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Ibsen Martinez. El senor Marx no esta en casa.

Ibsen Martinez. El senor Marx no esta en casa. Bogota. Norma. 2009. 269 pages. COL$36,000. ISBN 978-958-451951-1

In his third novel, Ibsen Martinez, a Venezuelan playwright, established television scriptwriter, and one of the most widely respected Latin American essayists and cultural commentators, speculates amusingly and brilliantly about an incestuous relationship between Karl Marx and his youngest daughter, Eleanor. When Marx is alive and well in some Latin American enclaves of utopianism, Martinez's fiction could be construed as a political novel. Nothing could be further from his fictional truth, parody, or autobiography.

Full of real anecdotes, historical and fictional characters, the contemporary speech of self-help manuals and talk shows based on dysfunction, soap opera intrigues, and allusions (Martinez is the author of successful works in that genre), Venezuelanisms and "bilingualisms" like workaholico, the novel's twelve chapters actually span across centuries and cultures (London is vividly re-created), and particularly among literary genres.

After a conversation with his lover Gloria Abadi, a clinical psychologist with ample experience in treating sexual abuse, the television scriptwriter-protagonist and narrator decides to reconstruct Eleanor's relationship with her father. But El senor Marx no esta en casa is not concerned with tawdriness or "Marx bashing" but with storytelling and literature, and playing fast and loose with history. The "Moor" (as his children called Marx) entertained them with stories about Hans Rockle, a magician who sells his soul to the devil to pay debts. Martinez shrewdly avoids discussing that it is highly unlikely the children interpreted those stories as fables about historical materialism, or as metaphors about the true nature of merchandise. To do so would be to cherish the socialist version of the fable.

Throughout the chapters we learn that El senor Marx no esta en casa was to be a play, and that the protagonist is torn between perfecting that piece or writing a soap opera that will enrich him. The question that drives him is how to provide a fascinating account of a dark aspect of a purportedly pure human, and that may be Martinez's only concession to a critique of Marx, even though his biographers of Marxists on literature have never painted him as a saint. But Eleanor, a feminist who translated Ibsen, Plekhanov, Flaubert, and her father, among others, steals the scenes, and we sympathetically relive her life.

Marx (and here Martinez is wickedly political) is a pawn in his re-creation of a complex woman, superior to her partner, the Darwin proselytizer and atheist Edward Aveling (with whom she started living after they both founded the Socialist League in 1884). Martinez rightly portrays him as spine-chilling. Ultimately, this extremely literate novel, ready for translation, asks whether dysfunctional lives are Victorian dramas, Shakespearean comedies, or typical Latin American soap operas, asserting that the play is the thing. Intelligent, perfectly fluid in popular tone and intellectual content, this is one of the most consummate novels produced in Latin America in recent years. I read El senor Marx no esta en casa after finishing A. S. Byatt's The Children's Book, and it is uncanny how both minutely re-create worlds we thought were gone--world literature at its best.

Will H. Corral

California State University, Sacramento
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Title Annotation:International Science Fiction
Author:Corral, Will H.
Publication:World Literature Today
Article Type:Book review
Date:May 1, 2010
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