For anyone who’s spent a year abroad living in a foreign language, certain parts of Leaving the Atocha Station by Ben Lerner will hit home, hilariously. Specifically, I can’t help but think of the point when the protagonist, Adam, is keen to impress a Spaniard to whom he’s just been introduced. He explains that he is staying in Madrid in order to write poetry exploring Spain’s literacy legacy following the civil war. It was, in his words, ‘…an answer of considerable grammatical complexity, describing the significance of my project in the conditional, the past subjunctive and the future tense. To my surprise and discomfort, Arturo’s interest was piqued.’ Reading this, I laughed, remembering similar instances where I’d memorised my own complex grammatical structures that communicated some sort of profound epiphany in Russian, only to then find myself unable to ask somebody to pass me the salt. Years abroad really are jam-packed with emotional highs and lows.
In Leaving the Atocha Station, we follow Adam’s strange journey as he navigates these highs and lows. A young American poet, Adam was awarded a fellowship in order live in Spain as an exchange student for one year, having stated in his application that he wished to explore the influence of fascism in Spanish literature and write a long, epic poem in response. By all accounts, he seems to take the opportunity exceptionally light-heartedly and does not seem to bother with much other than taking a lot of drugs and casually agonising over Spanish women. He rents a small apartment in the city centre where he lives alone and does very little. He writes poems when he’s high, with little conviction and no aim. He memorises enigmatic things to say in order to perfect the art of seeming mysterious and profound. All in all, as protagonists go, he is particularly exasperating.
It took me a long time to decide how I felt about this novel. The plot progression in Leaving the Atocha Station is vague; the only real movement in events is marked by Adam’s relationship with two Spanish women, both relationships casual and both exposing serious romantic ineptitudes on the part of Adam. Other than that, the only concrete event is the 2004 Madrid train bombings, where 192 people died. Adam witnesses a city in mourning after this event.
The lack of a concrete plotline simply means that, as a reader, you come to concentrate on other aspects of the narrative: language, style, ideas.
Lerner has great ideas. His protagonist moves in artistic circles, battling with the idea of art and what it truly means, whether he is a fraud, whether poetry is necessary and, if so, why? He also sheds light very interestingly on the appeals of limited communication. At the end of the first chapter, he is listening to his friend Teresa and decides that ‘The father had been either a famous painter or collector of paintings and she had either become a painter to impress him or quit painting because she couldn’t deal with the pressure of his example or because he was such an asshole, although here I was basically guessing…’. When it comes to the fragments of Spanish that he imaginatively pieces together, Adam enjoys feeling linguistically limited, revelling in the possibilities offered by his lack of comprehension. This flexibility of understanding is fun to read. Lerner also writes extremely well, albeit in a slightly wordy, debut-novel kind of way.
Despite the fact that my attitude towards the character of Adam softened over the course of the novel (Lerner eventually had the good grace to have him occasionally feel shame and/or anxiety over his continued obnoxious behaviour), a little more likability in this protagonist overall would have made for a more enjoyable read. The fact that, despite his insufferably self-centred behaviour, he still manages to make friends and get girls left me frustrated. The fact he also manages to produce exceptional poetry seems completely undeserved. If Lerner was trying to create a character with whom I would come to love, or love to hate, he was wrong.
Anyone interested in art on a more intellectual level will find certain aspects of Leaving the Atocha Station very interesting. People who believe in poetry could well feel inspired in some way after reading this novel, and there’s plenty to relate to for those learning a foreign language or who have languished in a state of semi-comprehension abroad. Ben Lerner’s style of writing concentrates more on form that on plot, which is what stops Leaving the Atocha Station from being conventional or predictable.
Although this is no bad thing (in fact, I would even say that I prefer an unconventional read) there was something about this novel that prevents me from saying that I enjoyed it. I don’t think that I did, in fact. Whiney, self-centred protagonists, quite frankly, never fail to set my teeth on edge. I can only hope that the autobiographical element to this work is less than I suspect it to be.