Will H. Corral. Reseña de Obsen Martínez, El señor Marx no está en casa. World Literature Today. Volume 84. Number 3 (May-June 2010), p. 68.:
El señor Marx no está en casa. Bogota. Norma. 2009. 269 pages. $19.99. ISBN 978-958-45-1951-1

In his third novel, Martínez, 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 mainly in some Latin American enclaves of utopianism, Martínez’s fiction could be construed as political novel. Nothing could be further from his fictional truth, 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 (Martínez is the author of successful works in that genre), Venezuelanisms and “bilingualisms” like workahólico, the novel’s twelve chapters actually span across centuries and cultures (London is vividly recreated), and particularly among literary genres.

After a conversation with his lover Gloria Abadí, 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 señor Marx no está 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 Röckle, a magician who sells his soul to the devil to pay debts. Martínez shrewdly avoids discussing that it highly unlikely the children interpreted that story as a fable about historical materialism, or as a metaphor about the true nature of merchandise. To do so would be to cherish the socialist version of the fable.

Throughout the twelve chapters we learn that El señor Marx no está en casa was to be a play, and how the protagonist is torn between perfecting that piece, or writing a soap opera that will enrich him. The question that drives the narrator is how to provide a fascinating account of a dark aspect of a purportedly perfect human, and that may be Martínez’s only concession to a critique of Marx, even though his biographers or 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 Martínez is wickedly political) is a pawn in his recreation of a complex woman, superior to her partner, the proselytizer Edward Aveling (with whom she started living after they both founded the Socialist League in 1884), whom Martínez rightly portrays as creepy. Ultimately, this greatly accomplished 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.

Smart, perfectly fluid in tone and content, this is one of the most accomplished novels produced in Latin America in recent years. I read El señor Marx no está en casa after finishing A.S. Byatt’s The Children’s Book, and it is uncanny how both minutely recreate worlds we thought were gone—world literature at its best.

Will H. CorralCSU, Sacramento