Reading Zettel’s Traum: Week 5, pp. 42-51

Poe’s early childhood spent travelling with his mother Eliza Arnold, a small-time actress, from one production to another, had a formative influence on the impressive child. Pagenstecher believes that the “metaworld” of the theatre the child was exposed to from his early days, with its bizarre sets, exaggerated gestures and grease-painted faces considerably affected the themes and the style of Poe the writer. He also states that while his mother was performing on the stage, the three-year old Edgar used to be placed in a laundry basket in the wings.

Another of Pagenstecher’s observations: there is no winter in Poe’s tales. They proceed reading some of the passages from Pym, and Wilma, hitting upon the following sentence, says that it is a description of snow: “We were nearly overwhelmed by the white ashy shower which settled upon us and upon the canoe, but melted into the water as it fell.” Her husband shrugs off the idea, noting that it’s probably just volcanic ash. Pagenstecher, of course, regards this scene through the prism of his quirky theories. He believes that the mysterious white substance is the powder that some dancers dabbed on their cheeks in the wings where the little Poe could observe them. Whereas the vapour “flaring up occasionally” on the horizon is nothing but the quivering stage curtain. Moreover, Daniel is positive that theatre imagery is present in all of Poe’s tales.  Obviously, it is represented not in a straightforward manner, but rather unconsciously, in close relation with etyms.

The allegorical character of Poe’s novel draws a comparison with Phineas Fletcher’s poem The Purple Island, or the Isle of Man. The 17th century English poet described the human anatomy  in his verbose and detailed allegory as elements of a landscape in which rivers represented veins, forests stood for hair, and mountain ridges signified bones. The full text of the poem is available here, if you are interested. The anatomical interpretation of the landscape in Pym immediately leads to the evocation of bodily functions such as urination and menstrual bleeding. What is more, in a multilingual punning spree Pagenstecher reveals Gordon Pym as an ass fetishist. He says that Pym’s journey to the south is yet another proof that the real hero navigates towards “S” (i. e. ass). Whereas a breast fetishist is most likely to go up north with its alabuster mountains, Poe’s main character meets natives (i.e. nates) in fissures (i.e. cracks). To which Wilma exclaims in disgust “Assez!” which is the French for “enough”, but, ironically enough, in compliance with Pagenstecher’s etym theory she is also saying “Asses!”

The next point of discussion is John Lloyd Stephens’ travelogue Incidents of Travel in Egypt, Arabia Petraea and the Holy Land, and its influence on Pym. Poe wrote a long and detailed review of this book, which despite being rather critical, also  considered its merits: “Although in some respects deficient, the work too presents some points of moment to the geographer, to the antiquarian, and more especially to the theologian.” Comparing different passages from Arabia Petraea and Pym, Pagenstecher shows Poe’s borrowings from Stephens’ account. A longish passage from Stephens’ description of the historical city of Petra follows. The mountainous landscape depicted by Poe in his novel, according to Daniel, owes much to the scenery described in Arabia Petraea. There are also similarities between the experiences of Stephens and his travelling partner Paul among the rocks of Petra and the adventures of Gordon Pym and Peters in the mountains of Tsalal.

to be continued

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Reading Zettel’s Traum: Week 4, pp. 33-41

All four leave Daniel’s house to continue the conversation in the Field of Terror. Pagenstecher proposes to examine the mysterious language of Tsalal in Pym. He equates “anamoo-moo” with the Hebrew word “anamim” from the Book of Genesis, which according to him, stands for “land of north”. Thus, the language of Tsalal is just corrupted Hebrew. He also maintains that the word “tsalal” has been derived from the Hebrew “zalmon”, which means “dark” or “shadowy”. As for “lama-lama” shouted by the aboriginals of the island, it means “a lot of meat”, as the famous city was also called “Beit-lahem” – house of meat. “Tekeli-li” can be traced to “tekeleth” and stands for “blue”.


Engraving showing Joseph Smith receiving the Golden Plates and other artefacts from Moroni, 1893

The Book of Mormon, and its author Joseph Smith are discussed. Pagenstecher believes that Poe read the book and it had influence on his writing. Classical scholar Charles Anthon is also mentioned. Poe highly regarded him, and both maintained correspondence. In the right-hand margin, an excerpt from Pearl of Great Price, one of the four standard works of the LDS Church, relates how Charles Anthon gave his authentication to a fragment from the Book of Mormon. The fragment was a purported translation  of a text from the golden plates given to Joseph Smith by the angel Moroni. When the scholar learned about this controversial origin, he tore up the authentication, saying that angels didn’t exist.

Mordecai Manuel Noah’s attempt to found a Jewish colony at Grand Island is briefly narrated. This 19th century utopia ended in failure, but can be regarded now as an important precursor of the later Zionist ambition that led to the establishment of modern Jewish state in Palestine.

Poe is revealed to be a hungarophile. The name of Imre Thököly, whose visage, as we remember, was depicted on the medal Pagenstecher gave to Paul, is brought up again. Franziska wants to see the medal, which she calls  “thaler”.  Just by the look of it, it’s hard to say whether it’s a coin or a medal, as there are no any numbers on it. In different sources it has been called both. Some Schmidtian wordplay, like “stockings &  sandals […] shocking &  scandalous” is on display here.

Recollection and remembrance is another important subject tackled next. There are two extensive quotations on the matter that take up most of the space on page 41. The first is by Freud, in which he explains the selective mechanism of remembering and how it is related to the childhood impressions that have been buried deeply in the subconscious. The second quotation is from  Scattered Leaves by Johann Gottfried Herder. Herder writes about false memories: remembering places one has never been to or people one has never seen. Similarly to Freud, Herder argues that the explanation of this condition should be sought in a person’s childhood. This feeling is brought about by the return of childhood fantasies, inventions, and game scenarios long since forgotten, but never completely erased from the mind.

At this point the Jacobis not only ask Pagenstecher to use as little psychoanalysis in his examination of Poe’s works as possible, but go as far as suggesting that he abandons his etym theory altogether. Pagenstecher’s answer to that is not surprising at all: if you give up on the interpretation of dreams and etyms, you might as well give up on Edgar Allan Poe.

to be continued

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Reading Zettel’s Traum, Week 3, pp. 27-32

Wilma’s query to find out which Poe critic Pagenstecher prefers triggers the latter’s dismissive rant against the already-mentioned Freudian Marie Bonaparte. He says that most of her ideas are wrong and that her research is conclusive proof of the statement “a WOMAN should never write a thesis on a MAN“. That makes Pagenstecher somewhat of a sexist, right? On the whole, Pagenstecher does not hold the other critics in high esteem either, declaring that “NOBODY could become a POE=adept, let alone POE=lyhistor.” The word “polyhistor” is derived from the Greek  polyistōr which means “very learned” and is a less frequently used synonym of “polymath”. The obvious question arising from Pagenstecher’s statement is: should we consider his creator, Arno Schmidt, such a POE=lyhistor? The very essence of Zettel’s Traum, which is, in general lines, a polymathic exploration of the life and works of Edgar Allan Poe, seems to support this idea.

Pagenstecher tells Franziska that the ring with the spinel gemstone that he gave her earlier has magic properties: if on the day the gift is received the new owner turns it on their finger so that the stone is on the inner side of the finger, then both the giver and the receiver should speak only truth for 24 hours. In this connection, there is a marginal reference to  Shakuntala’s ring that  reminded King Dushyanta about his spouse whom he had forgotten because of Shakuntala’s father’s curse. Then Wilma and Paul have an argument whether an object they see in some distance is a tree root or a hare. The “root” springs up and runs away.

Wilma asks if Pagenstecher can come up with a new interesting hypothesis regarding Poe’s works, which might be challenging as the “Poe market” has been overcrowded. And at this point, Daniel goes into some lengths to present his theory of  etyms and its implications. We realise at this point that the portmanteau-words, multilingual puns, and other linguistic shenanigans in Zettel’s Traum are the actualisation of this theory.

As the starting point for the consideration of etyms, Pagenstecher chooses Sigmund Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams in which the bizarre imagery and the illogical plots of dreams are explained as the product of the unconscious. In a similar way, etyms are the language of the unconscious, a hidden dimension of a written text. He goes on to give some simple examples. A philosopher who is fascinated by the notion of the “whole” cannot avoid thinking about its homonym “hole”. The Latin word “mundus” (the world) makes a German think about “Mund” (the mouth). Pagenstecher then says that he will refrain from mentioning longer quotations and Cun(s)tworte (another obscene pun on Kunstworte “coinages”). German poet Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock is mentioned in this relation, as, according to Pagenstecher, he compiled long lists of homonyms.

The corollary of the Etym Theory is that each text, even the most innocent, can be read in two different ways: either literally, when only the meaning on the “surface” is taken into account or in a more skewed manner, with etyms showing the sexualised unconscious messages below the surface. Thus, etyms are  “parasites” living on “host-words”. Franziska chillingly compares etyms to “an assaulting army of bacteria”.

Pagenstecher draws the Jakobis’ attention to the significance of words and their meaning for the primordial man. They must have been regarded as magical. All you have to do is utter a combination of letters (S=U=S=I) to call your horse, and the animal will come to you! Nothing short of miraculous.

Wilma then briefly summarises the main idea: Poe’s works also contain the hidden messages from the unconscious, and only a hierophant can read them. To make things clearer (I’m not sure about this, however), Pagenstecher gives a visual example.  Imagine that an artist paints a demure maiden in a high-necked dress in the foreground of his picture. This is the “official theme” of a text. As an embellishment, the girl has a red rose in her hand.  In the background there is a hill with two tops with a small pink pavilion on one of them. The building has a decorative crown on its rooftop. The more high-necked the dress is, the more pink is the pavilion.

Furthermore, Pagenstecher notes that a distinction should be made between “universal etyms” and “subjective etyms”, which are valid only for the works of a given author.

Paul’s neat conclusion is at the same time an apt description of what kind of novel Zettel’s Traum is: “a text which, according to Pagenstecher, consists of words plus etyms would bring more to the language. It would transform mere Freudian slips into a new elastic art”.

to be continued

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Reading Zettel’s Traum: Week 2, pp. 21-26

This is the second week spent in the universe of Arno Schmidt’s immense erudition and linguistic legerdemain. I feel quite comfortable with what little I have been able to understand so far. Hopefully, John E. Woods’ forthcoming translation will help me to fill the inevitable gaps.

What I did not mention in my previous post is the significance of abbreviations for ZT. Most of the time the main characters are referred to by using the initial letters of their names: W for Wilma, P for Paul, Fr for Franziska, and DP for Daniel Pagenstecher. And of course, there is some play around these and other shortenings, as Schmidt is intent upon harnessing all the elements of the text that can contribute to the overall ambiguity of his novel.  Pagenstecher speaks at length about the necessity of certain abbreviations in their scholarly discussion. The first one he comes up with is S for all matters sexual. Then, he suggests the letter P for Partridge’s lexicographic materials (P1 and P2 for the two volumes of  A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English, and P3 for A Dictionary of the Underworld). In passing, Hans Henny Jahnn gets chided for the overuse of the word “loins” (Lenden).

The topic of writers’ abuse of alcohol reappears in the conversation. Both Pagenstecher and Paul mention Poe’s dipsomania, which Wilma prefers to regard as  “sacred inebriation”. There are also a number of writers listed who are supposed to have indulged in drinking. The discussion of Poe and drinking is finished by Franziska who quotes  from the Bible (Proverbs 24-16) “For a just man falleth seven times, [and riseth up again: but the wicked shall fall into mischief.]” The obscene pun to the right, mashing the word “fallen” (to fall) with “phallus” reads: “an 1 Tag 7 mal phallen? : Das hät ich nie gekonnt!” (in 1 day 7 times phallen : I would never have been able to!”

Another important abbreviation introduced by Pagenstecher is DP. Yes, it looks exactly like his own initials, which are extensively used by Schmdit throughout the novel. However, in this case DP stands for “Dichter=Priester” (Writer-Priest) or “Displaced Person”, being one of the two major categories into which Daniel divides authors. DPs attach great importance to myth and “flirt with second sight”. Pagenstecher believes that Poe belongs to this category. DPs are averse to technical progress and innovation; they “flee civilisation”, but by doing it they also reject science and the very spirit that enables them to write in the first place: “to all intents and purposes, these DP gentlemen would prefer to completely abandon >Spirit< as a weak=fantastic and lecherous (geil) little creature; and write just >automatically<“. The second category is Mosaikarbeiter (Mosaic Worker).  Arno Schmidt reckoned himself among the representatives of this class. The mosaic worker is an artisan who creates his texts from already available tesselae rather than through some mystical inspiration.  In Arno Schmidt’s case the thousands of index cards perform the function of the coloured stones that compose the enormous mosaic of Zettel’s Traum. In his own words: “Ich bin ein fleißiger Mosaikarbeiter, kein Dichter” (I am a diligent mosaic worker, not a writer). 

The next significant subject of discussion is Poe’s description methods. According to Pagenstecher, writers-priests are unable to describe objects in a simple, unpretentious manner.  As an example of that, he provides an excerpt from MS. Found in a Bottle, in which a solar eclipse is evoked in the following way:

About noon, as nearly as we could guess, our attention was again arrested by the appearance of the sun. It gave out no light, properly so called, but a dull and sullen glow unaccompanied by any ray. Just before sinking within the turgid sea its central fires suddenly went out, as if hurriedly extinguished by some unaccountable power. It was a dim, silver-like rim, alone, as it rushed down the unfathomable ocean.

The self-styled “icy intellectual” Pagenstecher draws the emotional Wilma’s attention to this simple fact: instead of simply writing “solar eclipse” the myth-pursuing writer came up with the extinguished “central fires”, and in lieu of writing “moon”, he referred to “some unaccountable power”. As revealed in further discussion the said eclipse actually took place in February, 1831. For many spectators the eclipse proved to be a disappointing spectacle, as the darkness did not seem “dark” enough. More information on this important event could be found here. A sentence from Pinakidia, in which the words “eclipse of the sun”  appear, proves the fact that Poe was familiar with the term.  Then Pagenstecher conludes that the passage above is not a virtuoso description of “phosphene”, but  just a primitive copy of reality. Franziska casts a shadow of doubt on Pagenstecher’s theory by supposing that since the eclipse took place in February, the sky was overcast, and, consequently, the phenomenon could not seen. However, this objection is overruled as there has been plenty of evidence that the eclipse was observed in many locations.

I am not completely sure of the following, but for the time being that is how I understand this part of the argument between Daniel and Wilma. Pagenstecher goes on to show that Poe’s description of the solar eclipse is not a product of the conscious mind. Wilma is up in arms against this hypothesis, leaning on the authority of Arthur Hobson Quinn, the author of Edgar Allan Poe: Critical Biography. Pagenstecher brings up Poe’s alter ego Julius Rodman, the narrator in Poe’s unfinished novel The Journal of Julius Rodman. A passage from this text shows that Rodman’s descriptions of reality are strongly influenced by his emotional state.  He does not distort the physical properties of the objects, but rather the effects they produce on the viewer. According to the host, the “superiority of the infallible author”  in Poe’s story is a fabrication of the unconscious (ubw=fingierte).  Then Pagenstecher makes slight of Poe’s biographer, who is held by Wilma in high esteem, by calling him a mere “elevated teacher for 20-year old kids “.

to be continued


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Reading Zettel’s Traum: Week 1, pp. 11-20

ZettelsTraumAccording to the latest information at Arno Schmidt Stiftung the English translation of Zettel’s Traum is scheduled for publication at the beginning of 2016. As I realised that I don’t want to wait that long, I have decided to start reading it in German, several pages a week, and share my experience weekly on this blog. At the moment I do not know how long it will take me to finish this behemoth of a tome, nor am I sure that I will succeed in this enterprise in the first place. I won’t be the first one to attempt such a reading. There has been one similar attempt on this German blog, but, unfortunately, it ground to a halt early on. Nevertheless, I do believe that my endeavour will be useful both for me and for the readers of The Untranslated regardless of the result and that without at least trying I will never find out what I’m capable of. So, without further ado, let’s get down to business.

I’ll be reading the 2010 Suhrkamp edition that has a smaller format than the previous facsimile editions of the book; this has been achieved at the expense of the page number. This one clocks in at 1536 pages and has the following dimensions: 27,3 x 9,2 x 35,6 cm. Compare it with this Fischer edition, which has 1360 pages but is by more than 10 centimeters taller. My secondary resources at the moment are the LOA edition of Edgar Alan Poe’s Poetry and Tales, Volker Max Langbehn’s monograph Arno Schmidt’s Zettel’s Traum: An Analysis, and Dieter Stündel’s Register zu Zettels Traum.

The epigraph for the novel has been taken from Shakespeare’s comedy A Midsummer Night’s Dream. It is weaver Nick Bottom’s words uttered when he wakes up after a magic-induced spell of sporting a donkey’s head and being loved by the Queen of the Fairies. The square-bracketed sentences are not included in the epigraph but contain the clue to the novel’s title.


John Anster Fitzgerald, Titania and Bottom: A Scene from a Midsummer-Night’s Dream

I have had a most rare vision. I have had a dream past the wit of man to say what dream it was. Man is but an ass if he go about to expound this dream. Methought I was—there is no man can tell what. Methought I was, and methought I had—but man is but a patched fool if he will offer to say what methought I had. The eye of man hath not heard, the ear of man hath not seen, man’s hand is not able to taste, his tongue to conceive, nor his heart to report what my dream was. [I will get Peter Quince to write a ballad of this dream. It shall be called ‘Bottom’s Dream’, because it hath no bottom.]

Karl Friedrich von Schlegel renders”Bottom” in his German translation of the play as “Zettel” (which means “warp”), so the title of the book, Zettel’s Traum, is kind of a translation of “Bottom’s Dream”. But not quite. Just like the title of Finnegans Wake, which was the major inspiration for Schmidtcan be interpreted in different ways, so Zettel’s Traum is also ambivalent. The word Zettel is also the German for an index card. Bearing in mind that Arno Schmidt filled 130,000 Zettel with all kinds of information which he subsequently used in his text, it is evident that the title also playfully characterises the novel as a dream emerging out of these numerous pieces of paper crammed with data.


Arno Schmidt’s index cards used for writing Zettel’s Traum

The first chapter is called The Field of Terror or the Tsalal Language and apparently is dedicated to the discussion of Poe’s only novel The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket. As I begin reading, I realise that there is precious little I can comprehend. The comparison to Finnegans Wake is well deserved. The best strategy at the moment seems to make at least some sense of what I can actually understand and not to worry of all the things going over my head. Reading ZT is  a long and strenuous apprenticeship, and one can only hope to eventually evolve into its true reader during the painstaking progress through the chaosmos of this monstrous book.

The majority of the pages are divided into three columns. The main story is in the middle. On either side there are quotations, notes, tangential observations, doodles, background noises. Judging by the first pages, it is difficult to determine the exact function of either marginal column. This is what Volker Langbehn has to say on this account:

Discussions of the writings take place to the left of the main column. In addition, the four discussants narrate stories about Poe’s life and insert quotes from his texts […] The right column contains extensive quotations from literature, myth, and devotional texts, and other references such as radio and TV news or dictionary definitions and translations.

However, even at a cursory glance it is evident that Arno Schmidt does not strictly keep to this arrangement. One pretty soon realises that it is not a good idea to think about inviolable rules when dealing with such a text as ZT.

What strikes the reader at first blush is the unconventional spelling and the notorious use of different typographical symbols alongside the letters of the German alphabet. Almost every other word is a pun. Lots of foreign (i.e. not German) words and phrases. Some kind of conversation is in progress. Its participants are Daniel Pagenstecher, an Edgar Alan Poe expert, Paul and Wilma Jakobi, his friends and translators of Poe’s works, and their 16-year old daughter Franziska. They’ve just negotiated a barbed wire fence typographically depicted as xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx and are going across Schauerfeld (the field of terror from the title), which is referenced in the Register as a plot of land in Bargfeld belonging to Arno Schmidt. Their destination is Pagenstecher’s house. Their walk is accompanied by the mooing of  cows and the sounds of a cuckoo. The imagery of cows is persistent throughout the episode. Here are some of the references to cows from the right-hand column:

“(Goloka=Goloka; The World of Cows; (+Galaxy).”

“(Cows and clouds : Symbols of each other”

Goloka (“the world of cows”) in Hindu mythology is the heavenly abode of Krishna. The word “galaxy” is derived from the Late Latin “galaxias”, which means “milky way”. Also, as you might remember, one of Arno Schmidt’s stories is titled Cows in Half Mourning.


Kühe in Halbtrauer, etching by Jens Rusch

A typical example of one of the easier puns is the following phrase from the left-hand column which is a kind of comment on the mentioning of the early morning (Morgenfrühe) in the middle column: “Rue >Morgue<: Morgen=Reue”. Thus, the reference to the famous Edgar Alan Poe’s tale is intertwined with the notion of “morning remorse”.  A bit later we learn that in all of her 16 years Franziska has never seen a sunrise. Further on, there is a quotation from the Italian Baroque poet Giambattista Marino’s epic L’Adone: “Blond hair, blue eyes and brown eyelashes”. I wonder if it’s meant as a sketchy description of Franziska’s appearance.


The Imre Thököly medal mentioned in Zettel’s Traum

Pagenstecher invites the family to his house and offers them some refreshments. A  marginal quotation from The Fall of the House of Usher marks their arrival at his place: “the huge antique panels to which the speaker pointed threw slowly back, upon the instant, their ponderous and ebony jaws.” The host then proceeds to distribute among his friends Xeniolen, small presents for guests. Wilma receives some kind of rosary which she calls Spielkette (toy chain). A longish quotation from Kurd Lasswitz’s science fiction novel Two Planets follows. In it, one woman tells another about the superiority of the sense of touch over the other senses. Paul receives an old medal commemorating Imre Thököly, a Hungarian noble who led a Protestan uprising against the Austrian Habsburgs. As for Franziska, Pagenstecher gives her a ring made by famous French goldsmith Olivier Coldore, which she immediately puts on her left ring finger. The host draws the parents’ attention to the fact that their daughter has reached nubility, and, what is more, has the full right to participate in their discussion of Poe’s works. In his own words: “You would probably know more about EDGAR POE, if you had given Fränzel freedom of thought= & speech.” The idea of Franziska’s virginity is played with when the “Virginia Edition” of the complete works of Poe is mentioned by Pagenstecher.

The discussion of Pym starts with Pagenstecher’s  observation about the typographical error  in the word Malvinas, which Hervey Allen, one of Poe’s biographers, erroneously corrects as Manilas. However, Franziska’s interest in the origin of the name “Field of Terror” diverts everyone’s attention to the tale of the same name by Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué, a German Romantic writer. Pagenstecher makes Franziska read an excerpt from the story, which is represented with the usual Schmidtian quirky spelling. The Field of Terror in the tale is a haunted parcel of land left by a deceased landowner to his inheritors. An excerpt from Poe’s short story The Angel of the Odd runs parallel to this episode. It’s a tale of a hallucination experienced by a heavy drinker who is visited by a strange creature made up of barrels and bottles who claims to be the agent of all odd and unexpected events.

At this juncture, Pagenstecher makes an inportant reference to Sigmund Freud, quoting one of his letters to Martha Bernays. Here is a more extended quotation:

I remember something that occurred to me while watching a performance of Carmen: the mob gives vent to its appetites, and we deprive ourselves. We deprive ourselves in order to maintain our integrity, we economize in our health, our capacity for enjoyment, our emotions; we save ourselves for something, not knowing for what. And this habit of constant suppression of natural instincts gives us the quality of refinement.

Freud’s theories about the different ways in which the unconscious manifests itself in dreams, jokes, slips of the tongue etc. are crucial for ZT. Numerous instances of risqué or outright vulgar puns appear to be the examples of overcoming the suppression imposed by the bourgeois culture and upbringing. On the same page (17), we have, for example, “Galápagos~kallipygos” . The latter word means “having beautiful buttocks”.  Further on, “royal” amusement is described as  “könni/ cunny glich” wherein the words for “king” and “cunt” are juxtaposed.

On page 18, the discussion of the Field of Terror is continued. There are just bits and pieces that I can grasp. Pagenstecher is not sure whether he should talk about certain things in front of Franziska. In particular, he mentions “nupta verba” (literally “married words”), expressions of sexual nature that only married people were allowed to hear in Ancient Rome. Hence the pun “OHROPAX=vobiscum!” which contains the expression “peace be with you” and the brand-name of earplugs which the girl might need in order not to listen to some salacious details that might crop up in Pagenstecher’s discourse. We then learn that some writer was murdered and buried in the Field of Terror by peasants at the instigation of the local pastor. Some Hungarian castle in which chess games usually started with “b2=b4” moves is briefly mentioned. Then there  is a quotation from George Burrow’s novel  The Romany Rye, which recounts  a young man’s adventures among Romanies in the 19th century Britain. A request to provide synonyms for “mad” leads to another bawdy wordplay: “insane. Lunatic=loony. – : Crasy. : Delirious!<; (+tremens!)).-:>mentally=ill< – Pluss >mentula=Peniss!<)”

The theme of drinking introduced by the excerpt from The Angel of the Odd is broached in the main column when Pagenstecher suggests discussing the role of alcohol in the life of  “a brain animal” (Gehirntier), a word probably used to denote an intellectual. That is what Schmidt used to call himself, by the way. This, of course, ties in with Poe’s drinking problems and the frequent references to boozing in his works. Wilma counters Pagenstecher’s facetious defence of alcohol consumption, which he shores up by quoting Poe himself, by another quotation, also by Poe: “Convince the world that spirituous liquors are poison to the body, and it will be scarcely necessary to add that they are ruin to the soul.”

Pagenstecher finishes his story about the writer who was murdered and buried in the field 120 years before and whose ghost has been seen since that time wondering in the neighbourhood and making notes in a piece of paper (Zettel). What is also remarkable about this page (19) is that James Joyce gets mentioned in connection with the aphorism about drinking (trans. from German: “He who does not work, shall not drink”) ascribed to him by Pagenstecher, but which I have been unable to trace.


Constantin Brancusi, Princess X

Finally, the discussants return to Pym. Pagenstecher reveals to the Jacobis that he has some understanding regarding the mysterious language of the inhabitants of Tsalal Island in Poe’s novel. In this connection, Marie Bonaparte’s statement is invoked: in it she confesses her cluelessness as to the meaning of all the Tsalal words invented by Poe, like “anamoo-moo”, relegating them to “infant babble”. Princess Marie Bonaparte was an active participant of the early Freudian scene. She became famous, among other things, for penning a voluminous psychoanalytic study of Poe’s works, developing her own theory of frigidity, and being rendered by Constanin Brancusi in bronze as a gleaming phallus.

Pagenstecher again exhorts the parents of Franziska to let her participate in all the discussions no matter what turn they might take with a snide aside: “Do you believe she still thinks that FUCKING is a town in China?” (Of course, as we know, Fucking is a village in Austria.) In general, Pagenstecher’s behaviour and thoughts regarding the nymphet seem to be taking more explicitly lascivious character.  There is some leering and as-if-inadvertent touching  creeping into the dry scholarly atmosphere of the Jacobis’ visit. To reinforce his persuasion game, the host has Franzika take a farcical oath promising NOT to understand anything which ensues in the course of the discussion, as well as jokingly states that he has been partially infected with megalopsychia  (Aristotelian virtue that can be translated as “magnanimity”) through the Jacobis’ reading of Poe.

to be continued


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Three Notable Novels

Here are some highlights about this year’s three notable books written in languages other than English .  The German novels have already been published, whereas the French one is coming soon.

DurchzugEinesRegenbandesThe first German title that caught my attention is Ulrich Ziegler’s novel Durchzug eines Regenbandes (Passage of a Rainband). Ten years in the making, it is a dense, stylistically exuberant triptych channeling the Grimm Brothers’ fairy tales, the classic cinema of the 1920s and 30s and popular German TV shows . In the first part, which exudes a film noir atmosphere, a journalist called Norden meets a stranger who tells him the incredible story of the Island Bienitz and its hierarchic society. The man with the exotic name Weh-Theobaldy belongs to the oppressed ethnic minority of Lapislazuli who are forced to wear paper clothes and do menial jobs. Weh-Theobaldy’s confession to a murder triggers Norden’s investigation into a tangled web of secret plots and conspiracies. The second part is set in GDR in 1969. Its main focus is yet another investigation: the search for an old lady who disappeared in the coal cellar of her own house. The protagonist of this part is a pop singer who performs cover versions of West German schlagers. The main character of the third part is a hard-drinking, delirious painter. The bulk of the narrative is made up of his stream of consciousness, sprinkled with numerous references to television lore. The German reviewers describe Passage of a Rainband as a confusing puzzle of a book, which might require several readings to make sense.

1330_01_Kopetzki_Risiko.inddIf you enjoyed Against the Day, you might be interested in a novel that specifically focuses on the Great Game, which, as you remember, was one of the pivotal subjects in Pynchon’s book. Steffen Kopetzky’s Risiko (Risk), which, like Ziegler’s novel, also took its author ten years to write, is a meticulously researched fictional account of  the The Niedermayer–Hentig Expedition. The main goal of this mission was to persuade Afghanistan to declare independence from the British Empire and side with the Central Powers in World War I. In this book we follow the adventures of navy radio operator Sebastian Stichnote, who joins the secret expedition and travels together with the other members 5,000 kilometers across Western and Central Asia. The broad canvas of the narrative does not only include loads of geographical, historical and cultural data, but also accommodates amusing anachronisms and postmodern games with the reader.


Finally, all those who have been waiting for the publication of the English translation of Pierre Senges’ encyclopedic novel Fragments of Lichtenberg, there is something else to get excited about: the French writer is about to publish a new novel, which is as bulky as Fragments. The novel is called Achab (Sequelles)  (Ahab (Aftermath)) and, as evident from the title, it is about the fate of Captain Ahab after his last encounter with the white whale narrated at the end of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. Senges’ Ahab tries to capitalise on his tragic experiences by attempting to sell his story first as a musical on the Broadway, and then as a script for a Hollywood movie. There will also be flashbacks to Ahab’s youth when he embarked on a voyage to London at the age of 17, intending to become an actor. The synopsis promises the appearance of Cary Grant, Orson Welles and Scott Fitzgerald.

There seems to be a heightened interest in Herman Melville recently, as the Hungarian writer László Krasznahorkai’s next project is “a novel about Melville after the publication of Moby Dick” which he will be working on  at the Cullman Center.

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The Sorias (Los Sorias) by Alberto Laiseca

Los SoriasAlberto Laiseca is the buried giant of world literature. Without his wild imagination, which surpasses even the most baroque and audacious exploits of the Latin American Boom, the literary jigsaw of the 20th century would be deplorably incomplete. The fact that he is virtually non-existent for English language readers is one of the most flagrant injustices that could ever have been inflicted on them. We are so much the poorer for this gaping absence. I cherish a vague hope that my review of his magnum opus will generate  enough buzz to provoke at least a slight interest in this writer among publishers of literature in translation.

The Sorias is a visionary, erudite, cruel, surreal, uproarious, smutty, silly, puerile, absurd, cartoonish, megalomaniac and, many would say, downright psychotic work that is destined for a perennial cult status.  Laiseca is the inheritor of the cultural codes left by François Rabelais, Dante Alighieri, Jonathan Swift, the Marquis de Sade, Hieronymus Bosch, Pieter Bruegel the Elder and Francisco Goya. The only contemporary writer I can compare him to is Thomas Pynchon: The Sorias is the Gravity’s Rainbow of Latin America. On more than one occasion I was compelled to interrupt my reading, get up from the desk and take a dazed walk around the room in sheer disbelief: what the hell have I just read? Nothing prepares you for the weirdness of this book. Abandon sanity, all ye who enter here…

With  more than 1300 pages, this is the longest Argentine novel ever written, and since it hasn’t been translated into any language yet, this might be the most notorious obscure novel of whose existence very few readers outside the Spanish language are aware. Which is not to say that the novel is that famous in the Spanish speaking world either. The Sorias had a long and tortuous journey to its reader. It took Laiseca 10 years to write it, and 16 more to publish. There have been three editions of the novel so far with the total print run amounting to a measly 2,850 copies. The Sorias is a cult classic par excellence, read only by a small cenacle of the initiated, but much talked about amongst those exposed to its mythos. Many are now ardently seeking an opportunity to get hold of it, which might be a tall order not only because of the small number of the copies available on the market, but also due to the forbidding price. One of the earliest champions of the novel was the living classic of Argentine literature Ricardo Piglia, who famously said: “The Sorias is the best novel that has been written in Argentina since The Seven Madmen“.

The novel is set in an alternative universe that, nevertheless,  shares many of its features with our world. A cold war is in progress. There is growing tension between the superpowers called Technocracy and Soria. The latter has a close ally whose name is very well familiar to many of us: the Soviet Union. Despite being an imaginary construct, this country is very similar to the historical USSR. A crude map drawn by Laiseca himself represents the political geography of  the known world consisting of a hispanicised Europe called Eurisberia and the colossal Soviet Union. The countries making up the Eurisberian continent are a farrago of fictional and real territories. On the one hand there is Catalonia, Castillia, Aragon, and the Caliphate of Cordoba; on the other, such exotic places as Protonia, Protelia, Chanchelia, Dervia,  Goria, the already mentioned Soria and Technocracy, and a bunch of others. When the political organisation of these countries is described, there is hardly a hint of any democratic rule. So, most of them, if not all, are dictatorships of various stripes.

The cold war unravels  on the background of a bloody conflict ravaging the divided country of Chanchin. The Soviet Union and Soria provide military support for North Chanchin, whereas Technocracy is allied with South Chanchin. The struggle between the geopolitical rivals over the domination in this jungle-covered part of Eurisberia, which we immediately recognise as thinly disguised Vietnam, eventually leads to the outbreak of a great war whose major stages are narrated in great detail throughout the second half of the novel.

Although the novel’s title refers to Soria, most of the book is devoted to Technocracy. The virulent hostility between the two states makes us think about them at first as the sworn enemies with a long history of confrontation. But, as it turns out, both dictatorships are relatively new political entities, and in the past they used to be one nation. Faithful to its name, Technocracy is a state underpinned by well-nigh religious worship of technologies. The political elite is almost entirely composed of engineers. Most of the spheres of everyday life rely heavily on different machines, computers, and robots. The head of Technocracy bears the title Monitor, and that is how he is referred to throughout the narrative; we are left in the dark as to his first name. His last name is unsurprisingly Iseka, as everybody living in Technocracy has the same last name. There is a similar situation in the neighbouring Soria, where every inhabitant’s last name is Soria.

The omnipotent dictator of Technocracy  rules his state with a rod of iron from a sumptuous palace in the capital city of Monitoria. He is a pathological control freak with sadistic inclinations and a perverse sense of humour who has built an enormous underground city beneath Monitoria that is a crossbreed between Fritz Lang’s Metropolis and Dante’s Inferno. Travelling on a self-propelled slab through the dark tunnels of the subterranean complex that contains the powerful machines providing energy for the various needs of the state as well as numerous torture and execution chambers, the Monitor usually conceals his identity by switching on an illusion machine in order to check incognito how his perverse orders are enforced by the Secret Police of Technocracy. All this may sound gloomy and outright terrifying, but believe me, not a single torture scene is exempt from the underlying hilarity. The further we descend into this underground hell, the more we realise that its ominous atmosphere has been contaminated by the absurd slapstick worthy of the Marx Brothers and Daniil Kharms. Laiseca’s goal is not to denounce the abuse of power in a totalitarian state by making the reader wince at the horrors perpetrated by the state against its dissident citizens. Like a medieval court jester or a skomorokh, he makes a laughing stock of tyranny by blowing its grotesqueness out of proportion. For example, a separate category subject to horrible tortures in one of the circles of this Technocratic Inferno includes old women who tend to hog public phone booths for long conversations, jump queues or protest against smoking. Despite the nauseating, genuinely Sadean methods of their slow execution, we cannot help but smile at the absurdity of the whole situation. The first thing that came to my mind was the notorious “plummeting old women” from Kharms’ collection of short stories. No less grotesque is the orchestra consisting of 70 specially trained executioners equipped with blowtorches, goads, pincers, knives and other tools of such kind and their human instruments: 280 naked men, women and adolescents of both sexes who are subject to sophisticated  tortures  under the guidance of a conductor so as to produce a faithful interpretation of Mozart’s Requiem with their groans and shrieks of pain. The Monitor strives to satisfy not only his sadistic impulses, but also artistic ambitions. Many of the tortures and executions are filmed and edited together with pornographic scenes, all of which one day will be part of the Monitor’s epic cinematographic debut.  Many aspects of the Technocratic state remind us of the Nazi Germany. The parallel becomes crystal clear when the Monitor starts aggression against Soria and Russia, throwing Eurisberia into an abyss of total war. However, besides the militaristic aspects of this alternative Reich, there are also cultural similarities. The presence of Richard Wagner and his famous Ring Cycle is overwhelming in the cultural life of Technocracy. For the Monitor, Wagner’s music is the pinnacle of artistic creation; it’s more than music, it’s the very spirit of technocracy manifested in sounds. Hitler’s love for this composer is obviously alluded to here. But there is no way Laiseca will keep it solemn and proper when dealing with such a “serious” issue. In his world Wagner is alive, his name is Ricardo Wagner Iseka, and he wouldn’t answer the dictator’s exalted letters. The idea of economic autarky, something which was achieved by the Third Reich partly thanks to the industrial use of coal in the production of synthetic oil and rubber, is also pursued by the Monitor, but in the same off-the-wall manner as almost everything else he does:

Fortunately, we have plenty of the mummies of the pharaohs of Corrientes; we will transform them into coal, and then we will synthesise everything we need from it: gasoline, butter, beans etc. To cut a long story short: all types of fuel, nourishment and plastics.

Mummification is a widespread practice in Technocracy, which along with the Nazi Germany elements has also borrowed to various extents some features of the pharaonic Egypt as well as those of Sumer, Babylon, Ancient Greece and Rome. As for religion, Technocracy does not have a particular state-supported cult the way Soria does, but there is nevertheless a vast spiritual dimension to the technology-obsessed  existence of the Monitor’s state. The Technocrats’ beliefs are similar to the ancient doctrine of Manichaeism, as they are convinced that there are two antagonistic principles in eternal conflict: the positive one which they call Mozart and the negative: Anti-Mozart. The absolute evil for them is concentrated in the concept of Anti-Being, which can be either just an abstraction or some dark energy, or even a malevolent creature. The state of Soria for the Monitor is the essence of everything which is Anti-Mozart, and whatever it does is considered to be strengthening the baleful influence of Anti-Being.

Now, if you thought Technocracy was crazy, what will you make of Soria, ruled by the Monitor’s nemesis Soria Soriator? In contrast to their technology-obsessed neighbours, Sorias are not averse to religious practices. The most popular religion is exatheism, apparently modeled on the bloodthirsty beliefs of some Meso-American civilisations; it includes worship of six terrible gods and requires human sacrifice. Each of the deities with the Aztec-sounding names like Tritaltetoco or Tetramqueltuc has its own temple whose design contains elements of the Chinese pagoda and the Arabic mosque. Each year forty-two sacrificial rituals take place. Men and women to be sacrificed are tied to the altars on top of the minarets of the temples, and, after the priest utters magic incantations, a diabolic creature called vurro (which is pronounced in the same way as “burro”, the Spanish for a donkey) who has the head of a donkey, a vaguely human body and is equipped with an enormous fallos, descends upon its victims and rapes them to death.

The leader of Soria is as ruthless as the Monitor, but completely blows him out of the water when it comes to sexual perversions. His copro-necrofiliac tendencies are better left unexemplified. Not lacking in megalomania either, the Soriator considers himself to be the reincarnation of Almanzor, the famous Muslim warlord who succeeded in bringing most of Moorish Spain under his control in the 10th Century. After winning the war against Technocracy he wants to change his name to Al-Manzur Billah (Victor by Grace of God). In his architectural ambitions,  Soriator goes well beyond the wildest dreams of Albert Speer or Étienne-Louis Boullée. Besides contemplating the construction of sprawling city-cemeteries where each tomb would the size of a  building, he dreams of erecting the new capital, Soriatoria, which would be just one cyclopean edifice:

That city was to be a single building with a hundred blocks at the base and a kilometre in height, with the capacity to accommodate four or five million people. It would be full of  caretakers, incinerators for the disposal of rubbish, consortia,  internal regulations prohibiting to have pets, to listen to music after certain time, etc. Instead of buses and underground trains: lifts. The lift operators would have ticket machines hanging from their necks: “Which floor are you travelling to, señor?” “Floor 2380.” “Twenty-five centavos of soriator.”

Despite the reciprocal hostility, in many respects Soria and Technocracy resemble each other, which is hardly surprising when we think of real life dictatorships. Both Monitor and Soriator are gluttons for power, intent on expanding it at any cost and regarding human beings as disposable material geared to the attainment  of their egomaniacal goals.

The hostile actions of both nations against each other are not limited to the tangible world. There are also astral battles. Each dictatorship has cohorts of magicians in its employment whose task is to protect their master against the evil spells, jinxes and other harmful paranormal activities unleashed by the opposing force as well as to perpetrate all the above-mentioned against the aggressor. The special team of shamans, astrologists and wizards of Technocracy is headed by Decameron de Gaula, the most powerful magician of Eurisberia. He is capable of undertaking dangerous astral journeys in time and space, communicating with birds and plants, predicting future, and creating golems. However, his main mission is to withstand the devastating irruptions of Anti-Being into the world. De Gaula is not only famous for a vast number of exploits against the hostile esoteric teams of Soria and the demonic creatures spawned by Anti-Being, but he is also a notorious practical joker, and his hilarious pranks, always tinged with patent gallows humour, make for a welcome comic relief. At some juncture, Decameron de Gaula becomes a guardian of the novel’s protagonist: the aspiring writer Personaje Iseka.

In the very first episode. which can be read as a parody of the Martello Tower scene in Ulysses, Personaje is depicted as a harassed budding novelist who has to share lodging with churlish and arrogant Sorias in a town on the border between the two hostile states. Quite Buck-Mulliganish, the Soria room mates of Iseka disturb and oppress him all the time, never losing an opportunity to lower his self-esteem and undermine his belief in his own creative potential. Realising that enough is enough, Personaje leaves the border town and sets out on his picaresque journey to Technocracy. There he takes on a number of jobs, working as a telephone repairman, a secret agent, and a cemetery watchman. The latter position allows him to put to practice the basics of magic he learned while serving in the Secret Police of Technocracy: he tries his hand at manufacturing zombies, and assists a mad scientist in bringing to life a cyborg, which, like  Frankenstein’s Monster, is put together from different body parts. With the aid and under the guidance of Decameron de Gaula, Personaje Iseka contrives to get to the underground city and even penetrate into the very heart of the metropolis: an immense automated palace completely managed by robots. Personaje Iseka intends to use the exclusive knowledge gained during this journey to complete The Book of the Hordes, a national epic of Technocracy. For several months he explores the delirious jumble of tunnels, megaliths, pyramids, and colossus-lined avenues meticulously documenting the intricacies of the forbidden part of the underground Monitoria for his grand poem. We are even allowed to read an excerpt form this work-in-progress, which likens the capital of Technocracy  to ancient city-states anachronistically manifesting the presence of technologies thousands of years ahead in time. The collection of Iseka’s experiences gets further enriched when he finds himself on the front line, fighting the Soviet tanks pushing ahead during the major offensive of the Russian troops against Monitoria. Eventually, for most of the citizens of Technocracy there is no escaping war, and one begins to wonder if war, perhaps, was the real main character of The Sorias.

The conflict starts after Technocracy invades and occupies North Chanchin routing the indigenous troops supported by Soria and the Soviet Union. Only some guerrilla detachments under the command of octogenarian general Vo Nguen Teng, who is clearly based on the Vietnamese military genius Vo Nguen Giap, maintain sporadic resistance against the occupying forces. The next targets of Monitor’s Blitzkrieg are the allied Soria and the Soviet Union. The Technocrat army invades them one after another and in a very brief period of time succeeds in seizing half of Soria and a huge territory of the Soviet Union stretching beyond the Urals. Soon enough the whole Eurisberia is engulfed in large-scale hostilities that are dubbed the Twenty-Third Carlist World War. (In our world, as you might know, there were only three Carlist Wars, and all them were limited to the territory of the 19th century Spain). The global conflict depicted by Laiseca in many ways reminds us of the Second World War. Quite a few events unfolding on the Soviet-Technocrat fronts evoke familiar episodes of the war between Nazi Germany and the real Soviet Union. What makes the conspicuous difference is the futuristic weaponry and the magic employed by the belligerents. The warfare in The Sorias is carried out with a range of armaments and hardware right out of a science fiction novel: electrical guns, laser weapons, freezing guns and bombs, astroships, armoured hunters (more advanced versions of the tank), and combat robots made to look like human skeletons. There is also genetic engineering involved, as the Technocrat scientists design gigantic insects to fight in the Russian steppes. These monsters wear masks which they take off before killing their victims to reveal the beautiful female faces beneath. Luckily for the population of the planet, the warring factions have agreed not to use the most powerful weapon: the temponuclear bomb.  This bomb is capable of damaging spacetime, causing unimaginable destruction. The victorious progress of the Technocrat troops is checked in Samarkand.  This Central Asian city, due to some weather anomaly, is subject to the effects of abnormal freezing temperatures, and a whole Technocrat army is trounced in this pocket of piercing cold amidst the sultriness characteristic of the area. The defeat in Samarkand spells a sea-change in the course of the war. This episode brings to mind the Battle of Stalingrad, of course, and the crushing  debacle of the German Sixth Army. The chapter recounting the encirclement of the freezing Samarkand by the Soviet army contains a fascinating set piece about the last three seconds in the life of a mortally wounded Technocrat soldier. In the tradition of Ambrose Bierce’s An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge, this soldier manages to spend this brief moment before his death on a long and adventure-packed journey. In his vivid and protracted hallucinations he takes command over an army of  qliphoth (the evil forces in Kabbalah), crosses the desert by ascending and descending a ladder measuring many miles in length in order to escape a cannibalistic tribe, gets stuck in the hollow centre of the earth, shuttling up and down a bottomless well, and ends up as a crew member on a whaling boat. There is no end to the most outrageous and bizarre episodes dotting the lengthy narrative about the world war that seems to be never-ending. If you disregard all the sci-fi and fantasy elements employed in the depiction of the numerous military engagements, you would be surprised to discover how faithfully Laiseca conveys the logic of conventional warfare. When it comes to the decision making process, the movements of the troops, the offensive and defensive tactics, the officers show themselves as adherents of the tried-and-true concepts put forward by Carl von Clausewitz in his treatise On War.

There is also plenty of music accompanying the war, most of it from Richard Wagner’s monumental opera cycle The Ring of the Nibelung. In the most relevant places there are excerpts from the libretto and the corresponding sheet music for the convenience of those who can read musical notation. The pervasive presence of The Ring Cycle, which is made apparent in a variety of ways in the novel, adds to to the conflict a mythological dimension. The greed for power and the untiring pursuit of self-aggrandizing seem to be driving the “divine” dictators and the nations under their despotic rule towards the Twilight of the Gods, which on the material plane will manifest itself as the total annihilation in the war. And again, Laiseca wouldn’t be Laiseca if in the midst of this portentous Wagnerian allegory he didn’t set up a carnivalesque counter-narrative, in which the gloomy Teutonic mythology of The Ring Cycle gets an unexpected comic reappraisal in the best traditions of Beckett or Ionesco. In a brilliant set piece two philosophically-minded hobos, Moyaresmio Iseka  and Crk Iseka (veritable Vladimir and Estragon in a futuristic setting),  supervise the construction of the False Bayreuth in the thickets of a primordial forest which looks like a surviving sample of the Tertiary Period. The vagabonds from all over Technocracy collect funds to erect the wooden opera house mimicking the famous Richard-Wagner-Festspielhaus in northern Bavaria. Piling one fascinating detail onto another, Laiseca meticulously describes the whole building process, the casting for all the main parts among homeless artists, and the premiere performance itself.  Even somebody who has never heard about The Ring Cycle will feel knowledgeable about all the twists and turns of its complicated plot after reading the ridiculously detailed description of the first night. And surely, besides being highly informative, this chapter is unbearably funny and absurd. It can easily be anthologised as a stand-alone short story in any collection of the best comic writing from Latin America.


Bayreuth Festspielhaus

Wagner’s masterpiece is undoubtedly the main intertext in Laiseca’s novel, and without knowing rather well The Ring Cycle and Norse mythology, it is hardly possible to fully appreciate The Sorias. Nevertheless,  I think it is worth briefly mentioning the other considerable influences on this remarkable work. Like any novela total, The Sorias aspires to contain everything, and the sheer number of allusions to different literary works, musical compositions, visual arts and cinema is so overwhelming that it would require a separate monograph to do the justice to the intertextual dimension of Laiseca’s novel. I am sure that a lot of the references went over my head, but just the handful I did manage to notice are sufficient to set your head spinning. Besides the obvious nods I have already mentioned, Laiseca pays tribute in various ways to the following authors and works: Edgar Allan Poe (short stories), Mika Waltari (The Egyptian), Miguel Cervantes (Don Quijote), Amadis de Gaula, Borges (short stories),  One Thousand and One Nights, Classical Chinese  poetry, Lao Tzu, I Ching, Ian Fleming, Stephen King, H.P. Lovecraft, Gaston Leroux (The Phantom of the Opera), Mary Shelley (Frankenstein), Lewis Carol (Alice in Wonderland), George Orwell (1984), Herman Hesse (The Glass Bead Game), Gustav Meyrink (Golem), Alfred Jarry (Ubu Rois), Gustave Flaubert (The Temptation of Saint Anthony), Miguel Angel Asturias (El Señor Presidente, Men of Maize), Stanley Kubrick  (Doctor Strangelove), the Star Trek series, Werner Herzog (Fitzcarraldo), Federico Fellini films, the major classical operas (too many to list here), the music of Schoenberg, Honegger and Stockhausen. Besides being a distorted mirror reflecting the horrors of our recent history, The Sorias is also an anarchic, disorganised encyclopedia of our culture that is subject to similar deformation and estrangement, and, as result,  looking like heritage left by a Borgesian Tlön-like civilisation. It is truly fascinating to see how Laiseca operates with different mythological and cultural motifs by refuelling them with psychedelic energy of such high intensity that I wouldn’t be surprised if somebody had an actual acid trip just by reading certain episodes of the novel. For example, one of the mythologems that gets reworked to a spectacular effect is the Wild Hunt. It is a well-known myth that appeared in Northern Europe in the Middle Ages and described a host of ghosts riding on horses either in the skies or on the ground led by a pagan god or a cursed prince. Woe to those who meet the spectral hunting party!


Franz Stuck, Wild Chase


Agostino Veneziano, Lo stregozzo

Laiseca places the Wild Hunt into a story-within-a-story about the medieval Baghdad where a certain qadi Mahmud Abdullah Masseidi, riding on a magic carpet that scurries across the ground on its little paws, tries to reach the ruins of the ancient city of Ur, but is unable to do it because the desert landscape before him turns into a calcined grove and a very strange company appears on his way.

 Little by little, the calcined grove transformed into something living. Interlaced with the trees of ash there appeared bananas and giraffes, interwoven in their turn with mammoths and beasts of the Pleistocene. A sabre-toothed tiger – now it could be seen – was walking among the diminutive ferns, Alice’s rabbits, Hatters, March Hares, and treading on the sand mixed with trilobites. There were shells of enormous araucarias, poplar alleys, platypuses and mandrills alongside the mighty Siberian rivers rendered tropical by the inversion of the poles and the tropics as well as the confusion of the solstices. There, near these thawed-out rivers, tremendous ichthyosaurs (each dorsal fin big as a shield) were yawning near breadfruit trees. […] Thanks to his concealment machine the qadi could find out what those types intended to do. It seemed that their lord, the general, was leading them to a place where some of his buddies were about to perform a grimoire. Also, thanks to the speakers he learned the dismal details about the personality of this chieftain. In the territories which he ruled as the Master of the Gallows and the Knife, when some of his subordinates made a mistake, to let him know that he had fallen in disgrace, he sent to his house a barrel filled with shit: thus the man understood that it was time to commit suicide. Otherwise, one or some of the following things could occur to him: he could be forced to swallow entirely the contents of the barrel; his spinal column could be sawed in two in order to suck out his cerebrospinal fluid with a straw as a refreshment; with due patience and diligence ten holes could be made in the bones of his both legs with a drill so that later there could be inserted big screws to attach him to a wall and leave hanging head down; […] For the feast — it had been in progress for three days already and they intended to continue for four more — they had prepared braziers with new coals, torches made of skeletons inside whose ribs, skulls and around whose sacra flammable substances had been placed. If you take a closer look, a skeleton is an assembly kit. These white jigsaw puzzles, with the pieces juxtaposed and matching, were distributed among the gibbets from which they were gently swaying — others were put in chairs, which also were ablaze –; on white thrones; on black thrones; seated at the table and playing with tarot cards; disguised as Death, scythe and all, — the “all” included white tunics, hoods and plastic sandals.

What we see here is the Wild Hunt legend rewritten by a surrealist in which starkly incongruent images are put side by side and words are disenfranchised from their habitual meaning: thus “grimoire” does not signify here a book of spells anymore, but a feast of ghosts.

Even more bizarre is the treatment of the famous legend of the Temptation of St. Anthony, with which Laiseca sets out to rival the very Hieronymus Bosch. The “temptation” comes in the guise of the dark powers of Anti-Being that materialise to attack Decameron De Gaula in the desert with the ominous name the Bronze of Satan. The head magician of Technocracy comes to the desert alone to perform the annual ritual of subtracting a particle from Anti-Being, thus making its presence in the world less powerful. From all sides he is assailed by phantasms, terrifying and laughable at the same time. The goal of the magic monsters is to trick Decameron de Gaula into swearing allegiance to Anti-Being. The grotesque bestiary comprises the already mentioned lascivious vurros, skinless rabbits with the front paws consisting of coagulated vomit, Babel towers  made of penises, breasts and vulvas, the false Canadian Great Totem comprised of a hundred scrawny chickens perched on top of one another, gigantic Chinese dolls dressed as mandarins, even bigger Japanese dolls dressed as Samurais, a humpbacked leprous dwarf, and an obese Lenin. All these nightmarish creatures commit acts of unspeakable atrocity in front of Decameron to shake his determination, but the most powerful magician does not lose his concentration for a second and successfully goes through the enervating test set up for him by the black magic of Anti-Being.


Hieronymus Bosch, Triptych of the Temptation of St. Anthony, detail of the central panel

The Sorias is a novel of excess in all respects, and any attempt to convey its richness within a simple review is doomed to failure. If, at this point, you think that I’ve been trying to reveal all the plot elements and all the major themes of this book, you couldn’t be further from truth. I haven’t even scratched the surface. Perhaps a five-hundred page monograph could claim to perform such a feat, but definitely not this review, which, although dwarfing all my previous posts, cannot do the justice to Laiseca’s creation. What I intended to do by this confused and amateurish write-up is to push this book a few inches forward on its journey towards the wider readership. It is my firm conviction that sooner or later, The Sorias will get the attention it deserves: it will be translated into other languages, it will be widely discussed, Internet communities dedicated to its hermeneutics will spring up. Maybe it’s not such a bad thing that so many readers have yet to discover this strange novel which is like nothing else, that so many readers will find out that there are books which are still capable of arousing in them a sense of wonder.


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