La canción de Brenda Lee (Brenda Lee’s Song) is the latest novel from the Spanish author Miguel Ángel Muñoz whose work I’ve followed on this blog for the past few years (see his stories, novels, and interviews). He is a devotee and a champion of the short story and when I think of his work it is always in that context. However, with each novel he shows himself to be as equally good with the long form as the short form. La canción extends the explorations of art, sexuality and power that he fist explored in El Corazon de los Caballos and goes father, finding both the release and the entrapment each has on the other. It makes for a novel that is every changing in surprising ways and descends into the darkest desires of pleasure and pain.
El gran Leonardo Veneroni (The Great Leonardo Veneroni) son of Leonardo Veneroni, el grande (Big Leonardo Veneroni) is a jazz singer who is planing to record a new album of standards with his group Veneroni’s Quartet. He wants to record an album that will set itself apart from other Spanish jazz albums. It will also set himself apart from the legacy of his late father who sang Spanish pop songs and who died in while the gran Leonardo was a boy. Veneroni is a dedicated singer, almost monkish in his approach to working out how he is going to find a new way to sing standards that already seem to have a definitive interpretation. As Veneronitries to find a new way within a standard, Muñoz shows his deep reverence for music, not only the jazz and pop of the English speaking world, but that of Spain and Europe. It is obvious he has thought about the relationships between the different arts as there are several passages that draw a parallel between songs and short stories:
También las grandes composiciones, las sinfonías, las óperas estaban llenas de momentos muertos en los que la expresividad de la acción desaparecía y la melodía recorría un camino oscuro y brozoso. Las canciones, en cambio, tendían por naturaleza a la perfección. Aunque la mayoría de las veces no era posible culminar tal propósito, una canción no podía intentar otra consa que ser perfecta y conseguir llenar tres minutos de vacío y silencio con una narración emocionante hecha melodía inolvidable.
With in each song Veneroni wants to sing there is a nostalgia that makes the song perfect, but also must be overcome to make the song new and breathe again. The difficulty and effort it takes to find something new in the received makes a classical, not a romantic argument for this kind of art. It also creates constraints that Veneroni is often unable to find a release artistically.
Veneroni moves into what he thinks is an abandoned apartment building near the seashore to practice. Instead, there is a couple next door and a friendship develops with the wife. A sexual tension exists between the two yet nothing comes of it, in part because Veneroni cannot develop relationships with women. Instead, he hires prostitutes. For Veneroni, his only sexual way of experiencing the world is when he can dominate it. In the same way that music is to be controlled, his sexual passions leave him to create situations where he is in control. It is also a way of avoiding the life his father led, constantly cheating on his mother only to be taken back when he sang her the right song. Veneroni is the Great Veneroni and that requires a special dedication to his art, one that does not waste away in silly pleasures or trite songs that you are forced to sing for the rest of your career as if you were a nostalgia machine.
It is here where the novel takes a surprising turn when his neighbor passes his name on to a dominatrix, Mariam, and he begins to submit to her. For someone like Veneroni, given to having complete control over everything in his life, it is a a shock, in part because he had no interest in it before. With the arrival of Mariam, though, he descends into a world of controlled passion, of sublimation his purely sexual desires and forming a bond with someone. Their relationship reaches such a point that he is unable to sing because all he can think of is her. his art has always meant control and now that he has no control he looses his art. Ultimately, Mariam asks him to perform a sacrifice so great that it alters the power dynamic of their relationship and his ability to continue as an artist.
Given the wildly erotic content of the novel one should not overlook the questions surrounding the creation of Veneroni’s music, or any art for that matter. For Veneroni music as he lives it is the austere life that comes to life when he has found the essential nature of a song. For many people, though, it is also nostalgia and a means of shared expression. Even though Veneroni is singing for audiences that interplay between the two doesn’t exist, in the way it does for his father. It is also why Veneroni’s sexual life is so impersonal: why make allow in something that will only make your sense of control dissipate. The question left unanswered, though, in this fine novel is if the complete control over one’s life doesn’t make for good relationships, does the loosening of that control make for good art? It is something the reader will have to decide, for part I can only hope that the answer is yes.