The Great Untranslated: To Mythistorima tis Kyrias Ersis (The Novel of Mrs Ersi) by Nikos Gabriel Pentzikis

When asked about the great literary events that happened in 1922, you will immediately come up with the most renowned products of the annus mirabilis: T. S. Eliot’s The Wasteland , Virgina Woolf’s Jacob’s Room and James Joyce’s Ulysses. Most likely, you ignore that the same year in Greece there was published Georgios Drossinis’ novel Ersi, whose principal value now lies in the fact that it served as the model for the writing of the Greek Ulysses: Nikos Gabriel Pentzikis’ The Novel of Mrs Ersi. 

Drossinis’ book is fitting material for a late-modernist parody: it tells the story of an idealised romantic and intellectual relationship of the archeologist Pavlos Rodanos and his beautiful wife Ersi. The main setting of the novel is a small Greek island on which the couple spend six months, from April until October. The main purpose for the soujourn is Rodanos’ archeological research in pursuit of his study of the female leg and hand as represented in ancient Greek sculpture. In the course of the narrative, Drossinis ostentatiosly draws parallels between the perfect beauty teased out of the marble by anonymous artists of yore and the flesh-and-blood perfection of Rodanos’ wife. This Parnassian picture-perfect story of a conjugal idyll becomes the framework of the imperfect and more than bewildering modernist edifice completed by Nikos Gabriel Pentzikis in 1966. It’s been long since Drossinis’ starry-eyed opuscule sunk into oblivion. If somebody mentions it nowadays at all, they do it almost always exclusively when discussing Pentzikis’ strange novel, the Greek response to an Irishman’s response to the immortal Greek epic.

In Pentzikis’ avant-garde reworking of Drossinis’ novel,  Ersi‘s protagonists have to deal with the overwhelming presence of a third party: the narrator recounting his mission of an avant-garde reworking of Drossinis’ novel and inducting its characters into the space of literary modernism. This creative quest is narrated through  a series of dreams and hallucinations involving grotesque transformations of some of the participants of this bizarre theatre of the mind as well as varied and numerous allusions to literature, hystory and myth. The culmination of the said quest is the encounter of the narrator with Ersi and their highly symbolic union that is meant to represent the act of writing itself. Just like Ulysses, the novel ends with a long interior monologue – that of the male narrator lying in bed next to his wife and recapping the main events of the book we are about to finish reading.

Karagiozis, a character of Greek shadow-puppet theatre. Image Source

What is common between the Greek folklore hero Sakorafos, the humpbacked character of shadow-puppet theatre Karagiozis, and Emperor Constantine IX Monomachos’s court jester Voilas? What is the significance of all the metamorphoses undergone by the protean Ruit Horas, the embodiment of the passage of time, who accompanies Ersi on her bus trips in Chalcidice? How come that one of the narrator’s children, begotten with his wife, is literally a needle and thread? I’m afraid we might have a chance of seeking out answers to these questions only when this novel gets translated. At the end of this short article about Pentzikis we come across the following striking statement:  “If the protagonists of the OuLiPo were able to read his works they would surely have made him a leading member of their movement.” If that is not an invitation to make Pentzikis’ literary legacy available to a broader international audience, I don’t know what is.

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Guest Post: Matthias Friedrich on En Australiareise (A Voyage to Australia) by Svein Jarvoll

Not long ago, I wrote a brief post about the Norwegian writer Thure Erik Lund and his mind-boggling tetralogy Myrbråtenfortellingene. As you might already know, most of English-speaking readers first learnt about Lund from his mega-popular compatriot Karl Ove Knausgård. I have recently been told that there is one more Norwegian author mentioned by Knausgård whose writing is also challenging, experimental, difficult to translate and is little known outside his home country. The writer in question is Svein Jarvoll. His only novel En Australiareise (A Voyage to Australia) was published in 1988 and has since acquired a cult status among the few who have been capable of reading and appreciating it. The critical response, as usually is the case with challenging and unconventional novels, has mostly been that of puzzlement and incomprehension. Matthias Friedrich, the author of the German translation of the novel, which is scheduled for publication this year, has kindly agreed to write for The Untranslated a guest post about this remarkable work of literature.

 

Svein Jarvoll: En Australiareise (A Journey to Australia, 1988)

by Matthias Friedrich

 

In Boyhood Island, Karl Ove Knausgård reflects on the way his opinions have changed in the course of time:

Never, later in the life, have I had my finger on the pulse the way I had then with the girls living around us in those years. Later, I may have doubted whether Svein Jarvoll’s novel A Journey to Australia was a good or a bad novel, or whether Hermann Broch was a better writer than Robert Musil […].

Throughout My Struggle, Jarvoll is mentioned three times: as the translator of Adam Thorpe’s polyphonic novel Ulverton, as a writer who is able to talk precisely about what he does, and as the author of a strange novel called En Australiareise. But there’s nothing more than that. “Svein Jarvoll” is a name that may appear in an annotated edition of My Struggle one day. However, he is just a footnote in a truncated literary history despite his influence on Norwegian postmodern writers such as Stig Sæterbakken or Tor Ulven who both have been translated into English.

 En Australiareise was all but ignored when it was first published in 1988. One critic wrote about the novel’s “stylistic furor”, another needed to consult far too many dictionaries and lexica – but, of all things, was happy to find a reference to the Niffen, the sports club of Nordstrand (Oslo), in a passage of the novel which is a single run-on word: the so-called makrologos. And as Jarvoll said in an interview with the Norwegian magazine Vinduet, he once met a sailor in Northern Norway who told him that he had read En Australiareise, that he had expected a kind of personal account or autobiographical narration, but that he hadn’t understood anything of it.

What strikes the potential readers when they take a first look at the novel is its apparent nonconformity. It consists of two parts: Den gule boka (The Yellow Book) and Lonaquemor (which is Catalan for The Dying Wave). These two parts turn out to be very different from each other. The first one tells the story of Mark Stoller, a Norwegian traveller (although his name isn’t Norwegian at all) who sets off in València (Spain) and ends up in Australia. In between, he visits Ireland and undertakes a long train journey to Italy where sees Florence, Pisa, and Brindisi. The second part tells the story of Emmi who also travels; but she doesn’t leave Australia’s confines. Together with her friend Alice, Emmi battles her way through the jungle where her father Buster lives in a cabin, because she wants to visit him. In the cabin, she discovers a biography of a Norwegian anthropologist called Magnus C. Ztlohmul (who has a real-life prototype, namely the ethnologist Carl Lumholtz) and reads the book’s foreword before she decides to go back home.

Another thing that strikes the potential readers is its difficulty. The prose is dense, many texts are alluded to, and Jarvoll is quite ruthless when it comes to inventing new words which are impossible to track down, such as “Australopleust” in the first chapter; this means “one who is traveling through Australia”, but has a slight ironic touch. The novel takes in everything, from Dante’s Commedia and Rabelais’  Gargantua and Pantagruel to James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as A Young Man,  also featuring lesser known poets such as the Catalan Ausiàs March.

The first part itself is divided into nine chapters (or episodes); the second one is a single run-on text. There is no strict plot as the story seems to rely on coincidences and caprices. Additionally, the characters – especially Mark Stoller and his Danish girlfriend Lone, who accompanies him on his travels from Spain to Italy – just appear to be human. In fact, they are media in the etymological sense of the term – accumulators of (linguistic) signs. Their names aren’t random. For instance, Mark compares himself to Ausiàs March and takes a closer look at a poem which contains these verses: “A temps he cor d’acer, de carn e fust:/ yo só aquest que·m dich Ausiàs March.” (Sometimes, I have a heart of lead, of flesh and wood:/I am the one who is called Ausiàs March.) This poem focuses on melancholy and dying, two themes which have a significant influence on Mark Stoller: In fact, En Australiareise is a long conversation with death and the European tradition of danse macabre. Despite its morbidity, the novel is hilarious and funny; it has a Rabelaisian touch; it contains a lot of Joycean scatology. It is experimental in the sense that it intends to sketch a manner of speaking about death, the so-called thanatology, and takes into consideration every text which deals with dissolution and exitus. Right in the first chapter, Mark announces that he wants to “spall out the ground” of Dante’s Commedia, which means that he doesn’t want to construct a vertical, symmetrical world (as Dante does), but a horizontal world which could be defined, in Deleuze and Guattari’s words, as dissymmetrical: a surface which seems to be empty, but erodes bit by bit and shows that it’s composed of different layers. It’s a geological landscape with a history of its own, but it is also arbitrary in the sense that it re-orients the traveller’s point of view; he or she must concentrate on the things visible and independently connect the dots which appear to be isolated. Thus, Mark is able to undertake a voyage which leads him through the European landscape of death; he himself becomes Dante who encounters many personalities, such as the painter Buonamico Buffalmacco, who is responsible for the Trionfo della Morte in Pisa; in a long and exciting discussion with this man who seems to be the reincarnation of the defunct uomo universale, Mark develops his thanatology and listens to Buffalmacco who himself outlines the developments of his (occasionally obscene) dream life.

Buonamico Buffalmacco, The Three Dead and the Three Living and The Triumph of Death, 1338-39.

Lone, whose name Mark derives from the Catalan l’ona, “the wave”, is the person who represents the novel’s style. Some elements appear as sinuated repetitions: it occurs frequently that some hypotexts, such as Dante’s poem, are transformed and parodied. Nevertheless, Mark’s etymology is false; in fact, Lone’s name is an abbreviation of the Danish Abelone, which itself is another form of Appolonia. As a cognate of the name of the Greek god of the arts (including poetry), Lone’s name sets the novel’s tone. “Lone, you whose name means ‘wave’ in Valencian, here I shall draw your contour in ten waves, and the contour which sketches the beginning of my own journey, a journey which traces a crooked M on the map” – and here, Mark lists the countries he is going to visit.

 En Australiareise remains a novel ignored by the public, even in Norway, in spite of the re-issue, which was published in 2008 in Gyldendal’s series Forfatterens forfatter (Writer’s Writer). It is poet Mazdak Shafieian who is responsible for this second edition, and who has written an informative foreword which can be read in German. A German translation has been announced by Urs Engeler and is probably going to be released in the course of 2018; the novel’s very first chapter has already been published in the literary magazine Mütze.

 

About the Author

Matthias Friedrich, born in Trier (Germany) in 1992, studied Creative Writing in Hildesheim (2012-2015) and is currently studying Scandinavian Literature in Greifswald. Last publication: kleine thanatoiden (Berlin, Sukultur 2016). Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/matthias.friedrich.359

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Forthcoming: The Rehearsals by Vladimir Sharov

In 1656, at the behest of Patriarch Nikon of Moscow, the building of a life-size replica of Jerusalem began on the bank of the river Istra. The trees were cut down and tonnes of additional earth brought in to fashion the typical landscape of Central Russia into the geographical semblance of the Holy Land. The imposing monastic ensemble that grew there in the course of the years of intense work, in which Nikon himself took part, became known as The New Jerusalem Monastery. The cathedral of the complex was built to resemble the Church of the Holy Sepuclchre in Jerusalem, the river Istra was rechristened as the Jordan, and the surrounding terrain features received Biblical names: Mount Sinai, Mount Tabor, the Garden of Gethsemane.

Although this may sound  like something that sprang from the fertile mind of Russian writer Vladmir Sharov, this unbeleavable event did happen, and you can actually visit the restored monastery in all its splendour if you ever come to the town of Istra, about 40 kilometres away from Moscow. For Sharov, this colossal construction project is just the point of departure for the construction of his own:  one of the most striking novels you are going to read in the coming year. In The Rehearsals,  the building of New Jerusalem is concurrent with the preparations for a mystery play faithfully recreating the events of the Gospels that Patriarch Nikon commissions a Breton theatre director to stage on the monastery grounds. The director uses the local peasants for the roles of the Jews, the Christians, and the Romans, as he is forbidden to employ professional actors. Since nobody is allowed to play Jesus Christ himself, that part is conferred to the empty space which the crowd of amateur thespians have to address year after year as they rehearse for the great premiere scheduled for the year 1666. Perhaps then, during the performance, Jesus Christ will descend in New Jerusalem on the bank of the Istra River, and the world will come to an end? When the time comes, we realise that the premiere will have to be postponed and that the rehearsals will continue for many more years, overshadowing by the scale of the attendant cruelty and brutality both the Biblical sources and the humble beginnings of the 17th-century.

Sharov’s dense and skillfully manipulative narrative will require all your attention. Bear with him, and you will be rewarded.  Ridden with all sorts of rabbit holes, that’s a Wonderland no Alice would visit on her own accord, for the journey would take her to the terrifying metaphysical depths of Russian and Soviet history. Translated into English by Oliver Ready (one of the five virtuosi I posted about earlier), Sharov’s staggering novel is slated to come out from Dedalus Books at the end of January. Don’t miss it.

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The Great Untranslated: Myrbråtenfortellingene by Thure Erik Lund

Let’s talk about Norwegian literature. No, we’re not going to talk about Karl Ove Knausgaard; we’re going to quote him:

You wouldn’t have read him, there’s a Norwegian writer, Thure Erik Lund, he’s the greatest prose writer in my generation. He’s ten years older than me. He’s very wild. His novels start in one place and end up somewhere completely different. His dream novel, he told me, was a novel that starts here and ends up in Chinese, and the readers should have learned Chinese by the time they got to the end. He’s untranslatable. In one of his books, there’s no people in it, it’s completely empty, but it still works, it’s just great. In Norway, Lund was the only expansive writer I knew of.

It is a bit ironic that such an overhyped author, whose books have been translated into numerous languages, should be the one to break the news to the English-speaking world about the existence of Thure Erik Lund, his complete opposite: obscure, untranslated into any other language, linguistically challenging (“untranslatable” says Knausgaard), not easily marketable. But we should be grateful for the successful author of My Struggle – now we at least know what we are missing.

Thure Erik Lund’s greatest achievement is the genrically heterogenous tetralogy Myrbråtenfortellingene (The Myrbråten Tales) united by the presence of Thomas Olsen Myrbråten, the eponymous character. The first novel of the cycle is titled Grøftetildragelsesmysteriet (The Ditch Incident Mystery), and it relates the protagonist’s botched attempt to write a report on the protection of Norway’s cultural monuments commissioned by the Ministry of Culture. Crushed by this failure and confronted with the existential void, Myrbråten first moves to the countryside and then retreats deep into the woods to lead there a solitary existence like some of  kind of postmodern Thoreau. There he embarks upon writing his own theory of the world. Admiring  Lund’s critique of contemporary culture, literary historian Øystein Rottem has written in  a review that it is so radical as to make Thomas Bernhard and Dag Solstad “pale” in comparison.

Compromateria, the second novel in the tetralogy, is the wildest. It is a science fiction allegory that stretches the limits of imagination and language alike, notorious among the Norwegian readership for its hundreds of neologisms. The main character of the novel is an unnamed writer who makes his own books, manufacturing the paper from random bits of junk: shreds of fabric, straw pieces, crushed stones.  At some point he is transported to the futuristic world of Compromateria in which technologies and language are fused together. In his detailed analysis of the novel (unfortunately available only in Norwegian), the critic Arve Kleiva neatly sums up what to expect of Lund’s extravaganza:

What else should I compare Lund with, in a nutshell? The references or rather the associations and formal similarities are so common that they dissolve into generalities: Homer’s adventures, Dante, Rabelais, Thomas More, Baroque travel allegories, Swift, Holberg and (a far stronger resemblance) Hieronymus Bosch, Mary Shelley, HG Wells, Egil Rasmussen, the 20th century dystopia, surrealism, gonzo, sci-fi literature that the reviewer barely knows, Blade Runner, Independence Day, Matrix, Alien, X-Files, but perhaps just as much the revelation traditions,  [..] John’s Apocalypse, the Spanish Renaissance mystics and other visionary poetry. For it is the truth that speaks through this intricate and well-organised system of (alleged) lies and delirium.

The next book of Myrbråtenfortellingene bears the title Elvestengfolket (The Elvesteng Folk) and it features Thomas again as its protagonist. In this short novel we learn about Myrbråten’s earlier life, starting with his childhood in rural Norway in the 1960s and ending in the 1990s, with his arrival in Oslo, on the eve of the great tribulations recounted in the first novel of the tetralogy.

With Uranophilia, the fourth novelLund brings his daring literary enterprise to an end. Thomas is now in his sixties and lives in Oslo again, still working on his philosophical system. His ordinary routine is changed when he meets the inventor Ludvig, who has built a time machine in his shabby workshop. Ludvig initiates his friend into his scientific research, and, after the inventor’s death, Thomas continues the experiments with time travelling. Another important part of the plot is the unravelling of the arcane knowledge concealed within a 16th-century treatise called Uranophilia. The investigation of its impact on the course of our civilsation is attended by a welter of historical and cultural references in which fact and fiction are elaborately intertwined. Especially fascinating are travellers’ accounts about visiting fantastic peoples that would make Pliny and Mandeville look like certified anthropologists.

Since the only piece of information in English about Thure Erik Lund’s tetralogy that I’ve been able to unearth is this short entry on the website of Eirin Hagen Literary Agency, I mostly had to rely on Google Translate and common sense when puzzling out the meaning of the Norwegian essays and reviews to form my own opinion. Based on all the secondary sources I thus perused, I would venture to assume that Thure Erik Lund’s cycle of novels fits that rare bill of a literary work whose linguistic complexity is matched by the complexity of its ideas and imagery. The lack of any translations makes Myrbråtenfortellingene especially tantalising, and I want to believe that despite the label of untranslatability, some brave adventurer will stand up to the challenge of widenening the readership of this fascinating work.

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The Harmonious Forest (O Bosque Harmonioso) by Augusto Abelaira

licobodiscivacacotopelinamgdevogradivenliptordugalsenturfgalipntocsersagalmutpvar

No, this is not some tongue-twisting onomatopoeic coinage from Finnegans Wake. As a matter of fact, in the language of  a certain tribe inhabiting the interior of Java Island, this word is habitually used  as the coordinate conjunction equivalent to the English and. Incidentally, these people make do with only thirty words most of which have multiple meanings. For example, the word trob can convey such disparate notions as “eagle”, “sea”, “milk”, “dog”, “stone”, “mother”, “son” as well as many other ideas.

We learn this curious but hardly trustworthy factoid from The Harmonious Forest,  a 16th century manuscript analysed by the narrator of Augusto Abelaira’s novel of the same name – a slim book with plenteous rewards. This Portuguese novel, published in 1982, follows in the footsteps of Jorge Luis Borges, Italo Calvino  and Umberto Eco in its playful treatment of history and textuality, its questioning of the reliability of written documents and its preoccupation with the blurred distinctions between forgery and authenticity, the copy and the original.

The novel itself is presented as a notebook kept by  Arnaldo Cunha, a schoolteacher with scholarly ambitions who is constantly tormented by existential anxieties. The contents of the notebook are a hodgepodge of different texts that provide us with a glimpse of the narrator’s everyday life, his philosophical musings, and the subject of his research. There are four primary documents making up the text of the notebook. First of all, there is the Renaissance novel The Harmonious Forest written in Latin by the obscure 16th century traveller and polymath Cristovão Borralho. We get to know this work indirectly, either through translated excerpts or just through brief summaries provided  by Cuhna. Secondly, there is the biography of Borralho penned in Portuguese by his friend Gaspar Barbosa. Thirdly,  there are  copious annotations left in Barbosa’s biography by an anonymous 18th century political exile in Paris. Likewise, these two texts are made available to us as either quoted passages or the teacher’s retellings. Finally, the notebook contains the personal diary of Arnaldo Cunha in which he discusses the three above-mentioned texts as well as vents his numerous frustrations and insecurities. Since jumps between these four texts are rather abrupt, it requires a certain effort to keep track of the story gradually emerging through the interaction of  direct and indirect quotations, summaries, observations, digressions and interpolations. 

Arnaldo Cunha is a self-conscious parody of the typical protagonist in an existentialist novel. Oppressed by the absurdity and wretchedness of everyday life, he wants to achieve something significant, knowing all too well that he is neither talented nor ambitious enough to do that. He has a lot of interests in various fields that he feeds with disparate reading, but none of his enquieries are profound enough to let him make his mark in the world. He is trapped in the limbo between his immediate surrounding, which he considers low-brow and tedious, and the unattainable realm of  stellar performance and recognition. The only way to satisfy his ambitions seems to be writing an important work (think Antoine Roquentin from Nausea). However, he realises that it cannot be a work of fiction due to his lack of imagination, so the only option on the table is a critical study of somebody else’s work. And that somebody should be virtually unknown to the literary and critical establishment, so that it would be “easy to say new things without great effort”.  The mysterious Cristovão Borralho appears to the ideal candidate for such an enterprise.

The name will be familiar to those who have read The Travels of Mendes Pinto, a 16th century travelogue chronicling its author’s adventures in Asia and Africa that warranted  justified comparisons with Marco Polo’s famous Book of the Marvels of the World.  Cristovão Borralho is mentioned in The Travels several times as Fernão Mendes Pinto’s companion.  Borralho’s The Harmonious Forest is a patchy affair. Most of the book  is made up of  the tall tales shared by his comrades aboard an India-bound vessel on the eve of its fight with a Turkish galliot. The stories are either bawdy tales reminiscent of The Decameron or fantastic adventure stories with philosophical undertones bringing to mind some of Voltaire’s Contes and Swift’s satires. If we assume that the real author of these narratives is Borralho himself, then it becomes evident that the traveller and scholar had a precocious mind that greatly outstripped his epoch and envisaged already in the 16th century some of the developments in philosophy and science which would take place only centuries later. One of the funniest stories is ascribed to Tomé Lobo (who is also mentioned by Mendes Pinto). In it we learn of an island inhabited by astute macaques who have invented their own means of communications using a chest with golden pieces as their vocabulary. Each piece stands for a specific word, so in order “to talk” a monkey has to use the relevant tokens and then put them back into the chest. Everything changes, however, with the visit of the Portuguese explorers who introduce on the island the idea of God and thus trigger a language revolution which leads the monkeys to differentiating between the signifier and the signified and thus creating the prerequisites for the democratisation of discourse: the appearance of paper words, serviceable insofar as their value is backed up by the golden pieces, and accessible to all monkeys. Tomé Lobo’s account is not just a sweeping satire of the critical theories fashionable in the 1960-1970s (i.e. structuralism and poststructuralism) – it makes fun of the common human urge to create theoretical systems explaining the world and then regarding  them as the ultimate truth. Some of the macaques bear suggestive names: Planton, Fucô, Lunan.

By and large, when describing their encounters with the indigenous population of some exotic place, the local language is one of the primary objects of the explorers’ interest. Besides the already mentioned tribe, which communicates using just thirty words, we get to know an indigenous community that has a multitude of words for each thing, each of those reflecting its specific condition: i. e. they will use different words for an eagle, depending upon whether the eagle is in the sunlight, or in the moonlight, or under the rain, etc. There is also a tribe which uses the same word to denote completely different objects: they have, for example, one word for “fish”, “triangle”, and “moon”. When there is no food and a child is hungry it is enough for the mother to point at the moon/fish and the little one will be sated.

The discoveries of the Portuguese travellers are not limited to the seas, as becomes know from  Borralho’s account of his journey to the Moon under Mem Taborda’s captainship. Needless to say, the latter has also been lifted from Mendes Pinto’s travelogue. Just like in the story about the talking monkeys, the tranquil life of the indigenous community on the Moon is overturned by the ideas the Portuguese explorers bring along. Mem Taborda and his crew, carried in a makeshift sailing vessel to the Moon from the Tibetan mountains by favourable winds, shake the seemingly solid foundations of the communist utopia built by the Lunar inhabitants. The newly arrived discover to their surprise that the locals don’t have fire arms, work only three hours a day, do not have any private property, and think little of gold because of its sheer abundance on the Moon. At first, they  deride the insatiable greed driving the adventurous subjects of the expanding Portuguese Empire. But as the intruders depart with a load of gold, they have already infected the Lunar civilisation with their avarice, and when they come back in two years’ time, they can contemplate  all the fruits of a society obsessed with accumulating wealth: social inequality, lack of rescources, rebellions and repressions. 

The stories are not limited solely to the quests for new lands and the enrichment of the empire. We also learn about more personal quests presented as gripping allegories: one man’s quest for God and another’s for a woman.  The former is narrated by yet another seafarer from The Travels, Vicente Morosa. It is the story of a Chinese man called Xang Tu, who sets off on a journey looking for God after his wife’s death. He closely follows the tracks left by somebody he believes to be God, uttering each time when he stumbles upon some evidence of misery or destruction: “God has passed here.” In the long run, the man realises that it is actually the Devil he might be pursuing, ultimately failing to see the difference between the two. As for the quest for a woman, this story is not to be found in Borralho’s manuscript, perhaps due to its excessively racy content. Luckily for Arnaldo Cunha, this tale appears in Barbosa’s text, and he is more than happy to summarise it for us. The protagonist of this tale has sex with a masked woman at a Venitian-style ball, and the pleasure granted to him by her vagina is so great, that he dubs it “the harmonous forest” and dedicates all his life to finding its mysterious possessor. His glass slipper is the memory of his ecstasy, so he travels the world making various women “try it on” by the only method available to him, that is, by sleeping with them. “Proustian precursor of Henry Miller?” wonders the author of the notebook after finishing his summary of this tale. But what about his own quest, does he succeed in proving that he has discovered an unknow monument of 16th century travel writing?

There’s the rub, for lacking conclusive proof the manuscript’s authenticity at his disposal, Cunha is faced with several different possibilities, and not all of them are favourable for his grand project. The least harmful one is that Borralho never existed – Gaspar Barbosa invented him and wrote both The Harmonious Forest and the fake biography to avoid possible persecution at the hands of the Holy Office. But things could be worse. What if both Barbosa and Borralho are the witty inventions of the 18th century anonymous author of the marginalia? Then most of the revolutionary insights of the Renaissance scholar are nothing but anachronistic flourishes of a person observing the 16th century from the heights of the Enlightenment. And, of course, Cuhna’s discovery will be completely nullified if it turns out that all the three texts have been forged  in the 20th century. This issue never gets resolved, but come to think of it, nor does the protagonist’s anxiety about the meaninglessness of life. As he himself neatly sums up at the end of the novel: “All that bitterness. To know that life has no sense and still keep looking for it.” Let’s leave him there. We know that he is just a function, an “existentialist” seedling in the metafictional forest of Augusto Abelaira.

“The key to the treasure is the treasure”, John Barth famously wrote in 1973. Perhaps Arnaldo Cuhna would have a hard time accepting this postmodern principle, but, at the end of the day, this is what really drives his own story. What he might believe to be a failed attempt at a search for meaning through scholarly work and self-analysis, we should regard as a masterfully constructed narrative device not only generating a plethora of meanings for each reader, but also giving  us the pleasure of watching a great ludic mind at work.

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