The Complete Short Stories (Cuentos completos) by José Lezama Lima

CuentosLezamaThese five short stories published between 1936 and 1946 in different magazines give us a unique glimpse of the Cuban author’s creative laboratory, which later produced the neobaroque miracle of Paradiso. Already at the early stage of his writing career, Lezama adopts that unmistakable procedure of gradually immersing what initially seems a rational narrative into poetic madness, which is performed with such overwhelming bravado in his famous 1966 novel. As we read on each of these short pieces, we realise at some point that there is no distinction between prose and poetry anymore, for the imagery takes precedence over the narration, and we might even lose track of what actually is going on, distracted by the ecstatic interplay of metaphors. The storylines themselves are not always easy to follow. There are enough unexpected and incongruous twists to give us pause and make us retrace our steps to make sure we have the right idea about the narrated events. All five stories make for an enjoyable if somewhat bewildering read, but bewilderment is exactly what a seasoned reader of Lezama Lima has come to expect from his work.


Bee Hummingbird. Photo credit: Charles James Sharp

Truants (Fugados) is the opening story of the collection. It came out when the author was just twenty-six. The plot is quite simple: two schoolboys skip classes to enjoy the view of the sea surf breaking against the jetty. The idea is suggested by the older boy Armando Sotomayor. The younger protagonist of the story, Luis Keeler, happily consents. Luis is obviously proud of going on this little adventure with an older and cooler kid. When Armando is standing next to Luis, he occupies “a wonderful space”. The younger lad’s joy is short-lived, however. Just as he begins admiring the waves together with his schoolmate, an even older and cooler kid arrives and invites Armando to go to the movies. The latter abandons his younger pal without a moment of hesitation, leaving him alone on the coast, distraught and destroyed. The boy’s anguish at being so easily betrayed communicates to the surrounding landscape, turning it into a roiling expressionist spectacle. The oncoming waves stop at a fixed point before reaching the breakwater, and the clouds move apart to reveal a bleeding castle. In an Escherian fashion, the strip of reeds running along the coastline transforms at its further end into bee hummingbirds, one of which nestles in “the arborescence” of Luis’ nerves. The boy’s dejection reaches its breaking point after “night soak[s] his entrails, growing like a tree that shakes ink from its branches”, and just as he is ready to let out a scream of desperation “the cage of the cinemas” is opened to release the viewers, including his two older schoolmates. Luis suppresses the scream. For screaming would have devalued this rich and flamboyant experience of introspection. Yes, it has come from the place of sorrow and bitterness, but ultimately, this adventure of the mind might have been more fulfilling and transformative than a simple walk to the jetty.

The second story is titled The Purple Courtyard (El patio morado). Its two protagonists are the porter guarding the central courtyard of a bishop’s palace and a brightly-feathered parrot inhabiting the same place. The palace is depicted as a melancholy and languid building, drenched in humidity, its walls covered in “a soft integument resembling horse sweat”, which has been deposited by a horde of scurrying lizards. The despondent mood suffusing it is reinforced by the purple colour of the curtains hanging behind the windowpanes. The porter has been doing his duty long enough to have grown completely apathetic. He does not resist the occasional incursion of a gang of mischievous kids attracted by a cage with the bishop’s larks in the centre of the courtyard and by the parrot perched next to it on two joined pieces of timber. Seemingly content with his role as a passive observer, the porter acts as an intermediary between the motionless monotony of the palace and the busy life of the barrio, which he knows as thoroughly as “Champollion an Egyptian papyrus”. He frequents the nearby corner café at a special hour when the vulgar joint is transformed into “a ghost ship or a trireme with a burning prow that has been traversing the seas for more than a century.” Once in the café, the porter’s favourite pastime is a careful observation of the punters. It comes as no surprise then, that one day when two of the brats catch the parrot and tie a strip of linen with an iron ring at its end to the parrot’s leg, the porter does nothing to stop them. Nor does he try to free the bird from the nasty hindrance. The linen strip with the ring signifies for the parrot “an unlimited perspective.” Time and again, it tries to clutch the dangling ring and hold onto it, which invariably leads to its falling on the ground and losing some feathers. This struggle gains an epic proportion when the neighbourhood is struck by a flood, and the parrot, flapping its wings above the turbulent waters, finally realises that in order to catch the ring it has to put its neck through it, which will surely result in its death. By that time, the strip with the ring has been dubbed “a piece of Wagnerian stage machinery”. Nothing remains untouched by Lezama’s hyperbolic ferocity. Most likely, the terrible deluge is no more than a fleeting shower, and the parrot’s fiddling with the ring is operatic only from the porter’s perspective, yet we are deeply touched by that strange allegory of two lives: one spent in creative contemplation and the other sacrificed in a doomed attempt to break beyond the limits imposed to it.

The setting of For a Quick End (Para un final presto), the third piece in the collection, is a fictitious kingdom on the cusp of a dramatic change. We learn about the activities of at least three groupings with rather curious names. One of those is called the Abduction of the Tabret by the Waning Moon.  It has been founded by Galopanes of Numidia and comprises 333 stoical youths whose predestination is to commit collective suicide by throwing themselves into the flaming pit in the middle of the main square. Another group bears the cryptic name of the Machine-gunned Rainbow and consists of Chinese conservatives and diamond forgers from Glasgow. It’s a revolutionary organisation that wants to dethrone the king and install in his place the leader’s son with a leper’s nostrils.  Finally, there is the Connected Whiteness, a secret society established by a desperate pacifist in the pursuit of turning a tiger into a giraffe and an eagle into a mockingbird by a sequence of tissue transplants. The interaction of these groups and the government law enforcement units makes up the core of the story. All hell breaks loose when the members of the suicide sect who march to the main square to fulfil their destiny are mistaken by the police for the insurgents of the Machine-gunned Rainbow, and from that moment on things get weirder and more complicated with each twist and turn of the absurd plot. The title of the story is rather ambiguous. On the one hand, it refers directly to the suicide mission of Galopanes’ sect, but we know the history of Latin America well enough to understand that a make-believe kingdom with a despotic ruler could be a thinly-veiled portrait of a typical dictatorship established on that continent, so the title could also be read as a plea for the quick end of an oppressive regime.

RemediosVaroMagician (2)

Remedios Varo, The Juggler (The Magician), detail. Image Source

Decapitation Game (Juego de las decapitaciones) is the title of the penultimate story, which is the longest of the bunch. The action takes place in a China which is no less imaginary than the kingdom from the previous tale. The main theme is the conflict between magic and political power. Magic here should be understood in the broadest possible sense: it is a supernatural power, the deft use of illusionist tricks for entertainment, and the metaphor of creativity in general. The magician Wang Lung hates the Emperor and desires his spouse So Ling, who appears to reciprocate the feelings of her brazen admirer. The emperor must be suspecting something, for at one of Wang Lung’s magic shows, he offers his wife as the “victim” for the pièce de résistance in which the magician creates the illusion of cutting off the head of an audience member by the ingenious use of knives and mirrors. It’s the famous decapitation game. The magician performs the trick without batting an eyelid and yet ends up in prison all the same, mostly because the Emperor is keen on showing the supremacy of his authority over what he believes to be no more than eye-catching hocus-pocus. Besides that, he is curious to see how his unfaithful wife will try to liberate the magician. Without much interference on the part of her spouse, So Ling equips a sled pulled by twelve dogs, and when the time is right engineers Wan Lung’s escape, joining him in a journey towards the north of the Empire, where the notorious bandit and hunter nicknamed The Royal (in Spanish “El Real” can mean either “The Royal” or “The Real”) is getting ready to start a march on the capital and depose the hated ruler. This contender to the throne has rather an unorthodox understanding of some basic military tactics, believing that he has permanently seized a part of the city even if he has to abandon it later. In his mind, he keeps adding all the fragments of the territory that his troops have occupied even for a brief moment until he completes the whole puzzle of the conquest; the fact that in the end his troops may be completely driven off that territory doesn’t seem to bother him. In this action-packed narrative, the main characters are subjected to a kaleidoscopic sequence of vicissitudes. For instance, So Ling spends some time as The Royal’s concubine, then returns to the Emperor, gets incarcerated, gets rescued, and reunites with Wang Lung. Wang Lung entertains distant northern villages with his tricks, gets captured and imprisoned again, escapes and becomes a celebrated magician at The Royal’s camp. What stands out amid all these rapidly changing events, is the development of Wang Lung’s art. While performing in the villages, he starts breaking the rules of canonical magic routines. Thus, he overhauls the trick of letting a bird out of his sleeve by completely reversing it: he makes his sleeve grow to enormous proportions and then lures a bird from the flock flying above to nestle in this artificial grotto. When incarcerated for the second time, Wang Lung has to reconsider his repertory again and devise a way to do a magic show in the absence of any props and audience. The resultant number can be called “the levitating plate with a fork stuck in the middle.” Perhaps it is not as spectacular as the enticement of the flying bird, but it is still remarkable given the magician’s drastic limitations in the dungeon. The flying plate trick helps him to break the ice with his turnkey and make his remaining stay in the confinement more tolerable. When both Wang Lung and So Ling meet again at the military encampment of The Royal, they have to repeat the Decapitation Game in front of their host and his henchmen. To the disappointment of some audience members, it is still the same old trick: the magician creates the illusion of beheading the woman with the help of his mirrors. The thing is that the new version of the Decapitation Game is not meant for the spectators. Wang Lung performs it at night, in So Ling’s tent, when there are no witnesses. By that time, the troops of The Royal have cleared out to avoid the approaching Imperial army. With his new spin on the old trick, the magician achieves once again a complete reversal of the routine whereby the beheading takes place outside the arrangement of the illusionist mirrors. As the narrative rushes to its poetic and grisly denouement, we are liable to see more death and less magic.

The collection ends with a particularly enigmatic and weird story titled Crabs, Swallows (Cangrejos, golondrinas). The protagonists are the blacksmith Eugenio Sofonisco and his unnamed wife. The blacksmith sends the woman to the house of a philologist to ask for the payment he owes him; Eugenio tried to get the money himself the day before, but the philologist was absent and his uncouth major-domo unceremoniously forced him out. The woman is greeted by the philologist’s spouse, who apologises for not having any money and gives her a beef leg instead. The troubles in the blacksmith’s household start with this poisonous payment in kind. The beef leg holds an uncanny erotic appeal for Eugenio’s wife, who, one night, approaches it stark naked and with ogling eyes. A single bead of blood oozes out of the ominous carcass limb and plunks on the unprotected breast of the woman. This leads to the onset of a mysterious disease that the spouses will have to combat for years to come. The main symptom of the illness is the crimson protuberance that first appears on the woman’s breast but keeps shifting to other spots on her body as she tries to chase it away with the help of healing magic. The witch doctor Thomás gives her Brazilian medicinal oil to create the tunnel for the disease to escape through. She proceeds with the treatment, and at one point she feels a mole, a weasel, and an anteater burrow through her body, looking for a way out. The tunnel is functional! Shortly after that, the malevolent protuberance creeps out of her body through a carious tooth. Still feeling sickly, she consults another healer, the former “diablito” Alberto, who is supposed to help her regain peace of mind. The man shows her a purple tunic with an embroidered white dove, tells her that the dove will always find the way out of the tunnel, and instructs her to bury what is left of the beef leg. Years later, when she and Eugenio already have a boy growing up, the disease strikes again: the nasty protuberance re-emerges on the back of her head. The alarmed husband predicts the arrival of the crab, and the woman has no other option than to revisit the witch doctors. The most striking contrivance on the grounds of the Afro-Cuban community, where she seeks a cure, is the circle of wildly gyrating and sparking carrousels. Her highly personal experience of the place is so disjointed and impressionistic, that the attempt to convey it reads like a piece of automatic writing:

As though chewing the sepulchral mud, the carrousels cut their faces with knives, leaving the slanted lump of the moon smeared with soot and pumpkin. The pumpkin used to be fruit but now it’s a mask. It has changed its attire before our eyes as if the flesh turned to bone and the ray of the nocturnal sun stuffed the skeleton with nuptial pillows […] the little devils approach the carrousels but get pushed back to the beach again and again.

The sick woman, tormented by the crab snuggled on her nape, takes part in some obscure ritual and comes home with another bottle of the therapeutic oil to continue the healing procedure. She learns from Thomás that her well-being will depend on the outcome of the fight between the dove and the swallow. If she wants to get cured, she has to follow the precept of Pythagoras: “domesticas hirundines ne habeto” (suffer no swallows about your house). To get rid of the crab, she will have to strangle the unwelcome swallow with her own hands and step into the shadow cast by the dove hovering in the sky reduced to the size of the purple tunic.


Ramón Alejandro, Omó iyá omí. Image Source

The first association brought by the image of a crab living on a person’s body is that of an oncological disease. And at least partially, Lezama’s final story can be seen as a hallucinatory take on what someone ill with cancer, as well as their family, has to go through. But there is more to it. The themes of domestic life, sexuality, and cultural syncretism are equally important to Crabs, Swallows. The whole thing might as well be a gnostic parable whose significance will elude the uninitiated. Be that as it may, it is the language and the imagery that will linger with the reader regardless of how deeply they will manage to penetrate the thickets of the authorial meaning. Like a wizard squeezing water out of a stone, Lezama makes the prose form drip with unadulterated poetry. All this holds true for the other stories as well. There is no denying that this collection is just a playground used to gain confidence for a more serious trial, yet it should not be treated lightly considering what masterpiece the author will go on to create once he has cut his teeth.

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Foremost of Noblewomen (Cima delle nobildonne) by Stefano D’Arrigo


Roughly in the middle of Stefano D’Arrigo’s second novel, Professor Amadeus Planika, a Stockholm-based expert in placentology, has a delirious vision. In the glass door of the veranda, he sees the reflection of three Rabbis from a Hasidic legend. There are, in fact, four Rabbis in this legend, but he identifies himself with the fourth one. The three figures reflected in the glass rendered mirror-like by the thick foliage outside, are associated with the chorion frondosum — the foetal part of the placenta, which Planika likes to call “the Tree of Life”. However, soon the benevolent Rabbis give place to a sinister and grotesque trio of doctors whose last names are Volella, Carvella, and Budetta. Each of them is holding a butterfly net. They dexterously jump from the veranda onto the deserted street below and head to the Royal Palace all the while entertaining their only spectator with acrobatic tricks and comedic capers. There is something of the Marx brothers about them. From time to time, the doctors pass to one another a top hat. Stranger still, they share a single suit whose pieces they are wearing beneath their white coats: the first one has the dickey, the second—the swallow-tail coat, and the third—the trousers and the shoes. They have come to Stockholm to receive the Nobel Prize for their apocalyptic discovery which has upturned the steady life of the professor and will soon cause his premature death. The three clowns have discovered that the immaculate placenta, ecstatically venerated by Amadeus Planika, sometimes can turn into a lethal factory producing cancer cells that penetrate into the foetus to bide their time before striking. The three doctors, by publishing the results of their research, have forever shattered the image of Placenta Hatshepsut so cherished by the now-distraught professor, who associated the object of his study with the famed female pharaoh. The translation of her name serves as the title of this remarkable novel. With the modest length of 200 pages, it cannot and must not be regarded as D’Arrigo’s minor work. The Sicilian author saw no point in belaboring further the linguistic excess of Horcynus Orca and chose to write a completely different kind of novel in which the language of science took centre stage.

Although it won two literary awards, Foremost of Noblewomen received rather a lukewarm response from the reading public, who was not prepared for its strangeness. First published in 1985, it was not reissued until 2006. The third edition has come out this year in the prestigious BUR Contemporanea paperback series of Mondadori. The last two editions contain a lengthy introduction by Italian critic Walter Pedullà, who knew D’Arrigo personally. In his prefatory text, Pedullà reproduces some of the talks he had with the author regarding his new book. In one of the conversations, D’Arrigo explains why his sophomore effort will be completely different from the debut novel:

To begin with, I erased the slate of my previous language, and you know how much it cost me to get it to the place where, I hope, it will remain forever. This affair, whether it was historical, social, or linguistic, is over; it is unrepeatable. Horcynus Orca cannot and will not be followed by another work until there is a change that will eliminate the features of the first novel. I laugh at those who tell a new story in the language of the previous work. I only make prototypes. I don’t want to have successors, children, grandchildren.

True to his word, D’Arrigo wrote a novel that is not only radically different from what he had been doing before but also is unlike anything that was being written in Italy at the time. It appears that Foremost of Noblewomen was meant for a different, later period, when Twin Peaks and the movies of Apichatpong Weerasethakul would enjoy mainstream appreciation. (Yes, it reminded me of both).

There are three main stories in the novel: the story of the vaginoplasty surgery performed on a male pseudo-hermaphrodite; the story of the fall from grace of Placenta Hatshepsut; the story of an uncannily intelligent dog of a hospital patient. All these events are united by the involvement of the young Sicilian placentologist Mattia Meli, who is the protagonist of the novel.

We first encounter Mattia as one of the spectators in a busy operation theatre. The momentous event unfolding behind the glass is presented from his point of view. The audience consists of a dozen medical students and a regal family from the fictitious Emirate of Kuneor in the “Gulf of Petroleum”. Like the other observers, Emir Saad Ibn as-Salah and his three wives are engrossed in the spectacle of the gynaecological surgeon Belardo creating a neovagina for Amina, the hermaphrodite platonic wife of the emir. The highlight of this scene is Belardo’s commentary meticulously describing each of his manipulations, full of technical jargon and obviously meant for the students. For Mattia, this performance is redolent of a sacrament for the new age. What he sees is Man daringly usurping the place of the Creator and shoring up the transfiguration of human flesh with a new Word, that of advanced medical science. The Arab prince has high-reaching plans for his homeland. He already has Belardo’s consent to head the projected Institute of Woman’s Health in Kuneor, and one of his goals now is to persuade Mattia to become the director of the Placenta Library for whose construction the emir has already bought a shipload of Carrara marble. Ibn as-Salah envisions a grandiose museum storing thousands of placentas that will be admired by their former owners once they have grown up. This fascination stems from the prince’s belief that he is the present-day reincarnation of Pharaoh Narmer’s father. This anonymous man had the prescience to mummify his new-born’s placenta which, when his son became the pharaoh, would be raised as a royal standard in a triumphal procession.


Narmer Palette (verso)

The prince’s fascination is shared by Amadeus Planika whose unvarying routine during the introductory lecture for his course on placentology is displaying to the students the verso of the Narmer Palette and challenging them to guess what object is raised on the pole carried by the rearmost standard-bearer at the victorious march in Hierakonpolis celebrating the defeat of the Scorpion people. Considering that the other poles are crowned by mummified animals, two falcons and a fox, the medical students believe that the mysterious blob with a dangling tail is also some animal. Happy with the intrigue he has created, the professor reveals the great mystery: it is Narmer’s placenta with the umbilical cord solemnly carried among the dynastic standards, symbolising life itself and serving as a foil to the scene of carnage depicted right next to the procession. The neatly arrayed bodies of the prisoners with their severed heads placed between the feet add the indispensable element of death to the celebration of the monarchic life. The carved scenes also serve as a premonition of what is going to happen to Planika’s idealised image of the placenta: once raised as royal symbol, it is destined to be butchered by the shocking discovery of the three doctors. Unaware of the disaster to come, the professor smugly expostulates his whimsical conflation of the placenta and the female pharaoh Hatshepsut. After reading about the female ruler whose reign was marked by peace, prosperity and the flourishing of the arts, the young Planika became as obsessed with Hatshepsut as with his object of study. Both expressed for him the highest degree of nobility embedded in the very name of the female pharaoh. This merging of the Egyptian ruler and the foetal organ as well as the resultant cult was firmly established after his visit to the Metropolitan Museum in New York, where he “personally” got acquainted with the Foremost of Noblewomen in the form of her life-size statue. This seated statue now adorns the cover image of his projected book with the amusingly Balzacian title Hatshepsut: The Splendours and Miseries of the Placenta. He conceived of this study thirty years ago, but hasn’t written it yet and, most certainly, never will, as he himself acknowledges in front of the students. Placenta Hatshepsut has transcended mere biology and now resides in the sacred realm which defies the mundanity of a scientific monograph.


Seated Statue of Hatshepsut, ca. 1479–1458 B.C.

Upon her death, Hatshepsut was succeeded by her stepson Thutmose III, who, towards the end of his rule, attempted to erase all traces of her reign from history. The image of the female pharaoh was systematically removed from statues and reliefs, and her name was scratched out from cartouches. After learning about Hatshepsut Placenta’s scandalous property to spawn cancer cells, the disillusioned professor performs a similar erasure but on a much smaller scale. He takes down the blow-up photo of the Narmer palette from the wall of his office at the Institute of Placentology and replaces it with a poster featuring the ram-headed creation god Khnum fashioning a man out of clay with the moon-god Thoth standing behind and marking the span of the man’s life on a notched wand. Planika regards the whole image as nothing but a stark representation of life and death. There is no way he can recuperate from the heavy blow delivered by the terrible new knowledge. He falls prey to a string of uneasy dreams and disturbing visions before dying of a heart attack. Mattia, who discovers his body at the Institute, also comes across a hand-written memo stating that the next day Professor Belardo is going to operate on a certain Irina Simiodice. Up until now, Mattia has been a passive observer, but the fateful memo will finally allow him to assume the leading role in the story and embark on a revelatory journey in which he will be guided by a Drever, a small Swedish hunting dog.


Khnum and Thoth. An illustration in Volume II of The Gods of the Egyptians by E. A. Wallis Budge

“What is the name of your dog?” is the unexpected question addressed to Mattia by the heavily drugged Irina Simiodice, lying supine on a gurney, on her way to the surgery. He has run into her by chance in the hospital cargo elevator. Mattia doesn’t have a dog, so he makes a joke by answering that his dog’s name is Melampo, although the mind of the patient is too befuddled by anaesthetics to appreciate the young doctor’s sense of humour. Melampo is, obviously, the name of the dead dog whose place Pinocchio is forced to take by the angry farmer, who catches him trying to steal his grapes. Thus, mentioning that his dog is called Melampo is Mattia’s way of saying that he is not a dog owner. Little does he know that the last joke will be on him, for the half-unconscious woman manages to hand him the key to her house with a tag containing its address, asking the young doctor to take care of her Drever for the duration of her stay in hospital. “Now you have a dog”, is the farewell pleasantry of the woman. Surprisingly enough, the Drever, whose name is Margot, is waiting for Mattia outside the hospital. The enterprising animal volunteers to lead the possessor of the key right to the door it is destined to open, which entails traversing the city on foot all the way to the island of Långholmen, where the woman’s house is situated. What’s going on here? Margot looks at the protagonist “with the eyes of a person who, for some reason, turned into a dog so nobody would recognise them, but now was suffering from that transformation”. Irina’s Drever evokes a multitude of mythological and cultural associations that would require a separate article to disentangle. One of its aspects could be that of a psychopomp accompanying Mattia on a symbolic journey to the afterworld represented by the eerie house of the woman with a secret chamber that holds the solution to the mystery of her relation to the deceased professor.  Another image that immediately comes to mind is that of the morbidly curious canine in TS Eliot’s The Wasteland:

That corpse you planted last year in your garden,

Has it begun to sprout? Will it bloom this year?

Or has the sudden frost disturbed its bed?

Oh keep the Dog far hence, that’s friend to men,

Or with his nails he’ll dig it up again!

In a way, Margot guides the main character to the house of its owner so that it can dig up a kind of “planted corpse” and show it to him. The trip to the haunted house on Långholmen, however, is not the culmination of Matto’s bigger journey, which he started as one of the spectators at the operational theatre witnessing the creation of a woman out of the hermaphrodite. The novel starts and ends at the same hospital, coming full circle, and the protagonist arrives at the end of this circuitous path as a changed and initiated man. No longer a passive contemplator, Mattia is the holder of a mystery and secret knowledge that entitle him to his own transformation. You have to take it from me, Stefano D’Arrigo’s second novel has one of the best final sentences ever written.

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Boötes (Bootes) by Miquel de Palol

CoverBootes2Boötes 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.


GIF animation of the Szilassi polyhedron. Image Source

PentagonEstrellatThe 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.


Heracles wearing a Lion’s Skin. Attic Amphora. Image Source

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.


Mimoid by Dominique Signoret. Image Source

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.

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