A Novel

Whereof One Cannot Speak is a novel of extraordinary ambition. The title is taken from the final sentence of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, in which he tried to establish, once and for all, the scope and limits of language’s power to accurately name the world. The full sentence translates into English as: “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.”
      It is hardly surprising, then, that this is a novel haunted by silences. What is surprising is just how entertaining it all manages to be. Whether these silences involve guilty, obsessive secrets, repressed memories and desires, powerful creative energies that have been left dormant for fear of their life-changing power, or experiences that quite simply refuse to be framed in language, Grenfell Fairhead manages to illuminate them all, while simultaneously suggesting that the most important things remain safely beyond words. When Octavia Chavez, the novel’s main character, inherits a safe place in which she can daydream and be alone, she is careful not to give it a name. “Naming anything,” she says later, “makes it smaller.”
      It should go without saying that such an ambivalent relationship to language creates a very particular challenge for the novelist. After all, one has to use words to write novels; or, to turn Wittgenstein on his head, we have to keep breaking the silence around the things whereof we cannot speak.
      But let it be said immediately that this is by no means an austere novel: the writing oscillates between a lyrical style that is capable of evoking landscape, a piece of music or a particular state of mind with equal precision, and passages in a clipped, decisive style that suggests swift action.
      It is worth exploring how Grenfell Fairhead finds this balance between silence and evocation, but first some general remarks about plot and characterisation are in order, because this is, first and foremost, an exploration of the ways in which its characters manage, in spite of significant odds and their own protestations, to change and become fully alive. It is these moments of change, when the characters suddenly gain new perspectives on themselves and the world around them, that make this such a sensuously haunting book.
      For the most part, the novel’s action takes place in a kind of artist’s centre called The Adobe, outside the town of Las Madres, New Mexico. Most of the main characters are artists of one kind or another, but there is also a chapel attached to The Adobe. Artistic dedication and religious devotion are sometimes presented as two alternative routes to the same destination, and Sister Piadosa, the head of the nuns at the centre, provides a voice of uncommon sense. It is into this loving community that Octavia is born. She seems to be destined for a very happy childhood, but she turns out to be a raging, restless child. She is almost impossibly self-willed in the early chapters of the novel, but at the same time she is irresistibly, exuberantly alive. This energy is sometimes described—whether lovingly or in exasperation—as “other”, and at others as “unfathomable.” This exuberant, “other” energy drives the plot to a large extent, and the novel’s four parts correspond to stages in her intellectual and emotional development.
      In the midst of her rage and isolation, Octavia draws comfort from the stars, by whom she feels called in ways she cannot yet articulate. Apart from that, her closest friend is a carver of angels, Alejandro Jaramillo, a man almost sixty years older than her. Alejandro also feels that he has a calling: ever since he saw a vision of an angel at the age of ten, he has been ceaselessly carving wooden angels for each star he is able to see in the night sky. Whereas Octavia is still finding her artistic voice, and is fiercely protective of the drawings and beadwork images she creates, Alejandro is beginning to feel that he has lost his. He has recently become rather too successful for his own good, and he is thrown into confusion by a letter informing him that one of his angels has been reclaimed because its buyer could not afford his monthly payment. The friendship between these two obsessives—one passionate and wilful, the other apparently accessible and serene—is one of the most beautifully realised things in the novel. In comparison, most of the other characters seem slightly dull and ordinary at this stage, and this is as it should be. In time, however, the novel explores the ways in which ordinariness and obsessive dedication might both be defences against powerful emotions and uncertainty. As events increasingly challenge these defence mechanisms, the novel depicts these characters in various stages of disorientation.
      As Octavia grows into adulthood, she increasingly demands to see her own wildness mirrored in the outside world—something that seems to be impossible in the safe, loving world her parents have created around themselves. She loves opera, noting how everything in it happens on a scale that is “larger than life is allowed to be.” In one of her most memorable rages, she laments: “Why do we make everything so small—so safe?” She decides to leave home in search of new horizons.
      It is at this point, about a quarter into the novel, that the narrative takes a sharp left turn, signalled by two separate events. First, Octavia is involved in a near-fatal accident which leaves her semi-paralysed. Almost simultaneously, she sees the image of a white wolf, who remains unseen by all others even when it stays with her in the hospital during her long recovery. The shock of these events reverberates throughout the rest of the novel. Octavia is forced to travel inward, and the reader follows her. One of the ways in which she travels is through music, brought to her by Kristiyan Bacarov, an infinitely patient cellist who is trying to win her love. He is the perfect foil for her own impetuous nature. The descriptions of this music, scattered throughout the rest of the novel, also provide Octavia with ideas and images for her own beadwork later on.
      Meanwhile Alejandro is increasingly troubled by recurring dreams featuring a beautiful black mare, which he comes to associate with parts of himself he has lost or neglected. Shaken, and realising that he is in love with Octavia, he leaves for a monastery in the desert in order to learn simplicity and silence again. He and Octavia both continue to be troubled (but also energised) by apocalyptic dreams and visions that seem to provide clues to their inner struggles. These are fortunately never explained, but it also becomes increasingly clear that they are far from arbitrary. Ultimately, they provide intuitions on the basis of which several of the characters—but especially Octavia and Alejandro—are forced to strip away layers of delusion and habit—ostensibly in order to make peace with themselves, but in fact so that they can (according to an expression that is used later on in the novel) can “grow down.”
      An unlikely love story; an account of disability, and how it is overcome; an exploration of the ways in which art and music can transform a life—the novel is all of these things. Ultimately, though, it reveals itself as a kind of quest narrative in which the main characters’ inner workings become more apparent, both to us and to them. One of the novel’s greatest pleasures is the way in which personal and artistic development are linked: as we witness Octavia painting her work-room, and learning the slow shifts of colour in a desert landscape, we cannot help but notice that she is also learning to experience the world around her in more nuanced, less knee-jerk ways.
      Octavia continues to act as a kind of catalyst or transformer—for her parents, Sebastian and Georgia, who have spent half of their lives avoiding their own immense creativity; for Alejandro, who has to redefine his commitment to the call he heard as a ten-year-old boy, and which he has never re-examined.
      Novels about self-exploration and Bildung notoriously run the risk of being overly sincere, but there is a great deal of earthy humour here, and Grenfell Fairhead has clearly not lost the comic timing, or the flair for irreverence she brought in such abundance to her first novel, Of Death and Beauty, which was published by Sunstone Press in 2013. At one point Octavia creates a terrifying icon of a bullfighter with a grinning skull instead of a face. It is a kind of provocation—an image that is meant to alert the viewer that we are all in imminent danger of extinction. Then, in the very next chapter, a postcard from Sebastian and Georgia, who have temporarily liberated themselves from the day-to-day running of The Adobe, is read out to the rehearsing musicians. Much to everyone’s merriment, it features a picture of a dancing skeleton in a large hat. Elsewhere, a young student of Alejandro’s carves an image of Saint Sebastian, but equips him with a shield that would be able to deflect the arrows that are shot at him. The line between high seriousness and irreverence is always very thin indeed. At one point Octavia yearns for primitive rituals, recorded in breathless detail in her journal, and longs for the awe and wonder of ancient shamanic practices that had the power to connect one to sacred experience. It is at this moment that she reads a simple piece of advice from a manual on how to make beadwork tapestries: “Remember to step back from time to time. It is a good idea to have a moveable light to see the effect of the brilliance and the shadow in the overall work.” It seems to be a technical detail, but in hindsight it gathers a great deal of resonance.
      One should, of course, not give away too many of the plot’s secrets. Grenfell Fairhead marshals an impressive range of ideas for this novel, but in the end she is also simply a brilliant story-teller. Let it suffice to say that the inward turn which begins with Octavia’s accident develops into a sustained apocalyptic vision. At first it is tempting to read these images as products of their personal crises: Alejandro’s dream visions of angels falling into nothingness evoke his own artistic and spiritual fears with uncanny precision, and Octavia’s crucified wolf could easily be a projection of her own recent physical trauma. But the apocalypse is also universal: as Octavia becomes increasingly skilled as a beadwork artist, she becomes genuinely possessed by the idea of creating a body of work that can be exhibited as a tribute to all animals, especially species on the verge of extinction. We gradually observe her disappearing into this work, as she encounters what the novel calls “the animal of her imagination.” The musicians at The Adobe, including Kristiyan, are commissioned by Octavia to write a piece of music that will introduce this work, and we see them struggle to find an idiom—in image and in music—in which to raise awareness of the natural world without diminishing it, or talking down to the audience. Octavia learns how challenging this can be after a particularly impassioned lecture to the musicians, to which agreement or disagreement are the only two possible responses. Something has escaped her in the process—something that is beyond words, but also unmistakably real.
      As already mentioned, the characters’ dreams and unbidden flashes of insight increasingly become a window into the characters’ inner workings. In the case of Octavia, we are allowed access to her dreams through the journal that she keeps. We see her draw inspiration from images and phrases that seem to appear out of nowhere, and we come to share her faith that she (and we) will not become altogether unmoored. So, for instance, she becomes obsessed with the phrase “The Mercy of Wild Things”, and repeatedly interrogates it in an attempt to find out how it might relate to the work she is planning. Such phrases and images slowly gather a resonance that is all the more effective because their meaning has not been fixed in advance. At one point, near the end of the novel, she notes that there is “no room for intellect in this work.” We know by this stage that Octavia has no shortage of intellectual curiosity. Rather, she is defending the work from her own powers of analysis. She knows that it would ultimately be futile to explain her own images, as if they have a single message to impart to the viewer. She thinks of them as “visitors; strangers with gifts”, and it is her job to serve them, and to keep them safe in the realm of lived experience, rather than to promote herself through them.
      There are times when the images that emerge are terrifying: Sebastian, Octavia’s father and a fine poet in his own right, is haunted by a dream in which a condor lifts the lid of his skull in order to start eating his brain; Alejandro is confronted with an image of his own coffin. But there is always the sense of something at least potentially redemptive in even the most apocalyptic of these images. They function as warnings, or as reminders that death is always possible if not necessary.
      When the characters are sufficiently stuck (and the novel is particularly eloquent in its portrayals of the mind when it is stuck or cornered), Grenfell Fairhead introduces a new character, a sort of Socratic questioner, in the shape of Raho, a Zen monk who also made a brief appearance in Of Death and Beauty. He acts as a sounding-board, but is also utterly ruthless in his pursuit of clarity. We know almost nothing about his past, and we learn almost nothing about his plans for the future; what matters is his uncanny ability to be fully present at any given moment. At one point he asks Alejandro, who has confessed to him the extent of his emotional turmoil: “Has it ever struck you that you have spent your entire life looking up—up at the stars; up at the light? … And what might you discover if you allowed yourself to grow down; down into the earth?” His response to Octavia’s previously mentioned lecture to the musicians is to ask her whether she thinks anger could ever be an effective weapon against anger. He reminds her that “the potter makes the tea bowl because he makes the tea bowl.” In both cases, the challenge is to turn away from abstraction and become more open to emotional and artistic risks, which for the purposes of this novel might as well be the same thing. In both cases, the answer seems to have everything to do with not getting in one’s own way. The empty porcelain bowl, used in Japanese tea ceremonies, becomes a powerful image for the clarity and emptiness that only become available under such circumstances. The connection between life and art is later made explicit by Raho when he says: “You see, Alejandro—all down the years, while he is reaching for the perfection of a tea bowl, although he is not aware of it, he is learning a parallel discipline: he is honing his own soul.”
      Such states of mind are of course very difficult to depict in language, but the novel manages to take the reader to the brink of certain experiences, describing the moments immediately before and after the revelation. The effect is surprisingly bracing: at one critical point towards the end of his adventure, Alejandro suddenly sees the image of an empty tea bowl outside his car window, and glimpses the possibility of a radically new approach to his work. Language is at a breaking-point; we suspect that we might actually be in the presence of something numinous. Meanwhile the unstoppable plot rushes on like a river, and it is all executed without the sort of heavy-handed didacticism one so often encounters in novels that dare to navigate this kind of territory.
      There are unexpected pleasures here: luminous descriptions of landscapes under snow, or of the quality of light at different times of day; evocations of music, and the silence that surrounds it; a flock of white doves whose morning and evening flight at The Adobe becomes a recurring theme. There are haunting descriptions of animals on the move, and of a guide dog who is so moved by the music of the violin and the bandoneon during a rehearsal that he refuses to stop howling, and has to be kept busy elsewhere during future rehearsals. Such eruptions of humour ensure that the reader’s attention never wavers.
      At some point after her accident Octavia starts to use a swivel on her work-frame—partly so that she will not have to bend in order to turn it, but also so that she will be able to change the angle at which the light falls on her work. This could serve equally well as a description of Grenfell Fairhead’s method throughout the book. So, for instance, we encounter Raho upbraiding Sebastian for being so disciplined in running The Adobe, whereas he should be writing poetry, which is clearly his true calling. The criticism is so timely, so sharp and poignant, that we feel sure that we are in fact listening to the author’s own thoughts and feelings behind Raho’s words. Then, in the very next chapter, we are introduced to a nun whose ethic of discipline and service comes across as refreshing in comparison to those who think only of themselves. The narrative perspective shifts and swivels, and the authorial voice is often more elusive than it seems.
      One thing that does become clear as we read is that characters’ sense of themselves is not allowed to become fixed or settled. Those who learn the most about themselves and the world are willing, as Alejandro puts it, to be deepened by experience. Octavia’s younger, noisier self has to die before it becomes possible for her to make room for the woman and artist she is to become.
      This imperative to die and be reborn is one the novel takes very seriously. Octavia’s accident is only the most obvious example of a trauma that has to be internalised and subsumed rather than transcended or denied. Readers of Death and Beauty will remember the destructive fury of Lorenzo de la Cruz, and its dire consequences for many of that novel’s characters. His granddaughter, Sofia, is an important presence here, and like her mother and grandmother before her, she is a great singer. In one memorable scene, her teacher pays her a compliment while simultaneously presenting the relationship between suffering and beauty in no uncertain terms: it is because she have suffered so much that the Duende is able to sing through her. Like other important characters, Sofia has earned her own voice by accepting responsibility for her life. Earlier in the novel, feeling alienated from her own gifts, she has sought advice from Sister Piadosa, who told her that what looks like depression is in fact “a sign of spiritual fitness”, and “the health of a soul that refuses to go to sleep.” By the end of the novel, Sofia’s originally angelic voice has deepened, and learned to incorporate guttural notes that astonish those who hear them, and we know that she can trust her voice precisely because she is now capable of holding both those extremes. In other words, the dialectic between beauty and death is just as crucial here as it was in the previous novel, and the presence of the Duende, that wind which only blows when death is possible, is still the only guarantee of success, whether in life or in art.
      Such cycles of decay and re-evaluation often find their culmination in moments characterised by sudden insight after a long period of unease. The apparition of the empty bowl to Alejandro is a good example. Described from the outside, such a scene might evoke a transcendent experience, but in the context of the novel as a whole it would be more appropriate to describe it as grounding. We sense that the world into which the characters will move afterwards, slightly changed by their discovery but still recognizable to us, is our own. It is only their interior landscape that has changed. It is no coincidence that Octavia experiences a similar moment of revelation a bit later, face to face with an empty bowl in an empty room.
      At such moments it is as if time itself is dissolved, and the characters are able, just for a second, to be present in an eternal instant. But time can also suddenly become heavy and immensely significant, as when Octavia and Kristiyan stand holding fragments of a meteor in a museum in the Atacama Desert. Suddenly Octavia is able to experience her calling from the stars in a new, precise way, knowing that she and everything else originally came from just such materials.
      These Chilean scenes are beyond a doubt some of the finest in the novel. In one of them, an astronomer very reminiscent of Whitman’s is talking about all the stars he can see, helpfully naming them so that the uninitiated can understand what they are looking at. Octavia, unsurprisingly, tunes out. Understanding is beside the point in the face of something as sublime and mysterious as the night sky.
      What we are ultimately left with is a sense of having been on a quest with these characters, and having seen them come home to themselves. When Octavia buys a book of essays in the Atacama Desert, written by astronomers, archaeologists and geologists, we feel that the novel we are reading belongs with such records of excavation, of turning an unflinching gaze onto vast stretches of deep space and time. Whereof One Cannot Speak has all the excitement of a journey into the interior, pulled off by a master story-teller at the height of her powers. It is a significant achievement, and one hopes that it will find the audience it deserves.