Boötes (Bootes) by Miquel de Palol

CoverBootes2Boötes is Miquel de Palol’s latest big novel in what can be now considered a loose trilogy about the Game of the Fragmentation. The other two novels, in the chronological order of the narrated events, are The Testament of Alcestis (El Testament d’Alcestis) and The Troiacord (El Troiacord). Although Boötes was finished in 2016, it, unfortunately, remains still unpublished, and I am profoundly grateful to the author for the opportunity to read the manuscript. The text of the novel is about 325,000 words, so, depending on the font and page layout, this would be a book of 800-1,000 pages.

“Let None But Geometers Enter Here” is believed to have been written at the entrance of Plato’s academy. The same admonition could be printed at the beginning of most of Palol’s books, and it does not come as a complete surprise that this phrase is actually used as one of the epigraphs for Boötes. In some respects, it is the Catalan author’s most radical book to date. All his previous themes and obsessions get a considerable level-up, which has resulted in a novel with an even more bleak and terrifying vision than his chivalric dystopia Ígur Neblí. The geometry has also become more unwieldy. Forget the beautiful simplicity of Plato’s polyhedra, which fuelled the Game in The Troiacord. The complexity of Archimedean solids now takes centre stage. A lot of the discussion is focused on the rhombicosidodecahedron, which has all three types of polygon faces found in the Platonic solids: 20 triangles, 30 squares, and 12 pentagons. The main geometric figure in the novel, however, is a solid that was discovered only in the second half of the twentieth century. The Szilassi polyhedron for Boötes is what the dodecahedron was for The Troiacord—it determines the shape of the Game. This figure is the second known polyhedron each of whose faces shares an edge with every other face. The first one is the tetrahedron, one of the Platonic solids. The repetition of that rare property comes at the price of introducing a void; the Szilassi polyhedron is a torus topologically, and its empty space plays as an important role as the shape around it.

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GIF animation of the Szilassi polyhedron. Image Source

PentagonEstrellatThe setting of the novel is also geometrically determined. The layout of the principal towers of the mechanical city on the Island of Lauriaian corresponds to the pentagon with an inscribed star. There are five red towers at the vertices of the pentagon, and five black ones at the intersections of the edges of the star. The centre of the configuration is occupied by a white tower. The information about the height of the towers varies, but it is obvious that they are cyclopean. According to one estimation the red towers are 720 metres high; the black towers—960, and the central white tower—1,200. The red and black towers are surrounded by smaller towers, which are also arranged pentagonally and thus mimic at a smaller scale the layout of the whole structure. This place, which embodies all the achievement and corruption of late capitalism, is not what we usually expect from a high-tech city of the future. The Archcenotaph (Arxicenotafi), informally known as the Island of the Dead, cannot be far enough from the neon-lit eye-candy of Blade Runner. This ponderous fractal excrescence has more of a steampunk aesthetic to it, with nods to Piranesi’s imaginary prisons and M.C. Escher’s paradoxical spaces. The Archcenotaph is powered by a complex system of integrated hydro-mechanisms, for lack of a better word, and the energy is equally distributed throughout the complex thanks to the modern modification of an esoteric 18th-century machine with a ridiculously long name: Harpsitroiametacornopaukenaltochalunatursophibordoflötecromochordium. The transportation through the city is provided by a rapid transit system serviced by small trains that carry their passengers not only below and above the ground, but also up and down the enormous towers. The vertical displacement of the trains is facilitated by a huge hydraulic contrivance called the amphiconverter (amficonversor). It is a multi-storey cylindrical structure whose gates are aligned with the respective railway tunnels in the tower. The cylinder envelops the guide pillar along which a torus-shaped platform slides up and down, delivering the trains to the necessary level. Given the high number of the trains, the operation requires perfect synchronisation; otherwise, an accident is inevitable. As a matter of fact, a serious accident does happen one day. An explosion in the amphiconverter of the North Tower results in hundreds of casualties and inflicts grave damage to the mechanism. In order to investigate the accident a committee of experts is convoked. It consists of the local officials and invited guests for some of whom it has taken days to go past all the cordons and check points protecting the Archcenotaph from the unwanted intrusion of common people, for the Island of the Dead is the seat of the elite and commoners are tolerated only in the capacity of service personnel. The members of the committee are individuals distinguished by their encyclopedic knowledge of music, art, mathematics, mnemonics, literature, and half a dozen other disciplines. The surnames of some of them sound familiar. We have already encountered them in The Troiacord. They must be the children and grandchildren of the practitioners of the Game of the Fragmentation, which apparently never stopped, and the investigation of the accident inaugurates its next, possibly final, phase.

Let me remind you that the Game of the Fragmentation in its most recent form consists of elaborately staged events and situations involving people who are not always aware of being the participants of the game. The interpenetration of the game-space and reality can reach such an extent that both may become indistinguishable like the map and the empire in the famous short story by Borges. Polyhedra play a crucial role in the Game as some of them are key to gaining higher knowledge or even transforming reality. In its earlier version, the course of the Game was determined by the properties of the dodecahedron: the participants moved symbolically along its edges from one vertex to another. For the new generation of players, the most significant polyhedron is that of Szilassi. Its seven hexagonal faces correspond to the seven core participants (all of them are guest experts at the Archcenotaph) each of whom also corresponds to a certain named star in the constellation of Boötes. These participants (Artur, Rakshasi, Midoissa, Bettina, Curwen, Spohr, and Mina) make up what is called the central Egregore. This occult concept refers to a psychic entity emanated by a group of people united by a common goal. In the novel, this notion is used a little differently. These seven committee members become an egregore when they manage to synchronise their minds after entering the so-called “transparency zone”, which grants telepathic abilities to anyone inside it. Once united into the Egregore, they gain the ability to narrate their own story and pass on the baton of the first-person narrator to anyone in the group. There is, however, one main narrator to whom all the others are formally subordinated. It is Artur, the protagonist of the novel. Despite this high position, he turns out to be the most clueless among the participants, and in the course of the novel his chief concern becomes to rise above the status of a pawn in someone else’s game. Perhaps the other members of the Egregore are better informed than Artur, but this does not guarantee them a better chance of surviving this adventure, not to mention coming out on top. The solid elements of the Szilassi polyhedron represent the knowledge and abilities of each participant imagined by the others, which results in a drastically incomplete picture. It is the ignorance of the players which is fragmented and contributes to creating the true matter of the Game represented by the hole in the middle, an emptiness that generates new reality. Unawareness, misinformation, and unfamiliarity drive the Game and lead to the tangible and mostly negative consequences. Here, Miquel de Palol has definitely captured the zeitgeist of our hyper-connected society.

Although some casual remarks by the committee members reveal to us their awareness of the fact that the Game is in progress, what they do is indistinguishable from an official investigation into the causes of a technogenic disaster. Every day a new witness is summoned to give an account of what he saw around the time of the explosion at the amphiconverter. The experts listen to the statements, which tend to contradict one another, and, outside of hearings, gather in the common room for prolonged discussions on the possible relation of Archimedean solids and the numeric values to which the sequence of operations in the Amphiconverter can be reduced. All the technical details about the transport are also provided by the witnesses, as there is no black box or a log in which the necessary data could have been registered. In this society, where mnemonics has been reinstated as a highly-respected art, the only recording device available for the analysis of an accident is the memories of its participants. As the investigation drags on, some of the committee members begin exchanging reasonable doubts about the authenticity of the whole affair. It is becoming obvious that the higher authorities are not interested in the discovery of the true cause of the accident and keep feeding them scant and even misleading information. Perhaps, the investigation is just a façade used to divert attention from the power struggle of different factions within the Archcenotaph. It is also possible that they are expected to find something out, but this something is not linked in any way with the accident. The realisation that their main goal is to discover what they have to discover motivates the seven invited experts to unite into the central Egregore and take control of the narrative.

Meanwhile, a popular uprising breaks out. The impoverished masses break through the defence system of the forbidden city and take control over some of its territory. Amid the distant sounds of shots and explosions, the investigation of the accident is suspended, and the committee members, who by this time have not only analysed all the relevant polyhedra but have also formed love polygons among themselves, decide to venture out into the labyrinthine depths of the Archcenotaph and look for the answers at the White Tower looming in its centre. The adventure of the Egregore, sequentially narrated by each of its members, makes up the second half of the novel. This part of Boötes is nuts even by Palol’s standards. The mission of the seven heroes proves to be a journey into the heart of darkness, in which the shock and disbelief at the orgy of gore unleashed are only alleviated by its ludicrous and over-the-top character. The turning point at which you realise that the novel has gone off the rails and is turning into something different from what you have been led to believe is the moment when Midoissa (with whom Artur is in love) is presented with a kopfherakleon (kopfheraklèion)  after defeating a member of the military order Black Fonoctons.

Before any of us can react, the second fonocton wrests from her the sword and, with an agility that disconcerts me to an unbearable degree, hacks off his both hands and the head, which he cuts close to the jawline, keeping, however, a palm-length of the skin below the back of the neck. He puts the head on the torso, pins the skull down with his foot, and, using the sword as a lever, makes a sequence of rapid circular movements at the end of which he extracts the brain through the palate and neatly separates the lower jaw in such a way that it can be shifted behind without any damage to the skin at the sides and on the nape and thus serve as a support for the rear skin flap. He puts aside the sword and takes out from the rucksack three spray cans and a canister with liquid, which he uses to soak the severed head, injecting the liquid into the spots which he cannot treat directly. At the end of the process, which lasts several minutes, he offers the head to Midoissa with a profound obeisance. Although I don’t know her well enough, I can see that she suppresses an expression of disgust, whether physical or moral I cannot tell, yet responds to the obeisance by stepping in front of the fonocton and lowering her head. The guardian crowns her with the bleeding skull of his companion, its upper teeth pressed against her forehead and the teeth of the lower jaw against the back of her neck, and, to secure the thing, he pierces the edges of the skin flap with pins and enmeshes them in Midoissa’s hair.

A kopfherakleon is the severed head of an enemy worn as a crown. The name dates back to an old and obscure ritual based on the myth of Heracles and the Nemean lion. If someone kills the possessor of a kopfherakleon, then that person will have the privilege of wearing two crowns at once: the head of the opponent just killed and the kopfherakleon the defeated adversary had been wearing. By the same token, a triple crown of severed heads is also possible. To carry more, however, could be too much of a strain for the carrier’s neck.

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

This episode, which is the Egregore’s first exposure to the colossal violence rampant in the Archcenotaph, brings to mind the ritualised savagery of the chivalric society depicted by Palol in his 1994 novel Ígur Neblí. Actually, the Fonoctons are also featured in that novel, which testifies to the longevity of this assassinous association: it must have been active for centuries. Although the Fonoctons are supposed to be at the bottom of the hierarchy of the military orders enforcing law and providing security on the Island of the Dead, in reality, they are one of the most powerful organisations. Besides having the license to kill, its members are not directly responsible to any authority. The exact name is the Black Fonoctons, because there is also an interior body called the White Fonoctons. Those are the worst, and most of the extremely graphic and shocking scenes in the second half of the novel are connected with them. The White Fonoctons are genetically-manipulated (and, sometimes, not entirely human) child-like creatures with enormous genitals whose idea of fun is raping and cannibalising their victims at the same time.

The Archcenotaph is far from the well-oiled and smoothly running machine it might have seemed in the beginning. The farther the members of the Egregore penetrate, the more decay, neglect and anarchy they witness. The assault of the insurgents and the havoc they wreak seem to be just another logical step in the long-term decomposition of this monument to a capitalist system no longer based on supply and demand but just on the demand of the corrupted elite whose uninhibited consumption of resources has left the majority of the population destitute and starving. The fact that one of the elite military groups takes the side of the assailants makes the overthrow of the incumbent authorities outright thinkable, and not only that—the complete destruction of the Archcenotaph becomes a possibility. This poses a dilemma for fence-sitting intellectuals: is their duty to contribute to the demolition of this bastion of oppression or should they defend it so it can be later reformed to serve the common good, for the loss of its technologies might cast humanity back to the middle ages? The topicality of this question, however, might be cancelled by yet another possibility: what if the mechanical city is just an elaborate prop whose true purpose is to be the main setting in the final phase of the Game of the Fragmentation?

Despite the abundance of lengthy discussions on a variety of topics, Boötes is a novel of action. A lot of things happen on its pages, and it is not always easy to keep track of the events. While leafing through the book, the reader might be delighted to find out that there is a handy list of all the important events, starting with the arrival of the protagonist at the checkpoint before the entrance to the Archcenotaph. This list keeps reappearing throughout the book, each time with more events added to it. At the structural level, the repeated summaries of the plot play a role similar to that of the recapitulation in some musical compositions of Bach. A brief and clear explanation of this principle is given by David Schulenberg in his recent biography of the German composer. He defines recapitulation as “the transposed restatement of a previously heard passage”, adding in a footnote: “‘Recapitulation’ in this sense is distinct from the customary understanding of the term as applied to classical Sonata form. In the latter, the recapitulation is a distinct section—the third one in a sonata-allegro movement. With Bach, recapitulation, that is, the transposed restatement of a passage, can occur anywhere within a movement, often more than once.” The compiler of this list or, rather, index is the protagonist of the novel Artur Oliver. The germ of the index was born during the mnemonic exercise he practised in a temporary detention cell, which was just one of the many obstacles during his arduous journey to the venue of the investigation. He started making the proper index following the suggestion of Captain Ori Buéerué, one of the summoned witnesses, sharing with his fellow committee members the belief that it might help them to find out the true objective of their mission. What is of note is that one of the experts envisages the aesthetic function of the index for the reader of Boötes, saying that the list to be compiled may serve as the basis for a “meditative-musical system” which will ultimately transform into “an entity-in-itself” beyond the immediate meaning of the items on the list. What is more, since one of the events listed in the index is the creation of the index itself, the whole thing becomes an infinite self-replicating structure akin to the Mandelbrot set.

Mimoid

Mimoid by Dominique Signoret. Image Source

At the beginning of the novel, the Archcenotaph is associated with Franz Kafka’s Castle, but closer to the end with Stanisław Lem’s Solaris. Boötes is rife with both explicit and covert intertextuality, but the influence of Lem’s and Kafka’s novels is especially prominent. Palol’s novel begins as a third-person narrative about a nameless mechanic (who later proves to be Artur) summoned to repair some device inside that mysterious, mist-shrouded structure on the island, which is not exactly a city, but something between a small city and a giant building. Just like the land surveyor K., Artur runs against a host of absurd difficulties preventing him from getting inside. The image of the Archcenotaph that we get in the beginning is that of an impregnable bureaucratic fortress whose mysteries are carefully guarded from any clueless newcomer. After waiting in interminable lines, getting falsely accused and arrested, being held in the detention centre and interrogated, Artur runs into the final obstacle on his way—the accreditation card dispenser machine. The frustrating procedure of getting the card issued is a biting satire on the automated attendant system familiar to anyone who has tried to call a bank or an airline. After a series of increasingly bizarre choices, like ordering a plastic surgery or hiring rhombicuboctahedral virtuals (whatever that means) Artur gets trapped in a loop of the same recurring options, which he manages to escape only thanks to the assistance of the man standing in the queue behind him. But as the protagonist sees more of the Archcenotaph during his quest as part of the Egregore, his idea of the place changes. The Island of the Dead and its coastal waters generate illusions and simulacra. First in a dream and later in reality (unless it is a hallucination), Artur encounters what he calls “mimoids”— protrusions of protoplasm similar to the excrescences on the surface of the sentient ocean in Solaris. The distinct feature of mimoids is their ability to imitate objects external to the ocean. The mysterious ocean throws back to the puzzled scientists their own ideas, preoccupations and anxieties without giving away any of its enigmas. Although it may seem initially that the Archcenotaph is also a locus of impenetrable conundrums, with time it becomes more apparent that the only real mystery harboured by this place is the inevitability of entropy and decay. The mimoid suddenly projected by the sea in front of Artur, when he and Midoissa are trying to escape in a boat, is not an ingenious simulation of a vehicle, a person or a building. It is an omen of death:

Before us rises a mimoid made of viscera, a swelling of calcified protoplasm, unsettling by its being between the identifiable and non-identifiable; it is twenty metres tall and sixty or seventy long. […] to whom belongs this flayed face? Who should I recognise in that facial skin transformed into a mask? The identified within the unidentified, the unidentified within the identified.

Although Boötes has its share of funny moments, darkness and nihilism prevail in this novel infused with apocalyptic sensibilities. This looks like the Götterdämmerung in Palol’s cycle about the Game of the Fragmentation. If I am wrong and this is just a prelude for the apocalypse to come, then God help us.

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The Untranslated Book Club

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Heinrich Lukas Arnold. The Reading Room.

I have decided to add another tier to my Patreon—The Untranslated Book Club. Please do not rush to join it yet and read carefully what I have to say. The main goal of the Book Club is to encourage learners of a foreign language to read a long, challenging novel in that language reviewed on my blog. For the time being, I have chosen four most popular languages: French, Italian, German, and Spanish; there might be more in the future. If you are at least an intermediate reader in any of these languages, you can try. A simple test would be getting a copy of The Little Prince in your target language and trying to read it. If you can get 90% of the information without using a dictionary, you are good to go. Once you join the Book Club, you will also get the benefit of the previous tier—early access to my reviews. If you read only one foreign language, say French, then at the end of the reading period for the French book you can either cancel your subscription or switch to the lower tier. Here is the tentative reading schedule for the twelve-month period starting with October 4, 2021:

  1. October, November, December – Le maréchal absolu by Pierre Jourde (French)
  2. January, February, March – Horcynus Orca by Stefano D’Arrigo (Italian) — That’s a tough one, I know, but to get you going I will share my detailed glossary to the first ten pages.
  3. April, May, June – Schattenfroh by Michael Lentz (German)
  4. July, August, September – A Spanish-language novel (title to be announced). I do not have the Spanish-language title yet because the books I would like to include like Los sorias or La tejedora de coronas are very difficult to get, and it goes without saying that a novel for the Book Club should be readily available.

For the duration of your pledge,  you will have access to my weekly Patreon posts about the portion of the novel we are currently reading. Depending on the length of the book, those chunks could be anywhere between 50 and 80 pages a week. The posts will include a short summary, analysis of some interesting words and expressions, explanatory notes, and questions for discussion. Every month, the members of this tier will be invited to the exclusive Discord voice chat meeting at which we are going to discuss the part of the book covered that month, share impressions, ideas, and help one another with the most obscure or difficult aspects of the text. (If your time zone is anywhere between GMT+7 and GMT+12, maybe it’s not a good idea, unless you can’t fall asleep and feel like talking about untranslated literature with us!) It is not recommended to join the Book Club late as it might be too difficult to catch up with the others. Two weeks of tardiness is the maximum, in my opinion. Since all new Patreon supporters are charged immediately upon joining the given tier, I strongly suggest joining The Untranslated Book Club not at the end of the month previous to the one in which our reading starts, but at the beginning of that month. For example, the first week for reading Le marechal absolu starts on October 4, so you have 4 days, beginning from October 1, to do your pledge. Even if there is only one person participating, the reading will go ahead.

Before joining The Untranslated Book Club, consult this checklist, which will help you to decide if it’s a good idea:

  1. You have read my review of the book and it is the kind of book you might like.
  2. You can get hold of a copy, either physical or in e-format.
  3. You are at least an intermediate reader in the given language. (The Little Prince test)
  4. You have at least 2 free hours a day to dedicate to reading the book.
  5. You have the stamina and perseverance to continue reading the text despite any setbacks.

Challenge yourself and improve your reading skills in a foreign language by reading some of the weirdest and the most linguistically inventive untranslated books in that language!

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Kaotic Summa (Summa kaòtica) and Kaotic Remainder (Resta kaòtica) by Ventura Ametller

Ventura Ametller is the pen name of Bonaventura Clavaguera Clavaguera, a successful veterinarian, and a towering presence in Catalan literature that sadly remains not well-known even among Catalan-speaking readers. As of now, all his works of fiction, poetry, and non-fiction are either unpublished or out of print. It looks as if the fantastic and whimsical creativity celebrated in the artworks of Salvador Dalí and Joan Miró, as well as in the architecture of Antoni Gaudí, is given the cold shoulder when it comes to literature. Ventura Ametller deserves to be numbered among all the established classics of Catalan letters not despite but owing to the fact that he is one of the most accomplished proponents of non-conventional, anti-realist, linguistically playful fiction whose supreme manifestation is his novel Kaotic Summa. In this review I will tackle both the dense and daunting Summa and its more straightforward sequel Kaotic Remainder. My goal, as always, is to give a general overview of the works and share my ideas about the aspects that I find particularly striking. Someday, a thorough study and annotation of these multilayered romans à clef will be undertaken by professional literary scholars.

 Kaotic Summa

Ventura Ametller’s novel is many things. Not the least, it is the middle finger shown to the Francoist regime’s policy of suppression of the Catalan language. Following the end of the Spanish Civil War, the public use of Catalan was prohibited. It could not be used at schools, courts and police stations. It was not allowed to appear on the radio and in newspapers. With his kaleidoscopic, surreal, and linguistically extravagant novel Ventura Ametller as if says: “so you wanted the Catalan language to become obsolete? Well, up yours! I’m going to show you what this language is capable of!” And he does. The language of the novel is incredibly rich as Ametller uses a lot of rare, dialectal, and archaic words, not to mention his own coinages. The text occasionally slips into alliteration, consonance, assonance or a stretch of rhymed prose. The book is also chock-full of anagrams as those are one of the major means with which Ventura Ametller creates his sweeping allegory of Catalonia from 1933 to 1939.

In this allegory, not only the names but also the historical facts have been altered, quite often in a bizarre way. Catalonia is represented as the Bacchant Empire of Bacanardia. Bacanard means “stupid” or “foolish” and the word bacant (bacchant) is pronounced the same way as vacant (empty), which is why the name is often changed to L’Imperi Vacant (the Empty Empire). Ametller made his hometown Pals the capital of the empire under the guise of the fictional city of Poel. Spain is the Holy Kingdom of Snyaphia (an anagram of Hyspania) with the capital Inòpia (the Catalan for poverty). Russia, Italy and Germany are respectively Asinur (an anagram of rusian), Bufilandia (perhaps related to bufar – to blow), and Rauxesland (rauxa means “rashness”). Apart from these, there are lots of other invented geographical names, but it would be a tall order to try and gloss all of them in a review.

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Pals, Baix Empordà. Image Source

We are led to believe that the book itself is an apocryphal manuscript discovered in the library of the University of Sacraville. Its author, and hence the narrator of the novel, is the mad anti-historian Petter White O’Sullivan aka Pere Blanc Suc D’Olives. His “antihistory” of the Catalan society on the verge of, during and immediately after the Spanish Civil War unfolds as we follow the life and adventures of the precocious child Anamorphus, the picaresque protagonist of the Summa. While still a spermatozoon, and later as a foetus, the boy was already known as Protomorphus, receiving his present name at the baptism in a church. But that is bound to change too. At a later stage of life, he will become Metamorphus, and under that new name he will reappear in Kaotic Remainder. The case of Protomorhus-Anamorphus-Metamorhus is not unique. Many names in Ametller’s novel are altered throughout the narrative in keeping with the chaotic nature of the world depicted by the insane anti-historian. Anamorphus’ precocity reminds us of Günter Grass’ Oskar Matzerath or, to take a much earlier example, François Rabelais’s Gargantua. As a baby, he is already irreverent, sharp-witted, and foolhardy. One day, rather than returning to his cradle, he defiantly knocks over his chamber pot, spilling its contents, and leaves the house for a fantastic adventure.

During this initiation journey, which takes place at the time of the vernal equinox, Anamorphus gets to know the environs of his hometown, meets an array of eccentric characters, from mythical to mundane, and is exposed to various kinds of magic and pseudo-magic. Two encounters are of special interest. The first one is with the Knife Grinder and his skeletal dog, which after the sunset turns into the canine vampire Baron. Baron might be just the title of his Excellency, but this could also be a reference to the name of the demon that the infamous child murderer Gilles de Rais tried to summon. The orthograde and coattail-wearing mandog leads his companions on an erratic mission to steal the hoard of gold guarded by a dragon. That’s when the magic of the equinox fails: behind the door, which is supposed to lead to the dragon’s lair, they find a frightened sow and instead of gold and precious stones—sacks with beans and maize kernels. The other meeting is with a fellow called Ribas Barefoot (Descalç) who is compelled to crawl on hands and knees (antithetically to the upright-walking vampire dog) because of the damaged sacrum. The boy accompanies him to the house of the local alchemist Xarina in whose underground laboratory the ailing man hopes to regain the ability to walk normally. Xarina’s cellar with its alchemist and Kabbalistic incunabula, specimen jars, apothecary pots, astrological charts, owls and bats flying at large, and other esoteric paraphernalia is the source of two great dangers to humanity: atomic energy and Nazi apologia. The former lurks in the melting pot Atanor, in which Xarina hopes to generate wine that will never inebriate the drinker, but which, according to the great Jewish prophet Albert, will produce an alchemical egg with a terrible infant inside capable of transforming the whole world into a ball of fire. The latter threat is posed by the beer bottle with the soul of Erik Jan Hanussen, occultist and Hitler’s clairvoyant adviser. After a healing ritual interrupted by the restless Anamorphus, Ribas can stand again but is incapable of sitting down. In order to find out the solution to this problem, Xarina consults three talking heads (they might have served as the model for the prophetic head in Miquel de Palol’s novel Ígur Neblí): the Cybernetic Head fabricated from leather by Gerbert of Aurillac, better known as Pope Sylvester II, the Celtic Head of a mummified druid presented to Xarina by the French alchemist Eugène Canseliet, and the Peabrained Head (Cap Cigrany) that used to belong to some local denizen. Believing that by giving the heads wine, he will be able to obtain valuable knowledge, Xarina provokes havoc as a result of which he ends up drinking the beer with the trapped soul of the Führer’s psychic and becomes Hhaannuusseenn-Xarina, the future personal magician of the autochthonous Führer Nemesius.

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Erik Jan Hanussen at a séance

Nemesius is a caricature of Francisco Franco. He is not Snyaphian, as we might have expected, but a Bacanardian from Poel who undergoes some strange transformations after getting sick. When he comes home one day, he starts speaking the Snyaphian language, giving commands to his imaginary troops. He is cured of pneumonia by means of freshly decapitated rabbits, ripped open in the middle and applied as cataplasms, but his brain remains addled. Later on, at the great Tavern, where all the distinguished citizens of Poel gather to discuss the political future of the country, he announces the foundation of the Order of Tau (l’Orde Taujànic). When this new order prevails, all Bacanardians and Snyaphians will march in formation and obey the orders of the new master race. Hhaannuusseenn-Xarina predicts a great victory for Nemesius and the fiery letter tau appears above their heads to mark the arrival of fascist ideology.

Anamorphus is among the visitors of the Tavern, which is also called Agora, Areopag, and Omphallus Mundi. In a parodic manner, all the political factions in Spain on the verge of the Civil War are represented here. Even in his early infancy, however, the protagonist shows aversion to any strictly defined ideology ripping the country apart, be it on the left or on the right. His heart lies with the fraternity of boozers and merrymakers who call themselves the Children of the Big Barrel, Brothers of the Inspiring Bottle. At the crucial point in history when everyone is forced to take sides, Anamorphus sides with Rabelaisian excess and Bacchic joviality. The visit to the Tavern-Agora is the last stage of his initiatic voyage, and when he returns home the main traits of his personality can be considered fully formed just like the preconditions for the imminent war.

The revolutionary Bacanardia, managed by the anarchist, socialist, and communist trade unions with the support of the respective militias, is not the best environment for the relatively well-off household of Anamorphus, whose members do not share the ideas of Marx, Bakunin, or Kropotkin. The protagonist is sent to school to learn under the guidance of the erotic-revolutionary teacher Roja-Lila. Though not very successful at comprehending the main theses of Das Kapital, Anamorphus proves to be an apt pupil when it comes to sex education, the body of his mentor being the main teaching aid. But the learning has to be interrupted when Anamorphus is accused by the new authorities of being a reactionary and a retrograde who indulges in alchemical practices and subversive propaganda. His punishment is a six-month exile in the swampy, inhospitable area known as the Mosquito Land. The time spent in this marshland is an important period in the boy’s life because he meets there his first love, an Austrian Jewish girl called Kamilla Kitzel, as well as witnesses first-hand what horrors can be spawned when the communist and anarchist ideals are realised in real life.

The extreme right-wing ideology is branded from the very start in the Summa as the product of a sick mind. However, the leftist radicalism fares no better. The murder of the clergy and the burning of the churches in the Republican zones during the Civil War is allegorised through the depiction of a hilarious and at the same time sinister black mess served by a satanic horde that storms the Cathedral of Poel and leaves it in flames after the sacrilege. The cult of collectivism is also severely castigated. In order to describe the ugly shape a communist utopia is likely to take once implemented, the author draws inspiration from Dante’s Inferno. The huge funnel-shaped city of Jobville is a vicious parody of a communist dictatorship. It is ruled by the hypocritical elite called the Honourable Blind, which is headed by the supreme leader Utopus-Taupus and shored up by the ruthless militarised units with the unambiguous name the Magnificent Executioners. The grotesque nature of this megapolis (the biggest in the Empire!) sprawled amid the swamps of the Mosquito Land is further emphasised by the fact that its real-life prototype is a village with an area of 9.3 square kilometres and a population of less than 200. In a brief article on Ventura Ametller, published in the 289th issue of Revista de Girona, the writer and anthropologist Adrià Pujol Cruells identifies the fictional Jobville with the village of Fontanilles. The slopes of the gigantic crater of Jobville pullulate with starved and ragged dwellers who fight for the opportunity to eat stray dogs, lizards, and frogs. There are those who have reconciled themselves to eating mud. And that’s what they are called: mud-eaters. The original word is a bitter pun on the “lotus-eaters” from the Odysseyllotofags, llot being the Catalan for “mud”. Cannibalism is also a common practice. Actually, Anamorphus and Kamilla barely escape the clutches of the cannibals during their visit to Jobville. It’s such a degenerate place that a man who blows up various animals through a straw (so that their slowly floating bodies are easier to catch for the famished inhabitants) is considered a great philanthropist. At the bottom of the crater, there is a half-ruined, foul-smelling amphitheatre housing the palace of Utopus, the Forum and the Assembly. This administrative centre is situated at the confluence of all the sewerage waters of the Empire. In this filth and squalor, the Honourable Blind administer justice, condemning the perpetrators against the city laws to be torn to pieces and devoured by a hungry mob.

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Cartoon of Hitler, Mussolini and Franco by Ernesto Guasp. Image Source

Back from the exile, Anamorphus enjoys a time of relative peace before the victorious troops of Nemesius, supported by the personnel and equipment provided by the Grand Diktator Kniebolus-Hinkel (Adolf Hitler) and the Grand Doge Napoleoni (Benito Mussolini), enter the capital of Bacanardia to usher in the period of authoritarian rule and repression dubbed “the Era of Great Comedy”. The highlight of this transition is the military parade on the main avenue of Poel, whose meticulous description runs for four and a half pages. A lot of the works I like and cherish have lists. To remind you of several, there is the list of the chivalric romances in Don Quijote, the lists of arsewipes and vulgar insults in Gargantua and Pantagruel, the list of the objects on Tyrone Slothrop’s desk in Gravity’s Rainbow, the list of the beggars and vagabonds in The Name of the Rose. One of the earliest examples of such a list is, of course, Homer’s catalogue of ships. A long, rambling enumeration often appears in encyclopedic novels and can be construed as a watermark of sorts that symbolises the desire to achieve the impossible task of capturing and organising the totality of the knowledge about a certain topic. As Umberto Eco, who is also the author of a book about lists, explains in an interview: “How does one attempt to grasp the incomprehensible? Through lists, through catalogs, through collections in museums and through encyclopedias and dictionaries.”  The catalogue of the participants of the parade in Poel is now on the list of my favourite lists. The mock grandiosity in the description of this carnivalesque procession reveals a deep disdain for everything which lies at the foundation of Franco’s dictatorship. The fascist and the Nazi triumph in the Civil War, despite all the tragedies and all the suffering it is going to bring, is treated with laughter, ridicule, and grotesque exaggeration, for those are the most potent weapons of a true artist. The “mysterious multitude” includes, but is not limited to: Etruscan bersaglieri, lictors with “dynamic futurisms of the thighs”, Teutonic Olympians in the buff, ghostly uniforms with no-one inside, spirits in dented medieval armour representing half a dozen of knightly orders, anachronistically armed moors, military engines from the times of the Punic Wars, the New Pretorian or Brown Guard, the three united orders of the Blue Tau in differently coloured shirts but with a naked arse, the great strategists of Nemesius mounted on the skeletons of horses, camels, mammoths and dinosaurs, tonsured and bearded friars under the command of the hunchbacked Archimandrite astride a mule, Tridentine inquisitors pulling carts loaded with gibbets and torture instruments, and, conspicuous among various monks, priors and canons, the Abbot of Cockaigne, the mythical land of plenty and luxury. The Magnus Invictus Imperator Nemesius and his personal wizard Haannuusseenn-Xarina bring up the rear. The former is riding a bicycle and the latter a black donkey. Quite a parade!

When the fires of inquisition die down and the first shock of the defeat dissipates, Anamorphus and his compatriots realise that now they will have to live on in a regime intent on their linguistic and cultural suppression. Nemesius announces the obligatory use of the Francoan language throughout his empire (the original term lengua franca is, obviously, a pun on “lingua franca”) and the proscription of Bacanardian. From now on it is prohibited to use it publicly, privately, orally, in the written form, and even mentally. Outside the city, the new authorities establish reeducation facilities for the Bacanardian kids, in which they are ideologically brainwashed and are taught weird subjects like Nemesian mathematics (in which the smallest unit is a million), Demential history (according to which the Holy Kingdom of Snyaphia originates from Cathodic Rays (which is a pun on “Catholic Monarchs”: Raigs Catòdics/Reis Catòlics)), Megalomanic Geography (according to which Bacanardia does not exist), and others in a similar vein. The resistance to the new policies is manifested in the formation of a clandestine network whose aim is the preservation of the persecuted language and culture. At its head is the learned man called the Sundial Tuner (l’Afinador de Rellotges de Sol), who announces the establishment of the Literary and Musical Republic within the oppressive empire of Nemesius. The Republic manages secret teaching of the Bacanardian language in the forests and the mountains as well as the general dissemination of the endangered culture. As for Anamorphus, he and a bunch of fellow students at one of the aforesaid special schools, organise a small counterforce of their own. Their goals are to resist the brainwashing, to take revenge on the Bacanardian turncoats collaborating with the Order of Tau, and to manufacture weapons of resistance. Their activity does not last long before Anamorphus is forced into his second exile. The authorities hope to re-forge his subversive character by means of religious education and send him to a monastery school in another city.

Although the second part of the novel, dedicated to the events immediately after the Civil War, takes a more somber tone, there is no lack of wacko occurrences and silly magic that dominate the first part. We witness the invocation of a Plutonic Spirit in an abandoned mineshaft, listen to the story of a man who for a year impregnated female centaurs in a fabulous Mediterranean land, and learn about the collisions of airplanes and flying cows during the First Bestial War (WWI in the universe of Kaotic Summa). Ventura Ametller’s inventiveness and wit know no limits, and when we reach the end of the novel, we crave for more. Unfortunately for us, the mad chronicler of these events, Petter White O’Sullivan, has finished his manuscript and is unlikely to continue the story of Anamorphus. Yet, luckily for us, there is another storyteller who knows what happened to the boy at the monastic school and who has recorded his adventures in a manuscript of his own—it has reached us under the title Kaotic Remainder.

Kaotic Remainder

Most of the text of the second novel in the Kaotic diptych is made up of the writings left by Fra Giovanni Torello, a lay doorman at the Sophos of Sephirag Monastic School, in which the protagonist, now called Metamorphus, carries out his studies. (The coastal city of Sephirag where the school is located is a thinly-veiled reference to Figueres, the capital of Alt Empordà and the birthplace of Salvador Dalí.) There are, however, two insertions from another manuscript: The Apocryphal Notebooks or Bad Memoirs of a Poet. The author of these memoirs is Metamorphus himself, for with time he becomes a prolific graphomaniac and leaves piles of written documents, which are eventually accessed by the compiler of the text of the novel—none other than Ventura Ametller. The compiler uses excerpts from Metamoprhus’ memoirs to fill in the gaps in the chronicle of Giovanni Torello. Consequently, two times in the novel there is a change from the third-person narrator to the first-person narrator. Another important innovation, compared to the previous novel, is the fact that most of the Spanish or Snyaphian dialogues have been “translated” by Torello into Catalan or Bacanardian. When Nemesius or his henchmen speak in the Summa, their speech is represented in the original language. To do the same in the Remainder, where there are more interactions in Snyaphian, would result in a bilingual text, so the “translation” seems to be the best legitimate way to avoid that. Chronologically, the novel covers the years of the Second World War or, as it is known here, the Second Bestial War.

Metamorphus continues to be a picaro and a troublemaker. Shortly after the commencement of his studies, he disrupts an arithmetic lesson by proving to the flabbergasted teacher that 1 does not equal 1, makes an enemy of the inquisitor-exorcist Dom Bambino, who deems it his personal mission to convert the recalcitrant boy to the fascist orthodoxy of tau, as well as helps the abbot to improve the economic situation of the monastery by embroiling him in a black market scheme. The formal education of the protagonist, most of which is just ideological brainwashing, is counterbalanced by his initiation into the secret esoteric tradition still obtainable within the walls of the monastery for those who know where to look. Actually, the building itself is possessed by a subversive spirit, which appears to taunt the rigidity of the dogmas propagated by the teaching staff. Known as “the mobile labyrinth”, the interior of the monastic school is in constant flux: corridors, staircases, and doorways keep appearing and disappearing randomly; while walking in one direction, one can easily end up in the opposite destination or, when coming back, to run into a wall where an hour ago there was a passage. There is also a secret chamber hidden between the walls like a bubble from another dimension, where Metamorphus meets the three wise old monks who become his true mentors: Fra Pere de Rodes, the last monk of the Monastery of La Selva de Mar (the real monastery is Sant Pere de Rodes in El Port de la Selva), Frater Ogam of Kells, the last Celtic druid, and Rabbi Nizak Herok, a kabbalist and alchemist. One of Ametller’s favourite devices in his depiction of the alternative world of the Summa and the Remainder is defamiliarising the familiar; he does that with people, places, objects, and ideas. An interesting example of that is the apocalyptic book that Ogam of Kells shows Metamorphus. The book is called the Codex Gigas or the Codex Diabolici. We are all familiar with that huge and hefty medieval manuscript containing a full-page colour portrait of the devil. The contents include the Vulgate version of the Bible, two works by Josephus Flavius, Isidore of Seville’s Etymologiae, Cosmas of Prague’s Chronicle of Bohemia, a collection of medical treatises, and some other smaller texts. In Kaotic Remainder, the Codex Gigas is the same enormous and heavy tome, but its contents are totally different. Aesthetically, it resembles more the Book of Kells, with its intricate miniatures, complex and colourful initials, ornamental borders, interlace patterns, and other decorations. The book is three thousand years old and its main purpose is to record all the significant disastrous events that have befallen humankind. Ogam, whose name is derived from the Ogham alphabet, is the last in the succession of the scribes who have documented various cataclysms as well as shared their thoughts and observations, not only expressing their ideas in the text, but also encrypting them in the elaborate patterns of the illuminations.

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The Codex Gigas. Photo credit: Kungl. biblioteket

The trio of the wise old monks teaches Metamorphus the basics of such arcane sciences as fantastic zoology, hermetic botany, magic history of the future, and mystic geometry. More relevant for the confrontation between the Holy Alliance (the Allies in WW2) and Kniebolus-Hinkel in the ongoing war, however, is their encouragement to the boy to join the clandestine anti-Nazi effort aimed at delivering the stolen or intercepted secret data about the Teutonic troops to the allied command. This subversive group of five, known as the Wind Quintet, plays an important role in bringing about the defeat of the Kaffrika-Korps led by the great commander Von Lemmör (Erwin Rommel, just in case), the notorious conqueror of the Desert of Arahas, which, besides being “Sahara” spelt backwards, may also be an allusion to Frank Herbert’s sci-fi classic.

Metamorphus’ way of life during these formative years, reflects the typical duality of a non-conformist intellectual who has to survive in a dictatorship without sacrificing his core values. Year after year, he has to attend the classes full of propaganda and obscurant dogmatism and pay lip service to the laws and regulations established by the regime of Nemesius. At the same time, he pursues the dissident esoteric knowledge that helps him to develop as a free-thinking and astute individual capable to withstand any kind of brainwashing and preserve his language and cultural identity. The mystical geometry taught by Rabbi Nizak Herok inculcates in him distrust of any rigid system of thought that does not allow for self-doubt. The kabbalist urges him to beware those who try to reduce the fluidity and imperfection of nature and human experience to a seemingly perfect and immobile ideological structure, for such proponents of immobility are likely to kill you in the name of utopian perfection. The main villain of the novel, Dom Bambino, is exactly such a person. For the inquisitor, even the metaphysical world of divine and evil creatures is reducible to geometric shapes. He espouses the theory that all entities related to God are curvilinear, whereas the Satanic spawn is polyhedral. Thus angels are shaped as ovals, cones, and cylinders, but demons as pyramids, cubes, and prisms. Dom Bambino takes upon himself to re-Christianise the rebellious pupil by subjecting him to extended sessions of indoctrination and catechism, but spectacularly fails in his design.

When it comes to Metamorhus’ love life, the author lets him experience both sides of the Madonna-Whore dichotomy with a vengeance. His Beatrice is an unnamed French girl who has posed as a model for the statue of the Immaculate Virgin and has to pretend to be one during the rite of enthronement at the monastery church after the effigy gets damaged. He sees her only once, during the ceremony, but keeps dreaming about her ever since. Metamorphus idolises her to such an extent that he starts building for her a shrine on a riverbank, using clay and broken tiles as his primary material. The resultant grotesque complex with monstrous statues, fake columns, niches and altars, bears the influence of surrealist art and Gaudí’s architecture. Metamorphus’ vain pursuit of the unattainable feminine ideal represented by the model for the Virgin Mary is offset by his visit to a veritable Nazi pornotopia. The protagonist’s stay at Kerneses (i. e. Requesens) Castle is an absurd, over-the-top parody of the Nazi-themed porn films of the 1970s and early 1980s. The Teutonic detachment stationed in the castle consists of women who wear nothing except leather straps, helmets and insignia.  Fraulein-Doktor, who is in charge, takes fancy to the young monk sent to the castle for summer work placement and ticks all the carnal boxes for him in several graphically described scenes.

Although very intense, Metamorphus’ liaison with the nymphomaniac Valkyrie is short-termed. As the war is drawing to a close, the Teutonic forces are getting ready to leave for their doomed homeland. At that point, in a bizarre flourish of poetic retribution, Ventura Ametller subjects some of them to a surreal anti-Guernica. As we know, the most resonant event during the Spanish Civil War which encapsulated the criminal affinity between the Nationalist faction and Hitler’s regime was the bombing of the Basque town Guernica by the Nazi German Air Force in 1937. The long-standing monument to this tragedy is undoubtedly Pablo Picasso’s enormous black-and-white painting titled after the destroyed town. In a spectacular set piece, Ametller uses the famous artwork as an inspiration for engineering a horrible end for the Teutonic spectators who have come to see a bull-fighting match organised by the Nemesian militia in their honour. The agent of destruction is the bovine from Picasso’s painting crossbred with the Beast of Revelation:

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Pablo Picasso. Guernica. 1937. Detail.

It was a Picassian bull. A monster with nine horns and seven solar eyes: black, enormous, and iracund. A wild beast! The peons-cuadrilleros in tattered clothing were about to wave their capes when the animal knocked them down. One of them, a hole in his body, went towards the infirmary. Two “sinister” diestros of cadaveric pallor were scared shitless and kept behind the “burladeros”, away from the horns and the dust. Once in a while, mechanically and out of rhythm, a choral “bravo” or an inopportune “olé” was shouted out, totally out of place and time.

The agonal bugle hoarsely blared again, and half a dozen “quixots” on skeletal nags entered the arena; their mounts were lame, one-eyed, injured and untended. The black horned monster was growing bigger with every pass of the cape and kept butting furiously the phantasmagorical horsemen and palfreys, disembowelling them in no time amid the tumbling basins, braziers, stove pipes and other dented medieval armour, their contents evaporated in the voyage through space. […]

Having dispatched the cuadrilla, the monster, which becomes so huge that it fills the whole arena, starts devouring the spectators. It is now likened to the Minotaur, another favourite of Picasso’s. Thus a farewell gift to the allies in bloodshed turns into a cathartic massacre, channelling the power of the art that has preserved forever the outrage at and the condemnation of the heinous war crime.

No matter how outlandish it can get, Kaotic Remainder is still a Bildungsroman in its essence, and therefore, it is of interest to get at least a hint of where the trajectory of the young protagonist leads. Metamorphus is not going to become a priest; that’s for sure. It is literature where his heart lies. He and several other students form a cultural group named Radio Tramuntana and start periodically displaying their critical and literary works in wall magazines attached to disused chalkboards. The next avatar of Protomorphus-Anamorphus-Metamorphus is Encrypted Melodic Tacit (Xifrat Melòdic Tàcit), which indicates the untapped creative potential seeking its way out. In order to express the melody of poetic art encoded in him, the young man needs the appropriate words, realising with dismay that it is difficult for him to write poetry entirely in Bacanardian. The years of systemic suppression and neglect have taken their toll. Now it is his primary goal to write his first serious poem in his mother tongue. It is going to be about his long-suffering land and the unnamed beauty who posed for the statue of the Immaculate Virgin. Rest assured, he will succeed. He will write poetry, prose and essays and will become an incomparable wordsmith in his native language, for the last stage of his metamorphosis is called Ventura Ametller.

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