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Jul/Aug 2015 Reviews & Interviews

The Story of My Teeth

The Story of My Teeth
Valeria Luiselli.
Translator, Christina MacSweeney.
Granta. 2015. 188 pp.
ISBN 978 1 78378 081 5.

Review by Ann Skea


Buy now from Amazon! This is a crazy book. The sort of book where you conclude the author is a genius or mad or both. And it is exactly what it says on the cover, although the author tells it mostly through a literary alter-ego called Gustavo Sánchez Sánchez, otherwise known as "Highway."

Highway's modest introduction of himself says much about him: "I'm the best auctioneer in the world, but no-one know it because I'm a descreet sort of man." He notes, too, "some have luck, some have charisma" and he has both. Also, he tells us his story, which is "a treatise on collectibles," will have a Beginning, a Middle, and an End. And so it does. But it also has many deviations on the way, which he describes as "literature": i.e. "hyperboles, parabolic, circulars, allegorics and elliptics." In fact, he devotes a chapter to each of these.

Highway's destiny as an auctioneer and novelist began with a childhood passion for collecting things: first, his father's bitten-off fingernails (he filled several envelopes); then drinking straws (more than 10,000); then (vicariously, as a security guard at a drinks factory) the largest art collection in South America. A fortunate incident on his 40th birthday leads him to travel, to the study of contemporary dance, to marriage and fatherhood to a boy called Siddharta, and then by various routes, to the intensive study of auctioneering under the Japanese auctioneer, Master Oklahoma.

Master Oklahoma's "Method" derives from "classical rhetoric and the mathematical theory of eccentricity." This is defined by mathematical descriptions of circular, elliptical, parabolic, hyperbolic, and allegorical stories, but in practice it means selling not the object itself (which may be as valueless as Highway's teeth) but the story that goes with it. (Exactly the method demonstrated, I feel, on the BBC's Antiques Road Show.)

Highway is expert at weaving and presenting the stories, as he demonstrates in one chapter by selling each of his own teeth. His stories are fantastic, imaginative, unbelievable, and often ridiculous, but he is an expert salesman.

The chapters are structured as their titles suggest. "The Hyperbolics" stories are hyperbolic; "The Elliptics" are told not by Highway himself but as his "dental autobiography" by a protégé of his, and illustrated with photographs sub-titled by quotes borrowed from famous authors. "The Allegorics" tell stories remotely linked to the work of a number of artists, most of whom are little-known outside avant-guard art circles. And the final chapter "The Chronological" offers an annotated timeline linking Highway's major life-events with world events which have a tenuous link to the earlier text.

The Story of My Teeth has a Joycean playfulness with words, events, structure, literary theory, languages (not always translated), and human nature. And there are many references to many texts in the book, some well-known, some much less so. At times, however, the cleverness gets hard to take. The reader is assumed to be extremely well-read, knowledgeable about literary theory and modern art, and able to read Latin. Chinese characters, too, are used extensively on one chapter, but although these are translated for the reader, it is entirely possible they have, as the Credits warn, been "creatively interpreted, paraphrased or altered," as have other borrowings in the book.

This is certainly not a mainstream novel. It is experimental, funny, irritating, and outrageous by turn, but it is worth exploring.

 

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