Fireflies: Luis Sagasti

Translated from Spanish by Fionn Petch
Published by Charco Press, 2017, 97 pages. Original version published in 2011.

“Ever since people raised their heads for the first time to observe the stars and began telling them apart by nothing more than the invisible threads of frozen silver that link them, they also began to tell stories.”

This quote from Fireflies describes the book. Luis Sagasti writes about unrelated events and people, and—much like our early ancestors—finds the invisible connections among them, the connections that tell stories about us and our world: art, nature, history and much more.

For example, the chapter called Haikus starts with German officer Joseph Beuys flying over Crimea in the winter of 1943, during World War II. He is hit by a Russian fighter plane and crashes. “Beuys’ face, already shattered, streaks past the tiny mirrors of ice hanging from the branches. Mirrors of ice like perfect, diminutive haikus.” Beuys is rescued by a nomadic Tatar tribe, who know nothing of the war. The Tatars nurse him back to health, and he is finally found by a German patrol. Joseph Beuys returns to the world a changed man and becomes an influential artist.

Sagasti then moves to Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, whose protagonist Billy Pilgrim has, like Beuys, scars on his head. He claims to have been captured by aliens from Tralfamadore, a planet whose literature consists of clumps of letters, urgent messages describing a scene or an event. Like haikus.

Sagasti writes fluidly, connecting Beuys, Vonnegut, Basho (the renowned haiku master), Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s The Little Prince, war and haikus.

The chapter sets the tone for the rest of the book. Sagasti finds links among ostensibly unrelated people and events. Certain elements, such as art and fireflies, keep recurring throughout this book. It is as if Sagasti had decided to light up certain parts of history, creating sparks of light as fireflies do. The book reads like a symphony, with themes that repeat and bring the work into a coherent whole.

Fireflies is beautifully written, and Fionn Petch’s translation captures this. Petch picks up on the musicality of the language and the way it flows. The book’s original title in Spanish is Bellas artes, which translates as Beautiful Art. But I personally think the title in English is more apt for this journey through time.

I loved the book: it is quite unlike anything I’ve read. I enjoyed the ideas and the way Sagasti joins them together, the voyage he took me on, and the language. I will be looking for more books from this Argentinian writer.  

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