Miquel de Palol’s debut novel is essentially a huge storytelling machine whose design has been inspired by such familiar classics as The Decameron, The Canterbury Tales, One Thousand and One Nights, The Manuscript Found in Saragossa, and The 120 Days of Sodom. The Catalan author’s fascination with the story-within-a-story device employed in each of these books to various degrees of embeddedness is made manifest in the matryoshka doll structure of his novel. In the third part of The Garden of Seven Twilights, the conceit of the nested narratives is brought to its furthest extent when the reader reaches the story which is at the eighth level of separation from the frame narrative. (0) The unnamed narrator of the manuscript titled The Garden of Seven Twilights tells us about attending a gathering in the largest and the most sumptuous hall of a mountain mansion. The purpose of the gathering is to listen to an entertaining story by Jan Kolinski, an agent of a special operations entity called the Interdepartmental Institute. (1) Kolinski tells his audience about his adventure on board the Googol, a research and secret mission ship disguised as a luxury yacht. In Kolinski’s narrative, there is a crew member called Waldemar Grotowicz, (2) who relates to his companions the story of his previous mission on the same ship when he took on board the antimatter physicist Rogelio Florida. (3) The physicist tells the chilling story of a suicide sect to which he used to belong. The climax of the history of this clandestine group is the standoff between Rogelio Florida and Arnold Talmann, the last surviving members of the sect. (4) Talmann narrates to Florida the story of his obsession with card games, which culminated in his seven-year self-imposed isolation at home during which he does little but play solitaire from dawn to dusk. Among other things, he mentions his acquaintance with Eugènia Larrabee, a Theatre Studies professor, (5) who tells him about her acting career and the quirky theatre company she was part of (one of its pranks involved a sexual assault on a herd of goats). She also mentions an encounter with her friend Silvia, (6) who reveals to her the secret of the mysterious lover of her former colleague Adrià Villar as well as retells the conversation she had with their common friend Victoria. In this conversation, (7) Victoria narrates to Silvia several episodes from her US childhood that are connected to her obsession with a playground swing and the starry sky above. She also mentions her godfather Kaspar, (8) who tells her the story of three friends who one day find themselves transformed into mushrooms. In that story, one of the characters is reading a book titled The Garden of Seven Twilights. Judging by the character’s brief reference the content, we realise that his book is similar to the novel we are reading, yet it is not exactly the same book. What would have happened if we had followed one of the stories in that book on the 8th narrative level? Would we have continued descending the narrative levels forever?
It is not surprising that at the zero level of the narration the portrait of the famous mathematical logician Kurt Gödel is attached to the door that opens on the passage leading to the mysterious garden on the mountain plateau, known as the Garden of Twilight. One of the major themes of Palol’s novel is the impossibility of arriving at the desired closure or completeness, if you will, when all the attempts to achieve it push the seeker into the bottomless well of infinite regression. It is important to stress that The Garden should not be read as some kind of allegory of Gödel’s incompleteness theorem (if such a thing were at all possible) but rather as a work that is suffused with the sense of perplexity that followed the realisation that any system based on axiomatic reasoning contained a true statement that could not be proved within that system no matter how many new axioms would be generated to solve this issue. Ernest Nagel and James R. Newman have summarised this disconcerting conclusion in their seminal Gödel’s Proof in the following way (PM stands for Principia Mathematica, Russel and Whitehead’s work describing a mathematical axiomatic system):
[…] we cannot deduce all arithmetical truths from the axioms and rules of PM. Moreover, Gödel established that PM is essentially incomplete: even if PM were augmented by additional axioms (or rules) so that the true formula G could be formally derived within the enhanced calculus, then another true formula G’ could be constructed in a precisely analogous manner, and G’ would be formally undecidable inside the enhanced calculus. Needless to say, further enhancement of the already-enhanced calculus, so as to allow derivation of G’, would merely lead to yet another formula G” undecidable within the doubly augmented system—and so on, ad infinitum.
For the characters of The Garden, Gödel is a kind of figurehead presiding over the infinite nesting of narratives in which they have been trapped. At one point, the nameless final narrator (who can also be called the absolute narrator) refers to the famous logician as “the protective genius of the Chinese boxes”, “the spirit of stories” and “the exorcist of mirrors”.
But let’s get back to the beginning. The text of The Garden is introduced to us by Miquel de Palol I Moholy-McCullydilly, the 30th -century resident librarian of Nachmanides Institute in New Jerusalem. From the preface of this scholar, we learn about the lingering and unresolved debate among various scholars regarding the time of the events portrayed in the frame narrative of the manuscript. What most of them seem to agree on, though, is that the said events unfold during a nuclear war. The author of the preface informs us that there have been four such conflicts, which have remained in human history under the name of the Wars of Entertainment. We also learn that there used to be secret associations of very powerful people who took measures to isolate themselves from the depredations of the wholesale slaughter. They escaped to well-hidden shelters equipped with everything to provide not only survival but also the luxurious lifestyle they had been used to in the pre-war years. The action of the frame story told us by the final narrator takes place at such a shelter. It is an imposing palace perched high in the mountains whose exact location is never revealed. Shortly after the nuclear alarm goes off in Barcelona, Pierre Gimellion, the owner of the mansion, begins accepting guests fleeing the ensuing chaos. One of them is the final narrator.
For the next seven days, the guests at the mansion devote most of their time to storytelling. They gather in a large, richly decorated hall which is called the Avalon, after the legendary island from Arthurian romances. We get thoroughly acquainted with the layout of the building and the territories belonging to it, so that we can feel at home in the place which is going to be the main setting of the frame narrative until the end of the book. Together with the final narrator, we get used to the routine of retiring to the Avalon after a meal, where coffee is served, and where one of the eight 0-level narrators (let us not forget that the 0 level itself is a narration) entertains the audience with a story, which inevitably engenders further narrative levels as it progresses. For the sake of the reader’s convenience, each jump down and up the hierarchy of narratives is designated with special notation. For example, if the narrative shifts to the first level from the zero level, it gets signposted with 0/1; if the story shifts back, this change is marked with 1/0; if the first-level story contains another story, then we get 1/2 as a signpost, and so on. Although these markers do facilitate the task of tracking different stories as they start rapidly multiplying, it is inevitable that the reader may get lost in these fictional woods and will have to retrace their steps to double-check certain facts and circumstances. Many stories are interconnected, and, quite often, a semi-forgotten character or an event mentioned at one of the narrative levels in the very beginning might provide an important clue for a story narrated closer to the end. Things also get complicated because some of the characters are featured in different stories under different names, and since that is not immediately obvious, it is up to the reader to reassess certain episodes when it becomes clear that the new dramatis personae are the protagonists of some previous tale. As for the content of the stories themselves, it is a smorgasbord of genres and forms. There is pulp horror, a political thriller, sci-fi, pornography, crime fiction, naval adventure, parable, esoteric poetry, and much more. I will briefly mention just three stories that I particularly liked.
The Story of Dinner at the House of Virgínia Guasch takes place on the first level and is told to the guests at the mountain palace by Frederic Casanova, one of the said zero-level narrators. The story is an amusing mashup of the Mad Tea Party chapter in Alice in Wonderland and, anachronistically, Groundhog Day, for Palol’s novel came out before Harold Ramis’ movie. Of course, there is nothing new in the idea of a person experiencing the same day over and over again; this trope can be traced at least as far back as Malcolm Jameson’s 1941 sci-fi short story Doubled and Redoubled. The predicament of Casanova is not limited to the fact that one day he finds himself trapped in a time loop and no matter what he tries to do cannot escape the prison of March 21. He also cannot avoid coming to the dinner that Virgínia Guasch gives to her friends to celebrate the coming of spring. He tries to leave the city, or, conversely, stay at home for the whole day, yet the circumstances invariably lead to some of his friends finding him and dragging him to the ever-repeating party, at which the only variable is Casanova’s increasingly uncouth and erratic behaviour. Ultimately, it becomes clear that the poor man has been thrown into the time loop by some powerful mastermind that will release him only after he accomplishes what is expected of him. It turns out that Casanova is on a secret mission, so secret that he has to find out what it is, by trial and error, and execute it without being aware that he is obeying a foreign will. Later on, at the zero level, Jan Kolinski explains to the guests that it is not quite correct to say that Casanova was held captive within a loop in time but rather in a spacetime loop. If the man had been tethered only to time, he would have been immediately disintegrated after his first jump back to the previous day. The common agreement seems to be that everyone currently inhabits the spacetime dimension corresponding to the one in which Casanova’s final visit to the dinner at Virgínia Guasch’s house took place.
The macabre events in The Story of the Final Highway happen at the third level. Its narrator is the captain of the Googol ship Roger Lawrick, who occupies, respectively, the second level, himself being a character in the story of the first-level narrator Grotowicz, who, in his turn, is featured in a story by Kolinski, who inhabits the zero-level. Lawrick tells his interlocutors about some unidentified country in a mountainous region that he happened to drive through one day. It was getting dark. He was running out of petrol and was hungry and tired, so he was looking forward to reaching the city that lay ahead. Before arriving at his destination, he had an opportunity to learn about the country’s burial customs right there, on the highway. At first, he was puzzled by the nature of strange silhouettes that started cropping up on the road at irregular intervals, but as he drove further and saw more shapes, he came to the dreadful realisation that the highway was strewn with squashed human bodies.
From that point, the disturbing human remains kept appearing more frequently as I was moving from one startling find to another: little children and huge men in different states of decomposition, all laid out in the same manner, as if they were stretched in coffins. Some of them still preserved their hair and teeth, their hands positioned whimsically and their feet arranged like those of crucifixion victims; even those that seemed quite recent bore the marks left by passing cars and had become part of the asphalt as if sharing with it a common skin, as if, starting from the ridge of the nose, a symbiosis had occurred via a membrane that was hard and soft at the same time. Soon I gave up on the idea of skirting them for fear that I might fall down the cliff as a result of the constant zigzagging. Each time the wheels met a small osseous protuberance or a suspicious bump in the asphalt, the slight jolt of the car added a bit to my panic, and my concern to leave that road behind grew stronger.
We get more details about this unusual way of burying the dead from the conversation that Lawrick has with two clients at the hotel bar. The “burial” itself is performed by the relatives of the deceased, who run over the corpse seven times in a tracked vehicle making sure to leave the head intact so that it can be crushed later by chance. Just like with traditional burials, the local funeral practice is hierarchised. For example, the most distinguished citizens are laid at the crossroads, whereas the place of others depends on their lineage: the older it is, the closer to the middle of the road they end up. In order to have more burial space, the authorities are compelled to build new highways that lead nowhere. What Lawrick witnessed is the actualisation of the metaphor of the last voyage underpinning that society’s attitude towards death. The dead become part of the road to show the way to their descendants, who are also destined to join them so they can serve as guides for their own offspring.
The Dream of the Jug-warmer is an amusing revisiting of the katabasis genre. Míliu, nicknamed the Jug-warmer (Escalfagerres) is a childhood friend of Randolph Carter, yet another zero-level narrator whose story about his stay in Barcelona as an exchange student unfolds on the first level. Randolph’s Catalan pal has an extraordinary gift of seeing vivid and complex dreams with prophetic significance. Thanks to this ability, he obtains examination questions several days before the exam: they just come to him in a dream. One day, when the studies are over, he tells his foreign friend an especially bizarre dream, whose description occupies the second narrative level. In the first part of the dream, Míliu finds himself in some bleak, deserted region with a single tree on the side of the road leading to a distant city. The raven perched on a branch of the tree happens to be the metamorphosed Munichus, king of the Molossians. The seer’s goal is to instruct the boy on how to descend safely into the underworld so that he can learn about his destiny. The instructions of the talking raven are ridiculously long-winded, overloaded with details, and obviously impossible to remember. The only crucial piece of information that seems to stick with the boy is that he has to beware the shape-shifting monster Empusa, who has one leg made of bronze and the other of cow dung. From the very beginning of the boy’s journey, it is evident that his katabasis will be somewhat different from the classical paragons of the Odyssey and the Aeneid. He does find one of the well-known gateways to Hades: the Taenaran Cave. However, this is not just a natural opening in a hillside, but a shady dive with a gaudy neon sign beckoning clientele. To enter that suspicious establishment, one has to shell out 250 pesetas. The actual descent into the underworld is carried out by sliding in a brass toboggan down a secret chute behind a black curtain at the back of the bar. Once in the underworld, Míliu sees all kinds of famous personages, not necessarily coming from ancient Greece or Rome. For example, he meets there Ramon Lull, Ibn Arabi, Meister Eckhart, Herman Melville, and H. P. Lovecraft. His main mission is to find some mythological prophet who could predict his future, which he manages to achieve after a bit of searching. The prediction, however, is too cryptic to be properly understood. It concerns some extremely valuable jewel, which is going to be stolen and retrieved. It is no wonder that the boy has little use for this piece of prophetic wisdom because in order to understand it one has to explore all the other narrative levels of The Garden of Seven Twilights.
The mention of the jewel brings us to the main plotline of The Garden, which becomes gradually apparent as seemingly autonomous stories start to form a bigger whole like pieces of a puzzle. I regard the main McGuffin of the book, something called “the jewel” as a sort of proto-Troiacord. Everyone is after this mysterious thing, which possesses an enormous power that can be harnessed to change physical reality. Is it a real piece of jewelry with fantastic properties or perhaps, something more abstract, like a physics theorem or a computer program? This is one of the essential questions we try to figure out together with the final narrator by jumping into and out of the rabbit holes conjured up by the storytellers at the Avalon. In Catalan, the word for a jewel (joia) can also mean “joy”, and such ambiguity is in no way accidental. The hunt for the jewel can also be interpreted as the metaphor for the pursuit of the joy of storytelling, for, among the variety of pleasurable activities available to the powerful and wealthy visitors of the mountain palace, that of telling and listening to entertaining yarns is held especially dear. The story of the mysterious jewel is intertwined with that of the Mir clan and the Interdepartmental Institute, two entities that unite a mass of characters driven by different agendas who keep appearing, disappearing, and crossing paths on every possible narrative level. The story of the Mir clan starts as a variation of King Lear. Elies Mir is the 75-year-old founder of the Mir Bank, which is considered one of the most respected and reliable financial institutions in Europe. Elies Mir does not have direct descendants, so when he decides to retire, he summons his three vice-presidents and asks them to tell him what money means to them. For Julian Flint, the first to respond, money is a universal language. For Toni Colom, the second, it is a means of achieving happiness. The youngest one, Alexis Cros, infuriates the old banker, by declaring that for him money is “the unequivocal sign of the banishment from paradise” and “the most refined form of cannibalism”. Such a response earns him a transfer to the Central American branch of the Mir Bank, whereas Flint and Colom become the inheritors of the old man’s fortune. They thank their benefactor by booting him off to a nursing home and driving his bank to bankruptcy. It is up to Alexis Cros to restore the former glory of the Mir Bank, get its founder from the retirement facility, and establish a new dynasty, whose members are also going to inherit the mysterious jewel, which proves to be the most valuable asset of Elies Mir. The antagonists of the Mir clan are unsurprisingly represented by Julian Flint, Toni Colom, and their henchmen; they will make every effort to get their mitts on the jewel. The struggle for the possession of this valuable object runs through lots of the stories recounted at the Avalon and, apparently, overflows into the frame narrative itself. The Interdepartmental Institute acts as a powerful ally of the Mir clan in this confrontation, providing them with all kinds of managerial and technological assistance, including the deployment of a substance that can change a person’s appearance. The genius behind the Institute’s most daring operations is the man known simply as Ω. Even Ω’s close associates have never seen him in person and communicate with him on a computer. The missions of the Googol are also an important part of the Institute’s activity. The crew of the secret ship guided by a supercomputer with self-regenerating biochips gets involved in a series of exciting adventures like fighting sea pirates, saving hostage diplomats, intercepting a cargo of enriched uranium, and treating an insane chromosomatic hero (a product of genetic engineering) on board. As we already know, each mission of the Googol is also responsible for spawning numerous other narratives, for both the crew members and the passengers have always a story to tell.
As the final narrator keeps listening to all these stories and gets to know the guests at Gimellion’s mansion, his suspicion regarding the whole enterprise starts to grow. He becomes certain that the narrators purposefully tamper with the facts to suit their murky objectives. Perhaps the storytelling marathon is just a sophisticated game of poker in which the members and allies of the Mir clan on the one hand, and the Flint gang on the other, are trying to decide once and for all who will keep the jewel? To make matters even more complicated, there is a high probability that the secretive Ω is among the guests, and a lot of effort is spent on trying to find out who that is. The final narrator is sure that at least some of the answers are to be found in the Garden of Twilight, which is made up of sixteen giant trees and whose centrepiece is an enigmatic table-shaped marble altar with the word MEISSA inscribed on its base. After his first visit to the Garden, the final narrator feels eerily drawn to that place and keeps returning to it for the duration of his stay at the palace, looking for the hidden clues that would allow him to find out the true nature of the gathering and maybe even will help him to throw some light on his own past. As we already know, his spiritual guide in this quest is Kurt Gödel, whose photograph hangs on the door to the secret passageway that the final narrator has to get through on his mission to uncover the complete truth.
Despite its reliance on the well-established literary convention, Palol’s debut novel goes beyond a mere homage. The borrowed format allows the author to develop some of the signal features of his prose, which will find their full realisation in his enormous opus The Troiacord, which, to my mind, is Palol’s most accomplished work to date. In The Garden, we come across such recognisable hallmarks as the oversized cast of characters that the reader has trouble following, a person taking part in somebody else’s intricate game without realising it, the intersection of geometry, astronomy, and arcane learning, the unexpected outbursts of extreme violence and graphic sex, identity swap, the absurd, deadpan humour, and the necessity to solve puzzles in order to find out some hidden facts, which do not necessarily lead to the ultimate revelation. All that, and much more, is going to be explored in the subsequent novels crafted with even greater confidence and skill. The year 1989, when The Garden of Seven Twilights was first published, should be remembered as the starting point of the most ambitious literary enterprise in contemporary Catalan literature.