From Hell (Dall’Inferno) by Giorgio Manganelli

Dall'InfernoI can imagine dozens of Alan Moore buffs stumbling on this review, and grudgingly leaving the page as soon as they realise that it’s about a novel written by relatively unknown to the English reader Italian writer Giorgio Manganelli, not the psychogeographic exploration of the Victorian London and a paean to the mythology around Jack the Ripper. What can I say to these disappointed readers? Wait a little bit! If you are interested in Alan Moore’s From Hell, chances are you may take to this little novel too. By the way, in contrast  to its English namesake, this book is actually set in hell. Without avoiding  the inevitable nods to Dante’s Inferno, Manganelli’s work is an original and vivid description of a very personal version of hell. It is not an overpopulated canvas, but rather a  miniature, which does not render the horrors depicted by Manganelli less spine-chilling than those immortalised by the great Florentine.

After death, the narrator finds himself in a place he believes to be hell. It’s a  disorienting environment  engulfed by fog in which things are usually not what they seem. He is met by somebody called the charlatan, whose role appears to  oscillate between that of a respectful guide not unlike Dante’s Virgil  and a sadistic demon right out of  Pandemonium. The charlatan inserts a carnivorous doll into the stomach of the man, and since that moment the odyssey of this dead soul commences. What follows is a series of ceremonies and transformations interspersed by absurd dialogues. Actually, there is more of Samuel Beckett and Lewis Carroll in the infernal universe depicted by Manganelli than of Dante. Most of the characters are a weird lot that can’t stop wondering about the impossibility of making sense of their spectral existence, of time and space in hell and their experience thereof. The first ceremony is a game of dice between the narrator and the bizarre infernal denizens that seem to have stepped out of  some lurid version of Wonderland: 

I am sitting at the dice table, and around me there is a cat, a seal, a clock, and a chequered flag, a bit ruined; an experienced flag. We play: the minuscule dice fly and the doll gives me advice and pushes me. Make a bet now; now be careful. I lose hands and legs that get piled up in the corner; then I win them back, lose an eye, then an ear, then I start to win: the whiskers of the seal, the tail of the cat, all the odd numbers of the clock.

The main goal of the game is to lose. This ceremony is followed by another called “the pursuit of oneself”. The narrator gets involved in a wild chase of various malformed shadows, one of which is presumably himself. Undoubtedly, the self is one of the main motifs of the novel: how it is perceived by us and others, who and what we identify ourselves with.  As the narrative becomes more confusing and unpredictable, different transformations of the main character occur. To mention just some: he turns into a moon, a city, a nose, a big toe, a penis, a winged creature. The absurdity of it all borders on sheer silliness, but the beautiful language and the vivid imagery give the author the benefit of the doubt. Partly, From Hell is a bona fide  surrealist poem with free associations threaded one on another, the combination of uncombinable   images, crass violations of logic, and unexpected alliterative explosions. This is how the narrator describes himself once he becomes a city teeming with all kinds of sinners and containing all possible instruments of torture and execution:

Cittá decrepita, antica, inveterata; mutili muri, affranti anfratti, dimore diroccate, vetusti vicoli viciosi. (A city which is decrepit, ancient, inveterate; mutilated masonry, fatigued fissures, dilapidated dwellings, crumbling cruel crooked alleys).

From time to time there arise quasi-learned discussions on what hell is, what structure it has and how it relates to the rest of the world: is it a an expanding maze? does it penetrate the whole universe like some noxious vapour? does it contain other  hells? Of course, we never get any definite answers to any such questions. Even a lecture on the limits of hell delivered by a bespectacled  amphisbaena leaves some room for interpretation. Whereas Dante’s Inferno is logical, hierarchical and coherent, the hell of Manganelli is simply preposterous. When the narrator undertakes a journey inside himself, the metaforicity of this experience is somehow ousted to the background. By that time we have seen enough of the place  to accept the idea of a man literally  walking inside his own body. The hallucinatory of the world of the living is the mundane in the netherworld.  Different parts of the narrator’s body turn out to contain distinct places. Thus, in his fingers  lie menacing grottoes inhabited by dragons,and in his right leg sprawls a deserted city. Further exploration of his body once again reminds us of the fact that there is no end to confusion and indeterminacy in this place. Here is what the dumbfounded traveller says when he enters his own head:

I see something that I can define as a project. I don’t know whether it is a palace, sarcophagus, battle plan, graveyard, altar; a huge wing of an unknown animal, the morphology of a non-existent and unpronounceable language.

The confusion experienced by the narrator is aggravated by constant deception and falsification on the part of the local dwellers. During his wanderings  he meets several creatures that he exposes as false gods, one of which is a never-to-be-born foetus lying  in an alchemist retort. And why should anyone be surprised when the narrator enters into a prolonged discussion on the false nature of divinity with a  garrulous hairy ear surrounded by sentient mushrooms?

From Hell is as scatological as it is eschatological. There is shit everywhere. It threatens to inundate the poor man not only from outside, by also from within.  In the course of the whole journey the main character has to suffer the nasty doll devouring his entrails and then defecating and urinating into his abdominal cavity. What is the significance of this perverse Beatrice? There might be many interpretations, but as to the real life prototype, there is more clarity thanks to Nicolas Tripet’s documentary Giorgio Manganelli: Discourse on the Difficulty of Communicating with the Dead. In an interview Manganelli’s daughter reveals that her father openly told her that he had her in mind when creating this character. She also mentions Manganelli’s terror of children, which sheds some light on the mixture of affection and aversion the narrator feels towards the creature nestling inside.  It does seem like a very personal book, but it’s not my goal to dig deeper into the writer’s biography here.

As yet another attempt to look into the abyss, Manganelli’s novel will appeal  to anyone who is interested in creative probing of the mythological dimension of hell. The neoavanguardia treatment of the subject matter adds a certain playfulness to it, so even the grimmest episodes that will not possibly make you laugh, might cause you to smile in disbelief at what you have just read.

 

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Tooth Worm (Neguijón) by Fernando Iwasaki

NeguijonIt is my firm conviction that Patrick Süskind’s Perfume gave rise to a new sub-genre of the historical novel. I am not sure it is within my remit to give it an accurate definition or characterise it with the appropriate scholarly expertise. I will humbly abstain from any academic pretense. What appeared in the wake of Perfume‘s triumphal march is the historical novel that ironically revisits the 16th-18th century period with an unflinching portrayal of the gritty and explicitly gruesome aspects of  life at the time, of that which heretofore had been either hushed up or considerably toned down. Right on the first page of his bestseller, Süskind makes it abundantly clear that what we are going to read is not some romantic Dumah-esque fantasy about the noble past:

In the period of which we speak, there reigned in the cities a stench barely conceivable to us modern men and women. The streets stank of manure, the courtyards of urine, the stairwells stank of moldering wood and rat droppings, the kitchens of spoiled cabbage and mutton fat; the unaired parlors stank of stale dust, the bedrooms of greasy sheets, damp featherbeds, and the pungently sweet aroma of chamber pots.

As you might know, this litany to various manifestations of the omnipresent stench goes on for a dozen more lines.

Some of the better-known excursions into the “gritty past” are Federico Andahazi’s The Anatomist and Andrew Miller’s IMPAC Award-winning  Ingenious Pain . I would especially recommend the latter, which tells the story of an 18th-century English misfit completely impervious to physical suffering. The novel traces the trials and tribulations of James Dyer who makes a vertiginous ascent from a side-show freak to a prodigiously skillful (if cold-hearted) surgeon.

The Peruvian writer Fernando Iwasaki’s short novel Tooth Worm is a worthy addition to the said sub-genre. Welcome to the ghastly world of the 17th-century dentistry! If truth be told, I had never asked myself what would have befallen a person with teeth problems several centuries before. After reading Iwasaki’s book, I realised how lucky we are to inhabit the era of cutting-edge dental care.

Originally, the Spanish word neguijón was used to denote an elusive worm that was believed to nestle in the human gums and cause caries by eating away at the molars. Iwasaki graphically describes the way barbers, the dentists of the period, devastated their patients’ jaws with a hair-raising assortment of chisels, pincers, hammers, lancets and hooks in search of the mythical creature. Moreover, the reader has an exciting opportunity to see what  these tools exactly looked like thanks to the illustrative woodcuts  borrowed from historical medical treatises. In case your curiosity has been piqued,  this illuminating post at Chirurgeon’s Apprentice will supply you with additional details concerning the long-standing tradition around the existence of the notorious parasite.

The alternating chapters of the novel are set in two different time frames and places.  In one of these chronotopes we follow the adventures of several characters trying to escape from a prison in Seville during a bloody mutiny of the convicts; in the other we trace their fate  in the Vice-royalty of Peru after the lapse of some years.  Generally speaking, there are no healthy characters in Iwasaki’s novel. Each of them has some kind of ailment that could be treated at the time by such gut-wrenchingly barbaric methods, as, for example, the  removal of a renal calculus through the patient’s  anus. (In case you wondered, yes, Iwasaki gives a detailed description of this procedure as well). They suffer a lot and incessantly meditate on suffering as they go about their daily life. There is no lack of lurid musings like this:

Perhaps it was fever or melancholy, but while his bones were being sawed and the wound cauterised by boiling oil, it occurred to “Stumps” that a pair of pincers tugging at the molars caused even greater pain.

Of a particular interest is bookseller Linares who has organised the distribution of Don Quijote from Spain to the New World. There is something Quixotic about the man himself, as most of his knowledge about the world stems from the numerous tractates, disquisitions and compendia he has voraciously read. In an episode reminiscent of the book-burning scene in Cervantes’ masterpiece, Linares observes with a bleeding heart chaplain Tartajada, one of his companions in misfortune,   choose which books to sacrifice for the makeshift barricade erected to delay the onslaught of the rampaging galeotes

Bookseller Linares burst into tears as the chaplain added to the defensive wall  Peter Martyr’s Decades of the New World edited by Nebrija, for he had recalled that it was about the giants of Patagonia and the sirens of the island of Cuba, more beautiful and affectionate than those of Madagascar. Or when he had to plug a nearby hole with the Sevillian edition of Summa de geografía by Bachelor  Fernández de Enciso, a marvelous bestiary of the West Indies, whose forests were roamed by cat monkeys, lizards the size of bull-calves and pigs with armour of scales.

 Linares even puts on a barber’s basin on his head for protection before an imminent attack of the criminals besieging the prison infirmary where he and his companions have found a temporary shelter. His main motivation to stay alive is the overwhelming longing to dip into the codices and manuscripts he has set out to read, for death itself is not as frightening to him as the grim prospects of “eternity without books”. It comes as no surprise that his ruminations on possible death are irredeemably bookish, as he wonders whether the forthcoming quietus will fit the description found in The Agony of Crossing Over by Alejo de Venegas or rather that of Alfonso de Valdés’ Dialogue of Mercury and Charon. Such meditative mood runs through the whole novel. Not really much happens in Tooth Worm story-wise. Except for a scuffle or two and flashbacks of a naval battle, the major events are tooth-pulling, gum-piercing and amputation. From beginning till end, we are immersed in the flawed world of brutal medical practices, following one excruciating manipulation after another, with little respite in between.

The lush language of the the novel deserves a special mention. To say that reading Tooth Worm has been a challenge would be an understatement on my part. A historian by education, Iwasaki has done his  homework with an insufferable diligence. The diction of El Siglo de Oro returns with a vengeance on the pages of the book, forcing a meticulous reader to rummage through the academic El Diccionario de la lengua española on the regular basis throughout the whole reading. Iwasaki employs very rich vocabulary, and is always ready to pile a heap of synonyms or related words wherever he deems necessary. For instance, in the very first sentence of the novel we come across four different words for the sound of ringing bells: tañido, repique, doblar, rebato. 

At the end of the book there is an eleven-page bibliography listing all the treatises mentioned by the characters of Tooth Worm. According to the author himself, he has invented only one apocryph, The Book of Treasure and Padlock of the Poor Knights of Christ and Solomon’s Temple, because The Knights Templar literature simply did not exist at the time. It’s always a pleasure to hold in your hands a carefully researched historical novel that not only offers the titillation of observing the gritty past from the safe distance of the technologically advanced twenty-first century, but also makes you aware of the vast body of medical knowledge produced by the time Don Quijote was published, and without which we might not be sitting so poised in the dental chair today.

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Remember Famagusta (Помни о Фамагусте) by Alexander Goldstein

RememberFamagustaThe English-speaking audience might have heard first the name of Alexander Goldstein from one of the most important contemporary Russian writers Mikhail Shishkin. During his talk at the Harriman Institute, Columbia, he actually said the following:

For me now the top of Russian literature is Alexander Goldstein. [...] I’m sure in fifty years here at Columbia University and other American universities all professors will consider our time, our epoch, the epoch of Alexander Goldstein. And we, writers, will be just contemporaries of Alexander Goldstein. We just shared with him the epoch. [...] And if you asked me, “What Russian writers are important and genius nowadays?” I would say: “Read Alexander Goldstein”.

This is a very strong statement from a writer whose authority has been cemented by such impressive works as Maidenhair and The Light and the Dark (although, in my opinion, they are not a patch on his mind-bending tour-de-force The Capture of Ismail  (Взятие Измаила) which is still waiting to be translated). I’m not sure that Goldstein is really the genius Shishkin would like him to be, but upon reading his first novel Remember Famagusta, I was totally sold on the idea that there had not been a better stylist writing in Russian in the past century, except maybe Andrei Bely, Vladimir Nabokov and Sasha Sokolov.

Goldstein has created his own linguistic universe, a parallel dimension of words, in which the commonly accepted laws and conventions do not apply. Although appreciated by some, the novel in question remains poorly understood . It is impossible to find a single critical article on the novel throwing substantial light on its numerous mysteries.  Regretfully, I have to confess that I am no exception. I am not sure what I have just read. I had been utterly  baffled during the reading so many times that I started to get surprised each time I did understand something. Nonetheless, it would be wrong to consider  Remember Famagusta  ” a Russian version of Finnegans Wake” because Goldstein’s alchemy  rarely invades the word itself; that is to say, the reader has no problem understanding the meaning of isolated words, which is one of the challenges posed by Joyce’s text. It’s the way those words are woven into the texture of the novel, the unexpected lexical combinations and collisions, the baroque over-abundance of luscious imagery that are liable to leave even the most sophisticated reader high and dry.

Having made the necessary disclaimer, I will  share some thoughts on this extraordinary and, for the most part, impenetrable novel. I have my own explanation as to why the narrative is so chaotic and elusive, sending us on a wild chase of its various will-o’the-wisps. The novel is set both at the time of the creation and disintegration of the biggest empire on earth, the Soviet Union. Goldstein’s prose reflects and amplifies these tectonic shifts. The time and space are in a state of constant transformation, and consequently nobody is granted even a moment of respite. The jumps from one place or period to another are abrupt and can even remain unnoticed until later. Moreover, the city playing the central role in the novel is never called by its name, although it is not difficult to guess that it is Azerbaijan’s capital Baku in which the writer used to live until his emigration to Israel in 1990. And here we can confidently draw a parallel with Joyce, for Goldstein does to Baku something similar to what the great Irish writer did to Dublin in Ulysses.

In case of this particular book, it is much easier for me to talk about the characters than about the action. They are a motley and exotic crew. First of all there is the narrator, most probably an alter-ego of Goldstein himself, who describes his youth in Baku and recent life in Tel-Aviv. Then there is Yashar-muallim, a wise old man who is said to have the dowsing powers. Besides that, he copies sacred texts, acts as a spiritual mentor and has taken part in an expedition whose goal was to capture dybbuks, evil spirits of Jewish mythology. Seeking to revive the Sufi doctrine of hurufism, Yashar-muallim tries to recruit one of his students as an assistant and squire. We also get to know the Orthodox priest and polymath Father Paisius who is sent “under the tusks of the Solovetsky SLON”, the latter acronym being identical to the Russian word for “elephant”: hence the pun. SLON stands for  Solovetsky Lager’ Osobogo Naznachenia, i.e “Solovki Special Purpose Camp”. Father Paisius manages to survive the hardships of the GULAG and finds solace in writing the history of onomatodoxy, a religious movement that gained currency in the beginning of the 20th century on Mount Athos. Of particular interest to me proved Jalil-the editor, a character based on the Azerbaijani  writer Jalil Huseyngulu oglu Mammadguluzadeh who founded the once famous satirical magazine Molla Nasraddin and stayed in charge of it until its closure in 1931. The passages relating his obsession with early German cinema bring to memory Siegfried Kracauer’s renowned study From Caligari to Hitler. I don’t know if it was possible in the Soviet Baku of the 1930s  to watch Metropolis and Dr. Mabuse in the movie theatres, but there is something fascinating in recognising the masterpieces of expressionist cinema through descriptions of Jalil’s movie-watching sprees. And, most notably, there is the Armenian gladiator Mger-Claudius Mgoyan. In the fifteenth chapter of the novel that can regarded as a set-piece we read an engrossing story about the construction of a modern Colosseum in Baku in the 1920s. Here I am more confident about the time because at some point the funeral of Rudolph Valentino is mentioned.  Mgoyan handpicks the best fighters for the arena, and for three weeks, every day the public watches in awe retiarii, secutores, murmillones and other types of gladiators conjured up from the ancient times clash in combat. There are, of course, other memorable characters, and quite a few of them are real historical personages, such as the Ottoman military leader Enver Pasha and the French philosopher Michel Foucault, but those I have mentioned should be enough to give you at least an idea of what kind of book it is.

The Cypriot city of Famagusta lost to Turkey as a result of the 1974 invasion does not necessarily  invoke  Baku, which the narrator “loses”  after his immigration, but rather the overall sense of loss experienced by millions of people caught between the millstones of major geopolitical  transformations that shaped the 20th century. Both the formation and the dissolution of a great empire inevitably entail for some losing their homeland, language, culture and even identity. However, in such processes, there are also creative forces at work. Cultural symbiosis and cross-pollination that take place when different peoples come into contact quite often give birth to new artistic and literary forms, new ways of looking at the world; staggering achievements in  arts and sciences can come about as a consequence.  Goldstein’s narrative accommodates both destructive and creative aspects inherent in the very notion of the empire, and therefore it is no wonder that some passages might repel and fascinate the reader at the same time.

Now, suppose this beast gets translated some day and you will have a chance to enter Goldstein’s world. When you finish the book, some of you will instantly want to read it a second time. My advice: wait at least for a month, let what little you have grasped settle in, because it would be too much to rush immediately into this maelstrom again.

If you wanted me to sound glib, trite and lazy when asked  what reading Remember Famagusta feels like, I would most probably come up with something painfully formulaic like “imagine Pavic writing like Joyce with a dash of classical Persian poetry, Sufi mysticism and automatic writing”. That wouldn’t do the justice to the book, of course. In reality, Goldstein writes like nobody else, and that is why he is one of the greatest writers of the 21st century, still not duly recognised and not even widely-known. But it’s not news to us: remember Melville, remember Gaddis. 

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Telluria (Теллурия) by Vladimir Sorokin

Telluria

Vladimir Sorokin’s new novel is a feast of self-repetitions which might work better for those who haven’t read the Russian author’s previous works. Here we find all his major preoccupations, idiosyncrasies and quirks most of which date back to his early major novel Norm (Норма). Telluria is in fact a collection of disparate vignettes set in the already well-know Sorokinian future lavishly re-infused with archaic political and cultural elements. The writer continues playing with the absurd idea of Russians in the future speaking a language full of outdated words and turns of the phrase now mostly found in 18th and 19th century classics, a device already methodically exploited on the pages of Day of the Oprichnik. The dystopian vision, however, in this novel goes beyond the borders of Russia to engulf whole Europe. Sorokin provides a glimpse into a sort of neo-medieval future society, fragmented and obsessed with its own version of the Holy Grail and Prester John’s Kingdom.

Most of the characters are after  the psychedelic experience provided by the rare silvery metalloid tellurium (52Te). The intake of the drug is effected by driving a telluric nail into the shaved head of the user. Despite the odds of the lethal outcome, dwellers of this perverted brave new world are ready to risk their lives for the visions and revelations granted by the interaction of neurons and the atoms of tellurium. Just to mention one example: in a touristy dwarf country The Stalinist Soviet Socialist Republic (SSSR), a telluric trip allows the visitors to travel back in time to the Soviet Union of the 1930s and meet the leader face to face.

The Telluria of the title is a republic with large deposits of tellurium peacefully snuggled in the Altai Mountains. Regarded by some as a mythical kingdom of sorts, it is in fact a pragmatic merchant-state on the verge of increasing its export of telluric nails to the eastern consumers as far as Vietnam. This country with its three official languages (French, Altai and Kazakh) is a typical hybrid on the territory of the transmogrified Eurasia imagined by Sorokin. In these new Middle Ages,  the European states as we know them have disappeared. What we see instead are a number of small  principalities and kingdoms on the point of shrugging off an Islamic occupation, with a massive crusade against Istanbul being led by the Nights Templar mounted on flying robots. Russia is similarly divided into smaller entities such as Moscovia, Ryazan, the Republic of Ural, etc.  The fifty chapters of the novel are basically a vertiginous tour of this skewed geography populated by the creatures to rival the monsters of Umberto Eco’s Baudolino: midgets and giants, clones, zoomorphs, centaurs, talking (and running) penises.

With respect to the numerous nods at the present-day Russian political and cultural life, what stands out perhaps are the satirical jabs at Vladimir Putin and, of all people, another Russian writer Victor Pelevin. The latter appears as a tailed Buddhism-professing creature soaring over Bolotnaya Square; the massive protests that used to shake it not so long ago are woven into a pun that might cause the potential translator more than a day of head-scratching.

The novel is definitely a fun ride. This is vintage Sorokin, and for those who don’t expect from him a quantum leap into some uncharted territory and are still benevolent towards his staple hi-jinks , Telluria  will make for a pleasant reading experience. I think it’s much better than the poorly-written  Ice Trilogywhose inclusion in the NYRBC series is a mystery to me. The main problem with the trilogy is Sorokin’s attempt to write it completely in his own voice. The result is  a ridiculous plot wrapped in bland, bloodless prose. Sorokin thrives on the imitation of styles, and his obsession with the antiquated form of the language found in Russian classical literature has been apparent in most of his oeuvre. No matter what atrocities are committed  to the grand tradition on the pages of his books (including the wholesale slaughter of a village representing the universe of the Russian classical novel in Roman (Роман)), Sorokin, it seems, will always cling to the replication of its tropes. It is exactly his playing fast and loose with various styles which made Sorokin’s earlier works popular in the first place besides the trademark surrealist violence.

Although well-worth reading, Telluria is likely to remain just another curious addition to the Russian writer’s gradually expanding dystopian mythology that still holds fascination for its creator. We’ll see how long the reader will go on sharing it.

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