The Garden of Seven Twilights (El Jardí dels Set Crepuscles) by Miquel de Palol

ElJardiCoverMiquel de Palol’s debut novel is essentially a huge storytelling machine whose design has been inspired by such familiar classics as The Decameron, The Canterbury Tales, One Thousand and One Nights, The Manuscript Found in Saragossa, and The 120 Days of Sodom. The Catalan author’s fascination with the story-within-a-story device employed in each of these books to various degrees of embeddedness is made manifest in the matryoshka doll structure of his novel. In the third part of The Garden of Seven Twilights, the conceit of the nested narratives is brought to its furthest extent when the reader reaches the story which is at the eighth level of separation from the frame narrative. (0) The unnamed narrator of the manuscript titled The Garden of Seven Twilights tells us about attending a gathering in the largest and the most sumptuous hall of a mountain mansion. The purpose of the gathering is to listen to an entertaining story by Jan Kolinski, an agent of a special operations entity called the Interdepartmental Institute. (1) Kolinski tells his audience about his adventure on board the Googol, a research and secret mission ship disguised as a luxury yacht. In Kolinski’s narrative, there is a crew member called Waldemar Grotowicz, (2) who relates to his companions the story of his previous mission on the same ship when he took on board the antimatter physicist Rogelio Florida. (3) The physicist tells the chilling story of a suicide sect to which he used to belong. The climax of the history of this clandestine group is the standoff between Rogelio Florida and Arnold Talmann, the last surviving members of the sect. (4) Talmann narrates to Florida the story of his obsession with card games, which culminated in his seven-year self-imposed isolation at home during which he does little but play solitaire from dawn to dusk. Among other things, he mentions his acquaintance with Eugènia Larrabee, a Theatre Studies professor, (5) who tells him about her acting career and the quirky theatre company she was part of (one of its pranks involved a sexual assault on a herd of goats). She also mentions an encounter with her friend Silvia, (6) who reveals to her the secret of the mysterious lover of her former colleague Adrià Villar as well as retells the conversation she had with their common friend Victoria. In this conversation, (7) Victoria narrates to Silvia several episodes from her US childhood that are connected to her obsession with a playground swing and the starry sky above. She also mentions her godfather Kaspar, (8) who tells her the story of three friends who one day find themselves transformed into mushrooms. In that story, one of the characters is reading a book titled The Garden of Seven Twilights. Judging by the character’s brief reference the content, we realise that his book is similar to the novel we are reading, yet it is not exactly the same book. What would have happened if we had followed one of the stories in that book on the 8th narrative level? Would we have continued descending the narrative levels forever?

GodelPicIt is not surprising that at the zero level of the narration the portrait of the famous mathematical logician Kurt Gödel is attached to the door that opens on the passage leading to the mysterious garden on the mountain plateau, known as the Garden of Twilight. One of the major themes of Palol’s novel is the impossibility of arriving at the desired closure or completeness, if you will, when all the attempts to achieve it push the seeker into the bottomless well of infinite regression. It is important to stress that The Garden should not be read as some kind of allegory of Gödel’s incompleteness theorem (if such a thing were at all possible) but rather as a work that is suffused with the sense of perplexity that followed the realisation that any system based on axiomatic reasoning contained a true statement that could not be proved within that system no matter how many new axioms would be generated to solve this issue.  Ernest Nagel and James R. Newman have summarised this disconcerting conclusion in their seminal Gödel’s Proof  in the following way (PM stands for Principia Mathematica, Russel and Whitehead’s work describing a mathematical axiomatic system):

[…] we cannot deduce all arithmetical truths from the axioms and rules of PM. Moreover, Gödel established that PM is essentially incomplete: even if PM were augmented by additional axioms (or rules) so that the true formula G could be formally derived within the enhanced calculus, then another true formula G’ could be constructed in a precisely analogous manner, and G’ would be formally undecidable inside the enhanced calculus. Needless to say, further enhancement of the already-enhanced calculus, so as to allow derivation of G’, would merely lead to yet another formula G” undecidable within the doubly augmented system—and so on, ad infinitum.

For the characters of The Garden, Gödel is a kind of figurehead presiding over the infinite nesting of narratives in which they have been trapped. At one point, the nameless final narrator (who can also be called the absolute narrator) refers to the famous logician as “the protective genius of the Chinese boxes”, “the spirit of stories” and “the exorcist of mirrors”.

But let’s get back to the beginning. The text of The Garden is introduced to us by Miquel de Palol I Moholy-McCullydilly, the 30th -century resident librarian of Nachmanides Institute in New Jerusalem. From the preface of this scholar, we learn about the lingering and unresolved debate among various scholars regarding the time of the events portrayed in the frame narrative of the manuscript. What most of them seem to agree on, though, is that the said events unfold during a nuclear war. The author of the preface informs us that there have been four such conflicts, which have remained in human history under the name of the Wars of Entertainment. We also learn that there used to be secret associations of very powerful people who took measures to isolate themselves from the depredations of the wholesale slaughter. They escaped to well-hidden shelters equipped with everything to provide not only survival but also the luxurious lifestyle they had been used to in the pre-war years. The action of the frame story told us by the final narrator takes place at such a shelter. It is an imposing palace perched high in the mountains whose exact location is never revealed. Shortly after the nuclear alarm goes off in Barcelona, Pierre Gimellion, the owner of the mansion, begins accepting guests fleeing the ensuing chaos. One of them is the final narrator.

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Salvador Dalí, Uranium and Atomica Melancholica Idyll, 1945. Image Source

For the next seven days, the guests at the mansion devote most of their time to storytelling. They gather in a large, richly decorated hall which is called the Avalon, after the legendary island from Arthurian romances. We get thoroughly acquainted with the layout of the building and the territories belonging to it, so that we can feel at home in the place which is going to be the main setting of the frame narrative until the end of the book. Together with the final narrator, we get used to the routine of retiring to the Avalon after a meal, where coffee is served, and where one of the eight 0-level narrators (let us not forget that the 0 level itself is a narration) entertains the audience with a story, which inevitably engenders further narrative levels as it progresses. For the sake of the reader’s convenience, each jump down and up the hierarchy of narratives is designated with special notation. For example, if the narrative shifts to the first level from the zero level, it gets signposted with 0/1; if the story shifts back, this change is marked with 1/0; if the first-level story contains another story, then we get 1/2 as a signpost, and so on. Although these markers do facilitate the task of tracking different stories as they start rapidly multiplying, it is inevitable that the reader may get lost in these fictional woods and will have to retrace their steps to double-check certain facts and circumstances. Many stories are interconnected, and, quite often, a semi-forgotten character or an event mentioned at one of the narrative levels in the very beginning might provide an important clue for a story narrated closer to the end. Things also get complicated because some of the characters are featured in different stories under different names, and since that is not immediately obvious, it is up to the reader to reassess certain episodes when it becomes clear that the new dramatis personae are the protagonists of some previous tale. As for the content of the stories themselves, it is a smorgasbord of genres and forms. There is pulp horror, a political thriller, sci-fi, pornography, crime fiction, naval adventure, parable, esoteric poetry, and much more. I will briefly mention just three stories that I particularly liked.

The Story of Dinner at the House of Virgínia Guasch takes place on the first level and is told to the guests at the mountain palace by Frederic Casanova, one of the said zero-level narrators. The story is an amusing mashup of the Mad Tea Party chapter in Alice in Wonderland and, anachronistically, Groundhog Day, for Palol’s novel came out before Harold Ramis’ movie. Of course, there is nothing new in the idea of a person experiencing the same day over and over again; this trope can be traced at least as far back as Malcolm Jameson’s 1941 sci-fi short story Doubled and Redoubled. The predicament of Casanova is not limited to the fact that one day he finds himself trapped in a time loop and no matter what he tries to do cannot escape the prison of March 21. He also cannot avoid coming to the dinner that Virgínia Guasch gives to her friends to celebrate the coming of spring. He tries to leave the city, or, conversely, stay at home for the whole day, yet the circumstances invariably lead to some of his friends finding him and dragging him to the ever-repeating party, at which the only variable is Casanova’s increasingly uncouth and erratic behaviour. Ultimately, it becomes clear that the poor man has been thrown into the time loop by some powerful mastermind that will release him only after he accomplishes what is expected of him. It turns out that Casanova is on a secret mission, so secret that he has to find out what it is, by trial and error, and execute it without being aware that he is obeying a foreign will. Later on, at the zero level, Jan Kolinski explains to the guests that it is not quite correct to say that Casanova was held captive within a loop in time but rather in a spacetime loop. If the man had been tethered only to time, he would have been immediately disintegrated after his first jump back to the previous day. The common agreement seems to be that everyone currently inhabits the spacetime dimension corresponding to the one in which Casanova’s final visit to the dinner at Virgínia Guasch’s house took place.

The macabre events in The Story of the Final Highway happen at the third level. Its narrator is the captain of the Googol ship Roger Lawrick, who occupies, respectively, the second level, himself being a character in the story of the first-level narrator Grotowicz, who, in his turn, is featured in a story by Kolinski, who inhabits the zero-level. Lawrick tells his interlocutors about some unidentified country in a mountainous region that he happened to drive through one day. It was getting dark. He was running out of petrol and was hungry and tired, so he was looking forward to reaching the city that lay ahead. Before arriving at his destination, he had an opportunity to learn about the country’s burial customs right there, on the highway. At first, he was puzzled by the nature of strange silhouettes that started cropping up on the road at irregular intervals, but as he drove further and saw more shapes, he came to the dreadful realisation that the highway was strewn with squashed human bodies.

From that point, the disturbing human remains kept appearing more frequently as I was moving from one startling find to another: little children and huge men in different states of decomposition, all laid out in the same manner, as if they were stretched in coffins. Some of them still preserved their hair and teeth, their hands positioned whimsically and their feet arranged like those of crucifixion victims; even those that seemed quite recent bore the marks left by passing cars and had become part of the asphalt as if sharing with it a common skin, as if, starting from the ridge of the nose, a symbiosis had occurred via a membrane that was hard and soft at the same time. Soon I gave up on the idea of skirting them for fear that I might fall down the cliff as a result of the constant zigzagging. Each time the wheels met a small osseous protuberance or a suspicious bump in the asphalt, the slight jolt of the car added a bit to my panic, and my concern to leave that road behind grew stronger.

We get more details about this unusual way of burying the dead from the conversation that Lawrick has with two clients at the hotel bar. The “burial” itself is performed by the relatives of the deceased, who run over the corpse seven times in a tracked vehicle making sure to leave the head intact so that it can be crushed later by chance. Just like with traditional burials, the local funeral practice is hierarchised. For example, the most distinguished citizens are laid at the crossroads, whereas the place of others depends on their lineage: the older it is, the closer to the middle of the road they end up. In order to have more burial space, the authorities are compelled to build new highways that lead nowhere. What Lawrick witnessed is the actualisation of the metaphor of the last voyage underpinning that society’s attitude towards death. The dead become part of the road to show the way to their descendants, who are also destined to join them so they can serve as guides for their own offspring.

The Dream of the Jug-warmer is an amusing revisiting of the katabasis genre. Míliu, nicknamed the Jug-warmer (Escalfagerres) is a childhood friend of Randolph Carter, yet another zero-level narrator whose story about his stay in Barcelona as an exchange student unfolds on the first level. Randolph’s Catalan pal has an extraordinary gift of seeing vivid and complex dreams with prophetic significance. Thanks to this ability, he obtains examination questions several days before the exam: they just come to him in a dream. One day, when the studies are over, he tells his foreign friend an especially bizarre dream, whose description occupies the second narrative level. In the first part of the dream, Míliu finds himself in some bleak, deserted region with a single tree on the side of the road leading to a distant city. The raven perched on a branch of the tree happens to be the metamorphosed Munichus, king of the Molossians. The seer’s goal is to instruct the boy on how to descend safely into the underworld so that he can learn about his destiny. The instructions of the talking raven are ridiculously long-winded, overloaded with details, and obviously impossible to remember. The only crucial piece of information that seems to stick with the boy is that he has to beware the shape-shifting monster Empusa, who has one leg made of bronze and the other of cow dung. From the very beginning of the boy’s journey, it is evident that his katabasis will be somewhat different from the classical paragons of the Odyssey and the Aeneid. He does find one of the well-known gateways to Hades: the Taenaran Cave. However, this is not just a natural opening in a hillside, but a shady dive with a gaudy neon sign beckoning clientele. To enter that suspicious establishment, one has to shell out 250 pesetas. The actual descent into the underworld is carried out by sliding in a brass toboggan down a secret chute behind a black curtain at the back of the bar. Once in the underworld, Míliu sees all kinds of famous personages, not necessarily coming from ancient Greece or Rome. For example, he meets there Ramon Lull, Ibn Arabi, Meister Eckhart, Herman Melville, and H. P. Lovecraft. His main mission is to find some mythological prophet who could predict his future, which he manages to achieve after a bit of searching. The prediction, however, is too cryptic to be properly understood. It concerns some extremely valuable jewel, which is going to be stolen and retrieved. It is no wonder that the boy has little use for this piece of prophetic wisdom because in order to understand it one has to explore all the other narrative levels of The Garden of Seven Twilights.

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Jan Brueghel the Younger, Aeneas and the Sibyl in the Underworld

The mention of the jewel brings us to the main plotline of The Garden, which becomes gradually apparent as seemingly autonomous stories start to form a bigger whole like pieces of a puzzle. I regard the main McGuffin of the book, something called “the jewel” as a sort of proto-Troiacord. Everyone is after this mysterious thing, which possesses an enormous power that can be harnessed to change physical reality. Is it a real piece of jewelry with fantastic properties or perhaps, something more abstract, like a physics theorem or a computer program? This is one of the essential questions we try to figure out together with the final narrator by jumping into and out of the rabbit holes conjured up by the storytellers at the Avalon. In Catalan, the word for a jewel (joia) can also mean “joy”, and such ambiguity is in no way accidental. The hunt for the jewel can also be interpreted as the metaphor for the pursuit of the joy of storytelling, for, among the variety of pleasurable activities available to the powerful and wealthy visitors of the mountain palace, that of telling and listening to entertaining yarns is held especially dear. The story of the mysterious jewel is intertwined with that of the Mir clan and the Interdepartmental Institute, two entities that unite a mass of characters driven by different agendas who keep appearing, disappearing, and crossing paths on every possible narrative level. The story of the Mir clan starts as a variation of King Lear. Elies Mir is the 75-year-old founder of the Mir Bank, which is considered one of the most respected and reliable financial institutions in Europe. Elies Mir does not have direct descendants, so when he decides to retire, he summons his three vice-presidents and asks them to tell him what money means to them. For Julian Flint, the first to respond, money is a universal language. For Toni Colom, the second, it is a means of achieving happiness. The youngest one, Alexis Cros, infuriates the old banker, by declaring that for him money is “the unequivocal sign of the banishment from paradise” and “the most refined form of cannibalism”. Such a response earns him a transfer to the Central American branch of the Mir Bank, whereas Flint and Colom become the inheritors of the old man’s fortune. They thank their benefactor by booting him off to a nursing home and driving his bank to bankruptcy. It is up to Alexis Cros to restore the former glory of the Mir Bank, get its founder from the retirement facility, and establish a new dynasty, whose members are also going to inherit the mysterious jewel, which proves to be the most valuable asset of Elies Mir. The antagonists of the Mir clan are unsurprisingly represented by Julian Flint, Toni Colom, and their henchmen; they will make every effort to get their mitts on the jewel. The struggle for the possession of this valuable object runs through lots of the stories recounted at the Avalon and, apparently, overflows into the frame narrative itself. The Interdepartmental Institute acts as a powerful ally of the Mir clan in this confrontation, providing them with all kinds of managerial and technological assistance, including the deployment of a substance that can change a person’s appearance. The genius behind the Institute’s most daring operations is the man known simply as Ω. Even Ω’s close associates have never seen him in person and communicate with him on a computer. The missions of the Googol are also an important part of the Institute’s activity. The crew of the secret ship guided by a supercomputer with self-regenerating biochips gets involved in a series of exciting adventures like fighting sea pirates, saving hostage diplomats, intercepting a cargo of enriched uranium, and treating an insane chromosomatic hero (a product of genetic engineering) on board. As we already know, each mission of the Googol is also responsible for spawning numerous other narratives, for both the crew members and the passengers have always a story to tell.

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Richard Earlom after Henry Fuseli, King Lear Casting Out His Daughter Cordelia

As the final narrator keeps listening to all these stories and gets to know the guests at Gimellion’s mansion, his suspicion regarding the whole enterprise starts to grow. He becomes certain that the narrators purposefully tamper with the facts to suit their murky objectives. Perhaps the storytelling marathon is just a sophisticated game of poker in which the members and allies of the Mir clan on the one hand, and the Flint gang on the other, are trying to decide once and for all who will keep the jewel? To make matters even more complicated, there is a high probability that the secretive Ω is among the guests, and a lot of effort is spent on trying to find out who that is. The final narrator is sure that at least some of the answers are to be found in the Garden of Twilight, which is made up of sixteen giant trees and whose centrepiece is an enigmatic table-shaped marble altar with the word MEISSA inscribed on its base. After his first visit to the Garden, the final narrator feels eerily drawn to that place and keeps returning to it for the duration of his stay at the palace, looking for the hidden clues that would allow him to find out the true nature of the gathering and maybe even will help him to throw some light on his own past. As we already know, his spiritual guide in this quest is Kurt Gödel, whose photograph hangs on the door to the secret passageway that the final narrator has to get through on his mission to uncover the complete truth.

Despite its reliance on the well-established literary convention, Palol’s debut novel goes beyond a mere homage. The borrowed format allows the author to develop some of the signal features of his prose, which will find their full realisation in his enormous opus The Troiacord, which, to my mind, is Palol’s most accomplished work to date. In The Garden, we come across such recognisable hallmarks as the oversized cast of characters that the reader has trouble following, a person taking part in somebody else’s intricate game without realising it, the intersection of geometry, astronomy, and arcane learning, the unexpected outbursts of extreme violence and graphic sex, identity swap, the absurd, deadpan humour, and the necessity to solve puzzles in order to find out some hidden facts, which do not necessarily lead to the ultimate revelation. All that, and much more, is going to be explored in the subsequent novels crafted with even greater confidence and skill. The year 1989, when The Garden of Seven Twilights was first published, should be remembered as the starting point of the most ambitious literary enterprise in contemporary Catalan literature.

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Group Read of Schattenfroh

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Pieter Bruegel the Elder. The Triumph of Death. Detail

Und was ist der Name des Baumes rechts von ihm? Wieder muss ich passen. Räderpfahl, daran die Geräderten aufgerichtet und zur Schau gestellt werden, sagt Vater. Dazu werden mit Flugblättern Leute aus nah und fern angelockt, zur Abschreckung, heißt es, die Leute haben aber oftmals ein großes Vergnügen an diesem Schauspiel, das delectare geht also über das prodesse. Mein Vater ist ein gelehrter Mann, wenn es grausam wird, flüchtet er gerne in die Welt der Fremdwörter.

Michael Lentz, Schattenfroh

If your German is at least intermediate and you want to read Schattenfroh together with me, join The Untranslated Book Club on my Patreon. (You can read more about the Club here). Our group read starts on August 8, 2022. I suggest joining between August 2 and August 8 because if you do it earlier you will be additionally charged by the platform. As usual, you can expect weekly instalments of the Reader’s Guide with a glossary, notes, questions for discussion, and a short summary of the passage we have covered. In addition, every month we are going to have Discord meet-ups to discuss the portion of the book we have read in the past four weeks. It will take us about four and a half months to get through the book at the pace of 50 pages per week. If you like Northern Renaissance, Surrealism, word games, the 4th dimension, Hegel, Bach, Werner Tübke, Laurence Sterne, Cervantes, Lewis Caroll, grimacing chairs, and golems, come aboard! And while you are waiting here’s a brief list of the books that might be helpful for a better understanding of Michael Lentz’s magnum opus:

1. Kabbalah by Gershom Scholem

2. Michael Kohlhaas by Heinrich von Kleist (tr. Michael Hofmann)

3. The Bridge on the Drina by Ivo Andrić (tr. Lovett F. Edwards)

4. Discipline & Punish: The Birth of the Prison by Michel Foucault (tr. Alan Sheridan)

5. The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman by Laurence Sterne

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Illarion and the Dwarf (Илларион и Карлик) by Vladimir Gubin

IllarionCoverVladimir Gubin has remained in the history of Russian literature as the author of one work, which he kept reworking and polishing for 15 years, from 1981 to 1996. I’d like to start my review with two dismissals of this short novel, which only reinforce my belief that Illarion and the Dwarf has still not been properly read. The first statement is from a very brief critical assessment by a certain B. Filevsky that can be found in Issue 7, 1997, of the literary journal October.

In the same place [the afterword to the novel], it is pointed out that the author is in some way similar to Venedikt Yerofeyev and Sasha Sokolov. He is similar to them not because of the prose quality but rather on account of the propensity to fit one word to another like bricks, which causes the word masses to solidify like little Great Walls of China. The reader, consequently, is unable to surmount the obstacle. Nonetheless, a person’s stubborn resistance to the daily grind deserves respect regardless of whether one likes his book or not.

The second opinion is expressed by literary critic Mikhail Khlebnikov in his book The Union and Dovlatov (Союз и Довлатов):

The properly read and diluted Nabokov did not allow to create the plot, the characters, the banal sense. The author himself kept re-writing the work for many years, trying to balance the text and to achieve ephemeral perfection.

To realise that there are indeed a plot and characters in Illarion and the Dwarf, it is enough to read the novel just once. To have a better understanding of what actually happens, one may need a second reading, but that would be more than enough to grasp the development of the story despite the undeniable abundance of linguistic distractions. The thing is that neither the plot nor the characters conform to the expectations of the reader used to conventional realist works of fiction. In the case of Gubin’s novel, any recourse to the criteria one would normally apply to realist prose is not just wrong but laughable. When it comes to the depicted events and situations, this novel employs the bizarre, absurd, and grotesque storytelling mode dating back to the Dadaists and Surrealists. As for its language, the lineage of Illarion and the Dwarf could be traced to Andrei Bely’s rhythmic prose and lexical quirks. It is also true that there are affinities with Nabokov and Sokolov although Gubin is hardly an epigone but rather a sui generis phenomenon that needs to be rediscovered and reassessed.

The novel is set in a fictional country called Sycophantia (Лизоблюдия), which is partly a satire of the Soviet Union. While not averse to poking fun at some aspects of Soviet society, Gubin is not interested in writing just a banal allegory of a totalitarian state. It seems that the author’s primary goal is to create a hermetic yet very rich fictional world that would comfortably accommodate all the linguistic ebullience unleashed within it. You can tell a weird story in conventional language. You can tell a conventional story in weird language. Illarion and the Dwarf is a weird story told in weird language—that’s my elevator pitch.

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Oleg Pakhomov’s illustration for Alexander Belyaev’s novel Professor Dowell’s Head. Image Source

The Dwarf, one of the titular protagonists, works in the Tower that resembles “a ramshackle museum shed”. The function of the Tower is to generate ideas for state legislation. These ideas are supposed to be the result of the collaborative effort of the bright minds permanently residing in the building where the Dwarf acts both as the scribe and the caretaker. The Tower intellectuals are a crabby and contentious lot with a variety of backgrounds. We learn a bit about several of them: there is a poet, an actress, a physicist, and a surgeon. The surgeon is actually the founder of the Tower, and before joining its staff he gained notoriety as the creator of “assorted humans”. He constructed them from the organs harvested from his numerous patients. The newly-minted Frankenstein’s monsters were sent to work as stevedores and freight train loaders. At some point, his interest shifted to the problem of brain preservation, which led to the creation of “the mind corporation” and the building of the Tower. The remarkable fact about the supposed highbrows now toiling inside is that all of them have been reduced to cleanly shaved amputated heads attached to the special mounts protruding from the walls of the main room. (The first parallel that comes to mind is, inevitably, Alexander Belyaev’s Soviet sci-fi classic Professor Dowell’s Head.) We quickly come to doubt the productivity of the heads as most of the time they just bicker among themselves, and it is the Dwarf who writes down the ideas for new laws and passes them off as the suggestions of the bodiless brainiacs. The non-smoking Dwarf spends his cigarette breaks on a tree branch, and it is from that elevated position that he first spots his future nemesis Illarion. The man, who is already the all-powerful ruler of the country and bears the title of Monarch, is crawling on all fours and reminds the amused spectator of a jaguar getting ready to jump on its prey. However, when the monarch takes the upright position, he begins to resemble “a pot-bellied, flabby maggot”. But make no mistake, Illarion’s beastly bearing is Chekhov’s gun that is bound to fire its anthropophagic charge sooner or later. After the Dwarf dismisses the dictator’s proposal to “lick each other” (which could be a way of asking the protagonist to swear fealty to the regime), the offended Monarch leaves, undoubtedly carrying away an enormous grudge.

A bit later, we learn the backstory of Illarion’s ascent to power. He is somewhat of an existentialist philosopher. Dissatisfied with what he calls “ugh-being” (тьфу-бытие), he comes to the conclusion that the only way to defy it is to commit suicide. In one of his scholarly articles, he even swears to kill himself in the near future. A lot of people seduced by his theory readily give up their lives, whereas Illarion keeps postponing his own decisive act, held back by the responsibility of the founding figure. When the suicides become widespread across the country, the alarmed government hires a cavalry detachment from a neighbouring state and tasks it to hack the dangerous thinker to pieces. Illarion fearlessly proclaims that he is happy to accept his lot and doesn’t give “a rat’s …” (“a pigeon’s …” [dick] in the original, i.e. “до Гулькина…” [хуя]) about the murderous horde. These words have an unexpectedly powerful impact on the detachment: the horses fall down and the cavalrymen begin making mincemeat out of one another with their cutlasses. After this incident, all the ministers step down, and the victorious Illarion assumes unlimited authority over the country. He surrounds himself with a band of henchmen called smart alecks (нахалы) who are not unlike Ivan the Terrible’s ruthless bodyguard corps oprichniki. During one of his inspection trips, the Monarch and his loyal smart alecks come across the village Shoelaces (Шнурки), which does not conform to the requirements of the “worker-peasant chaos”. It is too tidy and too clean to be part of Illarion’s dominion. This unacceptably good condition of the renegade village is summed up by the neat alliteration brought into being by the words at the beginning and the end of this sentence: “Лужайка была вместо лужи.” (literally: “There was a lawn instead of a puddle.”). Moreover, the villagers have never heard of Illarion and do not happily accept him as their new ruler. Illarion’s conquest of the village takes place in an absurd and funny manner, as he “baptises” it, calling everything around after himself and ending up calling himself after himself, thus becoming Illarion named after Illarion (Илларион имени Иллариона). The fun transforms into terror when the villager called Borka Balalaikin, who invites the Monarch to spend a night in his izba, tries to whiplash an annoying cat but hits Illarion instead. The Monarch regards that as a mutiny and orders the smart alecks to burn down the village.

The conflict between the Dwarf and Illarion flares up after the smart alecks catch Illarion’s sister and deliver her to their ruler. The woman is called Pomezana (Помезана), which is an abridged version of her full name Поцелуй-Меня-ЗаНожку (Kiss-Me-On-the-Leg). The distinctive mark of her eccentric behaviour is that she never wears any clothes. What is more, she has recently taken to flying in the sky like a character in a Marc Chagall painting. After a failed attempt to liberate Pomezana, the Dwarf is thrown into prison where he is forced to recite his autobiography non-stop because if he doesn’t, an excruciatingly loud cacophony starts pouring into the cell from the loudspeaker embedded in the ceiling. While the Dwarf is safely locked away, Illarion comes up with an ingenious plan to sway Pomezana in his favour: the conniving Monarch wants to stage Pomezana’s rescue from the clutches of a villain whose role is going to be performed by Andryukha, one of his most loyal smart alecks. Illarion is hiding in a barrel with a peephole (the allusion to Diogenes is not lost upon him) while the hens and rooster released by Andryukha are pecking at the rice sprinkled over the pubis of the tied-up Pomezana. When the rooster gets over-excited and, in Illarion’s view, attempts to mate with the helpless woman, the Monarch storms out of the barrel, and all hell breaks loose. The novel ends with a closed session of the court, which is close in its spirit to the travesty trial in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, albeit behind the amusing absurdity of this extravaganza there is a sinister reminder of an individual’s utter helplessness before the judicial machine of a totalitarian state.

Of course, the way this novel is written is more important than what it is written about. This becomes evident from the very first paragraphs, which describe the swarms of blood-thirsty fleas causing mayhem among the citizens of Sycophantia. We do not know this yet, but the sporadic attacks of these uncannily trained insects are Illarion’s doing. From time to time, he orders his servants to release the fleas into public places as the indispensable “scourge of the masses”. The whooshing of the nasty swarms is conveyed by the repeated sibilants, something that a good English translator would be able to recreate after some time of concentrated effort. With your permission, I will limit myself to a less creative translation.

Блохи — вот ураган! Эта сыпучая мгла без единого пятнышка света спешила навстречу тебе — как опилки железа навстречу магниту. Стихия, чирикая, чиркала по корпусу носа, настропаляла глаза прослезиться, царапала незащищенную плоть, ела теплую шею, не кашу.

Вторжение длилось ускоренно, длилось оно всего ничего.

Миниатюрные кайзеры вдруг исчезали долой с оскверненных участков улиц так же стремительно, так же внезапно, как и появлялись, однако последствия пиршества блох, анабиоз опрокинутой попранной чести, парша в очаге катастрофы, разбитые рваные бусы, непарные туфли, клочки шевелюр и медали на мостовой, подтверждая жестокость явления, свидетельствовали мудрецу на заметку, что против орды вампиров еще нигде во всем индюшатнике не придумано средств обороны.

[Fleas—what a hurricane! That powdery haze without a single speck of light was rushing towards you like metal shavings to a magnet. The chirping element scratched the hull of the nose, inciting the eyes to tear up, scraped the unprotected flesh, ate not mush but the warm neck.

The invasion was rapid; it happened in the blink of an eye.

The miniature kaisers suddenly vanished from the defiled street sections as precipitously, as abruptly as they had appeared; however, the aftermath of the fleas’ feast—the anabiosis of the overthrown and trampled honour, the mange in the focus of the disaster, the shattered and scattered beads, the unmatched shoes, the tufts of hairdos and the medals on the cobbles—gave word to the wise, confirming the cruelty of the event, that no means of defence against the horde of the vampires has been invented in the whole turkey coop.]

Gubin’s rhythmic prose deserves a separate article, perhaps even a monograph, so I will just lightly touch upon it, giving you a couple of examples. Some of his sentences are likely to spark an acute sensation of déjà-vu in any reader who has been exposed to the Russian canonical translations of The Iliad and The Odyssey. It is a peculiar feeling when you realise that a scene or a description in the novel suddenly bursts into a dactylic hexameter or at least into its truncated version. Just look at this sentence:

Пусть у реп|тилий по|верх орга|низма свой |собственный| панцирь

—́UU | —́UU | —́ UU | —́UU | —́UU | —́U

или сво|я чешу|я сере|брится на| пузе.

—́UU | —́UU | —́ UU | —́UU | —́U

(Let reptiles have their own carapace on their bodies and let silvery scales shine on their bellies.)

To give you another example, related to the above-mentioned attack of the fleas, here is a weird participial phrase metered in amphibrachic pentameter:

“многие сразу потели,

танцуя| вприсядку| плюючу|ю польку| содома”

U—́U | U—́U | U—́U | U—́U | U—́U |

(many broke out in a sweat, squat-dancing the spitting polka of Sodom)

There are more likewise ingeniously metered sentences and phrases scattered throughout the text, and I cannot stress enough how important this rhythmic ornamentation is to the overall aesthetic experience of reading the novel.

Apart from the rhythm of Gubin’s sentences, there are also striking images to catch us unawares, to give us pause, and to make us wonder.  Gubin’s strings of metaphors and similes are also often rhythmic and frequently sport alliteration or consonance. The facial expression of the plumber Entik (a minor character), who comes to visit a psychiatrist is described as “подвижная гамма гримас” (nimble gamut of grimaces). The Tower is periphrastically called “институт-инкубатор оракульских истин” (institute-incubator of oracular truths). The scalp of the Dwarf itches “as if dogs had sprinkled the crown of his head with lightning bolts” (как если бы псы на макушку насыпали молний). This sentence fragment is yet another amphibrachic pentameter, by the way. The idle yammering of bus passengers becomes “the tentacles of the sticky and wobbly noodles of verbiage” (щупальцы липкой дрожащей лапши словоблудия). In his bombastic address to the residents of the Shoelaces village, Illarion wants to demonstrate the superiority of the technocratic society that he represents, so he comes up with an alliterative abomination that could have been spewed by any of the garbled proletarian rhetoricians in Andrei Platonov’s works: “Наука накаркала цивилизацию, предусмотрела паяльник и поезд.” My translation will be very imperfect for this: “Science predicted civilisation; it foresaw the soldering iron and the train.” (As you can see, the alliteration is lost and the hilarious use of the verb накаркать, which is derived from the verb “to caw” and means to call into being something evil, hasn’t been conveyed. That would have required more than one sleepless night, I’m afraid!) Illarion prefers to spend his leisure time at the fireplace with the state flag next to him because in its presence “the muzzle of wrinkles grows dim” (тускнеет намордник морщинок).  I could go on, but even these few examples should be enough for either winning you over or completely putting you off Illarion and the Dwarf, depending on your idea of what good literature is. I will finish by noting that the title itself is bathed in consonance and the interplay of the l’s and r’s is luxurious to the ear: Illarion i Karlik.

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