself as the besuited man at the bar. The cause of his painter’s block is never clearly identified but his disinterest is comprehensive. He has no enthusiasm for his art or his women (wife, Helena; mistress, Hildegarda; or casual conquest, Herundina). Not even remotely jealous when he discovers his wife Helena has a younger lover, a little curious perhaps but nothing more. As he slips into an ever deeper lethargy, reduced to counting the number of seconds he can remain underwater in the bath, his denial remains intact. Yet in a curious twist, it is a sculpture that precipitates the end of his career.

He is surplanted by Humbert Herrera, who takes over his wife, his career and eventually his mistress. It’s a deliberate surplanting by a younger artist, with more than enough fuel in his tank. He is hyper, pumped full of ideas for paintings and noting them down in a series of notebooks.

Totally black painting titled Love In the Dark. In the ENVIRONMENTS  book he writes: ” A boxing ring completely covered over with a white sheet   Audience in bleachers.  In the ring boxers fight unseen by audience.”  He opens another notebook, labeled CONCEPTS, and writes: “A dictionary with all the “obscene” entries crossed out and replaced with “proper” entries.  And vice-versa.  Two dictionaries, then.  Possible variations: rewriting of political, urbanistic, botanical, and psychological terminologies …”

And yet, imperceptably Humbert too begins to lose momentum.  In his desperation he speeds up, at one point whisking Heribert’s ex-mistress on a lightening round-the-world trip, a journey which begins after spending a long time examining Hopper’s Nighthawks at the Institute of Art in Chicago.  Humbert can’t stand the idea of being boxed in, entrapped.  He varies his art, not sticking to one style.  And yet ….    Is the implication that by taking over Heribert’s life, he is doomed to the same outcome?  Or is  Monzó simply depicting the circularity of the creative impulse?

To be perfectly honest, I’m not sure.  As with surrealist paintings, I’ll leave the interpretation to others, such as World Without Borders .   That Gasoline is a primarily a novel of ideas is evidenced by all the character names beginning with H, the mirrors and circles in the structure, repeated motifs, the inclusion of art theory and the many dreams.  The book is not meant to be read for plot alone.  Although I did and I really enjoyed the ride.  The tone is droll.  At times,  comic with Heribert dressing as a clown to follow his wife on her assignation with her lover.  At other times, poignant as  when Heribert switches on all the lights in his house to drown out the estrangement with his wife.  Yet there’s no doubting this is more than just the fantastical story of two artists and their love lifes, two superstars and the mundane men behind the image.  If I could get beyond the plot, even if I could understand that Word Without Borders review,  I’d be rating Gasoline as a masterpiece.  But it’s too clever for me.  Monzó must settle for a simple excellent.

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