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by Rosa Chacel
Translated from the Spanish by Carol Maier
Reviewed by Andy Barnes

The Spanish writer Rosa Chacel is not well known in the English-speaking world. That, on this evidence, needs to change. Dream of Reason is an astounding philosophical novel in the tradition of Sartre and Proust, writers to whom Chacel does not suffer by comparison. It is fifteen years since Chacel's death and almost forty since she wrote this novel. This is surely too long to wait for an English translation of a book so richly deserving of as wide a readership as possible. Fortunately, Carol Meier's excellent translation is one worth waiting for.

Chacel's book purports to be the notebooks of Santiago Hernández, a businessman living in 1930s Buenos Aires. In the notebooks, Hernández states that his aim is to reach an understanding of himself. The events he records vary in their external significance, ranging from the mundane to the shocking. The novel is formed not by the telling of these events, however, but by Hernández's recordings of his response to them. His observations consist of the minutiae of thoughts and feelings, the tiny gestures and fleeting glances that make up each moment in his narratives.

Chacel's descriptions of human behaviour are breathtaking enough in themselves to justify the time and effort required to read such a large and undoubtedly dense book. Dream of Reason offers much more than these descriptions, though. The notebooks make up a towering philosophical novel that is as thought provoking as it is wonderfully constructed. Hernández becomes increasingly perplexed by his own observations, and his perplexity allows Chacel to explore themes such as the malleability of reality and the role of perception in defining truth. Hernández continually views his world using 'facts' that are misinterpreted, misunderstood, or assumed; he is repeatedly forced to question the realities he has constructed using these 'facts'. When, for instance, he finds that his wife knew of an affair that he believed he had kept hidden, he is forced to concede that the idea of 'his wife' that he had constructed is based partly on a lie. Time also features heavily as a theme, with assumptions about the future and questionable knowledge of the past constantly combining to create new, and possibly false, realities. As Hernández examines the failure of his project of self-understanding, he begins to realise that all of his observations and all of his realities are based on deniable 'facts', questionable assumptions, and misunderstood chains of events. Dream of Reason is unquestionably complex and dense, but under Chacel's guidance, the reader is never led astray. This novel is deservedly recognised as a classic of twentieth-century Spanish literature.

My hope is that the new translation of this book will raise Chacel's profile among English speakers. As a 650-page philosophical novel, it is unlikely to trouble the bestseller lists, and the $30 price tag means that, unfortunately, it is likely to remain the preserve of academics and students. This is a shame, because Chacel is a great writer, and her work has found a wonderful translator in Carol Maier.