Juan Filloy was an Argentine writer with a dramatic bio that includes boxing referee and palindromist. His writing exhibits the love of words and philosophy of the latter; the no-nonsense, unflinching eye of the former. He lived to be 106, having died in 2000, and in some circles is placed alongside some of Latin America’s best writers of the 20th century, such as his friends Julio Cortazar and Jorge Luis Borges.
As if all that weren’t enough, he’s also funny. Would that Op Oloop, the main character from Mr. Filloy’s first translated novel Op Oloop, could have shared a bit of the whimsy that Filloy sprinkled through the text around him. Oloop’s worldview and the “life” he lived — for lack of a better word — might have been far different.
Optimus “Op” Oloop is a man bound by his wristwatch. His life is a carefully timed, systematized, and ultimately hollow mechanism. Locked into patterns that dictate every action, he finally winds the spring too tight when he prepares for his engagement party. His self-imposed binds are evident in his preparations. As invitations are prepared the clock strikes ten. Oloop stops, mid-invitation, that of his closest friend, because in his schedule he doesn’t write letters after ten.
His servant mails the others, but his best friend isn’t invited. On the eve of his biggest achievement, the marriage into politically connected and successful family, Oloop won’t break free of his own arbitrary rules.
This is because success, for Oloop and his friends, is the result of ignoring better impulses. Rewards fall upon those who close their eyes to suffering.
The irony of this is heightened by the novel’s location and setting: Argentina in the ’30s, a world not yet past the scars of the First World War and the Great Depression, not yet willing to see the horrors of World War II on the horizon. Ironic, too, is that Oloop is a communist who is successful in capitalism. He treats workers poorly, offers unwanted advice about unionizing immediately after snarky criticism. He talks to the proletariat as if waiters and pedicurists can’t hear him simply because he isn’t speaking to them.
His regimented lifestyle has made him an expert on the world. His statistician’s eye keeps his nose in ledgers, deciphering the world through its use of lumber, condoms, and the reclaimed remains of soldiers lost on the Great War’s battlefields. Emotionally scarred by horrors he saw in an unsuccessful communist uprising in Finland and work for the US ARMY identifying soldiers’ remains, Oloop lives so rigidly it’s a wonder his ties don’t snap when knotted.
When an emotional outburst makes him late for an appointment with his fiancé and others, his descent begins. Nothing has been lost, his future father-in-law urges him to realize, but for Oloop it’s too late. His gears have slipped. Undone, he ricochets between manic, moralizing speeches and catatonic episodes. By the time Oloop reaches his engagement party, which takes up most of the book, he has already suffered a head wound (from the Finnish Ambassador) and undergone a sexually themed vision shared with his fiancé (which may or may not be a psychic link).
It is at his party that a variety of life-philosophies collide, in the form of Oloop’s “friends”. His friends include a submarine captain who worked for the Germans in the First World War, a French pimp and white-slaver, a medical student who intentionally fails school to avoid graduation, the head of city sanitation, and the chief air traffic controller. Each is subjected to Oloop’s strange behavior and each judges it, consoles it, or encourages it through the evening meal. The meal itself, a gastronomic tidal wave of overly rich, rare foods, served in numerous portions, awash with alcohol, and like the guests it overwhelms.
Slipping further and further away from reality, Oloop reveals the purpose of the evening. It is, he tells them after many catatonic slippages, a celebration of love and sexual record-keeping. He intends to visit his 1,000th prostitute that evening and add her to his well kept files. Oloop is sexually obsessed, as both his diary and the sexual fantasy involving his fiancé (or psychic-linkage with his fiancé, depending on whether you’re a romantic or not) reveal. His friendships with a syphilitic med-student and French white slaver/pimp remind us further of this proclivity.
The book is surprising in its use of sex. The humor is often dirty, language rude, but ultimately very real. The party conversation is frat-boy authentic. The sexual fantasy with his fiancé is beautifully absurd. For him it is time to revel in his achievement: 1,000 whores and a pending marriage.
The dinner and alcohol draw out his friends’ judgments and prejudices against him and one another, and Oloop leaves, in a fit, ready to find the prostitute, his 1,000th, that his white-slaver friend promises is a “new Swede”. Oloop ultimately cannot handle the encounter, the prostitute is not whom the madam or pimp claim, and she brings with her too much of Oloop’s past, his hurt, his claims to living too forcefully in love. It drives him to action as unavoidable as it is expected.
At this point it is worth remembering that an old maxim states it’s not the destination but the journey. So, although much of the novel is predictable, it still forces consideration; both for its bluntly stated philosophies, and its jokes, parodies and satires of those philosophies. The novel is both humorous and absurd. Like the best satire it is an understated undermining of a lifestyle it illustrates in perfect, chiseled detail.
At times, however, the novel almost doesn’t hold together. It is so in Oloop that it is nearly as rigid as he, and perhaps denser. Little plot, much character. Despite this, it maintains a sense of itself, in much the same way that Oloop, despite fantasy and self-satisfied-delusion still maintains some sense of himself. And while the end is easily seen coming, it is not disappointing.
Finally, the best and worst compliment for the novel is that it skewers those social mechanisms and the gears within it that still labor today, making Op Oloop sadly, obviously, relevant to contemporary readers.Op Oloop is set in an economically collapsed society with an out of touch bourgeoisies, just after a bloody war based on sloganeering, and its rife with individuals soaked in patriotism and sexual identity who wear their success as a burden.