Today I opened my heavily annotated edition of Leopoldo Marechal’s great modernist epic Adán Buenosayres with a view to finally reading it and possibly writing a review later on just to find out later that this novel had recently been translated into English as Adam Buenosayres. I’ve read quite a few previews of important fiction coming out this year and nowhere was this mentioned. You must be joking! This is the publishing event of the year that can be matched only by the forthcoming translation of Miklós Szentkuthy’s Prae. All the aficionados of the encyclopedic novel should start celebrating right now! Dubbed “the Argentine Ulysses” in Joshua Cohen’s Bloomsday article, this novel indeed carries the influence of Joyce’s masterpiece. Still, if it was just a piece of crass epigonism, as some of the early negative reviews attempted to present the novel, it would not have become an acclaimed classic of Argentine letters. This erudite exploration of Buenos Aires and its cultural and artistic milieu promises more than mere rehashing of Joyce’s themes and methods. One of the earliest champions of the novel was Julio Cortázar, whose positive review contributed to the subsequent rescue of the work from critical oblivion. Enjoy this unexpected gift from McGill-Queen’s University Press, and I will have to think of some other novel for my next review.
Correct me if I’m wrong, but it seems to me that Pierre Jourde’s doorstopper went largely unnoticed in the English language media discussing the rentrée of 2012. The more interesting it appeared to me, since I am wildly excited by the recent spate of big novels in French, the point of departure being the publication of Les Bienveillantes (The Kindly Ones) in 2006. Mind you, I regard The Absolute Marshal as a seriously flawed novel, a noble failure of sorts, but its grand ambition could not leave me indifferent. Evoking the recent political upheavals in the Middle East, Pierre Jourde created a kind of summa of the dictator novel in which Borgesian conundrums are intertwined with large-scale geopolitical surrealism reminiscent of Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow and Against the Day. Very indicative of the overall tone of the novel are the six epigraphs taken from Valère Novarina, Shakespeare, Saddam Hussein, José Gaspar de Francia, Lawrence Durrell, and, of course, Jorge Luis Borges.
Marshal Alessandro Y is a monstrous crossbreed between Saddam Hussein, Muammar Gaddafi and Idi Amin with the intertextual pedigree reaching back to the fictionalised Doctor Francia of Roa Bastos’ I the Supreme and the giants in Francois Rabelais’ Gargantua and Pantagruel. We first encounter him in the midst of a civil war, besieged by rebels in the capital of the imaginary country Hyrcasia. Most of the dictator’s bloviation is addressed to his elderly servant Manfred-Célestin. The story of the marshal unfolds as he berates, derides and belittles his faithful factotum. Although invested in absolute power, the marshal does not hold absolute control over the story-telling. The novel is divided into four parts narrated by four different characters: the marshal, one of the marshal’s doubles, Schlangenfeld (a woman serving in the Secret Service of the dictator), and the said humble servant Manfred-Célestin disguised as “a granny”. In the course of each of the four narrations, fractal by fractal, the psychedelic picture of the marshal’s reign is assembled before our eyes.
For his novel Jourde has created a hybrid geography in which imaginary countries with such names as Araxia and Novopotamia co-exist with real states. Hyrcasia is one such make-believe entity with a desert climate. Its supreme leader is a grotesque caricature of a dictator who seeks to expand and multiply his power by any means available. All the boxes are ticked with an audacious brio. Alessandro Y embarks on a military career while still a child, serving in a special unit composed of minors. He quickly ascends the career ladder to become the chief of the Presidential Guard, takes part in a military coup, and, after eliminating his competitors, becomes the supreme leader of the country. A pretty well-known scenario at this time and age. What dictator doesn’t want to conquer a piece of land? The marshal is no exception here. His military campaign is satyric and outright ludicrous to such a degree that at a certain point I stopped even trying to catch some not-so-obvious hints at historical events, and simply kept reading it as a grotesque and wildly entertaining set piece. The conquest starts with Araxia, a small country not unlike Kuwait, invaded by Saddam Hussein in 1990. From this humble beginning, the dictator’s conquest spreads across most of Eurasia owing to the military genius of Field Marshal Ghore, the commander of the Hyrcasian troops. In its wake, the rapidly advancing army leaves a constellation of puppet governments, sowing the seeds of the potential internecine conflicts and insurgency that will break out as soon as the imperial grasp loosens on the occupied territories expanded to unmanageable proportions. The great campaign begins and ends like a computer game, which corresponds to the zeitgeist of most of the recent warfare.
Besides being cruel, a dictator should be a crank. Alessandro Y possesses both features in spades. His major passions are dinosaurs and the taxidermy of political enemies. Receptions usually take place in a great paleontology hall exhibiting dozens of skeletons of pre-historic monsters: everything from the indispensable tyrannosauruses to species less known by the general public, like gorgonopsids and deinonychuses. However, the dictator seems to be even more passionate about the basement of his palace where he can admire the “dolls”. Those are numerous opponents of the regime, either genuine or alleged, skilfully treated and stuffed under the supervision of Colonel Gris, the head of the Secret Service . One can imagine something right of Gunther von Hagens’ Body Worlds, but there arise more sinister connotations when we learn that not all the corpses remained intact:
There Gris exercised his art on the conspirators. You wouldn’t recognise them: their bones serving as radiator caps, their hollowed-out members turned into umbrella stands, their thoraxes into liquor cabinets, their skulls transformed into cigarette lighters with eyes that light up; somebody’s skin covering somebody else’s body like a slightly wrinkled slipcase. He grafted a stool on an old minister. There is a colonel with a double door that you can open. Inside, you can see a small general, carefully boned and folded. Many heads share the same body, and there are bodies lined up in iron wardrobes, one behind another, like overcoats on coat-hangers.
Gris (the French for “grey”) is a shadowy presence throughout the book. We never “see” or “hear” him, but always learn about his activities through other characters. Thus, to him is addressed most of the testimony of the former secret agent Schlangenfeld who is interviewed by an anonymous researcher about her work for the Service. As we learn more about Gris, a Himmler-like figure emerges out of the mist with the Green Guard (a military unit under the Secret Service) being an analogue of SS. One of the subplots features horrible crimes committed by the Green Guard in the breakaway republic of Balkaria. The atrocities are captured on film by an American journalist. The discovery of the concentration camps later on make this parallel more than justified. Schlangenfeld is in thrall of Gris’ power and intelligence. She is the perfect agent for him, ready to do anything for the reinforcement of the system of terror and control he represents. Her main duties involve intelligence collection while sleeping with the high-rank officers of the Defence Ministry. Her story overwhelms with the intricacy of the intrigue and power struggle within the state apparatus. One has to read her narration at least twice to get most of the details concerning the rivalries, alliances and treacheries proliferating under the dictatorial rule. The fact that Alessandro Y is increasingly more often substituted by his numerous doubles renders things even more complicated.
There are quite a few Borgesian tropes employed in the novel, the most conspicuous being the maze, bifurcation and doubles. For example, the palatial basement housing the grisly collection is, in a fact, a labyrinth.
It is a disconcerting geography, Manfred-Célestin. There are passages in the walls and doors that are taken for screens. One has to enter through wardrobes or freezers, to gyrate infinitely, to ascend in order to descend. The Marshal managed everything in secret, year after year, making sure that the workers and the engineers disappeared after each extension. The memory about the configuration of his labyrinth was lost, devoured by the erosion of the past and the false plans that he left lying around just for the fun of it.
The obvious allusion to another favourite subject of Borges sneaks in when the dictator proclaims “you are just inhabitants of a branching-out of possible futures that will never get realised”. But the real fun ensues when Alessandro Y, in fear of assassination launches the production of his doubles on an almost industrial scale. Scores of men more or less similar in their appearance to the Marshal become an army of clones after ingenious cosmetic surgeries. At a certain point everybody, except perhaps the dictator himself, is in doubt whether this particular marshal is real or fake. Moreover, since some of the doubles have a more privileged status being “original” ones, they in their turn are provided with their own doubles to substitute them during less important activities. Gradually the situation comes to such a state, that there is a double on the permanent basis ruling semi-autonomously in the presidential palace, while the original marshal is hiding in some secret residence, and the Secret Service is making efforts to hunt down some runaway doubles roaming the lands of Hyrcasia and causing quite a stir among the inhabitants. No need for a better illustration of absolute power based on fiction and simulation.
The old servant, tottering on the verge of senility, tells us about the inevitable decline of the dictator in the fourth part. Again, there is nothing new in this development: the country is torn apart by the rebels, the separatists, the troops supporting the interim government and the diminishing forces still faithful to the Marshal. The butt of the dictator’s mockery at the beginning of the novel now becomes the chronicler of his later days. That’s the ironic outcome of the long and tortuous journey undertaken by Alessandro Y in search of absolute power. Pierre Jourde does not really attempt to say anything new about dictatorship, as if it were possible anyway, and here lies the main weakness of the novel. Many episodes are fascinating; one has fun stumbling on allusions to Italo Calvino and Edgar Alan Poe, but there is a lingering sense of the superfluousness of this dictator novel project that I couldn’t get rid of. I liked the execution, but the main idea regarding the fictitious foundations of absolute power and the reliance on continuous simulation in order to sustain it left me pretty much indifferent. The attempt to summarise most of the negative aspects of dictatorship does not really justify the complex architecture of the narrative Jourde had been building for seventeen years. It had been done before with more success by Latin American writers. There could have been more than this synthetic portrayal of an ogre in power and his milieu. That being said, the novel is in many aspects extraordinary, especially with regard to its language. The range of vocabulary employed by Jourde is astounding; he is a true virtuoso when it comes to juggling different registers. I don’t remember any other French novel that I’ve read recently which would mine the French language for its riches with such creative abandon. There is no doubt that The Absolute Marshal will be enjoyed by many English-speaking readers once it gets translated.
Luckily for many, Dalkey Archive is going to publish this autumn the English translation of Fragments of Lichtenberg, the bulky encyclopedic novel about the 18th century German scientist Georg Christoph Lichtenberg and his literary heritage. The playful premise of the novel is the belief that Lichtenberg’s aphorisms are not just disparate observations but rather snippets of an enormous roman-fleuve. Senge’s work is dedicated to the obsessive attempt by literary scholars to reconstruct the lost great novel. A French review promises the re-writing of Ovid, Robinson Crusoe, and Snow White as well as the appearance of Polichinelle and Goethe. The novel is a frolicsome and erudite mishmash of various genres with the indispensable marginal notes and embedded narratives. The reviewer describes it as “un gros machin tortueux à la Joyce” (a big tortuous Joycean thingamajig). It does sound promising, doesn’t it?
I am reading this huge French novel with echoes of Pynchon, Borges and Augusto Roa Bastos that I hope to review for this blog in the near future. While I’m at it, let’s take a look at some of the books to be published during the coming rentrée.
Antoine Volodine returns with Terminus Radieux. The novel is a set in a dystopian Siberia devastated by radiation and inhabited for the most part by the living dead and phantom soldiers. The title refers to the name of a kolkhoz (a Soviet collective farm) ruled by President Solovieï (the Russian for a nightingale), a man who invokes supernatural powers in search of omnipotence. In other words, 624 pages of pure madness.
Emmanuel Carrère’s Le royaume deals with the inception of Christianity in the 1st century. Among the characters figure St. Paul and St. Luke. The novel mixes history and the author’s personal reflections.
Pascal Quignard continues his Dernier Royaume series with the ninth volume called Mourir de penser. According to the brief description available on Amazon, the novel examines three issues: 1. In which way thought and death come into contact. 2. The affinity of thought to melancholy. 3. How thought protects itself against trauma.
Jean-Hubert Gailliot had been working on Le Soleil for eight years. The novel is about a certain Alexander Varlop’s quest to retrieve a stolen manuscript. The investigation proceeds from the Greek island of Mykonos, where the theft has taken place, to Palermo in Italy, and from there to Formentera in Spain. In the course of his inquiry, the protagonist finds out that the manuscript used to be owned by such luminaries of modernism as Ezra Pound and Man Ray as well as comes to the realization that he might be just a pawn in a game pursued by higher powers. The full description in French is available here.
These are the four novels that sound interesting to me. If something else draws your attention, let me know.
Contra Mundum Press is publishing this year the first volume of Szentkuthy’s erudite debut novel Prae. Something to look forward to. The towering figure of Hungarian letters remained virtually unknown in the English speaking world until the publication of Marginalia on Casanova, the first installment of his intellectual epic St. Orpheus Breviary, and the collection of critical thoughts and observations Towards the One and Only Metaphor. Dubbed by some as the Hungarian Joyce (partly because of his translation of Ulysses) Szentkuthy is in fact a distinct and original writer whose contribution to the 2oth-century culture is still to be fully assessed. This concise and alluring description of Prae at HLO should definitely infuse you with the yearning for its publication:
“Prae” is a huge mock-encyclopaedia of whatever we know (or its author knows) about mind and matter, history and self, language and reality, fact and fiction, man and woman. Its stance is a sort of Olympian irreverence of the writer as philosopher-clown toward controlling and ordering constructs of every description.
But there is more. A Szentkuthy issue of the journal Hyperion is available from Contra Mundum Press. A lot of interesting information there, including the biographical essay and some excerpts from his work.
If you can read French or Italian, grab your copy of Mikhail Shishkin’s The Capture of Ismail immediately because it’s his best and most difficult novel so far. If you thought Maidenhair was a challenge, you’re in for an overwhelmingly perplexing ride. Even most of the Russian critics were lost in this labyrinth of styles, voices and chronotopes. The novel is disorienting, frustrating and even outrageous. It requires multiple readings along with a notepad or an array of differently coloured highlighters to keep track of the characters and the events. Although a completely different beast, William Gaddis’s JR provoked in me a similar sense of confusion when time and again I suddenly realised that I was no longer sure of who was talking to whom.
Shishkin’s novel is an elaborate exploration of a certain theme through the media of masterly imitated styles and registers. Letters, diaries, lectures, law-court speeches, witness statements, criminology textbooks, ancient fables and chronicles, you name it. Out of these snatches and snippets, the writer gradually erects a horrifying monument to his major and perhaps only preoccupation: how to live with the knowledge of your inevitable death. That’s how Shishkin himself refers to the main agenda of his writing in an interview:
– For me, writing is like an attempt to answer the questions that I asked myself as a child. Once I was walking along with my grandmother, and on the side of the road we saw a dead cat. And my grandmother went home, got a shovel and returned. And when she buried it on the side of the road, I suddenly realized that I too will someday die… And grandmother will die, and all the people that I love and that love me will die some day. And what can one do about this? And ever since I have been asking myself: is it possible to fight death?
While walking through the atrocity exhibition unfolding on the pages of The Capture of Ismail, one stumbles over and over on this question and its derivatives. How to come to terms with death, injustice, suffering, disease, stench and putrefaction? The beauty of the language quite effectively brings home the sheer enormity of the subject matter. This contrast has become an immediately recognizable staple of Shishkin’s prose. The central motif is no less than suffering and death of a child. And you will find quite a few tormented children in this novel. There is even a defense speech in which an attorney tries to justify a woman who killed her own baby by invoking some primitive cultures practising infanticide as well as famous philosophers condoning it in certain cases. This passage appears to me a kind of A Modest Proposal with its satirical sting clinically removed. Shishkin is too serious to be grotesque.
Contemporary people like us, having just a different skin colour, smother, cut, strangle, drown, burn their babies, which is not considered a crime. On the Fiji Islands they still devour their children — read Bode or, at least Kohler. [...] Plato in his philosophical state without any hesitation destroys all the children conceived out of wedlock or by women older than forty. Moreover, he allows not only weak babies to be killed, but also those well developed, if the number of the newly born exceeds a certain limit.
Is it one of the main characters, the attorney Alexander Vasilyevich, defending just another client of his? I cannot confirm this with any degree of certainty since the novel is chock-full with interrupted plotlines that will not be necessarily resumed. The story of little boy Sasha who grows up to become the attorney Alexander Vasilyevich is one of the several developments that provide the reader with illusory stability in the chaotic environment of the novel. The atmosphere of a trial is asserted from the very beginning when we are introduced to the judge, prosecutor, attorney and defendant bearing the names of Slavic pagan gods. A woman referred to as Mokosh (goddess of fertility) is tried for murdering her blind mother. She is believed to have left her mother outside the house to freeze to death. The prosecutor in his speech mentions the Roman law according to which matricides were drowned in a sack with a dog, a rooster, a snake and a monkey. The attorney reminisces about a woman who shoved her supposedly stillborn baby into the burning oven, after which the doctor established that there was air in its lungs; hence, the baby had been alive. Mokosh is separated from her child. She fakes madness not to be sent to Siberia by smearing herself with her own excrement. When exposed, she strangles herself on the eve of the transportation. That’s it. And there will be more stories like that.
Most of the characters in the novel are pure nodes of suffering. There is very little hope all the way up to the semi-autobiographical Epilogue. One unhappy family replaces another until the author himself becomes a character in his novel. He does seem to be better-off than his fictitious predecessors, although there is enough misery in his own story to jerk a tear or two from an overly sensitive reader. Mind you, not necessarily everything is true, for Shishkin seems to throw in a good share of invention into his story. The more or less coherent plot-oriented parts of the novel tell us about people who are beset by death, disease and betrayal to such an extent that you cannot help but get rather desensitised by the time the book is finished. But what I find fascinating about this novel is actually everything besides these islands of traditional story-telling. That turbulent textual element which tends to break the narrative, and, out of the blue, overwhelm the reader with a ghastly historical testimony or a ludicrously salacious folk tale seguing into a cento of unattributed quotations. A postmodern symphony in prose, The Capture of Ismail is definitely one of the most impressive literary achievements by a Russian author in recent years. Shishkin’s approach in this novel is more radical and uncompromising than in his later two works available in English (Maidenhair and The Light and the Dark). One of my favourite episodes is the one in which a Russian medic arrives in Tundra to inoculate the Samoyedic peoples. A seemingly realistic story transforms half-way into a nightmarish journey to ancient Egypt which bears some resemblance to Russia at different moments in its history. A series of Biblical plagues is visited on the country, but, just like in the Bible, each time the heart of the King gets even more callous as large-scale iniquities are committed with renewed ardour.
Those who are familiar with Russian history will know that Ismail is the Turkish fortress captured by Russian troops at the end of the eighteenth century during the Russo-Turkish War. In charge of the storming was the legendary commander Alexander Vasilyevich Suvorov. In the novel, what is left of this historic event besides the title is the hapless attorney’s name which coincides with that of the great military leader. Actually, The Capture of Ismail crops up once in the narrative itself as the title of a circus routine a little boy wants to stage some day after watching a performance with trained animals. It will feature mice storming a cardboard fortress. The irony levelled at the impersonal grand history of the state is quite obvious here. Shishkin is more interested in individuals: humiliated, oppressed, hopeless and helpless. Being in their company is not the most pleasant way of spending your time, but that’s what you will have to resign yourself to if you wish to experience the best that contemporary Russian writing has to offer. I hope that the English translation of this novel will eventually appear and create a splash among readers of serious literature.