Alberto Laiseca is the buried giant of world literature. Without his wild imagination, which surpasses even the most baroque and audacious exploits of the Latin American Boom, the literary jigsaw of the 20th century would be deplorably incomplete. The fact that he is virtually non-existent for English language readers is one of the most flagrant injustices that could ever have been inflicted on them. We are so much the poorer for this gaping absence. I cherish a vague hope that my review of his magnum opus will generate enough buzz to provoke at least a slight interest in this writer among publishers of literature in translation.
The Sorias is a visionary, erudite, cruel, surreal, uproarious, smutty, silly, puerile, absurd, cartoonish, megalomaniac and, many would say, downright psychotic work that is destined for a perennial cult status. Laiseca is the inheritor of the cultural codes left by François Rabelais, Dante Alighieri, Jonathan Swift, the Marquis de Sade, Hieronymus Bosch, Pieter Bruegel the Elder and Francisco Goya. The only contemporary writer I can compare him to is Thomas Pynchon: The Sorias is the Gravity’s Rainbow of Latin America. On more than one occasion I was compelled to interrupt my reading, get up from the desk and take a dazed walk around the room in sheer disbelief: what the hell have I just read? Nothing prepares you for the weirdness of this book. Abandon sanity, all ye who enter here…
With more than 1300 pages, this is the longest Argentine novel ever written, and since it hasn’t been translated into any language yet, this might be the most notorious obscure novel of whose existence very few readers outside the Spanish language are aware. Which is not to say that the novel is that famous in the Spanish-speaking world either. The Sorias had a long and tortuous journey to its reader. It took Laiseca 10 years to write it, and 16 more to publish. There have been three editions of the novel so far with the total print run amounting to a measly 2,850 copies. The Sorias is a cult classic par excellence, read only by a small cenacle of the initiated, but much talked about amongst those exposed to its mythos. Many are now ardently seeking an opportunity to get hold of it, which might be a tall order not only because of the small number of the copies available on the market, but also due to the forbidding price. One of the earliest champions of the novel was the living classic of Argentine literature Ricardo Piglia, who famously said:”The Sorias is the best novel that has been written in Argentina since The Seven Madmen“.
The novel is set in an alternative universe that, nevertheless, shares many of its features with our world. A cold war is in progress. There is growing tension between the superpowers called Technocracy and Soria. The latter has a close ally whose name is very well familiar to many of us: the Soviet Union. Despite being an imaginary construct, this country is very similar to the historical USSR. A crude map drawn by Laiseca himself represents the political geography of the known world consisting of a hispanicised Europe called Eurisberia and the colossal Soviet Union. The countries making up the Eurisberian continent are a farrago of fictional and real territories. On the one hand there is Catalonia, Castillia, Aragon, and the Caliphate of Cordoba; on the other, such exotic places as Protonia, Protelia, Chanchelia, Dervia, Goria, the already mentioned Soria and Technocracy, and a bunch of others. When the political organisation of these countries is described, there is hardly a hint of any democratic rule. So, most of them, if not all, are dictatorships of various stripes.
The cold war unravels on the background of a bloody conflict ravaging the divided country of Chanchin. The Soviet Union and Soria provide military support for North Chanchin, whereas Technocracy is allied with South Chanchin. The struggle between the geopolitical rivals over the domination in this jungle-covered part of Eurisberia, which we immediately recognise as thinly disguised Vietnam, eventually leads to the outbreak of a great war whose major stages are narrated in great detail throughout the second half of the novel.
Although the novel’s title refers to Soria, most of the book is devoted to Technocracy. The virulent hostility between the two states makes us think about them at first as the sworn enemies with a long history of confrontation. But, as it turns out, both dictatorships are relatively new political entities, and in the past they used to be one nation. Faithful to its name, Technocracy is a state underpinned by well-nigh religious worship of technologies. The political elite is almost entirely composed of engineers. Most of the spheres of everyday life rely heavily on different machines, computers, and robots. The head of Technocracy bears the title Monitor, and that is how he is referred to throughout the narrative; we are left in the dark as to his first name. His last name is unsurprisingly Iseka, as everybody living in Technocracy has the same last name. There is a similar situation in the neighbouring Soria, where every inhabitant’s last name is Soria.
The omnipotent dictator of Technocracy rules his state with a rod of iron from a sumptuous palace in the capital city of Monitoria. He is a pathological control freak with sadistic inclinations and a perverse sense of humour who has built an enormous underground city beneath Monitoria that is a crossbreed between Fritz Lang’s Metropolis and Dante’s Inferno. Travelling on a self-propelled slab through the dark tunnels of the subterranean complex that contains the powerful machines providing energy for the various needs of the state as well as numerous torture and execution chambers, the Monitor usually conceals his identity by switching on an illusion machine in order to check incognito how his perverse orders are enforced by the Secret Police of Technocracy. All this may sound gloomy and outright terrifying, but believe me, not a single torture scene is exempt from the underlying hilarity. The further we descend into this underground hell, the more we realise that its ominous atmosphere has been contaminated by the absurd slapstick worthy of the Marx Brothers and Daniil Kharms. Laiseca’s goal is not to denounce the abuse of power in a totalitarian state by making the reader wince at the horrors perpetrated by the state against its dissident citizens. Like a medieval court jester or a skomorokh, he makes a laughing stock of tyranny by blowing its grotesqueness out of proportion. For example, a separate category subject to horrible tortures in one of the circles of this Technocratic Inferno includes old women who tend to hog public phone booths for long conversations, jump queues or protest against smoking. Despite the nauseating, genuinely Sadean methods of their slow execution, we cannot help but smile at the absurdity of the whole situation. The first thing that came to my mind was the notorious “plummeting old women” from Kharms’ collection of short stories. No less grotesque is the orchestra consisting of 70 specially trained executioners equipped with blowtorches, goads, pincers, knives and other tools of such kind and their human instruments: 280 naked men, women and adolescents of both sexes who are subject to sophisticated tortures under the guidance of a conductor so as to produce a faithful interpretation of Mozart’s Requiem with their groans and shrieks of pain. The Monitor strives to satisfy not only his sadistic impulses, but also artistic ambitions. Many of the tortures and executions are filmed and edited together with pornographic scenes, all of which one day will be part of the Monitor’s epic cinematographic debut. Many aspects of the Technocratic state remind us of the Nazi Germany. The parallel becomes crystal clear when the Monitor starts aggression against Soria and Russia, throwing Eurisberia into an abyss of total war. However, besides the militaristic aspects of this alternative Reich, there are also cultural similarities. The presence of Richard Wagner and his famous Ring Cycle is overwhelming in the cultural life of Technocracy. For the Monitor, Wagner’s music is the pinnacle of artistic creation; it’s more than music, it’s the very spirit of technocracy manifested in sounds. Hitler’s love for this composer is obviously alluded to here. But there is no way Laiseca will keep it solemn and proper when dealing with such a “serious” issue. In his world Wagner is alive, his name is Ricardo Wagner Iseka, and he wouldn’t answer the dictator’s exalted letters. The idea of economic autarky, something which was achieved by the Third Reich partly thanks to the industrial use of coal in the production of synthetic oil and rubber, is also pursued by the Monitor, but in the same off-the-wall manner as almost everything else he does:
Fortunately, we have plenty of the mummies of the pharaohs of Corrientes; we will transform them into coal, and then we will synthesise everything we need from it: gasoline, butter, beans etc. To cut a long story short: all types of fuel, nourishment and plastics.
Mummification is a widespread practice in Technocracy, which along with the Nazi Germany elements has also borrowed to various extents some features of the pharaonic Egypt as well as those of Sumer, Babylon, Ancient Greece and Rome. As for religion, Technocracy does not have a particular state-supported cult the way Soria does, but there is, nevertheless, a vast spiritual dimension to the technology-obsessed existence of the Monitor’s state. The Technocrats’ beliefs are similar to the ancient doctrine of Manichaeism, as they are convinced that there are two antagonistic principles in eternal conflict: the positive one which they call Mozart and the negative: Anti-Mozart. The absolute evil for them is concentrated in the concept of Anti-Being, which can be either just an abstraction or some dark energy, or even a malevolent creature. The state of Soria for the Monitor is the essence of everything which is Anti-Mozart, and whatever it does is considered to be strengthening the baleful influence of Anti-Being.
Now, if you thought Technocracy was crazy, what will you make of Soria, ruled by the Monitor’s nemesis Soria Soriator? In contrast to their technology-obsessed neighbours, Sorias are not averse to religious practices. The most popular religion is exatheism, apparently modeled on the bloodthirsty beliefs of some Meso-American civilisations; it includes worship of six terrible gods and requires human sacrifice. Each of the deities with the Aztec-sounding names like Tritaltetoco or Tetramqueltuc has its own temple whose design contains elements of the Chinese pagoda and the Arabic mosque. Each year forty-two sacrificial rituals take place. Men and women to be sacrificed are tied to the altars on top of the minarets of the temples, and, after the priest utters magic incantations, a diabolic creature called vurro (which is pronounced in the same way as “burro”, the Spanish for a donkey) who has the head of a donkey, a vaguely human body and is equipped with an enormous phallus, descends upon its victims and rapes them to death.
The leader of Soria is as ruthless as the Monitor, but completely blows him out of the water when it comes to sexual perversions. His copro-necrofiliac tendencies are better left unexemplified. Not lacking in megalomania either, the Soriator considers himself to be the reincarnation of Almanzor, the famous Muslim warlord who succeeded in bringing most of Moorish Spain under his control in the 10th Century. After winning the war against Technocracy he wants to change his name to Al-Manzur Billah (Victor by Grace of God). In his architectural ambitions, Soriator goes well beyond the wildest dreams of Albert Speer or Étienne-Louis Boullée. Besides contemplating the construction of sprawling city-cemeteries where each tomb would the size of a building, he dreams of erecting the new capital, Soriatoria, which would be just one cyclopean edifice:
That city was to be a single building with a hundred blocks at the base and a kilometre in height, with the capacity to accommodate four or five million people. It would be full of caretakers, incinerators for the disposal of rubbish, consortia, internal regulations prohibiting to have pets, to listen to music after certain time, etc. Instead of buses and underground trains: lifts. The lift operators would have ticket machines hanging from their necks: “Which floor are you travelling to, señor?” “Floor 2380.” “Twenty-five centavos of soriator.”
Despite the reciprocal hostility, in many respects Soria and Technocracy resemble each other, which is hardly surprising when we think of real life dictatorships. Both Monitor and Soriator are gluttons for power, intent on expanding it at any cost and regarding human beings as disposable material geared to the attainment of their egomaniacal goals.
The hostile actions of both nations against each other are not limited to the tangible world. There are also astral battles. Each dictatorship has cohorts of magicians in its employment whose task is to protect their master against the evil spells, jinxes and other harmful paranormal activities unleashed by the opposing force as well as to perpetrate all the above-mentioned against the aggressor. The special team of shamans, astrologists and wizards of Technocracy is headed by Decameron de Gaula, the most powerful magician of Eurisberia. He is capable of undertaking dangerous astral journeys in time and space, communicating with birds and plants, predicting future, and creating golems. However, his main mission is to withstand the devastating irruptions of Anti-Being into the world. De Gaula is not only famous for a vast number of exploits against the hostile esoteric teams of Soria and the demonic creatures spawned by Anti-Being, but he is also a notorious practical joker, and his hilarious pranks, always tinged with patent gallows humour, make for a welcome comic relief. At some juncture, Decameron de Gaula becomes a guardian of the novel’s protagonist: the aspiring writer Personaje Iseka.
In the very first episode. which can be read as a parody of the Martello Tower scene in Ulysses, Personaje is depicted as a harassed budding novelist who has to share lodging with churlish and arrogant Sorias in a town on the border between the two hostile states. Quite Buck-Mulliganish, the Soria room mates of Iseka disturb and oppress him all the time, never losing an opportunity to lower his self-esteem and undermine his belief in his own creative potential. Realising that enough is enough, Personaje leaves the border town and sets out on his picaresque journey to Technocracy. There he takes on a number of jobs, working as a telephone repairman, a secret agent, and a cemetery watchman. The latter position allows him to put to practice the basics of magic he learned while serving in the Secret Police of Technocracy: he tries his hand at manufacturing zombies, and assists a mad scientist in bringing to life a cyborg, which, like Frankenstein’s Monster, is put together from different body parts. With the aid and under the guidance of Decameron de Gaula, Personaje Iseka contrives to get to the underground city and even penetrate into the very heart of the metropolis: an immense automated palace completely managed by robots. Personaje Iseka intends to use the exclusive knowledge gained during this journey to complete The Book of the Hordes, a national epic of Technocracy. For several months he explores the delirious jumble of tunnels, megaliths, pyramids, and colossus-lined avenues meticulously documenting the intricacies of the forbidden part of the underground Monitoria for his grand poem. We are even allowed to read an excerpt form this work-in-progress, which likens the capital of Technocracy to ancient city-states anachronistically manifesting the presence of technologies thousands of years ahead in time. The collection of Iseka’s experiences gets further enriched when he finds himself on the front line, fighting the Soviet tanks pushing ahead during the major offensive of the Russian troops against Monitoria. Eventually, for most of the citizens of Technocracy there is no escaping war, and one begins to wonder if war, perhaps, was the real main character of The Sorias.
The conflict starts after Technocracy invades and occupies North Chanchin routing the indigenous troops supported by Soria and the Soviet Union. Only some guerrilla detachments under the command of octogenarian general Vo Nguen Teng, who is clearly based on the Vietnamese military genius Vo Nguen Giap, maintain sporadic resistance against the occupying forces. The next targets of Monitor’s Blitzkrieg are the allied Soria and the Soviet Union. The Technocrat army invades them one after another and in a very brief period of time succeeds in seizing half of Soria and a huge territory of the Soviet Union stretching beyond the Urals. Soon enough the whole Eurisberia is engulfed in large-scale hostilities that are dubbed the Twenty-Third Carlist World War. (In our world, as you might know, there were only three Carlist Wars, and all them were limited to the territory of the 19th century Spain). The global conflict depicted by Laiseca in many ways reminds us of the Second World War. Quite a few events unfolding on the Soviet-Technocrat fronts evoke familiar episodes of the war between Nazi Germany and the real Soviet Union. What makes the conspicuous difference is the futuristic weaponry and the magic employed by the belligerents. The warfare in The Sorias is carried out with a range of armaments and hardware right out of a science fiction novel: electrical guns, laser weapons, freezing guns and bombs, astroships, armoured hunters (more advanced versions of the tank), and combat robots made to look like human skeletons. There is also genetic engineering involved, as the Technocrat scientists design gigantic insects to fight in the Russian steppes. These monsters wear masks which they take off before killing their victims to reveal the beautiful female faces beneath. Luckily for the population of the planet, the warring factions have agreed not to use the most powerful weapon: the temponuclear bomb. This bomb is capable of damaging spacetime, causing unimaginable destruction. The victorious progress of the Technocrat troops is checked in Samarkand. This Central Asian city, due to some weather anomaly, is subject to the effects of abnormal freezing temperatures, and a whole Technocrat army is trounced in this pocket of piercing cold amidst the sultriness characteristic of the area. The defeat in Samarkand spells a sea-change in the course of the war. This episode brings to mind the Battle of Stalingrad, of course, and the crushing debacle of the German Sixth Army. The chapter recounting the encirclement of the freezing Samarkand by the Soviet army contains a fascinating set piece about the last three seconds in the life of a mortally wounded Technocrat soldier. In the tradition of Ambrose Bierce’s An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge, this soldier manages to spend this brief moment before his death on a long and adventure-packed journey. In his vivid and protracted hallucinations he takes command over an army of qliphoth (the evil forces in Kabbalah), crosses the desert by ascending and descending a ladder measuring many miles in length in order to escape a cannibalistic tribe, gets stuck in the hollow centre of the earth, shuttling up and down a bottomless well, and ends up as a crew member on a whaling boat. There is no end to the most outrageous and bizarre episodes dotting the lengthy narrative about the world war that seems to be never-ending. If you disregard all the sci-fi and fantasy elements employed in the depiction of the numerous military engagements, you would be surprised to discover how faithfully Laiseca conveys the logic of conventional warfare. When it comes to the decision making process, the movements of the troops, the offensive and defensive tactics, the officers show themselves as adherents of the tried-and-true concepts put forward by Carl von Clausewitz in his treatise On War.
There is also plenty of music accompanying the war, most of it from Richard Wagner’s monumental opera cycle The Ring of the Nibelung. In the most relevant places there are excerpts from the libretto and the corresponding sheet music for the convenience of those who can read musical notation. The pervasive presence of The Ring Cycle, which is made apparent in a variety of ways in the novel, adds to to the conflict a mythological dimension. The greed for power and the untiring pursuit of self-aggrandizing seem to be driving the “divine” dictators and the nations under their despotic rule towards the Twilight of the Gods, which on the material plane will manifest itself as the total annihilation in the war. And again, Laiseca wouldn’t be Laiseca if in the midst of this portentous Wagnerian allegory he didn’t set up a carnivalesque counter-narrative, in which the gloomy Teutonic mythology of The Ring Cycle gets an unexpected comic reappraisal in the best traditions of Beckett or Ionesco. In a brilliant set piece two philosophically-minded hobos, Moyaresmio Iseka and Crk Iseka (veritable Vladimir and Estragon in a futuristic setting), supervise the construction of the False Bayreuth in the thickets of a primordial forest which looks like a surviving sample of the Tertiary Period. The vagabonds from all over Technocracy collect funds to erect the wooden opera house mimicking the famous Richard-Wagner-Festspielhaus in northern Bavaria. Piling one fascinating detail onto another, Laiseca meticulously describes the whole building process, the casting for all the main parts among homeless artists, and the premiere performance itself. Even somebody who has never heard about The Ring Cycle will feel knowledgeable about all the twists and turns of its complicated plot after reading the ridiculously detailed description of the first night. And surely, besides being highly informative, this chapter is unbearably funny and absurd. It can easily be anthologised as a stand-alone short story in any collection of the best comic writing from Latin America.
Wagner’s masterpiece is undoubtedly the main intertext in Laiseca’s novel, and without knowing rather well The Ring Cycle and Norse mythology, it is hardly possible to fully appreciate The Sorias. Nevertheless, I think it is worth briefly mentioning the other considerable influences on this remarkable work. Like any novela total, The Sorias aspires to contain everything, and the sheer number of allusions to different literary works, musical compositions, visual arts and cinema is so overwhelming that it would require a separate monograph to do justice to the intertextual dimension of Laiseca’s novel. I am sure that a lot of the references went over my head, but just the handful I did manage to notice are sufficient to set your head spinning. Besides the obvious nods I have already mentioned, Laiseca pays tribute in various ways to the following authors and works: Edgar Allan Poe (short stories), Mika Waltari (The Egyptian), Miguel Cervantes (Don Quijote), Amadis de Gaula, Borges (short stories), One Thousand and One Nights, Classical Chinese poetry, Lao Tzu, I Ching, Ian Fleming, Stephen King, H.P. Lovecraft, Gaston Leroux (The Phantom of the Opera), Mary Shelley (Frankenstein), Lewis Carol (Alice in Wonderland), George Orwell (1984), Herman Hesse (The Glass Bead Game), Gustav Meyrink (Golem), Alfred Jarry (Ubu Rois), Gustave Flaubert (The Temptation of Saint Anthony), Miguel Angel Asturias (El Señor Presidente, Men of Maize), Stanley Kubrick (Doctor Strangelove), the Star Trek series, Werner Herzog (Fitzcarraldo), Federico Fellini films, the major classical operas (too many to list here), the music of Schoenberg, Honegger and Stockhausen. Besides being a distorted mirror reflecting the horrors of our recent history, The Sorias is also an anarchic, disorganised encyclopedia of our culture that is subject to similar deformation and estrangement, and, as result, looking like heritage left by a Borgesian Tlön-like civilisation. It is truly fascinating to see how Laiseca operates with different mythological and cultural motifs by refuelling them with psychedelic energy of such high intensity that I wouldn’t be surprised if somebody had an actual acid trip just by reading certain episodes of the novel. For example, one of the mythologems that gets reworked to a spectacular effect is the Wild Hunt. It is a well-known myth that appeared in Northern Europe in the Middle Ages and described a host of ghosts riding on horses either in the skies or on the ground led by a pagan god or a cursed prince. Woe to those who meet the spectral hunting party!
Laiseca places the Wild Hunt into a story-within-a-story about the medieval Baghdad where a certain qadi Mahmud Abdullah Masseidi, riding on a magic carpet that scurries across the ground on its little paws, tries to reach the ruins of the ancient city of Ur, but is unable to do it because the desert landscape before him turns into a calcined grove and a very strange company appears on his way.
Little by little, the calcined grove transformed into something living. Interlaced with the trees of ash there appeared bananas and giraffes, interwoven in their turn with mammoths and beasts of the Pleistocene. A sabre-toothed tiger – now it could be seen – was walking among the diminutive ferns, Alice’s rabbits, Hatters, March Hares, and treading on the sand mixed with trilobites. There were shells of enormous araucarias, poplar alleys, platypuses and mandrills alongside the mighty Siberian rivers rendered tropical by the inversion of the poles and the tropics as well as the confusion of the solstices. There, near these thawed-out rivers, tremendous ichthyosaurs (each dorsal fin big as a shield) were yawning near breadfruit trees. […] Thanks to his concealment machine the qadi could find out what those types intended to do. It seemed that their lord, the general, was leading them to a place where some of his buddies were about to perform a grimoire. Also, thanks to the speakers he learned the dismal details about the personality of this chieftain. In the territories which he ruled as the Master of the Gallows and the Knife, when some of his subordinates made a mistake, to let him know that he had fallen in disgrace, he sent to his house a barrel filled with shit: thus the man understood that it was time to commit suicide. Otherwise, one or some of the following things could occur to him: he could be forced to swallow entirely the contents of the barrel; his spinal column could be sawed in two in order to suck out his cerebrospinal fluid with a straw as a refreshment; with due patience and diligence ten holes could be made in the bones of his both legs with a drill so that later there could be inserted big screws to attach him to a wall and leave hanging head down; […] For the feast — it had been in progress for three days already and they intended to continue for four more — they had prepared braziers with new coals, torches made of skeletons inside whose ribs, skulls and around whose sacra flammable substances had been placed. If you take a closer look, a skeleton is an assembly kit. These white jigsaw puzzles, with the pieces juxtaposed and matching, were distributed among the gibbets from which they were gently swaying — others were put in chairs, which also were ablaze –; on white thrones; on black thrones; seated at the table and playing with tarot cards; disguised as Death, scythe and all, — the “all” included white tunics, hoods and plastic sandals.
What we see here is the Wild Hunt legend rewritten by a surrealist in which starkly incongruent images are put side by side and words are disenfranchised from their habitual meaning: thus “grimoire” does not signify here a book of spells anymore, but a feast of ghosts.
Even more bizarre is the treatment of the famous legend of the Temptation of St. Anthony, with which Laiseca sets out to rival the very Hieronymus Bosch. The “temptation” comes in the guise of the dark powers of Anti-Being that materialise to attack Decameron De Gaula in the desert with the ominous name the Bronze of Satan. The head magician of Technocracy comes to the desert alone to perform the annual ritual of subtracting a particle from Anti-Being, thus making its presence in the world less powerful. From all sides he is assailed by phantasms, terrifying and laughable at the same time. The goal of the magic monsters is to trick Decameron de Gaula into swearing allegiance to Anti-Being. The grotesque bestiary comprises the already mentioned lascivious vurros, skinless rabbits with the front paws consisting of coagulated vomit, Babel towers made of penises, breasts and vulvas, the false Canadian Great Totem comprised of a hundred scrawny chickens perched on top of one another, gigantic Chinese dolls dressed as mandarins, even bigger Japanese dolls dressed as Samurais, a humpbacked leprous dwarf, and an obese Lenin. All these nightmarish creatures commit acts of unspeakable atrocity in front of Decameron to shake his determination, but the most powerful magician does not lose his concentration for a second and successfully goes through the enervating test set up for him by the black magic of Anti-Being.
The Sorias is a novel of excess in all respects, and any attempt to convey its richness within a simple review is doomed to failure. If, at this point, you think that I’ve been trying to reveal all the plot elements and all the major themes of this book, you couldn’t be further from truth. I haven’t even scratched the surface. Perhaps a five-hundred page monograph could claim to perform such a feat, but definitely not this review, which, although dwarfing all my previous posts, cannot do justice to Laiseca’s creation. What I intended to do by this confused and amateurish write-up is to push this book a few inches forward on its journey towards the wider readership. It is my firm conviction that sooner or later, The Sorias will get the attention it deserves: it will be translated into other languages, it will be widely discussed, Internet communities dedicated to its hermeneutics will spring up. Maybe it’s not such a bad thing that so many readers have yet to discover this strange novel which is like nothing else, that so many readers will find out that there are books which are still capable of arousing in them a sense of wonder.