Ígur Neblí by Miquel de Palol

During the years of the confrontation, Peirgij Kumaiaski distinguished himself as the most skilful guiding strategist and fire correction expert. As soon as the revolt was quenched, and he was punished in accordance with the laws, he demonstrated, as had already been predicted, that his qualities transcended not only the insignificant circumstances of life, but even the eternal horror that a protracted and cruel death left in the astral. His head, cut off exemplarily in the Homage Square Portico, at the Palace of the Island of the Lake of Beòmia, after the slow torture during which his body was subjected to the whip, red-hot iron, amputations and flaying, was left exposed at the entrance to the town, which was also the North Gate of the Homage Square, hanging from the large shield of stone and bronze that crowned the central portico, and once the passage of time emptied the head of its humours and substances, without any human interference, a swarm of bees settled inside and made it into their hive, and thus, as a natural result and, according to the auspicial orthodoxy, as the spontaneous fruit of necessity, at the town entrance appeared an oracle, inspired by the visions of the pilgrim Coplis, who discovered its virtues, it is believed, thanks to an accidental appraisal, and a whole augural science developed around the bees: the regularity and frequency of flights, the pattern and the direction, the crossings and the exact hour of the day, the circumstances, or even the absence of movement on one significant occasion, whether they entered or exited through the mouth or through the eye sockets, through the neck or the ears, through the right eye or ear or through the left, or whether they departed through one orifice and returned through the other. With the frequency decreed by sworn apiculturists, the honey and combs were ceremoniously removed on the day and at the hour decided by the oracle itself, and the honey was used to anoint the bodies of three maidens who then offered themselves to the pleasures of the first seven foreigners to arrive in the town, be they men or women, for seven days in a row, though the final part of the ritual often degenerated into private orgies of the oracle priests […]

This excerpt from a brief historical digression in Miquel de Palol’s novel Ígur Neblí should be enough for you to decide not only whether to continue reading this review, but also if Palol is your kind of writer. My intention is far from trying to sell you a house by showing one of its bricks. No doubt, this novel has enough scenes of cruelty and disturbing weirdness to suggest that the best candidates for illustrating it would have been Zdzisław Beksiński or H. R. Giger. (In fact, an acrylic by the latter, titled Work Nr. 217 ELP II (Brain Salad Surgery), was used as cover art for the Spanish translation of the book.)  However, Ígur Neblí is not a wanton gorefest, but rather a philosophical science fiction novel containing in equal measure learned discussions you wish you had read several times before finishing the book and depictions of savagery you wish you had never read. The quoted passage perfectly exemplifies Palol’s ability to tell a vivid and unforgettable story within the space of a page. There is no lack of such stories in the novel. What is striking about Ígur Neblí is how much has been packed in: there are dozens of characters, most of whom are called by their first and last names, a variety of settings allowing us to appreciate all the world-building that went into the book, a number of puzzles requiring the knowledge of maths, astronomy, logic, and mythology, explanatory digressions about the politics, society and culture of this futuristic world, lengthy and detailed descriptions of sword matches as well as historical excursuses like the one cited above. Also, the novel, and, consequently, our view of it change as we read it. What starts like a cyberpunk riff on the chivalric romance develops into a large-scale satire of a technocratic society, makes a digression into the territory of the Borgesian fable, and ends up as a poignant enquiry into the nature of memory, consciousness and the perception of the self.

I do not know whether Palol had in mind William Hogarth’s engraving The Bathos when describing the ruins of a palace at the end of the novel, but the broken column and the broken hourglass he specifically mentions led me directly to it. Entropy, disarray and chaos are the inevitable end of any vain enterprise, be it the ambition of a single hero to achieve everlasting glory, the striving of a civilisation to dominate forever, or the hubris of a reader to come up with the definitive interpretation of a book like Ígur Neblí. I have to confess that I am a typical representative of the last vanitas. I failed to crack the main mystery of this novel, namely, to find out what exactly happened in the Final Labyrinth before the protagonist left it. I was even tempted to write to the author and ask him about it, but, after a short consideration, I realised that such an enquiry would disqualify me from being a true Palol reader, and rereading the book at a later point, hopefully with more knowledge and experience at my disposal, was the only way to go about this. For the time being, let me tell you what I did manage to understand about the nightmarish technocratic world created by the Catalan author and the foolhardy protagonist who sets out to achieve greatness in it.

William Hogarth, Tailpiece, or The Bathos, 1764. Image Source

The novel is set in a far future when the territory suitable for human habitation has considerably shrunk after a series of unspecified environmental disasters. National states no longer exist, having been replaced by the single Universal Empire with the strict “power vertical” divided into a proliferation of administrative units. The Emperor is at the top of the hierarchy; the second most important position is that of the Hegemon, the head of the government. The two main types of the governmental institutions are Apotropias and Anagnorias, the former dealing with practical issues, mostly related to law enforcement and military operations, and the latter with the matters of ideology. The establishments known as Equemitias stand apart; in theory, they are answerable only to the Emperor. Their main function is keeping the secrets of the Empire. The nobility of the Empire, represented by Princes, Dukes, Counts, Barons and Knights of seven degrees, enjoy considerable independence from the state, maintaining control over the economy and the commerce, which are not within the remit of the government. The promotion from one chivalric degree to another is determined by a gladiatorial sword duel between the two candidates, which often ends with the death of the defeated knight. At the beginning of the novel, the protagonist makes unusually rapid progress from Chrysalis to the Knight of the Chapel, which is the highest degree, granting its possessor the right to perform the most dangerous and the most honourable feat: to solve the Final Labyrinth.

The said labyrinth is the last of the four enormous structures of the so-called Third Circle of Labyrinths built seven hundred years before the events of the novel. The Labyrinths of the First and Second Circles dating back to even earlier times have sunk into oblivion and cannot even be located, provided they haven’t been entirely ruined. The conquests of the second and the third Labyrinths of the Third Circle, in accordance with the tradition, have been undertaken by the aspirants guided by the previous conquerors, that is, the knight who solved the First Labyrinth acted as the guide and the head of the expedition into the Second Labyrinth whose conqueror, in his turn, performed the same role for the next expedition. Both guides mysteriously perished in the respective labyrinths, and the conqueror of the third one, having declined all the due honours and rewards, retired from public life. When Ígur Neblí is granted access to the Chapel, there is only one labyrinth left unconquered. It is situated inside the huge mountain dominating the landscape of Gorhgró, the capital of the Empire. Needless to say, the prestige of conquering the Final Labyrinth is immense.

In order to realise his ambition, first of all, Ígur has to acquire all the necessary technical knowledge as well as to go through advanced problem-solving training under the mentorship of Geometrist Debrel, the archetypal wise old man helping the hero to embark on his quest. Two other important preconditions for mounting the expedition are the sponsorship of one of the most powerful Princes in the Empire and the consent of the previous champion of the labyrinth, who bears the title Arktofilax, to act as the guide. The preparation supervised by Debrel consists of numerous exercises in which Ígur has to solve problems in such areas as geometry, fluid mechanics, logic, aesthetics, linguistics and even commerce strategies. The problem-solving ability of the aspirant has to be at its best when he enters the Labyrinth, for his very life will depend on it when choosing which direction to take or which door to enter. The main feature of the Labyrinth is that at certain places of bifurcating paths there is a complicated puzzle that has to be solved to get the right direction. If the members of the expedition make a mistake, they run the risk of getting lost or falling into a deadly trap. While honing his problem-solving skills Ígur collaborates with his mentor on cracking the code of the entrance into the Labyrinth, which is the first puzzle waiting for the aspirant. An important role in Ígur’s preparations is played by the cryptic utterances of the Prophetic Head, which, if interpreted correctly, are likely to give him an invaluable insight about his enterprise. The Prophetic Head, kept alive thanks to advanced technologies in a house specially built for it, belongs, by the way, to the brother of Peirgij Kumaiaski whose head’s similarly augural qualities have been described in the quoted passage opening this review.

What Ígur has to learn and often brood about before, during, and after his conquest of the Labyrinth is the extent to which his trajectory has been his own accomplishment and to which it has been part of a game whose scale and duration might have been too forbidding to even contemplate. If you have read my review of Palol’s masterpiece The Troiacord, you must be familiar with the weird conceit of the Fragmentation Game. This Neoplatonic game contains elements from a variety of disciplines and cultural practices and is aimed at changing society by staging large-scale ludic campaigns involving people who are unaware of being participants in them. There is a similar game, or rather a number of games unfolding in the Empire, but, in contrast to the aesthetic and philosophical character of the Fragmentation Game, the games in Ígur Neblí are just complex gambling procedures with very high stakes. Gambling has penetrated all spheres of life, affecting thousands of the citizens, quite often without their consent or even knowledge. Gambling is so important that there is a whole institution dedicated to its management and supervision: the General Apotropia of the Games of the Empire.

The most relevant type of gambling in relation to Ígur’s quest is a game called Fonotontina, or, to be more precise, its modification—the Covert Fonotontina. In this game, eighty-three percent of the people involved become participants without their consent. The draw of the players can be effected through any recorded individual event, like buying a travel ticket or visiting the doctor. Moreover, only ten percent of these involuntary participants are informed about their new status. Especially prestigious are Fonotontinas in which the lives of the players are at stake and the winner is announced when there is only one participant left alive. Since in most cases the Covert Fonotontina bleeds into the everyday life of the Empire, the deaths of the unwitting participants are hard to distinguish from “regular” deaths. Actually, ninety percent of deaths in Gorghró can be attributed to the Covert Fonotontina. To the uninitiated, it may seem that somebody has died a “regular” death, like succumbing to a disease or being killed in a factory accident, but, in reality, this person has lost the game. If that wasn’t disturbing and confusing enough, there is a possibility that the given game is just one of the fractals of the most complex gambling modification, which is fittingly titled the Imperial Fonotontina. This game, whose final phase is represented by a rhizomatic structure of Fonotontinas, can last for decades. Leading up to the final phase is a series of Metafonotontinas whose winners are awarded the right to take part in the concluding stage. The participants of the Metafonotontinas are, in their turn, decided in a series of Metametafonotontinas leading up to those, and so on down to the sixteenth degree of separation. So, it is quite possible that everything that happens to Ígur is not even a round of the Covert Fonotontina, but just one of the numerous Metafonotontinas whose winner’s only prize is the right to participate in the game of a higher order.

There are also different kinds of gambling in which the players are not active participants, but spectators betting on the lives of others. Those are either sophisticated variations of gladiatorial fights or allegorical pantomime shows with unsimulated sex and bloody denouement, whose meaning is explained to the public by the Interpreter. The shows take place in the specially designed Palaces of Expansion hosted by rich and influential women. These palaces are hubs of the nobility’s cultural and social life offering its visitors all sorts of entertainment, including the company of gorgeous courtesans, and it is the latter that attracts our hero to the Palace Conti in Gorghró, where he forms a fateful relationship with Fei, a trapeze artist, a martial arts expert, a performer in shows managed by the General Apotropia of the Games, and besides all that, a highly-positioned member of the persecuted clan of the Astreus, who are in danger of being exterminated in the dirty power struggle among the Empire’s elites. It is a matter of time before Ígur’s amorous involvement is perceived as political and leads to his own persecution. The trouble seems to be brewing for the protagonist since his early reckless steps on his arrival in the capital, but it is evident that some influential functionaries of the Empire are ready to forgive the youthful parvenu a lot, so he can solve the Last Labyrinth, for, by doing so, he will be unwittingly changing the power balance in the ongoing internecine strife.

A single important event that took place in the 3rd century of the new time underpins the technical sophistication required in such varied processes as the maintenance of the Prophetic Head, the management of Fonotontinas, the re-programming of the Labyrinth (after each unsuccessful expedition), and the streamlining of all the communications in the Empire by means of the supercomputer Quantifier. On several occasions, the characters invoke with reverence the Technological Renaissance whose cradle was Bracaberbria, the former capital of the Empire, which used to be a flourishing cosmopolitan city and now, after the conquest of its own Labyrinth, has turned into a decaying urban sprawl with a shrinking population and depleted resources. The Technological Renaissance has been instrumental in the establishment of the present society in which the scientific advances are ultimately used to hurt, harm, maim and murder human beings either for the purpose of entertainment or within the domain of the Inquisitorial Art based on bleeding-edge punitive medicine, which has ousted all other kinds of state-sanctioned punishment. We are offered a disturbing tour of the Central Prison of the Empire equipped with the most advanced machinery for physical and psychological torture. The Head Canon of the correctional facility is especially interested in exploring the possibilities of a device that can create the perceptional body of the subject greatly exceeding the real one. This technology is still being tested, and there is no lack of human guinea pigs among the condemned. The Canon excitedly shares with Ígur the prospects of the augmented pain infliction made possible, in the first place, thanks to the Technological Renaissance: “Suppose there is a convict whose pain is not limited to the body; imagine that for this person everything can start hurting: the clothes, the shoes, the chair on which he is sitting, the walls of the room, the whole building! The whole city of Gorghró is hurting him, the entire planet and the Solar System are causing him an insufferable pain […].” Apart from the plethora of agony-causing methods, there are also different ways of affecting the human brain, which can be used to obtain the necessary information, implant a false memory or change completely the identity of the subject. The most precious piece of information in Ígur’s brain is the same mystery that I earlier confessed to having failed to uncover: what happened just before he left the Labyrinth alone, without his guide Arktofilax? Is that what the inquisitors are trying to find out when the Conqueror of the Labyrinth, now fallen from grace, is delivered into their hands? That’s the impression Ígur gets when electrodes are attached to his shaven skull. But maybe, in reality, their main purpose is to install into Ígur’s consciousness the false recollection of the expedition into the Labyrinth, which never happened in the first place. There seems to be no clear answer to this puzzle, and the reader is left to wonder about what was real and what wasn’t together with the main character who is released back into the world after his imprisonment as a man with a reprogrammed consciousness at the back of which there still lurks his chivalric identity, waiting to be regained. He does recover it eventually, but the consequences of the sustained procedure will haunt him forever.

Érik Desmazières, High Circular Gallery, an illustration for The Library of Babel by Jorge Luis Borges. Image Source

In his elaborate depiction of the many gruesome ways in which scientific achievement is used in the Empire, Miquel de Palol creates a chilling allegory about a society devoid of humanism. In this society, the role of the arts and humanities has been relegated to that of a semiotic quarry from which separate elements are drawn to be incorporated into the scenarios of the brutal performances at the Palaces of Expansion. Mythological motifs are used to solve puzzles, not to create new works of art or literature. The sad monument to the humanist failure of this civilisation is the Imperial Library, which has become practically useless despite holding vast riches of accumulated knowledge. This enormous library, which brings to mind both Borges’ Library of Babel and Umberto Eco’s library-labyrinth, consists of three different parts caught in the cumbersome process of alignment. The oldest component is the library of paper books, which is viewed more like an ancient artefact than a readily usable source of information. Then there is the ever-expanding immaterial library of quantified documents directly connected to the Quantifier; all the documents are encrypted and in order to access any of those, one has to know the code of the respective directory and subdirectory. The problem is that the codes for the 100 directories and 50,000 subdirectories were entered in the course of half a century by thousands of employees, many of whom were participants of the notorious gambling procedures conducted by the Apotropia of Games. Not only many of those codes have now been lost; what also happened is that during those games, the system sustained serious disruptions which impeded access to many documents, and now it is virtually impossible to rectify those glitches because the rules of the game prohibited the employees responsible for the sabotage to reveal the information vital for the recovery of the affected sectors. Then there is the Library of Memory. It is the most secret and the least accessible part of the Imperial Library. The high officials who are authorised to use the Library of Memory, still cannot agree on its final composition and the degree to which others can be allowed to peruse its contents. The uncertain status of this library is directly related to the activity of the Anamnesor, the highest ideological authority in the Empire. Originally, the main function of the Anamnesor was the recording and preservation of memory. But as the data to be recorded progressively accumulated, the principal task of this official became the selection of information that has to be forgotten, so the records of the most essential facts and events do not get lost in data overload. We are not told anything about the mechanics of preserving and deleting information employed in the Library of Memory, but it seems reasonable to suppose that its files are in constant flux depending on the current political situation, for different leaders would be in favour of forgetting different things. Of course, the obscure status of this storage of memories is not very helpful for the grand unification of all three libraries that is underway. Ironically, the attempt to restore order in the existing disarray just increases the chaos, which is even recognised by the First Librarian: “the Library is the Cathedral of Entropy […] if only we could change its name! Entropeon, Egregoreon!”

Model of the hyperboloid in the Sagrada Familia Museum. Image Source

The Last Labyrinth into whose mysterious depths Ígur and his guide Arktofilax venture when all the conditions for the expedition have been satisfied is the point of convergence for the major themes of the novel. The Labyrinth of Gorghró is a marvel of the civilisation’s technological progress thanks to which natural and man-made elements have been fused into one vast theatre ready to give stage to any ludic diversion from the rich repertory of the Apotropia of Games. The two men have to navigate a network of caves and tunnels before arriving into the Great Hall, measuring kilometres in height, length and width, in the centre of which there is an enormous hyperboloid structure, dubbed the Cadroiani, connecting the floor and the ceiling of this vast chamber. Their task is to find the entrance into the hyperboloid, to reach its top by going up the spiral staircase seven kilometres long, and then, to find the way out of the Labyrinth via another series of branching passages. Being the most significant architectural element of the Labyrinth, the Cadroiani is apparently Palol’s homage to Antoni Gaudí, who famously incorporated the hyperboloid into his works and equated it with light. The success of the expedition depends on solving a number of puzzles presented by allegorical texts at the key nodes of the route. Arktofilax, who has the experience of conquering the Labyrinth of Bracaberbria, predictably makes the main contribution to the unravelling of all these enigmas. As they move forward, it becomes obvious that without him Ígur would have lost his way. And all the more alarming sounds to the protagonist the revelation that the key to the exit from a Labyrinth is the death of all the participants of the expedition except one, and, in their particular case, it means that in order to conquer the Labyrinth he has to fight Arktofilax. Ígur refuses to raise the sword against his guide, and what happens next is the great enigma of Palol’s novel that is up to the reader to solve. All we know is that Ígur exits the Labyrinth alone.

Ígur finds the Empire changed, with the power struggle intensified, and his amorous involvement with the woman from the outlawed clan of the Astreus precipitates his conflict with the state, which ultimately leads to his capture and reconditioning at the Central Prison of the Empire. As I’ve already mentioned, after a while Ígur manages to recover his lost identity and past memories, but when he finally gets in touch with someone he used to know, he is shocked to learn that people know nothing about his exploit as the Labyrinth never existed: there is nothing extraordinary inside the great mountain in the centre of the capital except for the spectacular caves, the main tourist attraction in the city. The most obvious explanation for this amnesia is that the Princes who benefited from Ígur’s conquest of the Labyrinth, having failed to extract the crucial information about what had happened between him and Arktofilax, decided to erase this event from the Library of Memory and, consequently, from people’s minds. We do not know for sure what secret technologies might have been used for that, but there is one reference, almost in passing, to state-sponsored secret research in neural engineering. Yet there is also the already mentioned possibility that the expedition is a false memory implanted into the mind of the protagonist in the dismal correctional facility, which then calls into question the authenticity of many events in the novel. Could it be that from the very start we have been navigating not the life, but the broken mind of Ígur Neblí, having access only to his version of the events?

After Ígur retreats from the indifferent world to a distant island where he is granted a permanent residence in the palace of the local count, adopting there the humble lifestyle of an anchorite, he continues to be tormented by the many mysteries of the Labyrinth. He contemplates various possibilities, which are perceived by the people who interact with him, which happens less often as years pass, as different expressions of his insanity. Perhaps, his adventure is not over, and there is the Fifth Labyrinth to which, one day, he will lead the new aspirant. Or maybe the Fifth Labyrinth doesn’t exist yet, and it is his mission to build it. What if all the Labyrinths of the Third Circle were mere tokens in a gigantic Fonotontina, and their disappearance was the direct result of the game? During their expedition into the Labyrinth of Gorghró, Arktofilax pointed out that the structure and functions of the complex inside the mountain were similar to those of the human brain, so maybe the true Labyrinth is the consciousness itself, and it is the Ego of the protagonist, in search of the transcendental escape, which is responsible for the alterations in the fabric of the perceived world. We could also say that at the meta-level, the novel itself is a labyrinth in which each significant turn of the reader-explorer corresponds to the selection of the most appealing interpretation from a number of the possible ones, the ultimate goal being to find the exit, that is, to fully understand Miquel de Palol’s novel. Reader, you are going to spend years roaming this meta-labyrinth, and I wouldn’t bet on the success of your expedition.

Earlier in the novel, there is an interesting discussion about the long-standing division that has occurred between different disciplines. One character regrets the fact that science, philosophy, and art, which used to be one holistic enterprise, are now separate fields and believes that one of the major challenges facing the society is to reconcile these disciplines in one again. Not just Ígur Neblí, but the whole immense corpus of Miquel de Palol’s works is there to remind us that such a reconciliation is possible.

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5 Responses to Ígur Neblí by Miquel de Palol

  1. josepmitjavila says:

    As far as I remember, I’ve read Igur Neblí in 1994 when it was released, not only Gaudi’s works “appear” but in some passages I see my city Barcelona (Bracaberbria) and its people reflected. Also the skull on the Portico after death by torture of Peirgij Kumaiaski is the story of General Moragues in 1715 after losing the war againts the Borbons. (catalan viquipèdia: El general Moragues i els capitans Jaume Roca i Pau Macip van ser executats de manera infamant el 27 de març del 1715. Al general Moragues no se li reconegueren els honors militars, i descalç i amb camisa de penitent, fou arrossegat viu pels carrers de Barcelona per un cavall fins a arribar al patíbul, on fou executat, decapitat i esquarterat, per tal de complir la triple condemna de mort que rebé. El cap del general Moragues, com a escarni, fou posat en una gàbia de ferro que es va penjar al Portal de Mar,

  2. Thanks to you for your reviews. We enjoy them all.

  3. languagehat says:

    Very interesting! Sounds like a combination of Hesse (The Glass Bead Game), the Strugatskys (Roadside Picnic for the mysterious maze and Hard to Be a God for the pseudo-medieval cruelty), and of course Borges.

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