Between Mortality and the Everlasting
Before I had ever read a page of Eric Stener Carlson’s The Saint Perpetuus Club of Buenos Aires, I loved the book. I did not yet love the story or the writing. How could I? I had not yet read a page of it. I loved the book itself. It is a book made with love and artistry, although perhaps that is redundant. Can anyone really create art in the absence of love? I don’t think so. Regardless, the book embraced both art and love.
The book has a tremendous heft. It is a sewn hardback novel of 233 pages with silk ribbon marker, head and tailbands. An example of fine craftsmanship. This is a book that could have been hand-crafted from a single oak. Not a young oak, mind you, an ancient oak that had seen a lot. The pages have a scent that only new books can have, even though this book has already been on my shelf for close to a month. The creamy color of its jacket. The exquisite typesetting. The tasteful positioning of the logo. Frank Lloyd Wright would have approved of the design, if Frank Lloyd Wright were still alive and if Frank Lloyd Wright critiqued book makers.
You might rightly wonder why it is important that I loved the book so much. It is important because before I had even read a page, I wanted to love the story as much as I loved the paper it had been printed on and the binding it had been sewn into.
And I did love it, but I loved it in a strange, unsettling, way. Carlson has created a story that is neither occult, nor science fiction nor theology even though elements of all are included.
Miguel Ibañez is a low-level government bureaucrat in Buenos Aires, an assistant to an assistant to an assistant director of an Argentine agency of little significance. Although he is married to a beautiful woman and has a son, he views his life through the prism of lost opportunity.
Ibañez finds in a used book store an old copy of Butler’s Lives of the Saints. He purchases it on a whim only to discover that someone, claiming to be a god, has interlineated a heretical personal gospel between the lines of Butler’s work. The unknown author, obsessed with time and punctuality on the one hand, and promoting the misery of others on the other, claims to have discovered how to control time. Upon reading that, Ibañez sees his opportunity to rewind his own clock so that all of his lost opportunities—the dissertation that he never finished, the condom that he did not wear—can be erased. Ibañez wants a “do-over” of a world-changing magnitude. His quest for that power, and the resulting unraveling of his life, is the story that Carlson shares with his readers.
The Saint Perpetuus Club of Buenos Aires is unsettling because it is always unsettling for a sane person to read the rants of the insane. At least I hope that is the case because otherwise I am not sure that we could discern the sane from the insane. Even more unsettling, however, can be the realization that sometimes the unstable mind can make a lot of sense. In the book within a book—the interlineated pages of Lives of the Saints (which I guess would be a book within a book within a book if you are keeping track)—the writer obsesses about his morning routine which ensures that he gets to work on time. As the writer explains:
My advice to you is not to concern yourself with quality. Rather, concentrate on punctuality.
Yes, punctuality. Through much research and meditation, I’ve found this is what marks the great divide between mortality and the everlasting.
The writer then goes on to explain, for pages, his rather rigid morning routine that is both a sure sign of obsessive-compulsive disorder and at times entirely logical. That is what is so disturbing, at least to me. I really had difficulty at times in determining whether I was reading the rant of a mad man or controlled guidance of an efficiency expert. Moreover, as Ibañez grows more and more obsessed with the writings of the mad man cum savant, I really was not sure whether I wanted him to get a grip or to plunge ever deeper into his obsession.
And quite an obsession it is. Black masses. Orgies. Forsaking wife and child. Ibañez loses it in a big way. In a sense, he has the mother of all mid-life crises and it drags him down. Really down, into dirty emotional places. Emotional places that are so dirty that even though the reader realizes Ibañez is getting what he deserves, it also seems like none of it is in the character’s control. Still, he is not a victim. Even though it seems like misery is being forced on him, he is willingly embracing it. As a result, Ibañez does not need salvation as much as he needs forgiveness and redemption.
It is difficult to write about a book like The Saint Perpetuus Club of Buenos Aires because to truly explore the levels of degradation and how—indeed, whether—Ibañez emerges from them would be to give away the story. It is a fine story but one that I found I could not embrace at first. I could not walk away from it, either. Each time I put the book down I found that I had to return to it faster than the time before. It left questions lingering in my mind that I could not answer and could not forget. Strangely enough, my questions really had nothing to do with the story or the characters. Rather, they were far more fundamental questions about the nature of being, the nature of existence, who I am, and who I should be.
That is the odd thing about The Saint Perpetuus Club of Buenos Aires. The story is secondary to the message but the story also embodies the message. When Ibañez sinks almost to the point of devil worship and a lust for power, he becomes an Everyman. His quest for significance that drives him away from all that is important in his life could just as credibly have been an obsession with a new car or lover.
Buddha once said “The secret of health for both mind and body is not to mourn for the past, nor to worry about the future, but to live the present moment wisely and earnestly.” Ibañez ultimately learns that. How he learns it, and what it costs him, is the story that Carlson tells so well. If that is a lesson that you have already learned, you will appreciate The Saint Perpetuus Club of Buenos Aires. If you have not learned that lesson, you need to read it all the more.
David Mitchell spent most of his youth arguing with his elementary school librarian about the merits of Enid Blyton’s works and why it was a crime that Blyton was not represented in the school library. He lost that argument, but that did not stop him from trying to read his way through the school library anyway. Over the years, he has immersed himself in the classics, science fiction and fantasy, history, biography, philosophy, popular religion, cooking, folklore, sports and just about every other genre that can be imagined. Between books, he received a degree in history from Boston College and a law degree from Boston College Law School. In addition to practicing law, he has worked as an interpreter of the history of historic houses in Salem, Massachusetts, and participated in the archaeological survey of Boston Common. David currently has his own law practice. He is also a contributing writer at SavingAdvice.com where he finds connections between frugal living and almost every aspect of life, and a contributor to Renaissance magazine and Book Page. He lives in Florida with his wonderful wife, two sons and a labradoodle named Biscuit. Contact David.