Submission (Soumission): New Novel by Michel Houellebecq

SoumissionLike wildfire, the news of the new Houellebecq novel is spreading throughout the cyberspace. The first post in English that I noticed had appeared in the indispensable Literary Saloon. The information in French is available now at various sites;  for example:  Le Figaro, France 24, Sud Ouest. It looks like the most complete information for the time being is at Les Inrocks.  

The Local provides a write-up in English about the forthcoming novel under the headline Muslims rule France in provocative new novel. So, Houellebecque’s forthcoming dystopia will deal with “a future France where a Muslim party wins the presidency”. Something one could expect from the author of the scandalous  Platform.

According to the short description of the novel, the main character is a literature instructor at university specialising in the French fin-de-siècle writer Joris-Karl Huysmans. Well, interesting choice, as Huysmans not unlike Houellebecque had his fair share of provocation at the end of the 19th century with the publication of The Damneda novel about Satanism rampaging in France with a shocking (for that time, of course) description of a black mess. I am not going to draw any hasty conclusions before Houellebecque’s novel is published, but I do hope that the inevitable scandal will not spiral into a Salman Rushdie or a Danish cartoon situation. Anyway, Huysman’s novel looks like a useful preliminary read for those waiting for the publication of Submission. 

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The Love for Three Zuckerbrins (Любовь к трем цукербринам) by Victor Pelevin

I thoughLoveforThreeZuckerbrinst I had given up on Pelevin completely when I abandoned his novel Snuff (still not available in English), which read like clumsy Young Adult sci-fi with marginally funny political jokes and the indispensable chastisement of popular culture by ironic subversion of its memes. Mind you, I used to hold this writer in very high esteem when his first works appeared in the 1990s. That was his heyday. I still think that the best thing he has ever penned is Buddha’s Little Finger AKA The Clay Machine-Gun. However, it’s been a while since I read it, and I have no idea what I will make of this novel if I re-read it. The first review published on this blog, if you remember, was  that of Vladimir Sorokin’s Telluria. My main gripe with it was the repetitiveness of the plot, the characters, the ideas, well, pretty much everything. The same could be said about most of Pelevin’s novels since Homo Zapiens. The painfully familiar patterns keep emerging in each new novel whose main character is yet another adept of secret knowledge (e.g. a ‘shroom-ingesting visionary copywriter, a werewolf, a vampire) who exposes the illusory character of what we are accustomed to call reality and leads us to some zen-like revelation, taking a stab at the most topical political and cultural issues in Russia on the way. Nothing new in this respect could be said of his latest novel. Nonetheless, since I did finish it, and even liked certain things about it, I thought I would share my impressions with you.

The title refers to Sergei Prokofiev’s opera The Love for Three Oranges which is based on Carlo Gozzi’s fairy tale play of the same name. More exegesis-prone readers will correct me, but I think that here the resemblance between the two works ends. If you haven’t guessed it yet, the zuckerbrin of the title is a portmanteau word combing the last names of the Facebook creator and of one of the co-founders of Google. As usual, Pelevin tries to be at the bleeding edge of all the major trends in our society; hence a lot of attention in the novel is devoted to that integral part of our existence which we spend online.

The first deja-vu comes with the narrator. Like so many of his predecessors in Pelevin’s previous works, he also becomes an adept of secret knowledge. By following some meditative practice discovered in esoteric reading matter left to him by a deceased relative, the young man turns into a quasi-omniscient being who can penetrate the thoughts of other humans and influence their actions. The guy realizes that now he is a Kyklops (the spelling of Cyclops dating back to the Greek original), a being of a higher order whose primary task is to keep the world in balance by preventing the occurrence of certain events which can lead to serious historical cataclysms. One of the examples given early on is the fact that the outcome of the recent coup d’état in Ukraine depended on whether a certain woman would take with her an umbrella or not. Everybody who’s at least seen the movie The Butterfly Effect will roll their eyes at this. Yes, and that’s my major beef with the new novel. I don’t know how many readers will learn for the first time from The Love for Three Zuckerbrins about Ray Bradbury’s famous short story, the lepidoptera causing hurricanes, the multiple universes, and the half-dead feline named after the Nobel-winning Austrian physicist. Perhaps they will get excited at the way Pelevin weaves these  scientifically charged themes into the fabric of  his narrative. As for those who might have heard something about all of this: well, they will have to suppress a yawn or two. Considering the hyper-newness of many events mentioned in the story, this recourse to rather hackneyed tropes massively abused in tons of science fiction novels before does not look very congruent. Especially, if these ideas are presented  and “explained” by the Russian writer in a very direct way. It seemed as if Pelevin himself had just recently discovered the popular explications of the basics of chaos theory and quantum physics, and was eager to share these findings with the reader.

The said hyper-newness is in fact a staple of any Pelevin novel, and this is something I really like about his works, although, of course, you have to be aware of all the relevant recent events to get that particular aspect of his books. To achieve this effect, Pelevin apparently adds some hot information to the manuscript when the new novel is already finished. What it boils down to is that you read in his books about some event that you have just recently seen discussed on television or in newspapers.  You think to yourself: “It happened, like, several months ago, and it is already in a Pelevin book! How  come?!” Those with insider knowledge will understand what I’m talking about.  Pelevin is really good at provoking such a reaction from his reader. Of course, those reading the translations will never experience anything of the kind because of the time elapsed since the publication of the original. In case of this novel, the riots in Kiev, the subsequent overthrow of President Yanukovych and the annexation of Crimea by Russia have for the narrator the same topicality as for the the readers of the book.

The cosmological premise of the novel is underpinned by the scenario of the insanely popular video game Angry Birds. The Birds in the fictional universe of Pelevin are the archenemies of the Kyklops, believing him to be an evil God, and doing their best to destroy him through other unsuspecting people. However, they cannot harm the narrator directly as they live in a different dimension. The assassination attempts of the Birds are surreally depicted in a subverted Angry Birds fashion because it is the Birds which catapult different human beings at the green pig that stands for the hateful creator who is in reality none other than our narrator Kyklops. It might look pretty madcap to a newcomer to Pelevin’s oeuvre, but, again, those acquainted with his previous works will immediately spot a resemblance with the story Prince of Central Planning in which Pelevin drew heavily on the computer game Prince of Persia. Despite its silliness, I quite liked this use and abuse of the popular smartphone game because in a way, it does reflect some of the current zeitgeist and definitely can be used as material for an alternative cosmological view.

The following passage describes the flight of one of the human projectiles launched by the Birds by means of a huge catapult:

Still from the video game Angry Birds. Image source.

Still from the video game Angry Birds. Image source

While soaring in the sky, Nikolai gradually started to notice the traces of the preceding hits against the abode of the Creator — dents left on the mysterious substance of space-time. He didn’t know what it was in reality: his consciousness deciphered what he saw into imagery familiar to humans.

He wasn’t the first live projectile launched by the Birds into the Boar. Around what appeared to Nikolai as the ruins of the circular colonnade lay a multitude of corpses covered in red dust. Earlier he had taken them for outcrops in the soil.

It was an infernal dumping ground of freaks, harpies and chimaeras. Webbing, wings, clawed tails, many-toothed jaws, spines, stings… As if somebody’s evil will experimented with different shapes, trying to pick the lock of the final gate, crossing angels with swine. … The most gruesome, of course, were the small details: the dyed locks of wool, the rings in the forked ears, the jewelry piercing the eyelids and lips. …  The garments and jewelry on some of the freaks suggested that the Birds had wiped out whole civilisations and cultures in order to test a new tip for their spear. And those live spearheads must have pondered in the light of the ancient stars: what force and for which purpose had  brought them into being?

The novel consists of three novellas written by Kyklops and the meta-story linking them together. The longest novella has the English title Fuck the System and  is a disturbing description of a future society with echoes of George Orwell, Aldous Huxley, the Alan Moor of V. for Vendetta and, most pertinently, the Wachowski siblings. The main character of this story portraying a Matrix-like society is a certain Kesha who used to be an inveterate Internet troll in his previous life three hundred  years before.  He and his social partner (a wife of sorts), like most of the denizens of this brave new world, live in a tiny cell in a cyclopic edifice called “cluster”  which is several kiolmetres tall and from the outside looks like an enormous garbage dump.

It resembled a huge multi-storey installation composed of scratched beer cans, dirty balloons, patched nest boxes and  milk cartons turned grey by time: that is how the individual lodging units looked; they had been manufactured at different times and attached to the common anti-gravitational base.

He is connected to the global control system by different cables and tubes which  feed him, wash him, and extract his bodily fluids, while special wires implanted right into his brain keep him immersed in virtual reality indistinguishable from lived experience. This rather unoriginal scenario allows Pelevin to vent his sarcastic condemnation of all the major evils of the Internet from addiction to social networks to online pornography. This bleak futuristic world is ruled by the above-mentioned zuckerbrins, which are some kinds of algorithms that transfer power from one to another every second. The main engine of this narration derives from a very peculiar love triangle between Kesha, his social partner Marilyn and the avatar from Kesha’s virtual environment represented as a Japanese schoolgirl.  As a corollary to the technological advances of this society Kesha does not have real physical relations with Marilyn as they meet each other and make love in the shared cyberscape, but experience physical pleasure with the help of the devices called respectively Google Dick and Google Pussy.  In this particular future the famous Internet-related services company has developed into a worldwide leader in the manufacture of prosthetic genitals. Kesha’s adultery is effected by superimposing the virtual image of the Japanese schoolgirl onto the virtual image of his wife. This captivating love adventure unrolls among the alarming reports of the  cyberterrorist Batu Karayev insidiously wreaking havoc to the matrix by sending viruses to the servers maintaining the collective dream of the cluster dwellers. The nightmares triggered by Karayev’s program are so powerful that many of the dreamers actually die upon experiencing them. As many will rightly suppose, sooner or later the paths of Kesha and the elusive terrorist will cross.

The main events of this dystopian scenario unfolding in one of the countless universes have precedents in the framing narrative of Kykops set in our time and some interesting reverberations in a completely different future world which appears to be a satirical version of the Biblical paradise. The whole picture may seem a bit confusing, but we shouldn’t forget that Pelevin is a writer who does not necessarily tie all the loose ends.

The novel was mostly panned by the Russian reviewers, and one can clearly see why. In terms of the plot, the characters and the major themes it adds very little to the previous works of Pelevin, and some of the moralising at the end will seem to many rather banal and dispensable. Nevertheless, the book has its moments (some of them very funny)  and certainly deserves being translated  with explanatory notes, so that the foreign reader will at least have an idea why some passages will make the context-aware Russian reader laugh out loud. By the way, compared to most of the previous novels, you will not find a single swear word in Russian in this novel, which is Pelevin’s sarcastic response to the recent absurd obscenity ban which prohibits swearing in Russian arts and media. So, for example, instead of writing “fucked”, the author left three asterisks with the footnote “the verb beginning with f used  in the past tense”. And that is another proof that Pelevin, regardless of undeniable quality issues in his latest effort, still remains the most up-to-date Russian writer you will ever read.

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Orhan Pamuk’s New Novel Out Soon

If like me, yKafamdaPamukou cannot read Turkish, you, most probably would not be able to read this announcement by  Milliyet, or, naturally, this one by Radikal Kitap. Fortunately for us, there is already some information in English available from the English language Today’s Zaman. The novel, whose Turkish title is Kafamda bir Tuhaflik, is due on December 9, and this is what they have to say about it:

The 480-page book follows the love story between a street vendor named Mevlut and his girlfriend, as well as Mevlut’s life in the streets of İstanbul throughout a period that spans over four decades, from 1969 to 2012, during which he works in a range of different jobs. Throughout these decades, Mevlut witnesses the various transformations the city, the people and Turkey in general undergo. All the while, Mevlut often wonders what the source of this “strangeness” in his head is — a strangeness that makes him different from all the “others”

The English title suggested by Pamuk himself in several interviews is A Strangeness in My Mind. According to the author, it should be available in English in 2015, which means that the translation should be already under way. I personally quite liked the weird atmosphere of his The Black Book, which I heartily recommend. Judging by the works discussed on this blog, you would probably guess that for me the stranger, the better, and I do hope that Pamuk’s new novel, which he spent six years writing, will not disappoint me in this respect.

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The Great Untranslated: O Megas Anatolikos by Andreas Embirikos

MegasAnatolikosThis is to inaugurate a new category of this blog. It will be an idiosyncratic overview of works not translated into any language that I can read or not translated at all, but which, judging by the secondary sources,  seem to me not only tantalisingly interesting reading matter but an important contribution to world literature.

I would like to begin with Andreas Embirikos, the famous Greek surrealist poet, and his epic novel O Megas Anatolikos (The Great Eastern). Embirikos worked on this meganovel for more than two decades, and it was published only after his death in 8 volumes. The novel has 100 chapters and clocks in at more than 2000 pages. The main characters of the work are the passengers of the ocean liner the Great Eastern travelling from Liverpool to New York in May, 1867. The action takes place within 10 days, but despite this, it is not so much Boccaccio’s Decameron this notorious book has been compared with, but rather Donatien Alphonse François’s The 120 Days of Sodom. The novel is said to contain lots of extremely explicit scenes, and this  translation of the more innocuous passages might give you the idea. Follow this link with caution: definitely not-safe-for-work type of content! One can imagine something like a voyage of the ship Anubis from Gravity’s Rainbow described in minute detail over a couple thousand pages. In the open ocean, far from the shore and unaffected by any social constraints and taboos, the passengers of the ship indulge in all possible hedonistic pursuits many of which might be mildly called perversions. Besides the Marquis de Sade, the volume is also an obvious homage to Jules Verne’s nowadays obscure A Floating City. It is  a sea adventure novel  set on board of the Great Eastern in which a woman  travelling with her husband realizes that the man she is in love with is among the passengers. Jules Verne got his inspiration by actually taking a transatlantic trip to the United States on this ship with his brother in 1867.

Great Eastern at Heart's Content, 1866

Great Eastern at Heart’s Content, 1866

The publication of the novel made quite a splash in Greece, dividing the reading public into belligerent opponents and ardent supporters of Embirikos’ magnum opus. It is worth noting that among the champions of the novel  was the Nobel Prize laureate Odysseas Elytis who admired its visionary quality. According to him, in contrast to the Marquis de Sade who used sexual subject matter to depict hell on earth, Embirikos employed the same material to create paradise. Thus the liner comes to represent some kind of sexual utopia and universal celebration of eros flying in the face of the strait-laced Victorian society.

You can find some additional information on Embirikos’ works on the website of the poet’s Greek publisher Agra. As far as I know, there isn’t a separate volume of Embirikos’ poems available in English translation yet, and in order to at least have some idea of what it is about you might have to check this anthology of Greek surrealist poetry or the mammoth A Century of Greek Poetry 1900-2000. There is no any information even about some plans to translate The Great Eastern into any language. All we have to content ourselves with for the time being is his poetry.

Whale Light

The initial form woman took was the braided throats of two dinosaurs.
Later, time changed and woman changed too.
She became smaller, more lithe, more in keeping with the two-masted (in some countries three-masted)
ships that float on the misfortune of making a living.
She herself floats on the scales of a cylinder-bearing dove of immense weight.
Epochs change and the woman of our epoch resembles the gap in a filament.
© Translation: 2004, Karen van Dyck
From: A Century of Greek Poetry: 1900-2000

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H. G. Adler’s The Wall. Will you climb it?

I’ve jusTheWallt remembered that tomorrow the translation of H. G. Adler’s final installment of the Shoa trilogy is scheduled for publication, a stream-of-consciousness novel about a Holocaust survivor haunted by nightmares and having troubles to readjust to normal life after the atrocities of World War II. I first learnt about the book on Thomas McGonigle’s  blog. This promises to be a challenging and harrowing book, judging by the early reviews. Random House in their synopsis  draw the inevitable comparisons to the usual suspects when we talk about literary modernism: Joyce  Kafka,  and Musil. Out of the three early reactions to the book (by Kirkus Reviews, by  Publishers Weekly and by Historical Novel Society)  the last one is the longest and the most detailed so far. To my mind, the key sentence from that review, which is bound to intrigue any adventurous reader, is the following: “Since this is a novel unlike most others, the best way to read it is not to approach it like other novels.” We also learn that the translator Peter Filkins has generously added a list of characters and a summary of events for the reader not to be completely lost in this apparently disorienting  narrative without chapter breaks. A German language reader will be surprised to find out that  the German edition (the original title is Die Unsichtbare Wandt)  is actually out of print. Can’t help remembering that old Biblical saying about the prophet in his own home town. I expect to see more detailed reviews coming up in the next few weeks, but based on what little has been said on the novel in the English language information space so far, the publication of The Wall is certainly going to be an important literary event for all of us.

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The Weaver of Crowns (La tejedora de coronas) by Germán Espinosa

TejedoradeCoronas

It’s not every day you discover a literary masterpiece that pushes all the right buttons for you, which you enter like a parallel world to be inhabited and explored for several months, and which you are extremely loath to leave once the final page is turned. Such is Germán Espinosa’s incredibly dense, profoundly learned and wantonly baroque creation, a novela total whose breathtaking pre-Google erudition goes hand-in-hand  with awe-inspiring stylistic virtuosity. The Weaver of Crowns is the most outrageous omission in the lives of English language readers I have encountered so far. For my money, if there is a single Spanish language novel that absolutely has to be translated into English, it is hands down the magnum opus of the Colombian genius, unjustly dubbed “Gabo without Nobel”.  I was more impressed by Espinosa’s book than by anything I’ve read by Marquez, all the more regretting the fact that it has never taken its deserved place alongside the best of Latin American literature. The Weaver of Crowns belongs to the same pantheon as such recognized works as Cortázar’s Hopscotch, Roa Bastos’ I, the Supreme, Lezama Lima’s Paradiso, Fuentes’ Terra Nostra, and yes, One Hundred Years of Solitude penned by the über-famous compatriot of the regrettably more obscure Espinosa. The National Commission for UNESCO of Colombia  has singled out The Weaver of Crowns as one of the most significant literary works it would like to see translated. You can find the relevant information on the UNESCO portal. More than ten years have passed since the survey carried out by the Clearing House for Literary Translation, but, unfortunately, there isn’t even a hint at the possible English translation in the works. Those reading French, are way more lucky in this respect. But enough complaining. Time to cease this introductory jeremiad and get on with my review.

The first remarkable thing about this book is  the way it is written. If you are fond of long meandering  sentences of Lazslo Krazsnohorkai and W.G. Sebald, or if you have enjoyed reading Matthias Énard’s single-sentence lyrical exploration of war, The Weaver of Crowns is right up your alley. Each chapter of this novel consists of a an approximately 30 page long elaborate  sentence relating the trials and tribulations of Genoveva Alcocer, a Creole polymath who goes on to become a veritable embodiment of the Enlightenment. The whole book is a free-flowing monologue in which Genoveva tells the story of her life in a whimsically non-linear way, often abruptly jumping in space and time. In this narrative kaleidoscope, before our eyes flashes the grim and fascinating world of the 18th century Europe as well as that of the European colonies at the dawn of the radical changes in which the reason shored up the great discoveries  in science is slowly but surely ousting the dogmatic and intolerant heritage of the Middle Ages, most obviously epitomised by the Holy Inquisition. The novel packs a lot of power not only in terms of its baroque style and labyrinthine syntax, but because of the sheer amount of information it mercilessly pours onto the reader. The narrator makes learned digressions into various disciplines such as astronomy,  biology,  geography, navigation, medicine, theology, architecture, mythology and quite a few other subjects. The abundance of historical, literary and scientific references never seems to be mere name-dropping, though.  All these are presented as integral part of the cultural ambiance the exceptionally gifted protagonist has come to inhabit.

Born in the coastal city of  Cartagena (present-day Colombia), Genoveva is destined to leave her homeland for France in the company of two geographers who later prove to be members of the Masonic Lodge. When reaching Europe, Genoveva starts an impressive career of a scientist, adventurer and secret agent,  which impels her to visit different countries carrying out special assignments of the Lodge, like establishing its subsidiary in Spain or persuading George Washington to head resistance against the British colonial rule in America.  Not all her trips have a political agenda. For example, Genoveva travels to Lapland as a member of Maupertuis’ expedition whose goal is to measure a meridian arc near the North Pole. Being as insatiable for carnal  pleasures as for knowledge, Genoveva drifts from one lover to another, never settling on one particular man. One of the most significant affairs in her life is a fling with young poet François-Marie Arouet who comes to be known to the world under the pen name Voltaire. Actually, it is thanks to the rebellious philosopher and writer that she is introduced to the secret activities of Freemasons. Being an open-minded and inquisitive woman, Genoveva imbibes the revolutionary ideas of the leading proponents of the Enlightenment and, in her turn, tries to promote their views all the way to her native shores in the Caribbean. Genoveva is fascinated by all sorts of knowledge, be it politics, science, art or literature. No matter how dire her situation  is, this passion for learning never leaves her. Thus, while imprisoned in the formidable Bastille for taking part in  a mock Satanic ritual enacted to distract the attention of the Parisian police from the Lodge authorities meeting Emmanuel Swedenborg, she makes use of the decade-long incarceration to read the essential works of world literature . The following passage brilliantly characterises Genoveva’s capacity for learning, and will surely resonate with any devoted reader:

in German I read the Minnisingers, the Mestersingers, and von Haller, in Italian Dante and Petrarca, in Spanish my old favourites, romances de gesta, Manrique, San Juan de La Cruz, fray Luis, Garcilaso, Góngora and Quevedo, in French rather an extensive list of books, how to enumerate all of them? from the beautiful Roman de la rose, to Rutebeuf, Chretien de Troyes, Jaufré Rudel, Pierre de Ronsard, Charles d’Orléans, […] in English I became fascinated by the incomparable powers of a certain William Shakespeare […]

How can a simple girl from a far-away Spanish colony in the Indies become such a learned person? Genoveva partly owes her insatiable appetite for knowledge to the young self-taught astronomer Federico Goltar, her childhood friend with whom she predictably falls in love. The adolescent turns the enclosed balcony of his house into an astronomical observatory that he crams with measuring instruments, armillary spheres, maps and scientific treatises.  The young stargazer’s credo is encapsulated by the plate from Cellarius’ Harmonia Macrocosmica representing the planisphere of Copernicus which he nails to the wall.

Planisphaerium_Copernicanum

When Federico isn’t engrossed in studying maps, atlases or cosmograms, he peers into the sky through his telescope in search of new celestial bodies.  And indeed, one day he discovers a new planet which he names after his beloved. The green planet Genoveva, known to us as Uranus,  becomes a symbol of their youthful love which is not meant to consummate. Everything is changed by the single tragic event that turns the lives of Cartagena’s inhabitants upside down. The 1697 raid on the fortified city by the French Navy in conjunction with a motley crew of Tortuga buccaneers is the black hole in the fabric of Genoveva’s story around which the accretion disk of all the other events in her life will be always spinning. As a result of a secret deal between the governor of Cartagena and the French admiral Baron de Pointis, the wealthy merchant city is surrendered to the plundering troops of King Louis XIV. When the French fleet leaves Cartagena without sharing the spoils with the pirates, the buccaneers rampage through its streets in an orgy of pillage, murder and rape. Throughout her story Genoveva keeps returning to these horrifying events, each time coming closer to the bloodcurdling denouement alluded to earlier in the novel, but graphically described only near the end. When the Spanish rule is re-established in Cartagena, Genoveva, who has already lost friends and relatives during the raid, is faced with the ultimate loss: Federico is wrongly accused of treason and executed together with other similar victims, all of which is part of the scheme employed by governor Diego de Los Ríos to divert suspicion from his dirty dealings with the French aggressors. Federico’s dream of going to the educated France to continue his scientific research as well as to present the discovery of the green planet now can come true only vicariously – through Genoveva.

In the 14 years that elapse since the fateful raid until her encounter with the two geographers,  Pascal de Bignon and Guido Aldrovandi, Genoveva further educates herself in mathematics, geography and astronomy making use of the scientific treatises she inherits from  Federico. Thanks to this formidable  knowledge she is employed  by Aldrovandi and de Bignon, who take her on their geodesic mission in Quito. After that, she accompanies them to France. There, in the course of the busy years of serving the Lodge and following her scientific interests, Genoveva gets to know an impressive array of prominent historical figures: the already mentioned Voltaire, Denis Diderot, Jean D’Alembert, Charles Lemonnier (with whom she works as an assistant for five years), Henri de Boulainvilliers (who makes her horoscope), and Hyacinthe Rigaud (who paints her portrait). Not less important are her encounters with some fictitious characters. For example, a significant influence comes from Tabareau, an engineer with hermeticist predilections  who initiates Genoveva into the world of arcane symbols by showing her the carved figures on the tympanum of a small house in Rue aux Fèvres in Lisieux and on the facade of Hotel d’Escoville in Caen. The unsuspecting scientifically-minded Genoveva is overwhelmed by this mystical dimension encrypted into the scenes from New and Old Testament and Greek myths.

Tabareau dragged me again , this time to the Place Saint-Pierre, to the mansion called by the parishioners Hôtel du Grand Cheval erected by Nicolas de Valois, great-grandson of the Flers alchemist, on the facade of which he indicated with the same sibylline gesture an enormous relief of a horse floating in the air, with clouds beneath its front legs, and the name which was given to it was the horse with mane in the wind, on one of its thighs he deciphered the apocalyptic words Rex Regum et Dominus Dominantium, and below was a man carved from stone, with a sword in front of his eyes lacking light, in his right hand he was holding an iron rod, knightly figures that surrounded him were presided over by a solar angel, then he invited me to examine the torus of the portal, under the moulding a little horseman stood victoriously before a confused mass of human corpses and the carcasses of their mounts devoured by birds of prey, the horseman was apparently getting ready to face another horde of knights, and, as Tabareau told me, next to them were depicted the false prophet and the terrible polycephalous dragon which seemingly wished to enter the castle engulfed by flames, and according to the hurried and tangled explanations of my companion, this abundance of symbols was related  to the Verbum demissum of Trevisan and to the lost word of medieval architects and masons, as, by the same token, was the dragon on the tympanum situated beneath the peristyle before the staircase of the dome or, on the lateral facade, the beautiful statues of David and Judith, the latter bearing an inscription in French verse, recalling how the daughter of Merari, the Deuterocanonical heroine severs the inebriated head of Holofernes, the Assyrian warrior who besieged Betulia, coupa la teste fumeuse d’Holopherne qui l’heureuse Jerusalem eut defaict, and above these grand statues, the scenes of the rape of Europa and the liberation of Andromeda by Perseus, and also at the top of the skylight turret an allegory of Apollo Pythios, and, in a kind of small temple, the obscene statue of Priapus, the god with the erected phallus, which made all too obvious the heterogeneous spiritual proclivities or at least the excessive symbolism of those who built the house, although Tabareau did not seem to share this view, because, according to his passionate speech, we were clearly dealing with the heritage of the hermetic philosophers of Flers whose arcane symbols and formulas derived from magicians, Brahmans, and Cabalists, for the first time I saw myself surrounded by this world of arbitrary numbers, so distant from the rationalism of François-Marie […]

Judith Holding the Head of Holofernes at Hotel d'Escoville

Judith Holding the Head of Holofernes at Hotel d’Escoville

The Weaver of Crowns is a novel in which the mystical and the rational aspects are intertwined, and there is no way Genoveva can escape the realm of the eerie and inexplicable. Among the different genres Espinosa mines for his extensive fresco, the Gothic novel is not the least important.  The story of the sickly girl Marie whom the childless Genoveva adopts experiencing an alarming mixture of maternal and sexual feelings towards her, which will be eventually explained, is an exquisite tribute to the traditions of the best of macabre writing. Marie is an autistic sister of one of Genoveva’s lovers, the astronomer apprentice Jean Trencavel. She doesn’t speak a word of French, but communicates instead by uttering  fragments of troubadour songs in Occitan.  Genoveva takes the seriously ill girl to the thermal baths in Prussia. There she makes acquaintance of erudite aristocrat Baron von Glatz who invites her to stay at his castle, promising to find the best doctor to treat the girl’s disease, which is not named, but is, most probably, tuberculosis. Baron’s castle serves as a setting  for educated discussions on a range of topics from the nature of God to the possible existence of vampires. As in any good gothic story, there are dark secrets that Genoveva will eventually discover, and the shocking concluding scene that brought to my mind, when I first read it, the lurid imagery  of certain splatter video games.

Despite the countless dangers she is exposed to by her activities, Genoveva lives to be almost ninety, and even at that advanced age she continues to act as an emissary of the Lodge, spreading the ideas of the Enlightenment to the New World. It’s in this capacity that she returns to her native Cartagena where she organises a sort of club of amateur scientists and free thinkers, which she eventually hopes to convert into a fully fledged Masonic organisation. Encouraged by the news of José Celestino Mutis expounding the principles of the Copernican system in front of the viceroy of New Granada, Genoveva decides to write a short astronomical treatise which would elucidate the Newtonian theories of universal gravitation. The octogenarian heroine has a burning desire connect her homeland to the quickly growing network of universal ideas, but the question remains, is Cartagena ready for this? The Holy Office is still extremely powerful in Spain and its colonies, and,  in the evening of her life,  like many of her scientific role models before, it is the darkness of obscurantism fervently protected by the Inquisition which she is forced to face and endure to the bitter end. And that is the most tragic, but inevitably logical  consequence of Genoveva Alcocer’s enormous thirst for knowledge at the time of great upheavals and expectations  she is born into.

This is the longest review I have written so far for my blog, and by now you will have had a pretty clear idea why. The Weaver of Crowns is an unforgettable reading experience that enriches you, makes you look for additional information about the events depicted in it and explore further the topics touched upon within the impetuous torrent of the main character’s captivating narration. It is this time of the year when we see the appearance of the “best of” lists in newspapers, magazines and blogs. There is still time left until the end of 2014, but I am pretty much sure it is unlikely that I will read anything better than Germán Espinosa’s gem of a book this year.

 

If you can read Spanish, I highly recommend you this informative blog entirely dedicated to Germán Espinosa.

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Reading in Tongues

Brueghel-tower-of-babel

Right now I’m reading a truly astonishing novel that will be reviewed here in the near future. As far as I know, it’s only available in Spanish and French. No English translation. Not even in the offing. Which raises the perennial question of the ability to read  in foreign languages –  a daunting task, as most of the visitors of this blog are likely to confirm. We’re not talking about being able to understand a Wikipedia page or a letter from a foreign business partner, but the cherished ability to read and, what is crucial, to enjoy quality literature written in a foreign language. The most tantalising for us, of course, remains a literary piece not translated into any of the languages we can read, but, which, as we have heard from a reliable source, like this one, is fascinating, so we know that we’re missing out. Those who have an intermediate reading level of a language and wish to push through to the stage at which they could tackle the classics, might find Alexander Arguelles’ lecture on the subject useful. He shares different methods field-tested by himself while learning and trying to maintain dozens of languages. If you have read Michael Erard’s relatively recent study of polyglots Babel No More, you will recognize him as one of the main characters in it.

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