The first sentence of the blurb to the second edition of Alexánder Obando’s novel reads: “The critics have been unanimous in their reception of The Most Violent Paradise: in Costa Rican literature there is now a before and an after this extraordinary novel.” I do not know Costa Rican literature well enough to either agree or disagree with this statement. What I can say with certainty is that now Costa Rica belongs to the exclusive club of the Latin American countries that have produced the so-called total novel (la novela total). The Most Violent Paradise is undeniably worthy of standing alongside the great unclassifiable classics of the Boom, being a complex multi-layered work with an encyclopedic sweep, a head-spinning variety of genres, and a kaleidoscopic exploration of time, space, and the human consciousness, the latter resulting in some of the most hallucinatory prose you will ever read. Several readings are required to plumb its gaping abyss, and, overall, this is the kind of work one is likely to return to again and again, each time learning new things and receiving new revelations.
The title of the novel comes from a sentence in Arthur Rimbaud’s Parade, a prose poem in Illuminations. The second paragraph of the text begins with a passionate exclamation: O le plus violent Paradis de la grimace enragée! (“O the most violent Paradise of the enraged grimace!”) This short poem is a vigorous condemnation of a society made up of reprobates, charlatans and clowns. The poet contemplates this grotesque pageant from a distance, unwilling to be its participant and proud of assuming the role of its critical observer and castigator, which is tersely summed up by the last sentence: J’ai seul la clef de cette parade sauvage. (“Only I have the key to this savage parade.”) Similarly, only Alexánder Obando had the key to the savage parade of the offbeat characters jerkily strutting in front of the dazed and incredulous reader of his novel. Rimbaud’s Illuminations is one of the primary sources necessary for at least a partial understanding of the elaborate palimpsest of cultural layers created by the Costa Rican author. Not only do we come across direct quotations from and allusions to the French poet’s work—there are also a number of chapters titled Illuminations interspersing the main body of the novel; they mostly provide philosophical, mythological and historical backgrounds of the events, drawing on Plato, Byzantine chronicles, and various sources related to the cult of the Greek god Dionysus.
In terms of its formal structure, the novel is akin to a symphony: it is divided into two movements called, respectively, The Voyage to Byzantium and Uranus in the Labyrinth, with a short intermission titled The Dreams of the Angel in between. Altogether, there are sixty-five chapters. Some are autonomous episodes with characters who do not appear anywhere else, but most of the chapters are related, to varying degrees, to several larger plot lines, which, however, do not provide enough coherence and clarity to be fully grasped and disentangled from the intricate clew of the narrative.
Disorienting, as it is, The Most Violent Paradise is far from impenetrable. It’s not that hard, for example, to single out the five major settings of the novel, where its large cast of characters operates. First and foremost, the action takes place in present-day Costa Rica, mostly the province of San José, which comprises the capital of the same name. The ragtag group of the young Costa Ricans populating the fictionalised homeland of the author includes the reckless gay waiter José Antonio who ends up stabbed by an anonymous lover; Anita, Oscar, and Richi, a trio of friends, who experiment with psychedelic mushrooms; young architecture student and Byzantium enthusiast Krys, who masturbates while watching the footage of Lady D’s funeral; a young man called Beau de Soir and his female counterpart with the name Belle de Jour, both habitués of the bar Sexy Café Camus. Besides these and many other picaresque youngsters, Obando’s Costa Rica is also represented by its poets and writers. Although being deceased, two of them, David Maradiaga and Eunice Odio, return to their homeland to join the other writers, Obando among them, who are getting ready to board the ship Mariquita that would take them to the mystical Byzantium glorified by Yeats in his famous poem. The ancient city here is presented as an atemporal artistic utopia.
Byzantium itself is another important locus in the novel. The city appears in different shapes and at different time periods, and it is Krys who is its true protagonist, visiting it physically as Istanbul in contemporary Turkey, and, by means of scholarly research, as Byzantium of classical antiquity and as Constantinople of late antiquity and the Middle Ages. The young architect arrives in Istanbul in search of the extant remains of the city of Byzantium. Not much is left: several columns, an aqueduct, and an ancient wall. But this smattering of unassuming remnants of the bygone era coupled with the more imposing monuments from the heyday of the empire (such as Hagia Sophia and the Basilica Cistern) give her enough inspiration to design Sinus Iridum, the domed city on the Moon that migrants from Earth will inhabit in the future.
We are exposed to a fair share of cruelty when reading about the capture of Constantinople by the troops of Mehmet II, yet it pales in comparison to what happens in medieval France, undoubtedly the most gruesome setting in the book. The arch-villain here is the notorious Gilles de Rais, a companion-in-arms of Joan of Arc, the Marshal of France, as well as a devil worshipper and a child murderer, who was accused of raping and butchering more than a hundred children. Obando’s main source here seems to be George Bataille’s classical study The Trial of Gilles de Rais, an extremely disturbing book in its own right. However, I would argue that in several scenes describing the debauched knight’s gory orgies, Obando surpasses both the original trial transcripts and their retelling by Bataille. It’s not so much what is described, but how it is described. Gilles de Rais is used by the Costa Rican author as the absolute embodiment of human corruption, and he makes a point of bringing this home by all expressive means at his disposal. The ineradicability of this corruption is further stressed when Gilles de Rais’ horrific deeds become a regular feature on TV in the future, watched by people inhabiting the Moon.
This brings us to the science-fiction setting of the novel, which is the most thoroughly explored. The lunar cities of the future are called after the “bays” in which they have been built: Sinus Iridum, Sinus Roris, Sinus Medii, etc. Invoking the ancient heritage of Persian and Hellenistic empires, the ruler of each city bears the title satrap. Most of the time, we follow the events in Sinus Iridum, whose inhabitants are growing increasingly anxious. They are right to be so, for in a matter of months the Moon is going to collide with Earth, effectively wiping out all humans on the planet and its satellite. Only a handful of the chosen ones will be saved by being relocated to a Martian base called Mons Nix, the last stronghold of humankind.
When Krys formulates the idea of Sinus Iridum in Istanbul, we learn that it can be traced back to a place much older than ancient Byzantium; namely, the Minoan city of Knossos. Later on, we encounter the young woman in the legendary Cretan labyrinth, which she enters as a mystical entity or, perhaps, as a space-time traveller, marvelling at its complex structure. And indeed, there is a lot from a labyrinth in the numerous intersecting passages of the multi-level buildings making up the lunar city. The labyrinth is one of the most recurring images in The Most Violent Paradise, and, accordingly, the location of the most famous labyrinth in Western culture is also prominently featured in Obando’s novel. Here it is a cyclopean underground structure situated beneath the palace of King Minos. Like Byzantium, Knossos is presented at different points in time. We visit it during the archaeological excavations conducted by Sir Arthur Evans in 1901 as well as in the mythical past when the labyrinth was built to accommodate its notorious ox-headed denizen. Although, not as bloodcurdling as the narrative about Gilles de Rais, the story of the good-natured creature forced to become a sophisticated cannibal is likely to shock many readers by the graphic descriptions of how Asterius, better known to us as the Minotaur, dispatches and consumes his victims.
Pablo Picasso, Head of Harlequin, 1923
Finally, there is an immaterial habitat difficult to pinpoint. We can think of it as another dimension, which opens to either people with extra-sensory abilities (clairvoyants and the so-called empaths) or to the consumers of different hallucinogenic substances. This dimension is not limited to any of the above settings but rather runs through them all, wormhole-like. For instance, when Richi enters the bar Camaleón in San José after ingesting shrooms, he notices that the chequered floor has extended, turning into an infinite plane that forever recedes into the distance. He himself is transformed into a Harlequin with the outfit to match the floor. He begins to dance and is transported to various places, far away in space and time. Some entities he calls the Distant Ones talk to him in sweet musical voices, and he looks forward to dancing, together with his friends, before their “dark seats”. This is not a mere hallucination, for he is seen by another person, an unnamed youth who has gained access to the hidden dimension in the library of a boarding school with help of Siegfried’s Death and Funeral March from Richard Wagner’s Götterdämmerung. In one of his visions, the youth sees “the dancer, the Picasso harlequin”—obviously, Richi, who has tapped into the same secret continuum. The highlight of the young man’s experience, however, is his encounter with a French-speaking teenage magus in a dark armchair, one of the “dark seats” mentioned by Richi. That is Arthur Rimbaud himself, for this armchair is first mentioned in the poem Childhood in Illuminations: Je suis le savant au fauteuil sombre. (“I am the scholar in the dark armchair”.) In Obando’s novel, Rimbaud’s fauteuil sombre is a metaphysical seat of power that confers on the person occupying it significant visionary and creative abilities. On the colonised Moon of the future, we encounter this chair both in some unidentified parallel space and in a mysterious underground chamber in the Sea of Tranquility. A visionary adolescent from Sinus Iridum by the name of Narcissus, guided by the giant tortoise Alfa Omega, invisible to everybody but him, from time to time is transported to the said parallel world where he populates a grand hall with statues and sculpture ensembles fashioned from his own excrement. He also helps the wise tortoise to acquire its physical body, by making its enormous sculpture from the same material. The centrepiece of the hall of statues is a coffee-coloured chair raised on the platform at the end of a staircase. Later on, when the chamber suddenly materialises beneath a mount in the Sea of Tranquility and is dug up by an excavation team, it will be visited by high-ranking officials of Sinus Iridum. One of them, Nikki, will venture to seat in the chair to be immediately overwhelmed by the onrush of visions across time and space. And in the distant past, Michel de Nostre-Dame, better known as Nostradamus, contemplates in a basin of water the ancient Egyptian temple at the lake Moeris. His attention is drawn to the hall of statues uncannily similar to the one on the Moon. In the course of the novel, we catch several unexpected and partial glimpses of this other dimension as some characters shortly visit it and are exposed to its dangers and wonders, yet it seems to be the most important setting of Obando’s novel, the binding substance without which the majestic edifice of The Most Violent Paradise would have crumbled.
It should be evident from this brief overview of the main loci of the novel that reassembling the sequence of the events as well as extracting a larger meaning from the entanglement of the puzzling stories is a challenging task for the reader. To make matters worse, there is also television of the future called T.T., which many dwellers of the lunar cities watch constantly. Some of the book’s scenes turn out to be from T.T. shows, and, in the end, we are hard-pressed to decide whether a certain event happened in the physical world, in the parallel dimension, or on the T.T. screen. As the true novel of the new century (the first edition was published in 2001), The Most Violent Paradise cannot help but reflect the enmeshment of the real and virtual worlds by which our global, super-connected society has come to be distinguished. Perhaps some of the weird stand-alone pieces in Obando’s novel are just part of lunar television entertainment. It’s quite possible since they are too surreal and grotesque to happen in the real world, and there are no indications of them being somebody’s hallucination or extrasensory experience. To give you just one example, there is a story about a family of stomachs with nothing but oesophagi protruding upwards and terminating with a set of teeth. There is the papa-stomach, the mama-stomach, and the kids-stomachs. They seat themselves around a richly laid dining table to have an unforgettable feast. What follows is an equally hilarious and disturbing fit of gluttony on the part of the papa-stomach, which quickly escalates into a cannibalistic rampage.
Given its unorthodox form and content, there may be various assumptions about the main theme of the novel, the notorious “what is it really about?” I believe that at the incandescent core of Obando’s book is the intention to show how the inherent corruption of humankind becomes more expressed as it progresses technologically. In its idiosyncratic, non-linear fashion, The Most Violent Paradise traces the history of man’s downfall at different times and places. But, of course, there is always a genuine fascination with the decadent splendour attending the journey of our species fuelled by the Dionysian urge to smash through the boundaries of being. The author’s position is not that of a moraliser, but of an amused observer mesmerised by the unfolding spectacle. Yes, in many regards, the history of humanity is terrifying, but it is also fun to watch. In a way, Obando assumes the role of Rimbaud’s scholar seated in the dark chair and dispassionately contemplating the bustling vanity of the world through a library window. The book of black magic Necronomicon, which keeps cropping up at different times and places, is the most conspicuous signifier of the said corruption. In Obando’s version of the Gilles de Rais story, the infamous aristocrat uses the Latin translation of the grimoire to summon up the demon Baron, who, according to the assurances of the Italian alchemist François Prelati, would help his master to restore his wealth. Just like in the recorded accounts, Gilles de Rais fails to invoke the evil spirit, and, in order to ingratiate himself, begins capturing and sacrificially killing children from the environs of his castle. Soon enough this practice is divested of its occult meaning and becomes a mere sadistic pastime. The spellbook changes many hands, including American writer H. P. Lovecraft’s, before being brought to the prosperous lunar city Sinus Iridum in the 22nd century. The resplendent miracle of architecture and engineering with its complex infrastructure of transportation inspired by the aqueducts of Byzantium has a dark side that considerably surpasses the enormities perpetrated by the bloodthirsty French noble. To a large extent, the economy of Sinus Iridum is supported by the legal trade in strong hallucinogenic drug esquifo and, most horribly, by illegal trafficking in children’s body parts. Both practices are invoked in the experience of the drug-addict Diego, who, after taking esquifo, hallucinates himself and his friends as members of a surreal caravan on its way to sell what is left of his butchered cousin.
In autumn, the old fruit fell on the ground intact, as nobody was interested in it. When it rotted in the soil, new fruit was born out of it: Daliesque elephants, giant globes on giraffe legs crossing the deserts of the past like the gods of the past. Elephants that wander in the deserts and the seas. They quickly populated the Moon… Now… the pachyderms swim in the seas of the Moon when the season allows. Diego is riding one, together with the Cat; they look like a royal Indian couple. The wobbling is slight, but the breeze blowing from the horizon is pestiferous. The saddlebags on either side of the animal hold the evenly distributed limbs of cousin Maikol; farther behind, the dusty ghosts of Tabaré, Diana and Anúsit follow them on other animals; and farther still, almost lost in the gentle dust storm, ride the others, impossible to identify.
Salvador Dalí, The Elephants, 1948
As I have already pointed out, for Obando, man’s fall is entertaining. When the Great Serpent arrives to tempt and lead astray the Christian children of Sinus Iridum, his slithering body made up of the lunar transport conveyances called “spores”, he is not the hissing insinuator of the Genesis but a flamboyant showman hungry for pizzazz and mass spectacle. Once his congregation is established, the Serpent organises a holographic concert of epic proportions, regaling his audience with his exquisite mezzo-soprano accompanied by the children’s choral interpretation of the fifth movement of Gustav Mahler’s Third Symphony. After that—mass Latin dances. The new incarnation of Satan, born out of the cutting-edge 23rd-century technologies, makes sure that the orgiastic merriment, brought to humans by the god Dionysus, is maintained all the way until their decimation in the impending cosmic disaster. Without a doubt, he will reappear at the last outpost of human civilisation on Mars, in a different guise and with a new bag of tricks.
Yet there is one aspect of human life in The Most Violent Paradise that Obando takes so seriously that he makes himself an extra in his own show to make a personal contribution to the cause. It is art. At a certain point, on the wharf near the anchorage of the ship Mariquita, a comical fight between two committees breaks out. The Committee of Granny Writers and Their Eventually Soulless Grandkids represents state-sponsored, traditional forms of literature, whereas the Costa Rican Committee of Ballad-mongers and Unknown Writers obviously stands for anything non-conventional, transgressive and avant-garde. No need to say on whose side is Obando. The grotesque combat between the nasty, prim grannies and the wacky, dissolute writers who burn their own books to conjure up monsters to assist them in the scuffle seems like a lush update on Peter Bruegel’s Fight Between Carnival and Lent, albeit more amusing and much more lethal. The reader, of course, is not required to take sides, and, there is nothing reprehensible in taking the detached attitude of the scholar in the dark armchair here as well. But if you passionately root for Carnival, even if it is likely to lose in this particular battle, if you are drawn to the non-conformist, unconventional, and challenging aspects in art and literature, The Most Violent Paradise has been written especially for you.
Pieter Bruegel, The Fight Between Carnival and Lent. Detail. 1559