Boötes is Miquel de Palol’s latest big novel in what can be now considered a loose trilogy about the Game of the Fragmentation. The other two novels, in the chronological order of the narrated events, are The Testament of Alcestis (El Testament d’Alcestis) and The Troiacord (El Troiacord). Although Boötes was finished in 2016, it, unfortunately, remains still unpublished, and I am profoundly grateful to the author for the opportunity to read the manuscript. The text of the novel is about 325,000 words, so, depending on the font and page layout, this would be a book of 800-1,000 pages.
“Let None But Geometers Enter Here” is believed to have been written at the entrance of Plato’s academy. The same admonition could be printed at the beginning of most of Palol’s books, and it does not come as a complete surprise that this phrase is actually used as one of the epigraphs for Boötes. In some respects, it is the Catalan author’s most radical book to date. All his previous themes and obsessions get a considerable level-up, which has resulted in a novel with an even more bleak and terrifying vision than his chivalric dystopia Ígur Neblí. The geometry has also become more unwieldy. Forget the beautiful simplicity of Plato’s polyhedra, which fuelled the Game in The Troiacord. The complexity of Archimedean solids now takes centre stage. A lot of the discussion is focused on the rhombicosidodecahedron, which has all three types of polygon faces found in the Platonic solids: 20 triangles, 30 squares, and 12 pentagons. The main geometric figure in the novel, however, is a solid that was discovered only in the second half of the twentieth century. The Szilassi polyhedron for Boötes is what the dodecahedron was for The Troiacord—it determines the shape of the Game. This figure is the second known polyhedron each of whose faces shares an edge with every other face. The first one is the tetrahedron, one of the Platonic solids. The repetition of that rare property comes at the price of introducing a void; the Szilassi polyhedron is a torus topologically, and its empty space plays as an important role as the shape around it.
The setting of the novel is also geometrically determined. The layout of the principal towers of the mechanical city on the Island of Lauriaian corresponds to the pentagon with an inscribed star. There are five red towers at the vertices of the pentagon, and five black ones at the intersections of the edges of the star. The centre of the configuration is occupied by a white tower. The information about the height of the towers varies, but it is obvious that they are cyclopean. According to one estimation the red towers are 720 metres high; the black towers—960, and the central white tower—1,200. The red and black towers are surrounded by smaller towers, which are also arranged pentagonally and thus mimic at a smaller scale the layout of the whole structure. This place, which embodies all the achievement and corruption of late capitalism, is not what we usually expect from a high-tech city of the future. The Archcenotaph (Arxicenotafi), informally known as the Island of the Dead, cannot be far enough from the neon-lit eye-candy of Blade Runner. This ponderous fractal excrescence has more of a steampunk aesthetic to it, with nods to Piranesi’s imaginary prisons and M.C. Escher’s paradoxical spaces. The Archcenotaph is powered by a complex system of integrated hydro-mechanisms, for lack of a better word, and the energy is equally distributed throughout the complex thanks to the modern modification of an esoteric 18th-century machine with a ridiculously long name: Harpsitroiametacornopaukenaltochalunatursophibordoflötecromochordium. The transportation through the city is provided by a rapid transit system serviced by small trains that carry their passengers not only below and above the ground, but also up and down the enormous towers. The vertical displacement of the trains is facilitated by a huge hydraulic contrivance called the amphiconverter (amficonversor). It is a multi-storey cylindrical structure whose gates are aligned with the respective railway tunnels in the tower. The cylinder envelops the guide pillar along which a torus-shaped platform slides up and down, delivering the trains to the necessary level. Given the high number of the trains, the operation requires perfect synchronisation; otherwise, an accident is inevitable. As a matter of fact, a serious accident does happen one day. An explosion in the amphiconverter of the North Tower results in hundreds of casualties and inflicts grave damage to the mechanism. In order to investigate the accident a committee of experts is convoked. It consists of the local officials and invited guests for some of whom it has taken days to go past all the cordons and check points protecting the Archcenotaph from the unwanted intrusion of common people, for the Island of the Dead is the seat of the elite and commoners are tolerated only in the capacity of service personnel. The members of the committee are individuals distinguished by their encyclopedic knowledge of music, art, mathematics, mnemonics, literature, and half a dozen other disciplines. The surnames of some of them sound familiar. We have already encountered them in The Troiacord. They must be the children and grandchildren of the practitioners of the Game of the Fragmentation, which apparently never stopped, and the investigation of the accident inaugurates its next, possibly final, phase.
Let me remind you that the Game of the Fragmentation in its most recent form consists of elaborately staged events and situations involving people who are not always aware of being the participants of the game. The interpenetration of the game-space and reality can reach such an extent that both may become indistinguishable like the map and the empire in the famous short story by Borges. Polyhedra play a crucial role in the Game as some of them are key to gaining higher knowledge or even transforming reality. In its earlier version, the course of the Game was determined by the properties of the dodecahedron: the participants moved symbolically along its edges from one vertex to another. For the new generation of players, the most significant polyhedron is that of Szilassi. Its seven hexagonal faces correspond to the seven core participants (all of them are guest experts at the Archcenotaph) each of whom also corresponds to a certain named star in the constellation of Boötes. These participants (Artur, Rakshasi, Midoissa, Bettina, Curwen, Spohr, and Mina) make up what is called the central Egregore. This occult concept refers to a psychic entity emanated by a group of people united by a common goal. In the novel, this notion is used a little differently. These seven committee members become an egregore when they manage to synchronise their minds after entering the so-called “transparency zone”, which grants telepathic abilities to anyone inside it. Once united into the Egregore, they gain the ability to narrate their own story and pass on the baton of the first-person narrator to anyone in the group. There is, however, one main narrator to whom all the others are formally subordinated. It is Artur, the protagonist of the novel. Despite this high position, he turns out to be the most clueless among the participants, and in the course of the novel his chief concern becomes to rise above the status of a pawn in someone else’s game. Perhaps the other members of the Egregore are better informed than Artur, but this does not guarantee them a better chance of surviving this adventure, not to mention coming out on top. The solid elements of the Szilassi polyhedron represent the knowledge and abilities of each participant imagined by the others, which results in a drastically incomplete picture. It is the ignorance of the players which is fragmented and contributes to creating the true matter of the Game represented by the hole in the middle, an emptiness that generates new reality. Unawareness, misinformation, and unfamiliarity drive the Game and lead to the tangible and mostly negative consequences. Here, Miquel de Palol has definitely captured the zeitgeist of our hyper-connected society.
Although some casual remarks by the committee members reveal to us their awareness of the fact that the Game is in progress, what they do is indistinguishable from an official investigation into the causes of a technogenic disaster. Every day a new witness is summoned to give an account of what he saw around the time of the explosion at the amphiconverter. The experts listen to the statements, which tend to contradict one another, and, outside of hearings, gather in the common room for prolonged discussions on the possible relation of Archimedean solids and the numeric values to which the sequence of operations in the Amphiconverter can be reduced. All the technical details about the transport are also provided by the witnesses, as there is no black box or a log in which the necessary data could have been registered. In this society, where mnemonics has been reinstated as a highly-respected art, the only recording device available for the analysis of an accident is the memories of its participants. As the investigation drags on, some of the committee members begin exchanging reasonable doubts about the authenticity of the whole affair. It is becoming obvious that the higher authorities are not interested in the discovery of the true cause of the accident and keep feeding them scant and even misleading information. Perhaps, the investigation is just a façade used to divert attention from the power struggle of different factions within the Archcenotaph. It is also possible that they are expected to find something out, but this something is not linked in any way with the accident. The realisation that their main goal is to discover what they have to discover motivates the seven invited experts to unite into the central Egregore and take control of the narrative.
Meanwhile, a popular uprising breaks out. The impoverished masses break through the defence system of the forbidden city and take control over some of its territory. Amid the distant sounds of shots and explosions, the investigation of the accident is suspended, and the committee members, who by this time have not only analysed all the relevant polyhedra but have also formed love polygons among themselves, decide to venture out into the labyrinthine depths of the Archcenotaph and look for the answers at the White Tower looming in its centre. The adventure of the Egregore, sequentially narrated by each of its members, makes up the second half of the novel. This part of Boötes is nuts even by Palol’s standards. The mission of the seven heroes proves to be a journey into the heart of darkness, in which the shock and disbelief at the orgy of gore unleashed are only alleviated by its ludicrous and over-the-top character. The turning point at which you realise that the novel has gone off the rails and is turning into something different from what you have been led to believe is the moment when Midoissa (with whom Artur is in love) is presented with a kopfherakleon (kopfheraklèion) after defeating a member of the military order Black Fonoctons.
Before any of us can react, the second fonocton wrests from her the sword and, with an agility that disconcerts me to an unbearable degree, hacks off his both hands and the head, which he cuts close to the jawline, keeping, however, a palm-length of the skin below the back of the neck. He puts the head on the torso, pins the skull down with his foot, and, using the sword as a lever, makes a sequence of rapid circular movements at the end of which he extracts the brain through the palate and neatly separates the lower jaw in such a way that it can be shifted behind without any damage to the skin at the sides and on the nape and thus serve as a support for the rear skin flap. He puts aside the sword and takes out from the rucksack three spray cans and a canister with liquid, which he uses to soak the severed head, injecting the liquid into the spots which he cannot treat directly. At the end of the process, which lasts several minutes, he offers the head to Midoissa with a profound obeisance. Although I don’t know her well enough, I can see that she suppresses an expression of disgust, whether physical or moral I cannot tell, yet responds to the obeisance by stepping in front of the fonocton and lowering her head. The guardian crowns her with the bleeding skull of his companion, its upper teeth pressed against her forehead and the teeth of the lower jaw against the back of her neck, and, to secure the thing, he pierces the edges of the skin flap with pins and enmeshes them in Midoissa’s hair.
A kopfherakleon is the severed head of an enemy worn as a crown. The name dates back to an old and obscure ritual based on the myth of Heracles and the Nemean lion. If someone kills the possessor of a kopfherakleon, then that person will have the privilege of wearing two crowns at once: the head of the opponent just killed and the kopfherakleon the defeated adversary had been wearing. By the same token, a triple crown of severed heads is also possible. To carry more, however, could be too much of a strain for the carrier’s neck.
This episode, which is the Egregore’s first exposure to the colossal violence rampant in the Archcenotaph, brings to mind the ritualised savagery of the chivalric society depicted by Palol in his 1994 novel Ígur Neblí. Actually, the Fonoctons are also featured in that novel, which testifies to the longevity of this assassinous association: it must have been active for centuries. Although the Fonoctons are supposed to be at the bottom of the hierarchy of the military orders enforcing law and providing security on the Island of the Dead, in reality, they are one of the most powerful organisations. Besides having the license to kill, its members are not directly responsible to any authority. The exact name is the Black Fonoctons, because there is also an interior body called the White Fonoctons. Those are the worst, and most of the extremely graphic and shocking scenes in the second half of the novel are connected with them. The White Fonoctons are genetically-manipulated (and, sometimes, not entirely human) child-like creatures with enormous genitals whose idea of fun is raping and cannibalising their victims at the same time.
The Archcenotaph is far from the well-oiled and smoothly running machine it might have seemed in the beginning. The farther the members of the Egregore penetrate, the more decay, neglect and anarchy they witness. The assault of the insurgents and the havoc they wreak seem to be just another logical step in the long-term decomposition of this monument to a capitalist system no longer based on supply and demand but just on the demand of the corrupted elite whose uninhibited consumption of resources has left the majority of the population destitute and starving. The fact that one of the elite military groups takes the side of the assailants makes the overthrow of the incumbent authorities outright thinkable, and not only that—the complete destruction of the Archcenotaph becomes a possibility. This poses a dilemma for fence-sitting intellectuals: is their duty to contribute to the demolition of this bastion of oppression or should they defend it so it can be later reformed to serve the common good, for the loss of its technologies might cast humanity back to the middle ages? The topicality of this question, however, might be cancelled by yet another possibility: what if the mechanical city is just an elaborate prop whose true purpose is to be the main setting in the final phase of the Game of the Fragmentation?
Despite the abundance of lengthy discussions on a variety of topics, Boötes is a novel of action. A lot of things happen on its pages, and it is not always easy to keep track of the events. While leafing through the book, the reader might be delighted to find out that there is a handy list of all the important events, starting with the arrival of the protagonist at the checkpoint before the entrance to the Archcenotaph. This list keeps reappearing throughout the book, each time with more events added to it. At the structural level, the repeated summaries of the plot play a role similar to that of the recapitulation in some musical compositions of Bach. A brief and clear explanation of this principle is given by David Schulenberg in his recent biography of the German composer. He defines recapitulation as “the transposed restatement of a previously heard passage”, adding in a footnote: “‘Recapitulation’ in this sense is distinct from the customary understanding of the term as applied to classical Sonata form. In the latter, the recapitulation is a distinct section—the third one in a sonata-allegro movement. With Bach, recapitulation, that is, the transposed restatement of a passage, can occur anywhere within a movement, often more than once.” The compiler of this list or, rather, index is the protagonist of the novel Artur Oliver. The germ of the index was born during the mnemonic exercise he practised in a temporary detention cell, which was just one of the many obstacles during his arduous journey to the venue of the investigation. He started making the proper index following the suggestion of Captain Ori Buéerué, one of the summoned witnesses, sharing with his fellow committee members the belief that it might help them to find out the true objective of their mission. What is of note is that one of the experts envisages the aesthetic function of the index for the reader of Boötes, saying that the list to be compiled may serve as the basis for a “meditative-musical system” which will ultimately transform into “an entity-in-itself” beyond the immediate meaning of the items on the list. What is more, since one of the events listed in the index is the creation of the index itself, the whole thing becomes an infinite self-replicating structure akin to the Mandelbrot set.
At the beginning of the novel, the Archcenotaph is associated with Franz Kafka’s Castle, but closer to the end with Stanisław Lem’s Solaris. Boötes is rife with both explicit and covert intertextuality, but the influence of Lem’s and Kafka’s novels is especially prominent. Palol’s novel begins as a third-person narrative about a nameless mechanic (who later proves to be Artur) summoned to repair some device inside that mysterious, mist-shrouded structure on the island, which is not exactly a city, but something between a small city and a giant building. Just like the land surveyor K., Artur runs against a host of absurd difficulties preventing him from getting inside. The image of the Archcenotaph that we get in the beginning is that of an impregnable bureaucratic fortress whose mysteries are carefully guarded from any clueless newcomer. After waiting in interminable lines, getting falsely accused and arrested, being held in the detention centre and interrogated, Artur runs into the final obstacle on his way—the accreditation card dispenser machine. The frustrating procedure of getting the card issued is a biting satire on the automated attendant system familiar to anyone who has tried to call a bank or an airline. After a series of increasingly bizarre choices, like ordering a plastic surgery or hiring rhombicuboctahedral virtuals (whatever that means) Artur gets trapped in a loop of the same recurring options, which he manages to escape only thanks to the assistance of the man standing in the queue behind him. But as the protagonist sees more of the Archcenotaph during his quest as part of the Egregore, his idea of the place changes. The Island of the Dead and its coastal waters generate illusions and simulacra. First in a dream and later in reality (unless it is a hallucination), Artur encounters what he calls “mimoids”— protrusions of protoplasm similar to the excrescences on the surface of the sentient ocean in Solaris. The distinct feature of mimoids is their ability to imitate objects external to the ocean. The mysterious ocean throws back to the puzzled scientists their own ideas, preoccupations and anxieties without giving away any of its enigmas. Although it may seem initially that the Archcenotaph is also a locus of impenetrable conundrums, with time it becomes more apparent that the only real mystery harboured by this place is the inevitability of entropy and decay. The mimoid suddenly projected by the sea in front of Artur, when he and Midoissa are trying to escape in a boat, is not an ingenious simulation of a vehicle, a person or a building. It is an omen of death:
Before us rises a mimoid made of viscera, a swelling of calcified protoplasm, unsettling by its being between the identifiable and non-identifiable; it is twenty metres tall and sixty or seventy long. […] to whom belongs this flayed face? Who should I recognise in that facial skin transformed into a mask? The identified within the unidentified, the unidentified within the identified.
Although Boötes has its share of funny moments, darkness and nihilism prevail in this novel infused with apocalyptic sensibilities. This looks like the Götterdämmerung in Palol’s cycle about the Game of the Fragmentation. If I am wrong and this is just a prelude for the apocalypse to come, then God help us.