Por Juan Toledo
Is it possible to conceive the idea that Covid-19 might have somewhat changed the way we read books and consume some cultural products? In the case of Fernando Sdrigotti’s latest novella, Shitstorm, the answer, according to this review, is yes
The great fabulist Augusto Monterroso wrote a cuento called “The Monkey Who Wanted to Write Satire.” In it he tells of the burning desire but also the huge dilemmas faced by an ape who on one hand wants to take the mickey out of his fellow animals in the jungle but on the other still wishes to be liked and, maybe more importantly, to remain alive. The magistral Monterroso reminds us that satirists worth their salt probably tell us more by what they omit than what they mock. The implicit value of the omission and the inclusion is something satirists and anthologists share since both are perilous literary genres if one wants to keep friendships.
It could also be said that satire, similarly to humour, is of its time. Maybe its impact is like a minor detonation with an echo sometimes reverberating through time in unexpected ways. Jonathan Swift conceived his Gulliver’s Travels as a misanthropic indictment of mankind but nowadays it is read as a children’s book even though the second part of his novel is far from being a child’s fable. Yahoo is now a synonym of a search engine and not of a primitive, ignorant and materialistic creature as depicted by Swift. This strange and perilous destiny of the satire might be precisely what has happened to Fernando Sdrigotti’s “novella” Shitstorm. It is a short and furiously fast book that might have suffered from being read in the middle of this first phase of the confinement: the unprecedented global and humongous shitstorm that is Covid-19.
Shitstorm satirises a reality that now, in the middle of our worldwide house arrest, appears to be distant and almost quaint: the short and intense cycles of news and opinions in an era of social media obsession and misinformation. It anatomises our voyeuristic compulsion for gathering likes, being retweeted and followed all while having the ubiquitous and, some might say -Sdrigotti probably among them- insidious presence of identity politics in our cultural discourse.
But sadly, the powder of his satirical barrel gets a tad wet by doing so.
Its starting point is the real case of Walter Palmer, an unknown affluent American dentist from Minnesota – Let’s not forget all dentists in America are wealthy- who in early July 2015 killed a lion called Cecil at Hwange National Park In Zimbabwe. Cecil was not only the main attraction of the park but he was equipped with a satellite tracking device. The book’s title is taken from another satirist of cervantine proportions, the Chilean writer Roberto Bolaños, but unlike Bolaños who in his novel Los detectives salvajes lampoons the literary rivalry of Mexican poets using real and fictitious names, Sdriggoti uses only names which are close enough to the real characters he is targeting but without using their actual names: Walter Palmer becomes Walter Turner and Cecil the lion is Cyril instead. We imagine this might be a case of legal prudency by his part of his publisher’s solicitor. But sadly, the powder of his satirical barrel gets a tad wet by doing so.
This is a book that in its first three quarters reads almost like a continuous verbal rhapsody. We pass through the litany of the media stories generated first by Walter Palmer and then by an obnoxious British journo called Brandon O’Neill on an article defending hunting published of course in some well known British rightwing rags. These are followed by a terrorist attack in London and the obligatory communique from its alleged masterminds. We then encounter an incongrous mention of one of The Guardian’s art critics to end with a cam model, Stacy P, and her accusation of sexual harassment by the President of the United States of America plus a few mentions of North Korea’s favourite passtime: the launch of missiles.
The final chapter of Shitstorm is a change in tone and speed. Here the satire almost turns itself into a moral tale, and not because a new and more equanimous order has been established; far from it, that would betray the quasi-apocalyptic mood of the first part of the book, but because Sdrigotti employs his third person narrative voice to offer us something not dissimilar to an ending of poetic justice. Suffice to say that in this novella real shit happens to a couple of dodgy people.
All the little media shitstorms described with frenetic glee in the book, at the moment of writing these lines, are almost nonexistent. One thing this pandemic has managed to do is to impose upon us an anti-situationist reality by which much of the society of spectacle we live in through sport, celebrities and minor obsessions -from which a few people make a very decent living- has stopped. First the virulent protein and now the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis have virtually asphyxiated any other news. It is difficult not to consider mere repetitive satire, without any real philosophical counterbalance, a bit more than a self immolating literary genre. Perhaps that was the real intuition of Monterroso’s aspiring primate-writer.
There are moments of real and almost illegal hilarity in Shitstorm. When “a comedian known for his sharp tongue simply tweets #KKKeith” mimicking a stuttering white boy bullied by black kids at his school or by declaring -not totally without reason- John Lennon’s album Imagine as “monstrous.” Equally, when, after the strange death of Stacy P, he says with Churchillian cheekiness “Never has the death of a cam model meant so much to so many” But these instances are few and far between. At some point Sdrigotti himself reminds us that “we can’t stop watching, reading, consuming, despairing about the state of the word.” And some, no doubt, will agree with him but others probably prefer to keep watching without despairing and that it is more desirable and courageous in the world we now have to live in.