Group Read of José Trigo: The Final Event at The Untranslated Book Club Before It Closes Down

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On February 6, 2023, we are starting our group read of Fernando del Paso’s masterpiece José Trigo, which is going to be the last event at The Untranslated Book Club. If you have at least an intermediate level in Spanish and feel like challenging yourself by reading what I consider to be the Latin American Ulysses, you are welcome to join The Untranslated Book Club tier on my Patreon. The best time to do that is from February 2 to February 6 to avoid being double-charged by the platform. The group read will last four months. As usual, I take it upon myself to send you weekly instalments of the Reader’s Guide with a detailed glossary, which will save you hours of looking up difficult words, explanatory notes, and a summary of each reading passage. Every month, on a Sunday, we are going to have an audio chat on my Discord channel to discuss what we have read in the past four weeks. I am also planning to post there some additional materials and useful links related to the events narrated in the novel to make your reading experience more rewarding. This is indeed the last group read that I am going to host, and when we have finished tackling José Trigo, The Untranslated Book Club will close down for good. For those who are going to participate: you can get any edition of the novel you like, but, in case you wish to read the same edition that I am going to use, please buy the one with the sunflowers on the cover (Fondo de Cultura Económica, 2015).

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José Trigo by Fernando del Paso

There are some debuts, like Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane or William Gaddis’ The Recognitions, which give you pause and make you wonder: How could this be a first work? How is this even possible? Fernando del Paso’s debut novel José Trigo is likely to provoke the same reaction. The Mexican author began working on the book in 1959, when he was just 24 years old, and finished it seven years later. The novel of the 31-year-old writer had the privilege to be the first published work of the new-fangled press Siglo XXI Editores, and among its early champions were such luminaries as Juan Rulfo and Álvaro Mutis. Nevertheless, the initial reception of José Trigo was mainly that of bewilderment, irritation, and dismissal. The novel of the young parvenu seemed to the critics too excessive, too baroque, too preoccupied with language experimentation. José Trigo was viewed as a failed attempt to write a Mexican Ulysses. Fernando del Paso never denied his indebtedness to Joyce. He says in an interview that he first learnt about Ulysses from a friend who had labelled his early short story as “Joycean”. The author openly admits that reading the Spanish translation of the novel has been a signal formative experience in his life, that Ulysses for him is “like a sun” that illuminates all literature written not only after but also before it. There is justifiably growing irritation with the way every second slightly ambitious book gets compared to Joyce’s modernist classic or even gets proclaimed a new Ulysses. I myself have been guilty of that malpractice on a number of occasions. However, now, after the feverish month of reading José Trigo with growing amazement, frustration, incredulity, and rapture I have no other choice but to say that if there is a novel that unequivocally deserves to be called not only the Mexican Ulysses but the Latin American Ulysses par excellence, it is Fernando del Paso’s José Trigo, with the important reservation that the novel in question was not written by a young epigone but by a young genius.

For anyone who has read José Trigo, the story of its creation will seem nothing short of numinous. It turns out that the central image of the novel that gets repeated time and again throughout the narrative and that has been used for the cover illustration in the latest edition of the book comes from real life. As he himself recounts in another interview, Fernando del Palso got the idea for the short story that later mutated into the linguistic monster of José Trigo when he was walking over the Tlatelolco Bridge in Mexico City and noticed a strange scene unfolding below: a tall and ungainly fellow was marching along the disused railway tracks carrying a white wooden box on his shoulder followed by a pregnant woman who was cutting sunflowers and gathering them in a bunch. These unknown man and woman served as the models for the titular character José Trigo and Eduviges, the woman from the railroad workers’ encampments who gave him shelter in her boxcar and later became his lover. The main reasons why the resultant novel turned out so complex, encyclopaedic and linguistically exuberant lie not only in the influence of Joyce but also in the terrifying realisation of the aspiring author that he might not have long to live when he was diagnosed with cancer after three years of working on José Trigo. After the surgery, the doctor told del Paso that in a case like his 60 per cent of patients were likely to die and only 40 per cent to survive. The fact that the doctor did not know to which group del Paso belonged was not exactly reassuring. To the likelihood of living no longer than five years was added the awareness of the futility of most writerly endeavours at a time when millions of mediocre books get published every year. If Ulysses was the first midwife of José Trigo, the second one was undoubtedly Cyril Connelly’s The Unquiet Grave, whose copy the Mexican author read in hospital while recovering after the surgery. The now oft-quoted passage from the English critic’s book, published under the penname Palinurus (which inspired the name of the protagonist of del Paso’s second novel) struck a deep chord:

The more books we read, the clearer it becomes that the true function of a writer is to produce a masterpiece and that no other task is of any consequence. Obvious though this should be, how few writers will admit it, or having drawn the conclusion, will be prepared to lay aside the piece of iridescent mediocrity on which they have embarked! Writers always hope that their next book is going to be their best, and will not acknowledge that they are prevented by their present way of life from ever creating anything different.

It was obvious to del Paso that with his end drawing near he had nothing to lose, so he decided to invest all his energies and knowledge into the single book that was going to be his legacy to the world. He grew resolute to explore in his fiction the potential of language to the utmost of his abilities and even beyond in an attempt to produce that masterpiece which would be a worthy addition to the body of the most valuable literary works that would be read and re-reread for generations. Luckily for us, not only did he survive and achieve exactly that, but he also went on to write two more voluminous and dense novels (Palinuro of Mexico and News from the Empire), neither of which, however, can match the complexities of José Trigo, which, to the best of my knowledge, has not yet been translated into any other language, which makes me wonder: has the person capable of performing this feat of translation been born yet?

The novel consists of three parts and is structured like the Mesoamerican flat-top pyramid. The first part titled The West is divided into nine chapters numbered from 1 to 9 and represents the ascent to the summit of the pyramid, whose traversal is symbolically rendered in the middle part called The Bridge. The nine chapters of the second part, The East, are numbered from 9 to 1 and thus suggest the descent back to the foot of the pyramid. There are strong correlations between the same-number chapters of the first and the second parts. These correspondences are expressed in a variety of ways; for example, a chapter in the second part can feature a sequel to the narrative in its twin chapter from the first part; both same-number chapters can focus on a particular character; two corresponding chapters can share similar narrative style or literary aesthetics. The interrelated character of the chapters making up the first and the second parts can even suggest a different way of reading the novel, not the linear progression from Chapter 1 to Chapter 2 to Chapter 3 to Chapter 4, etc., but hopping from Chapter 1 (The West) to Chapter 1 (The East) to Chapter 2 (The West) to Chapter 2 (The East), and so on. As literary scholar Silvia Soto points out in her insightful and highly recommended article Tres Aproximaciones a José Trigo (Three Approaches to José Trigo), “[i]n the linear reading, the structure of the novel mimics the shape of a pyramid, but in the circular reading—that of a flower, and more specifically, based on the symbolism of the principal street and the vision of the world in the novel, that of a chrysanthemum, a mandala or an Aztec calendar.”

Before we even begin disentangling the narrative threads of Fernando del Paso’s intricately arranged contraption, it might be of use to briefly look at the two important events from the history of Mexico that are prominently featured in the novel: the Mexican railroad workers’ strikes of 1958-59 and the Cristero War of 1926-29.

In 1958, the STFRM (The Union of Railroad Workers of the Mexican Republic) carried out a series of escalating stoppages (paros escalanados) whose main goal was to obtain from the government a wage increase of 350 pesos a month. Thanks to the support of the telegraphers’ union, it became possible for the General Action Committee led by Demetrio Vallejo to inform and organise more than 60,000 railroad workers across the country. From June 26 to June 28, the temporary strikes lasted, respectively, for 2, 4, and 6 hours. The further escalation was prevented by the direct involvement of President Adolfo Ruiz Cortines, who managed to reach a compromise by offering a pay rise of 215 pesos a month. The election of Demetrio Vallejo to the post of the General Secretary of the Union was another small victory in the confrontation. Before that, the official leaders of the STFRM were so-called “charros”, government collaborators who did next to nothing to promote the interests of the rank and file. The confrontation reignited in 1959 when the government refused to meet the new demands of the STFRM helmed by Vallejo: the recalculation of the wage increase based on a 6-day work week, housing allowance, and, most importantly, the termination of subsidies to the US mining and metal companies that used the Mexican railroads. The culmination of the lasting stand-off was the general strike across the whole country, which began on March 25, four days before Easter. This effectively meant the paralysis of the country’s railroad system during the Holy Week, one of the busiest travel periods of the year. The strike was immediately declared illegal and swiftly crushed by the government troops, who took control of all the railroad installations. The police cracked down on the protests using tear gas and truncheons. The union leaders and several thousands of workers were arrested. Demetrio Vallejo was sentenced to 16 years in jail. He was released in 1970, after the “crime of social dissolution” was removed from the Penal Code of Mexico. Fernando del Paso creates his own fictionalised version of this two-year struggle. He compresses it into a one-year conflict that unravels in 1960, a year after the historical railroad strike movement was suppressed. Demetrio Vallejo becomes the prototype for the Railroad Union section leader Luciano, who represents the Nonoalco-Tlatelolco area in the Mexico City, the main setting of José Trigo.


Striking Mexican railroad workers in 1959

The origins of the Cristero War (La Cristiada) in Mexico lie in the 1917 Constitution, which contained a number of articles aimed at reducing the influence of the Catholic Church in the country. The restrictions enshrined in the document included the following provisions: the clergy were stripped of their special legal status, all education had to be secular, religious services and ceremonies outside of temples were prohibited, priests could no longer wear religious garments in public, only civil marriage ceremonies were recognised as legal, the state reserved the right to determine the number of priests in each of Mexican states. When President Plutarco Elías Calles, a hard-dyed anti-cleric, began enforcing the discriminatory laws in 1926, the Mexican clergy responded with a full-scale protest: all religious services throughout the country were suspended. The direct consequence of that was the popular uprising of the numerous devout Catholics outraged at the persecution of their faith and intent on regaining their religious rights with weapons in their hands. The battle cry of the insurgents was “¡Viva Cristo Rey!” (Long live Christ the King!); it gave rise to the name “Cristeros”, which they began to use when referring to themselves. The bloody conflict raged for three years. The poorly armed Cristeros, most of whom lacked military training, operated in small groups and engaged the federal forces in guerrilla warfare, which caused them significant losses. Out of the estimated 90,000 battle-related deaths, 56,882 were on the government side. In 1929, the war was ended after the agreement between Calles’ successor Emilio Portes Gil and Mexican prelate of the Catholic Church Leopoldo Ruiz y Flóres. Fernando del Paso devotes two complete chapters to an episode in the Cristero War taking place at the Volcano of Colima, which sits on the border of Colima and Jalisco states. The author relies on the historical evidence of the Cristero resistance in that area, to tell the backstory of several characters who find themselves at the encampment of the insurgents on the slopes of the volcano and witness the great final battle against the government troops.


Cristero Fighters

The anonymous narrator of the novel will find out more particulars about the events summarised above and many other things in the course of his search for the elusive José Trigo, which begins in the eastern part of the boxcar shanty town sprawled over the Nonoalco-Tlatelolco area in Mexico City. The narrator keeps asking around if anyone has seen José Trigo until he is directed to Mother Buenaventura’s home, located in the Western Camp, in the Street of the Chrysanthemum. As some dwellers of the decommissioned boxcars clustered all over the vast rail yards point out, the old matriarch of Nonoalco-Tlatelolco will definitely tell him everything there is to know about José Trigo even if she has never seen him or even if such a man has never existed. As the narrator moves from east to west, we get our first glimpse of the topography of the place, which is going to be the setting of some of the most important events in the novel. To somewhat facilitate the reader’s visualisation of the area, the first edition of José Trigo was supplemented with a relevant fragment of a 1960 map of Mexico City. Unfortunately, this has not been the case with the subsequent editions. Mother Buenaventura, revered as the guardian of the collective memory, lives in a boxcar with her husband Todolosantos and the Albino, the only survivor of her twelve children. When the narrator visits her, she is expecting him with four guests: the railroad crossing watchmen Anselmo, Bernabé, Guadalupe, and the carpenter Don Pedro. The four men are there to assist Buenaventura in the act of storytelling, which is going to be anything but linear. The narrator will hear not only the story of José Trigo but also that of some of the storytellers and, most importantly, the story of the local union leader Luciano, who happens to be Buenaventura’s grandson. Perhaps the most dramatic conflict that occurs in the encampments at the time of the highest tension between the Union and the government is Luciano’s confrontation with Manuel Ángel, his former friend who has become a charrista sold-out and a traitor to the railroad workers’ movement.


Nonoalco-Tlatelolco in 1950, Image Source

What can be considered, with some reservations, the main plot of José Trigo is gradually pieced together throughout the novel out of the stories heard at Buenaventura’s home and the heteroclite, stylistically diverse narratives that supplement them. The outline of this plot keeps reappearing in various forms in different parts of the novel as an omnipresent, elliptical constant. In José Trigo, the story itself has value insofar as it allows del Paso to come up with a dazzling array of ways to relate it. We do not read this novel to find out what has happened to José Trigo, Luciano, Manuel Ángel, and others. We read it to discover what happens to the language when their stories unravel. Bared to the essentials, the main developments at Nanoalco-Tlatelolco following the arrival of José Trigo, who jumps out of a moving freight train, leaving his shoes inside, are not that hard to summarise. The barefooted newcomer finds shelter in the boxcar of Eduviges, a former lover of Manuel Ángel, whom he has abandoned for Genoveva, the daughter of another charrista union member Atanasio. Eduviges has been left on her own to provide for the little son she had with Manuel Ángel. She is pregnant with their second child to boot. José Trigo “inherits” Manuel Ángel’s shoes left in the boxcar and begins taking care of Eduviges and the boy. On the third day of his arrival in the Western Camp, he sells her cage with a goldfinch to buy some food. About two months later, the sickly child dies and José Trigo obtains from the carpenter Don Pedro a white coffin in exchange for which he agrees to work for him as a delivery man. Many denizens of the Western Camp witness an unusual funeral procession: the lanky José Trigo walking with the small white coffin on his shoulder followed by the pregnant Eduviges cutting and collecting sunflowers. José Trigo’s stay at the encampment coincides with the severe struggle between the railroad workers’ union and the government. Some corrupt union members are trying to undermine the movement from within. During a night out highlighted by visits to an oyster bar, a brothel, and a billiard hall, Manuel Ángel attempts to bribe Luciano into calling off the strike, but the latter bluntly refuses. After that, Manuel Ángel and Atanasio begin plotting acts of sabotage that will discredit the union and will give the authorities an excuse to crack down on the whole movement. First, they arrange a collision between a passenger train and a group of stationed locomotives, which results in one human death. The next day, a fire breaks out in the central railroad workshops, which is also the work of their hands. Shortly before the second act of sabotage, Luciano gives a fiery address at a union meeting, calling upon the workers to proceed with the strike and continue fighting for their rights until victory. However, after the fire at the workshops, he is forced into hiding, fearing persecution from the government. His fears are justified when two days later the police arrest the general secretary of the Railroad Union and four other high-standing officials. Two months later, having learnt about Manuel Ángel and Atanasio’s subversive activities, Luciano leaves his shelter and confronts Manuel Ángel in the Eastern Camp. They have a fight, and Luciano knifes him to death. The only witness of the murder is José Trigo, who is passing by after delivering a coffin made by Pedro to a local funeral parlour. Manuel Ángel chases after José Trigo to eliminate the witness but the latter succeeds in leaping between two trains passing each other under the Nonoalco Bridge. He loses one of his shoes in the act. Later, he finds a replacement for the lost shoe in a dumpster. The only problem is that the new shoe has a different colour, so now he sports a black shoe on one foot and a coffee-coloured one on the other. Thanks to the unmatching shoes, Manuel Ángel will spot him in the crowd during the festivities dedicated to the Virgin of Guadalupe. Luciano’s corpse is discovered five days after the murder. The dead leader is placed into a handcar that slowly moves along the rows of the railroad workers paying him last respects and chanting: “Long live Luciano!” The incorruptible leader’s martyrdom gives an additional impulse to the workers in their struggle, and on December 12, the Day of the Virgin of Guadalupe, they organise a manifestation in the atrium of the Church of Santiago Tlatelolco. The federal troops arrive and open fire on the unarmed protesters, which spells the demise of the whole strike movement: it will be completely suppressed by December 23. On the fatal day of the massacre in the atrium, Manuel Ángel chases after José Trigo for a third time in the past three days and yet again without any success. The elusive man once again manages to jump through the space between two trains about to pass each other, leaving behind the second black shoe. After that, he leaves the encampments for good.

Hardly the protagonist of the novel in the conventional sense, for Fernando del Paso, José Trigo represents the true protagonist of Mexico: the common people of the country. “Trigo” is the Spanish for “wheat”, whose cultivation and harvesting epitomises the collective labour that feeds the nation. This is a bit of a cliché, for sure, but how many of us ever wonder about the origins of the loaf of bread that ends up in our bread basket? No one is sure what José Trigo exactly looks like, what colour his hair and eyes are; he is a blurry, ill-defined presence in the railroad workers’ community. He does not distinguish himself by any grandiose accomplishments and instead of trying to fight his persecutor Manuel Ángel, chooses to flee from him every time they meet, which is four times in total. Yet on the day of the military crackdown, the collective voice of the protestors claims the identity of this nondescript fellow: “And we, who were José Trigo, we were there, in the atrium of the temple of Santiago and we saw men approaching us, we saw the torches, we saw the black and red banners, and we were a man bathed in light […]”. The masses of the outraged workers, who have recently lost their leader, adopt the protean image of José Trigo, who is both nobody and everyone, because they do not seek greatness and are not raring to accomplish heroic deeds: all they want is to achieve justice and improve their lives and the lives of their families, and if any heroism or martyrdom do occur in the course of this simple and down-to-earth pursuit, those are the tragic consequences that are to be lamented rather than celebrated.


Map of the Volcano of Colima from the first edition of José Trigo

Like Luciano, many workers taking part in the strike movement are the direct descendants of the Mexicans who thirty years before also were involved in a collective struggle against the government, which was incomparably more severe and brutal. In Chapters 5 of the first and the second parts of José Trigo, the author adopts the style of a historical novel, with a third-person omniscient narrator (a stark contrast to the fragmentary, stream-of-consciousness style of the chapters set in Nonoalco-Tlatelolco), to tell us about the armed fight between the Cristeros encamped at the Volcano of Colima and the federal forces dispatched to suppress that pocket of resistance. Among the already familiar characters involved in these hostilities of 1928, are Buenaventura, her husband Todolosantos, and their grandson Luciano, who is just a little boy at the time. In the first edition of José Trigo, besides the map of Nonoalco-Tlatelolco, there is also a detailed plan of the volcano and its environs. However, the reader should be aware of the fact that the handy topographical depiction has little to do with the real Volcano of Colima. Del Paso based his map on the model which he built in his apartment while working on the book. The topographic features of his version of the Volcano of Colima are as fictitious as the Battle of Angels, with which the confrontation of the Cristeros and the federals culminates. But, of course, there are real prototypes both for the terrain and the engagements that occurred in it as the state of Colima saw a number of massive offenses mounted by the federal army in the course of the government’s military campaign.

One can’t help noticing that in the Nonoalco-Tlatelolco chapters Todolosantos remains silent. It’s as if he has forfeited the gift of speech for some past transgression. In the two Cristiada chapters, the situation is reversed: it is Todolosantos who comes to the foreground and does most of the speaking, whereas his wife Buenaventura is pushed to the periphery of the action and hardly utters a word. Both husband and wife commit reprehensible deeds: Buenaventura sleeps around with other Cristeros, and Todolosantos completely neglects his duties as the commander during the decisive battle, roaming about the volcano and looking for his wife while his soldiers are being slaughtered by the assaulting units. Perhaps, from the biblical point of view, Buenaventura’s adultery is a graver sin, but from the global perspective of the great struggle between haves and have-nots, Todolosantos is a much greater sinner and completely deserves the silence to which he is condemned for the rest of the novel. Despite the death and suffering pervading the Cristiada narrative, it would be wrong to think of it as an entirely tragic tale. Tragicomic would be a more fitting epithet, for there is no lack of funny, hilarious, grotesque, and even carnivalesque occurrences. As a matter of fact, the very first battle that happens at the volcano is not an engagement of two warring factions but a Rabelaisian extravaganza in which the federal soldiers “fight” domestic animals dressed up as upper-class bourgeoisie and church dignitaries. The thing is that just before the attack on their village at the foot of the volcano, the Cristeros were celebrating the day of St. Anthony the Abbot. The festivities included a parade and benediction of dressed-up animals, which had to be left behind when the alerted villagers hurried up the volcano slopes into hiding.

Cristeros and Cristeras—the men of the Liberation Army and the women of the Brigades of Saint Joan of Arc and of the Marian Congregations — began marching down the street. All of them had brought their animals along. A team of oxen with tricorne hats and hooded cloaks on their backs in place of pack saddles pulled a cart carrying a cargo of corseted she-goats. Two children toted a turtle with a harlequin carapace. Other men and women paraded pigs in knickerbockers, blackbirds in white hoods, cockatoos sporting socks, porcupines speckled with sequins, parrots in wigs, dogs in pith helmets, owls in blue cambric waistcoats, geese with scarves and necklaces, kepi-donning rabbits bound in boddices, cats in petticoats and bonnets, and old horses with false beards in patched doublets. […] The cassocked priest emerged with a beaming face in the doorway of the temple and announced that the weapons shall be blessed before God’s creatures. […]

When the government troops arrived half an hour later, there was not a soul around. The whole village had been swallowed by the thickets of laurel growing on the mountainside. They say that the colonel was so enraged that he entered the church with an unsheathed machete and began hacking left and right, decapitating cats, sheep, and geese. The chickens fluttered about and perched on the heads of the saints covering them in droppings. The hallowed place was filled with hooting, bleating, cawing, braying, clucking, and bellowing. Still unsatisfied, the colonel commanded his soldiers to bring down the statues of the saints from their niches and cut off their heads. And after that, he ordered to execute the donkey wearing a frock coat and a top hat, the monkey dressed as an altar boy, and the dog in gaiters and a kepi, considering them representatives of clergy and aristocracy.

The insurgents naively believe in their imminent victory and plan to rename all geographical locations in Mexico when the kingdom of Christ returns to its soil. Actually, they have already initiated the renaming procedure by giving religious designations to the terrain features of the volcanic complex. When Buenaventura and Todolosantos arrive with the younger children at the Cristero settlement following the invitation of their eldest son Crisostomo, they receive a short geography lesson from the Mayan Indian, one of the community members dispatched to meet them. They learn that the newly founded Christian utopia has such places as the Plateau of Christ the King, the Valley of Circumcision, the Hollow of the Good Shepherd, the Wood of Epiphany, the Mount of Resurrection, the Gorge of Pentecost, the Crag of Angels, and so on. With the arrival of Todolosantos, who replaces his son as the leader of the community, the utopia is complete because in keeping with the meaning of his name (the Spanish for “all saints”), the new chief of the insurgents changes his name every day in accordance with the calendar of Catholic saints: i.e., on St. Jerome’s Day he is Jeronimo, on St. Alexander’s Day—Alejandro, etc. Thus, this little Christian kingdom is symbolically ruled by a host of saints all year round! The author’s irony is not lost on us when this vessel of sainthood turns out to be an inept commander and a negligent defender of his flock, for his utopian reign descends into bloody chaos as soon as the federal troops launch a full-scale offensive. All his sons perish in the battle except the baby Albino, his and Buenaventura’s last offspring, who is born in the encampment. Among the fallen is Luciano’s father Leandro. During his stay at the volcano, the seven-year-old Luciano gets close to the Mayan Indian, who becomes his mentor, teaching him the basics of guerrilla warfare and survival in the wild. Todolosantos, who is going to adopt his orphaned grandson and bring him together with the Albino to the rail yards of Nonoalco-Tlatelolco, will never exert the same authority and formative influence. It is thanks to the Mayan, that Luciano survives the slaughter and receives the important life lessons which will help him grow into a labour movement leader.


Volcano of Colima. Photo Credit: Jrobertiko

Both the Cristero War and the railroad workers’ strike reappear in the twin 6th chapters titled Chronologies (Cronologías). The first impression that we deal with a dry catalogue of chronologically ordered historical events proves to be erroneous upon closer perusal. At first glance, we are offered two timelines: the first one begins with the foundation of Tlatelolco in 1337 and traces the history of Mexico with an emphasis on the development of its railroad system, whereas the second timeline follows the main stages of the 1960 railroad workers’ movement starting with the preparation of the lists of the Union’s section leader candidates on January 13, 1960. For the convenience of the reader, the first timeline is set in italics. The stages of both chronologies alternate, and there is a hint that they may eventually merge as the events of the first timeline reach the year 1959 and are about to catch up with the developments of the second timeline. But things are not that simple and predictable. First of all, the initial event of the first chronology is not the establishment of the city of Tlatelolco by the dissident Aztecs who broke away from Tenochtitlan just two years after it was built but the arrival of the nameless narrator at the Western Camp of the railroad workers’ settlement asking around for José Trigo. All we are told is that it happens on January 11 of a leap year. But which year? 1964? The last event in the second chronology is the defeat of the strike movement dated December 23, 1960, when José Trigo had already fled from Mexico City, so it is obviously impossible for the narrator to come to the encampments in January of 1960. But why omit the year then? And how come something that takes place in 1964 predates an event in 1337? Things get even more bewildering if we follow the italicised timeline all way through. Our expectations are thwarted when it does not catch up with the other chronology and makes a U-turn in 1959 backtracking as far as 1521 when the Triple Alliance was defeated by the Spanish conquistadors, led by Hernán Cortés, and their native allies. The very last event in the first chronology, however, is December 26 of a leap year when the nameless narrator arrives at The Eastern Camp asking around for José Trigo. This patently contradicts the information at the beginning of the timeline where the date of the arrival is given as January 13. If the second day is correct, then the leap year can be 1960, instead of 1964. Could it be that the two chronologies do merge at the point when the second version of the arrival takes place (which happens three days after the last event of the second timeline) and make up some kind of Moebius strip?  No matter what explanation can be offered, the indeterminate status of the arrival suggests to us that it is a metaphysical event rather than a physical occurrence in space and time. It is the big bang or the divine act of creation (take your pick) that gives birth to the fictional world of José Trigo.  The two versions of the arrival are the beginning and the end, Alpha and Omega, Genesis and Apocalypse of that infinitely complex creation that comes into being as soon as the words “José Trigo” are pronounced, for these are the first words of the novel, and comes to an end after the word “nobody” is uttered, for this is the last word of the novel.

If that was not enough, the seemingly neutral, dry style of the chronologies is contaminated by the irruption of four confusing and cacophonous set pieces with the stories told to the narrator in Buenaventura’s box car. These texts are marked by poetic rhythm, verbosity, alliteration, and unexpected word combinations. It is not always easy to say exactly what is going on when reading them, but there is no difficulty in getting the gist of each set piece. The first one provides the backstory of Todolosantos, beginning with his difficult childhood when he was forced to work at his father’s tannery. The second story relates the incestuous relationship between Guadalupe, one of the guests at Buenaventura’s, and his sister Dulcenombre. The third piece is Bernabé’s account of his father Sidronio Pérez, who took an active part in the Mexican Revolution and became a train robber afterwards. In the last text, we learn about Buenaventura’s marriage to Todolosantos before their departure to the Volcano of Colima, and, more specifically, about her adulterous affair with a man oddly called Santos. By allowing these private stories to invade the space reserved for the chronologies, Fernando del Paso invigorates the impersonal and fact-based discourse about Mexican history with the flesh and blood of the common people who have lived in it, with their hopes, fears, frustrations, raptures, and regrets couched in poetic language.


Church of Santiago Tlatelolco, Photo Credit: Thelmadatter

The 8th Chapters of Parts 1 and 2 also have a chronological aspect about them, but style-wise they have nothing in common with the terse, unadorned reports that make up the bulk of the Chronologies. Chapter 8 (The West) is called An Ode, and the title of its counterpart in The East is An Elegy. Both texts can be described as lava flows of language whose viscous magma consists of relentlessly rolling catalogues of events, objects, people, colours, textures, and smells. Either is an erudite digression, a kind of selective, poetic-encyclopaedic history: An Ode is that of the train and the Mexican railroads, and An Elegy is that of the Santiago Tlatelolco Church and its environs. Among other things, in the ode to the railroad we follow the development of the first locomotives, the expansion of the rail line infrastructure across the country as well as extensive lists of various types of train passengers and goods transported by freight trains. The whistle of a distant locomotive in the middle of the chapter serves the narrator as an auditory madeleine to revive the collective memory of the Mexican Revolution and the crucial role of the train in the ultimate success of the forces opposed to the dictatorship. As the narrator himself notes, “the Revolution was made on the train”. In terms of the density of description and detail overload, An Elegy is even more formidable. The Temple of Santiago Tlatelolco, that lasting monument to the Spanish conquest literally erected on the ruins of the Aztec civilisation, is metaphorically transformed into a fully rigged ship sailing the seas of time. This conceit is explored at some length, beginning with rather simple analogies between certain elements of the church and the ship and evolving into a baroque litany that bemoans and simultaneously caricatures the conquest of the Americas, which resulted in the destruction of the indigenous peoples and their way of life followed by the imposition of the European culture and religion. The sails of the church-ship get torn off the masts by the winds and unravel to become the plumed wings of Archangel Michael and the white horse of Saint James, one of the twelve apostles and the patron saint of Spain:

And Archangel Michael, Prince of the Heavenly Hosts and vanquisher of Lucifer, stands upon the Bridge and extends his wings, one to the east and the other to the west, to give his name to the neighbourhood of San Miguel Nonoalco. And Saint James the Great, apostle, commander of Spanish militias and defeater of untold hordes of idolaters and heretics, also called Sancte Jacobe, Santiago of Compostela or Campus Stellae, Santi Yagüe and San Yago, drives his red sword-cross into the heart of this Terra Firma, subjugates it, and gives his name to the seigniorial domain of Santiago Tlatelolco. And then this rider of a giant Trojan Horse comes to standstill. The rump of the beast fades and transforms into the apse. Its neck and head—into the portico. And Saint James himself—into the belfry. The star dust in the wake of his passage settles to endure on earth: dendrite, druse crystallised forever and thus converted to its own temple, perhaps a temple with a gabled roof, as some chroniclers say, possibly, a temple whose high altar was dominated by a plateresque altarpiece of carved polychrome wood, as others recount, a temple of triangular candelabra that were ignited in the tenebrous gloom of the Holy Week, of Paschal lambs with scaly wax for fleece, of lanterns resting on three-legged supports, of pulpits and choir, temple-ship-aerostat-horse of fire: the temple that sailed on the shoulders of Saint Cristopher, the patron of travellers, the carrier of Christ and, previously, the Devil’s servant, whose enormous figure, a pictorial palimpsest al fresco, rises above the North Gate of the church; the tarred ship, whose masts are adorned with the bunting of Saint Elmo’s fires, that came from the distant shores of far-away lands and travelled through the liquid element draped with phosphorescent glow and dark-green mantles of cryptograms until it ended up, propelled by the boreal tide and the papal wind, in the coves and bays of America, carrying a motley crew of marketplace inspectors, gunpowder makers, perfect prefects, horseback competition riders, pince-nezed supervisors, phlegmatic magistrates with ear trumpets,  stick-in-the-mud surveyors, crossbowmen, executioners with rods of righteousness, boatloads of priests skilled in sermonising, archbishops, saintly lectors, pretenders, actors in comedies of caricature, and Bengali slaves, who would have to build a new city over the old city, new temples over the old temples, new diseases, sicknesses of the spirit and the flesh, over the old afflictions and distempers: for they brought with them a pack of black hounds: consultants, commissioners, and prosecutors of the Holy Office with all their familiatura of auto-da-fé and sanbenito dispensers; the herd of maleficent angels accompanied by all our diseases, which did not include scurvy or scorbutus, but did comprise the Gallic malady, the fruit of the land, epilepsy, and smallpox—confluence of malignant vesicles.


Façade of Sagrario Metropolitano, Photo Credit: Osbo

The excessiveness of both chapters echoes the horror vacui characteristic of Baroque art. Just like a Churrigueresque architect filling all the available space on the façade with elaborate ornaments, Fernando del Paso crams the pages allotted to the ode and the elegy with a multitude of detail, with a superabundance of motifs and slightly sketched ideas that proliferate and melt one into another, not allowing the readers to rest on any of them in particular but rather impelling them to experience the entirety of each text as a highly wrought composition so rich in detail that it denies its audience the complete perception of all its intricacies.

The ornate histories of the Mexican railroads and the Temple of Santiago Tlatelolco, besides being fine examples of baroque excess, also give an additional dimension to the core story taking place in the Western and Eastern camps over the course of the year 1960. Its participants are the historical and cultural inheritors of both sagas: that of building the capital of the conquered land and that of connecting all the corners of that land with a network of rail lines. If Luciano, Manuel Ángel, Buenaventura, and Eduviges had remained just poor denizens of the encampments with their mundane problems and worries, with their petty gripes and little joys, their story would still be an impressive spectacle thanks to the ingenious ways in which del Paso presents it to us. But there is a lot more to them than it may seem in the beginning. If we had any uncertainties throughout the nine chapters of the first part, The Bridge, which connects it to the second and also functions as the summit of the pyramid leaves no room for doubt: the main characters are also Aztec gods and the human story of conflict and betrayal is also the divine tale of cosmic proportions lying at the foundation of the Nahua belief system. The “bridge” symbolised by the middle part of the novel has at least three aspects: it serves as the narrative transition between the first and the second parts; it refers to the physical bridge of Nonoalco, which José Trigo crosses to deliver a coffin from the carpenter’s shop in the Western Camp to the funeral parlour in the Eastern Camp; it is a metaphysical bridge connecting the world of the humans with the mythical realm.


Quetzalcoatl (left) and Tezcatlipoca (right) as depicted in Codex Borbonicus

In that mythical dimension, Luciano becomes Quetzalcoatl, the feather-serpent god of wind and learning, while Manuel Ángel assumes the identity of his brother and bitter rival Tezcatlipoca or the Smoking Mirror, the trickster deity presiding over night, discord, and sorcery. The feud between the two gods is an important motif in the creation myth of the Five Suns. As legend has it, Quetzalcoatl and Tezcatlipoca were among the four sons of the dual god Ometeotl, who existed in the male and female form as progenitor gods Ometecuhtli and Omecihuatl. After 600 hundred years of indolence, the four sons began creating the world as well as other gods and humans. To illuminate the creation, one of the gods had to become the sun, and Tezcatlipoca was chosen to fulfil that role. The First Sun was weak and insufficient because Tezcatlipoca lacked one leg bitten off by the earth monster Cipotli or the Caiman. Quetzalcoatl knocked down his brother from the sky, and the vengeful god sent jaguars to devour all the humans. Quetzalcoatl became the Second Sun, giving light to a new population of humans created by the gods. Tezcatlipoca turned these humans into monkeys, and the rule of Quetzalcoatl ended with a mighty hurricane that destroyed all life on Earth. The rain god Tlaloc became the Third Sun. After Tezcatlipoca abducted and seduced his wife Xochiquetzal, the flower goddess, the grieving Tlaloc withheld rain and, when the parched humans began to complain, he burnt the Earth with a shower of fire. The period of the Fourth Sun was the rule of the water goddess Chalchiuhtlicue, whose tears caused a great flood after the envious and bitter Tezcatlipoca accused her of feigning her affection for the humans. The Fifth Sun is the current period in which we all live. Nanahuatzin (Full of Sores) was the humblest of the gods who became the sun by jumping into the sacrificial fire before the hesitant Tecciztecatl did, for that rich and proud god, who initially wanted to become the sun, hesitated in the last moment. When he followed Nanahuatzin into the pyre, Tecciztecatl became a second sun, but not for long because the gods threw a rabbit into his face and turned him into the moon. The Fifth Sun is going to end in a great earthquake. Another important source about the conflict between the two brothers is the legend in which Tezcatlipoca brings about the downfall of Quetzalcoatl by tricking him into getting drunk on pulque and committing incest with his celibate priestess sister Quetzalpetlatl. The next morning, the mortified Quetzalcoatl goes into a self-imposed exile on a raft of serpents.


Statue of Coatlicue at National Anthropology Museum in Mexico City. Photo Credit: Luidiger

The Bridge imitates the style of an indigenous sacred narrative and establishes correspondences between the dwellers of the encampments and the gods from the Aztec pantheon. The identification of the characters with the gods is not done directly but rather through hints, allusions, and the use of either less known or modified designations. For example, the names “Quetzalcoatl” and “Tezcatlipoca” do not appear in the text at all. However, the following sentence leaves little doubt about the mythical identity of the union leader: “Luciano is there, in his embroidered shirt and with his shield, the jewel of the wind, in front of his people, teaching them things.” As we know, Quetzalcoatl is associated with wind, and the fact that Lucian is “teaching” his people “things” alludes to the god’s educational mission among the humans, who learnt from him how to grow maize, work with metals and stones, and the art of government. The equation of Luciano’s nemesis with Tezcatlipoca is even more obvious: “Manuel Ángel, the young hunter, the smoking mirror, I saw him: and he kidnapped the daughter, the wife of the lord of the rain, who remained crying forever.” Thus Eduviges, who absconds with Manuel Ángel from her foster parents in a mobile crane, impersonates Xochiquetzal, which is further confirmed when she is called “flower princess”. In the mythical realm of The Bridge, the great storyteller Buenaventura is first presented as a mockingbird that plucks a word from the tree of life. She is called “sinsonte”, which is an alternative form of “cenzontle”, the Spanish word for “mockingbird”, which is derived from the Nahuatl centzontlahtōleh, whose literal meaning is “possessor of four hundred words”. Considering the numerous stories with which Buenaventura plies the anonymous narrator at her boxcar, that is a most fitting appellation. In addition to that, she is also dubbed Nance, Nanancen, Nanantzen, Nanantzintle, Nanancenzontle, and Nanantzin. All of them have the same root, “nan”, which is the Nahuatl for “mother”. That, most definitely, makes her also Coatlicue, the mother of the gods and the goddess of fertility, who is also known as Tonantzin (our mother). And, again, this makes perfect sense in view of Buenaventura’s remarkable fecundity. There are two possible ways in which the myth of Quetzalcoatl’s exile and expected return plays out in the encampments of Nonoalco-Tlatelolco. We can assume that Luciano’s two-month hiding is the analogue of the god’s exile, and that means that upon his return Quetzalcoatl is again defeated by Tezcatlipoca, which is reflected in Luciano’s death at the hands of Manuel Ángel. However, if we suppose that the real equivalent of the exile is the disappearance of Luciano’s body after Manuel Ángel murders him, then the discovery of the union leader’s corpse, which unites workers and inspires them to continue fighting, can be viewed as the presage of Quetzalcoatl’s triumph when he comes back to his people to lead them into a new age of glory.

Finally, let us examine the language of José Trigo, that pivotal aspect which makes it such a challenging but, at the same time, such an immensely rewarding read. A newcomer to del Paso’s novel is likely to be aghast at the vastness of its vocabulary. The novel abounds in rare and content-specific words, which will send even the most seasoned logophiles and logodaedalists to the dictionary. There are plenty of stumbling blocks to challenge the reader’s fluency: archaisms, technical terms, regionalisms, neologisms, words derived from Nahuatl, and all kinds of wordplay. The first three chapters do not pose much difficulty as if del Paso either tries to put us off guard or gain momentum before taking a leap. The proper lexical saturation begins in Chapter 4 (The West), which recounts in a blend of prose and poetry the love story of Eduviges and Manuel Ángel. Gradually, the text becomes inundated with words of Nahuatl origin: huipil (traditional blouse), nopalera (terrain with nopal plants), chachalaca (a bird of the family Cracidae), chintamal (buttocks), zoquite (mud), huisache (the needle bush or sweet acacia), escuincle (kid or runt), nenepile (beef tripe stew), itacate (food provisions), machigüis (water used to wet hands when making tortillas), temazcal (sweat lodge), huehuenche (an elderly man who directs festivals in a town), ixtle (a stiff plant fibre), and many others. The uninitiated reader, like myself, has to choose between looking up each of these words or just surrendering to the melody they create within the text.  There is a similar situation with the archaic and refined vocabulary in the elegy about the Church of Santiago Tlatelolco.

Although Del Paso employs a stunning quantity and variety of stylistic devices throughout the novel and appears to treasure all of them, it is obvious that his favourite expressive tool is the use of paired words that are either homonyms or paronyms. Does he have a ball with them! From time to time, we come across such curious combinations as “pelícanos pelicanos” (grizzled pelicans) or “enamorados, enarmonados” (in love, standing on hind legs). These curiosities are sporadically sprinkled all over the novel. However, there is a brief text which seems to have been created with the sole purpose to contain as many such pairs as possible. At the beginning of the second Chronologies chapter, we encounter an excerpt from the sermon that the Cristero priest, the one who wanted to bless the dressed-up animals, composed in his dream. There are 34 pairs of either homonyms or paronyms integrated into this document of rhetorical excess. To show the extent of del Paso’s dexterity, I have decided to quote the Spanish text in full. It is immediately followed by my translation, which, for obvious reasons, does not reproduce the intended effect of the original, except in a couple of cases. For the convenience of the reader, I have labelled each word in a pair with a number from 1 to 34 and with a letter, either a or b, based on the order of occurrence. Thus, it will be easy to check what each similarly sounding word (in Mexican Spanish, we shouldn’t forget) means in English.

… que siendo nuestras vidas como briza (1a) arrasada por la brisa (1b), y basto (2a) y acerbo (3a) el vasto (2b) acervo (3b) de nuestros pecados, a través de la Virgen nos abocáramos (4a) a Dios para que Él avocara (4b) nuestra causa; que era inútil rebelar (5a) nuestros espíritus por revelar (5b) los designios divinos, desmayar (6a) por desmallar (6b) los misterios empíreos, pues ciervos (7a) siervos (b7) somos del Señor, hijos pequeños insipientes (8a) por incipientes (8b), y por adolescentes (9a), adolecentes (9b) de imperfección.

Por ende, era necesario huir de las asechanzas (10a) de demonios acechantes (10b) que cazar (11a) quieren nuestras almas para casarlas (11b) con la soberbia, apartarse del hatajo (12a) de pecadores que echan por el fácil atajo (12b) de la molicie, y dejar vacantes (13a) a las bacantes (13b) que se injieren (14a) en nuestras vidas por hacernos ingerir (14b), sin tasa (15a), de la taza (15b) del vino de la concupiscencia.

Así que había que grabar (16a) en nuestra mente que gravar (16b) nuestra existencia con penurias era el único camino, pues más valía coserse (17a) a las carnes atuendo de temperancia y sudar el sebo (18a) de la apetencia, que cocerse (17b) en las calderas del infierno por tragar el cebo (18b) de la disipación.

Solos en solemne sesión (19a) con nuestras propias conciencias, debíamos hacer cesión (19b) de nuestra perfidia, poner coto censorio (20a) a nuestros sensorios (20b) apetitos, abatir la intensión (21a) de nuestras malas intenciones (21b), abalar (22a) la cerviz para avalar (22b) con humildad nuestras ofertas, bollar (23) nuestras almas de virtudes para boyar (23) en el mar de la iniquidad, y abrasarnos (24a) con fuego sacro al abrazar (24b) la acética (25a) vida ascética (25b).

Si así lo hiciéramos, cuando el deshecho (26a) desecho (26b) de nuestros cuerpos gozara del eterno poso (27a) en el pozo (27b) del camposanto, cuando las riveras (28a) de nuestras vidas desembocaran en las riberas (28b) de la muerte, el divino concejo (29a) de los ángeles alcanzaría, con su consejo (29b), el asenso (30a) del Señor a nuestro ascenso (30b) de la sima (31a) de la tierra a la cima (31b) de las nubes, donde nos sumergiríamos en las hondas (32a) ondas (32b) de la sabia (33a) savia (33), del sumo (34a) zumo (34b) de su eterna misericordia.

 […for our lives are like quaking-grass (1a) smitten by breeze (1b), and rough (2a) and acerbic (3a) is the vast (2b) collection (3b) of our sins, and we head (4a) towards God through the Virgin Mary so that He may take over (4b) our case; it was useless to rebel (5a) against our spirits to reveal (5b) the divine design, to lose heart (6a) trying to unravel (6b) the empyrean mysteries, for we are obedient (7b) deer (7a) of the Lord, little children suffering (9b) from imperfection, ignorant (8a) due to our callowness (8b) and adolescence (9a).

Therefore, it was necessary to escape the snares (10a) of the stalking (10b) demons, who wanted to catch (11a) our souls and wed them (11b) to pride, and move away from the herd (12a) of sinners who took the shortcut (12b) of a comfortable life, and abandon (13a) the bacchantes (13b) who interfered (14a) in our lives to make us consume (14b) without measure (15a) the wine of concupiscence from the cup (15b).

And so, we had to etch (16a) in our minds that to encumber (16b) our existence with hardships was the only way, for it was better to sew (17a) the attire of temperance unto our flesh, and sweat off the fat (18a) of appetence than to be boiled (17b) in the cauldrons of hell for swallowing the bait (18b) of dissipation.

Alone in the solemn meeting (19a) with our own conscience, we had to renounce (19b) our perfidy, put a censorious (20a) end to our sensorial (20b) appetites, reduce the intensity (21a) of our intentions (21b), bend our trembling (22a) necks to guarantee (22b) our humble offers, seal (23a) our souls with virtues to stay afloat (23b) in the sea of iniquity, and burn ourselves (24a) with the sacred fire, embracing acetic (25a) and ascetic (25b) life.

If we did so, when the broken (26a) discards (26b) of our bodies enjoyed the eternal rest (27a) in the well (27b) of the graveyard, when the streams (28a) of our lives ran into the shores (28b) of death, the divine council (29a) of angels would reach, with his advice (29b), the Lord’s assent (30a) to our ascent (30b) from the abyss (31a) of the earth to the summit (31b) of the clouds, where we would plunge into the deep (32a) waves (32b) of the sage (33a) sap (33b), the supreme (34a) juice (34b) of his eternal compassion.]


Nonoalco Bridge in 1950. Photo by Juan Rulfo.

Both 9th chapters are the realms of alliteration, consonance, assonance, rhythmic prose, tongue twisters, and not so much Ulyssean as Wakean glossolalia. As a tongue-in-cheek tribute to Bloomsday, del Paso sends his everyman José Trigo on a rambling day-long walk. With a custom-made coffin on his shoulder, the factotum of the carpenter Don Pedro makes his way through the Western Camp, walks over the Nonoalco Bridge, ambles through the Eastern Camp as far as the funeral parlour and then skedaddles back to the Western Camp, this time under the bridge, fleeing the knife-wielding Manuel Ángel. José Trigo’s journey is presented as a series of short episodes each of which is set in a certain location on his route. For instance, the first landmark he passes is the cobbler’s shop in front of which he makes a brief halt, entertaining some idle thoughts. This half-page scene bears the ironic title “Zapatero a tus Zapatos” (“Cobbler, Keep to Your Last”). His second port of call is Buenaventura’s boxcar. While passing it, his stream of consciousness is directed at the matriarch of the encampments, renowned for her herbalist practices. The third, fourth, and fifth episodes of this mini-Odyssey are set respectively at an outdoor shrine (humilladero), at a knife grinder’s, and near Anselmo’s house. Before each episode, on the right-hand side of the page runs a parallel text in all caps, which might be taken for a Dadaist poem should we miss the very first line: PASA UN TREN DONDE VIAJAN (A train passes on which travel). This list of passengers and goods transported by the metaphysical train echoes the similar catalogue in the ode to the Mexican railroads, but there is a significant difference: the words on the list in the chapters about José Trigo have been affected by the linguistic playfulness of the main text. Thus, we can find on this train “CAPRICHOSAS CABRAS” (capricious she-goats), BORCELANAS DE PORCELANA (porcelain urinals), TRONCOS TRUNCOS (truncated trunks), ARQUITECTOS ASPIRANTES A SUPLENTES DE DIPUTADOS EMPLEÓMANOS (architects candidating as substitutes of deputies addicted to holding public positions). The last item on the list makes for a perfect closure to the whole story about José Trigo’s busy and language-drunk day: LOGOMAQUIAS (logomachies), that is, arguments about words.

I am going to give just several examples of the verbal pyrotechnics in this narrative accompanied by my translations, whose primary goal is just to convey the meaning of the quoted excerpts, although I do try to recreate some of the sound effects on several occasions. A truly representative rendering of this riot of words should be the purview of il miglior fabbro.

afelpados belfos de adelfa

[plush lips of oleander]

hay un experto en arte sutoria, dos perros superfirolíticos y espiritifláuticos, suelas por los suelos

[there is an expert in sutorial art, two attenuated and discriminating dogs, stray soles on the floor]

con tu cancamurria gandumbas ñiquiñaque tarugo empampirolado ya no ves ya no recuerdas estos santos campamentos atán y tan morrocotudos

[you with your doldrums lackadaisical layabaout boastful blockhead no longer see and remember these tremendous sacred encampments]

Y aquí no hay nada que parlar y sí que oír

A la chusma de muchas y chácharas de rojas y choznas chapetas que chascan la lengua frangollan chapuzan su ropa borracha chafada y chorreante y chotean chacotean charlotean cuchichean y traman chanchullos y chanzas y chungas las dulces muchachas las dulces y chulas muchachas chismeras carajas

[Nothing to talk about here but something to listen to

To the gossiping of many and to the chatter of ruddy and fresh-faced great-great-great-granddaughters [that’s “choznas” for you!] who click tongues grind and dunk their drunk squashed and dripping linen and joke and banter and babble and whisper and plot shenanigans and pranks and jests sweet girls sweet and cute girls fucking flibbertigibbets]

Titiritero titiritando al frente de la Carpa Buenavista este faraute camandulero manipula una zagala de madera y trapo rescatada de algún desván gatero que con el ton de una pandereta se contonea y pandea

Así anuncia este laboroso hablistán lo que de carne y hueso veredes si entrades a este antro

Carne carona pulpa de vulpeja qué ganas José Trigo

Pero ¿qué pierdes?

[The teetering puppeteer at the entrance to the Buenavista Show that meddlesome herald who manipulates a shepherdess of wood and rags that has been rescued from some attic overrun by cats it sways and swings to the tone of a tambourine

So this laborious blabbermouth blasts about what you shall see in the flesh if you creep into that cavern

Plumpfaced lump of meat vixen pulp what do you gain José Trigo

But what do you lose?]

My favourite “Wakean” passage in José Trigo, however, is not from the titular character’s “Bloomsday” but from the episode about Buenaventura and Todolosantos in Chronologies (The East). I will leave it without a translation not only because rendering it in English passably well will require too much time and effort when I have been working on this review for over two weeks and my strength is draining away, but also because no translation is needed to appreciate the most spectacular thing about it, which is the mad music produced by the interaction of the vowels and consonants. It’s one of those cases when language itself puts on motley, dons cap and bells and begins ecstatically dancing to the skirl of the alliterative bagpipes.

Cien ojos o más no se cansaron de ver que Santos y Buenaventura se acostaban juntos, y cien bocas o más no se cansaron de meter malillas y decírselo al viejo. Hasta que el viejo churriburri chisgarabís, por bitola o por arte de birlibirloque, acertótolis con el tuautem y con el busilis, y cien bocas a cada trique y traque barraque hicieron albórbolas y al bultuntún le hablaron del intríngulis tenguerengue y andimais cien lenguas, entre dames y tomares, dacas y tomas, dimes y diretes, le dijeron que el asunto no estaba tan aínas, que la quisicosa, por lo mismo que no estaba en angarillas, tenía sus arrequives y sus entresijos; pero que se dejara de chafalditas y chilindrinas, y de llevar el ten con ten, que a la birla birlonga y a la bóbilis bóbilis desembrollaría el tótum revólótum maremágnum más enredoso que un laberinto, un trabalenguas o un galimatías; que así daría con el embolismo y sin tiquismiquis de su parte ni cháncharras máncharras, patatines, patatanes, requilorios y triquiñuelas de Buenaventura, le haría cantar el kikiriquí a la vieja frígilis y pútilis, a ruso y a yuso, con todas sus retartalillas, con todos sus pelos y señales, sus retintines, quirlinquinpuces y ajilimójilis.

At some unidentified point in time, the nameless narrator, who never caught up with José Trigo the first time round, returns to Nonoalco-Tlatelolco to find it changed beyond recognition. The railroad workers’ encampments are gone, replaced by brand-new blocks of residential and administrative buildings, shiny skyscrapers, city parks, and plazas. The sight of the transformed neighbourhood fills him with melancholy and doubt. What if the vanished world of the boxcar shanty town and its colourful residents was just a dream? What if the elusive and ubiquitous José Trigo, the Zelig and Leopold Bloom of the rail yards, never existed? I tend to see in the ruminating narrator at this moment of creeping uncertainty the author himself, who, having just finished his novel of everything that was meant to be his only prose work and the massive tombstone of an artistic life cut short, stares into the void left after bringing to completion the fruit of the seven-year labour and asks himself: “And now what?” He doesn’t know yet that there is a long and productive life ahead of him and that his debut masterpiece is just the beginning.

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Interview with Miquel de Palol: On architecture, geometry, literature, nested narratives, the dodecahedron as a 3D table of contents, the soundtrack for his books, and the choice between Immanuel Kant and the Marquis de Sade

The Untranslated: How did your studies of architecture shape you as a writer?

 Miquel de Palol: At the beginning of my youth, I made a life plan in which I envisioned architecture as a profession to earn a living and poetry as the expansion of my artistic impulse—I was following in a way the example of Spinoza, who was a lens grinder during working hours and a philosopher during the rest of the day. Soon I realised that both architecture and literature are very demanding endeavours that need one’s total dedication or are not worth pursuing at all. Architecture also has an important expressive dimension and requires a stylistic and ideological commitment by demanding a combination of technical knowledge and diplomatic work that takes almost as much time as the study of each project and its implementation. In the end, I had to choose one activity that I could see myself grappling with for the rest of my life. Only after my professional break from architecture did I notice its dimension and meaning in creative processes. I am often asked if I find it helpful to know how a house is structured or even if this knowledge has provided me with a model for structuring a text, especially if it is lengthy and complex. That might sound nice as a metaphor, but I’m very sceptical of such mechanism because the concept of “structuring” unites a vast range of attitudes and activities that considerably differ from one another. On the other hand, I’ve used, with a certain degree of freedom, some elements of architecture and some geometric figures in my writing, but when depicting them I utilised the symbolic rather than, let’s say, technical mechanism.

The Untranslated: You are obviously a voracious reader. Your books are marked by numerous sources of inspiration coming from fiction, poetry, philosophy, art criticism, and studies of a variety of topics, yet you have developed your unique, unmistakable style which is impossible to confuse with anyone else’s. Have you ever run the risk of becoming an epigone?

Palol: Not consciously. The risks of writing are usually the functions of ambition. I’m a proponent of being aware of one’s own strengths and limitations, but I don’t think it’s a bad idea to set the bar a little higher than the one you believe you can clear, having objectively weighed your abilities. It shouldn’t be raised too high because then it will be difficult to reach, but high enough so you can get out of your comfort zone and step into the terrain of challenge that is more likely to yield an authentic work. I am also a proponent of humility: not of false modesty but of self-awareness; conversely, it would be a diplomatic risk to assume that your purpose is to create an absolute masterpiece and that if it doesn’t work out, in Cyril Connolly’s words, you “might as well be peeling potatoes.”

The Untranslated: In our debut novel The Garden of Seven Twilights, you adopt the technique of nested narratives. The 8th narrative level is the farthest point that you reach. Were you tempted to go even further when working on the manuscript?

Palol: Yes. At first, I toyed with the idea of exploiting this conceit to the maximum (16 levels, 32, 64…), but I immediately saw that this had no value in itself, unless I wanted to get into the Guinness Book of Records. The human capacity to separate and distinguish is limited. There are examples of that in all fields. If we take any plane geometric figure like a square and divide it in half with a line, we can differentiate the two parts at a glance. The same holds true if we divide the square into 4 parts, into 9, into 16—up to 64, probably. After that, a person without special training will have to start counting. A grid divided into 144 parts already requires some time (and, depending on the size, good eyesight) to be correctly evaluated. At some point, the lines begin to merge, and the human eye perceives the square as a whole, just like it was at the very beginning when it hadn’t been divided yet. The same goes for polygons: triangles, squares, and pentagons can be identified at a glance. But you have to rely on counting in order to distinguish a polygon with 100 sides from one with 110, and when there is a certain number of sides, polygons will begin to resemble circles.


Miquel de Palol’s outline for the embedded narrative structure of The Garden of Seven Twilights. Photos courtesy of the author.

Music is another discipline where this phenomenon can be found. During Bach’s famous visit to Potsdam, in 1747, the king asked the musician (whether it’s true or not—doesn’t matter) to improvise a six-voice canon, and then an eight-voice canon. Did Bach do it? Biber’s Missa Salisburgensis is another example of an attempt to build a Tower of Babel, and before that, there was Thomas Tallis’ Spem in Alium, composed of 40 voices (8 choirs of 5 voices each)—the effect is fascinating, but the voices are not distinguishable anymore. The Baroque anticipates the extravagance of Romanticism, a period when the excess in proportions becomes a distinctive feature. 6 voices appear to be the limit of appreciable distinction. In the case of my novel, 8 levels of nested stories seemed to me a reasonable equivalent of 6 voices in music. I believe that dealing with more narrative levels would have been overwhelming for the reader unless we are talking about an exceptionally gifted person with a photographic memory. Of course, it is possible to build a literary contraption with 1,000 levels of successive embeddings, but the reader will have an endless flow of events in their head and will lose track of the action.

The Untranslated: The world you have created in Ígur Neblí is extremely cruel. It reminded me of Alexei German’s film Hard to be a God. It is not a place any sane reader would like to inhabit. Nevertheless, when reading the book, I had a feeling that there were undertones of a certain tenderness towards that world as if you were describing something ugly but dear to your heart. Is there any substance to that?

Palol: That’s a very good point. It’s hard for me to allocate preferences to my books and easy to fall back on instinct or base my opinion on the joys and rewards they give, which may determine my positive or negative attitude towards them. The Garden of Seven Twilights should be my favourite work because it has given me the most returns, but I have to confess that I harbour a certain weakness towards the books with a more complicated life. Ígur Neblí is one of them (as well as El Quincorn). It came right after The Garden …, and I designed it with opposite parameters: a unique, equiescent narrator instead of a group of first-person narrators, structural linearity instead of the diversity of temporal planes, past tense narration without any incursion into the present, hypotactic register instead of simple diction. When deciding whether I wanted to make the story irremediably ruthless, it seemed to me that, by contrast, some compassion for the characters would be more effective.

The Untranslated: In a recent interview, you said that you preferred the philosophy of the Marquis de Sade to that of Immanuel Kant. Could you elaborate on that?

Palol: It’s an idea suggested by Lacan­—in that peculiar, fanciful style of his—in the sense that Kant is a staunch defender of Law as the expression of a divine attribute made accessible to humans, whereas Sade, by not subjecting human acts to moral categorisation and by advocating existential synthesis of good and evil turns out to be, in practice, absolutely tolerant and compassionate. Kant would execute a criminal in the name of Law. But Sade would pardon the criminal in the name of the impossibility to hierarchise any action. Sade’s paradigm of life seems to me more inclusive, comprehensive, and sympathetic than that of Kant. As history has shown, however, there are a lot of cases in which the administration of justice serves the right purpose, and not allowing justice to be dispensed would spell permissiveness or even inducement to commit violence, abuse, murder, and genocide; it would mean the banalisation of justice itself with impunity as a consequence. Existence is full of contradictions and inconsistencies and, when they can’t be resolved, there is no other option than to learn how to live with them. This learning is conflict-ridden and, quite often, wild. I am not familiar with the institutions of justice in the United States and civilised Europe, so I can’t say how humane they are, but in my country those institutions are so defective that the occasions on which one has the impression of witnessing an act of justice are exceptions. A large part of the judges, especially those with the highest rank and the most power, are noisy prevaricators who look more like medieval inquisitors and mobsters trading favours than servants of the supposed Rule of Law. At this point, the causal circle closes, and I end up choosing Sade instead of Kant, whose “fair justice” proves to be non-existent.


Imaginary Portrait of D.A.F. de Sade by Man Ray and Portrait of Immanuel Kant attributed to Jean-Marc Nattier

The Untranslated: How did you arrive at the concept of The Troiacord and how close is the published version to the one you had in mind, both in terms of its content and physical appearance? I am also interested in how you came up with the idea of including a model of the dodecahedron in the published version of the book.

Palol: The Troiacord is the product of a challenge, or an illusion, not in the sense of emotional expectation but in the sense of an uncommon perception that Catalan literature and the society in which it is embedded enjoy acceptable normality in the European context, which, as we know, was not the case at that time, nor is it now. The apparent intention to put yourself above your country may seem pretentious, even conceited. I proceeded from the idea of the Game, which is one of the main elements of The Troiacord. None of my books are exactly like the ones I had in mind when developing their concepts, but as years pass, this resemblance increases with each new book. I don’t know whether it means that I’m getting better at it, or that I’m gradually lowering my expectations. If the latter is the case, it is something completely unconscious and involuntary, and if I really believed that it was happening, I would do everything in my power to remedy it. A novel of more than 600 pages requires a good physical shape: memory, endurance, mental balance, ability to synthesise, flexibility allowing you to distance yourself from your text so that you can see it from a new perspective as well as to switch between two frames of mind: that of your everyday life and the one you adopt when writing. The best years for writing novels are between 30 and 60: at the early extreme the novelist is limited by insufficient knowledge of reality and of the human being, and at the late—by a lack of energy. Of course, we all aspire to overcome the constraints of nature. The Troiacord falls in the middle of this range, which, of course, does not automatically make it a good novel.  As for the table of contents that extends over the surface of a dodecahedron, I thought it would be illustrative and entertaining to include in the edition the model to be assembled so that the readers could follow, if they pleased, the story in its true dimension, that is to say in 3D. The titles of the chapters are inscribed around the vertices of the polyhedron, and there is also a zodiac sign in the centre of each face to demonstrate the cyclical character of the object and to show how it is based on a game of symbolic correspondences. The publication of the novel coincided with a delicate moment for the publisher, and the book did not receive due attention. It was my idea to publish it in five volumes (just like I had the first edition of The Garden of Seven Twilights brought out in three volumes), but both the dodecahedron of the table of contents and the slipcase were made very poorly, which resulted in an inconsistent object of low physical quality. I hope to rectify this in the future edition, which we are going to start working on soon, and I trust that the book will look a lot like the one I would make if I had an unlimited budget, with a certain surprise for the readers that I will keep secret for now. I also hope that English-speaking readers will soon have access to the U.S. edition, whose translation is already underway.


Which Catalan authors should be more well-known and more widely read, in your opinion?

Palol: Catalan literature is currently in a comatose state, but it has always suffered from a provincial, self-limiting and cowardly inbreeding, with occasional bouts of irresponsibility and madness. The scene is so small and weak that there is no place for heterodoxies, and even less so when heterodox authors have the bad idea to dispute cultural policies and norms in general. The imbalances of appraisal are surely the product of insecure subjectivities and can always be debated, of course. But there are some dismissals that I find outrageous and scandalous. Despite their “political” presence, Llull, Maragall, and Espriu are completely unknown in terms of their influence on contemporary literature and their reception by the readers; no one examined Espriu’s kabbalistic practices until Rosa Delor’s study. There are more serious instances of neglect: Agustí Esclasans, Ventura Ametller, Bru de Sala, Julià de Jòdar.

Music is essential to all your writing. Not only do you include numerous references to musical works and composers, but sometimes your text itself mimics the structure of a musical composition, like Boötes for example. Which musical works would make up the soundtrack for your fiction?


Elias Gottlob Haussmann, Portrait of Johann Sebastian Bach

Palol: I have always been interested in the possible applications of musical structures to writing, in all possible aspects. The forms (sonata, rondo, toccata, vaudeville), the relationship between voices, harmony, and, above all, the counterpoint seem to me extraordinary expressive tools, which are capable of developing into various procedures and degrees of abstraction. Although they are present in the overall structure of most of my books, for some of those, like Graphomaquia and L-shaped Stories, they have specifically served as raw material. The soundtrack would be quite varied. Bach would be the most frequently featured composer along with the authors from his circle, not necessarily in the temporal or geographical sense. Besides some representatives of his immediate family (with Johann Christoph, Wilhelm Friedemann, and Carl Philipp Emanuel in the most prominent place), those would be: Biber, Purcell, Buxtehude, Fischer, Pachelbel, Telemann, Graupner, Handel, Zelenka, not to dismiss composers from other circles: Haydn seems great to me, Mozart, Beethoven and the romantics up to Bruckner, Mahler, and Strauss, and then Busoni, Reger, Schönberg, Webern, Berg, Boulez, Berio, Gershwin, Bernstein, Penderecki, Ligeti. I’d also make sure to include Cohen, Dylan, the Beatles, Clapton, the Rolling Stones, King Crimson, Pink Floyd, Dire Straits.

The Untranslated: The famous phrase “Let None But Geometers Enter Here” could serve as an epigraph for any of your novels. However, you have chosen to use it for Boötes. Does it mean that this book is the culmination of your geometric vision?


Page from Harmonices Mundi by Johannes Kepler

Palol: It is perhaps the book in which geometric elements play a more significant role, both in structural and symbolic terms. With the passage of time, I increasingly appreciate the extraordinary capacity of geometric objects to serve as an organising principle and symbolic frame of reference for other disciplines of thought and expression. Among the classical series of equivalences (colours – gems – planets – days of the week – hours of the day – animals – humours – seasons – trees – numbers – letters, etc.), polyhedra and polygons seem to me one of the most lucid sequences of such kind, and, at the same time, one of the most abstract (aseptic) and the most loaded with argumental content. In Timaeus, Plato (as you know) correlates the five perfectly regular polyhedra (they have equal vertices, edges, faces and are also known as “the Platonic solids”) with the elements. I have the impression that he didn’t know what to do with the dodecahedron and therefore assigned it the role of the model of the universe, but it is also possible that he feigned ignorance to hide from the reader some mystery knowledge (probably Egyptian) that he didn’t want to reveal. From that point, the extension to other areas of equivalence seems obvious to me.

The fact that the reality of geometry is what it is and not something else is at the heart of the unresolved polemic on idealism: whether geometry (and mathematics in general) exists by itself, on the margins of human vision; whether we have invented it or only discovered; to what extent one thing or another puts us in the position of hubris and fallacy with respect to the reality that we cannot quite understand; whether in another quantum state 1 + 1 would not equal 2, but some other number. All that is part of the internal discussion in Boötes, and that is why I thought it was appropriate to give it the epigraph you have mentioned, which would have been excessive in any other book (probably with the exception of The Troiacord and The Testament of Alcestis).

This is an English translation of the interview, which was conducted in Catalan.

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