Attila (Atila) by Aliocha Coll

Aliocha Coll was only forty-two when he took his own life in Paris, on November 15, 1990. Shortly before his death, he sent to his literary agent Carmen Balcells the manuscript of his last novel Attila, the book after whose completion, as Coll himself used to remark, his life was meaningless. Almost forgotten, with all his published works out of print and with a substantial legacy of manuscripts that are unlikely to be published any time soon, Aliocha Coll represents that ideal of an uncompromising artist to which many authors aspire in their romantic fantasies, but very few dare to achieve. Javier Marías recollects in his obituary that, being certain of Coll’s talent, he “tried to convince him to write more ‘traditional’ things”. Obviously, this advice was never heeded. Up until death, Coll had been firm and consistent in his determination to create the “impossible” literature, which never interested Marías, as he himself admits, and which he describes in the same article as “avant-gardism, experimentalism, Joycism cubed”. One man’s poison may well be another man’s meat. The fact that Coll, whose real first name was Javier, was inspired by a Dostoevsky character when choosing his pseudonym (Aliocha is the Spanish spelling of Alyosha, the diminutive of the name of the youngest Karamazov brother) further piqued my interest. Now, having read the book, I can confirm that Attila is one of those novels that will keep generations of critics busy, of course, if there are enough of them ready to brave its impenetrability. I certainly was not unscathed by my reading experience; I was lost on many occasions, and the meaning of whole passages eluded me, yet I believe I have enough impressions and assumptions to attempt a modest review.

When poring over the especially intricate and cryptic passages of Attila, I kept thinking of two things: the artesonado ceiling in Mudéjar architecture and the dimension of the Sierpinski triangle. The former seemed like an appropriate metaphor for the verbal ornaments created by Coll, who intertwined alliterations and assonances as ingeniously as the medieval artisans interlaced decorative laths between the rafter beams. The latter is related to the meaning of the said passages. The ever-decreasing fractal structure is neither one- nor two-dimensional—it is in between. The Sierpinski triangle exists in the 1.585th dimension. In many instances, Coll’s text appears to be suspended between the two “dimensions” of sense and nonsense. It is not meaningful enough to make perfect sense, yet it is not too nonsensical not to give at least a vague idea of what is being said. I hope mathematicians will forgive me for this far-fetched parallel, but that was the recurring idea I could not easily discard.


Artesonado ceiling in the Sala de los Caballeros XXIV in the Madrasa of Granada. Photo Credit: José Luis Filpo Cabana.


Sierpinski triangle transformations for five iterations

Trying to unravel the complexity of the language used in the stylistically exuberant descriptions of nature, urban spaces, and dreamscapes would be too formidable a task for just a review, so I will limit myself to a couple of examples. The following sentence appears in a passage describing the steppe shrouded in the clouds of dust raised by the horses of the Huns: “El polvo no pudo esconderse en el lubricán ni en el polvo el lobo.” (The dust could not hide in the twilight nor could the wolf in the dust.)  Even in such a short and seemingly simple sentence, there is evidence of serious work with the language. Aliocha Coll chooses the rare word lubricán for “twilight”, not only because it has the l and n sounds necessary for the alliterative pattern but also because there is “wolf” hiding in the word, which is derived from the Latin words lupus and canis, i. e. wolf and dog. One cannot help but think of the famous epigraph in João Guimarães Rosa’s Grande Sertão: Veredas: “O diabo na rua, no meio do redemoinho…” (The devil in the street, in the middle of the whirlwind). The devil or demon is hiding in the Portuguese word for “whirlwind”: redemoinho. Further on, we come across a vivid scene conjured up by just three sentences whose rhythm seems to mimic the squirming movements of a lizard’s tail that has gained an uncanny autonomy: “Lloraba el sauce y el álamo temblaba. La ondina aleteaba. Del saurio la cola se había desprendido y serpenteando iba corriente arriba en busca de la lengua.” (The willow was crying and the poplar was trembling. The water nymph was fluttering. The tail of the saurian had fallen off and, writhing like a snake, it was creeping up in search of the tongue.)

Although a substantial portion of the book reads like a hermetic prose poem abundant in metaphors drawn from mathematics, biology, geology, and architecture, there is an identifiable plot, concrete settings and characters whose actions and meditations can be followed and even occasionally understood. The Attila in the novel is not the bloodthirsty Attila the Hun we read about in the textbooks, but a philosopher and visionary whose full name is Attila History (Atila Historia). His wife is called Talía, which is an anagram of  “Atila”, the Spanish spelling of the title character’s name. The protagonist of the novel, however, is Attila’s son Quijote, who has renounced the name Quijote History and prefers to be called Hidatila Utopia. “Hidatila” (hijo de Atila) means the son of Attila. Quijote is eighteen years old, but since the age of three he has been living in Rome (whose ruler is also called Rome) as a child hostage. Sending child hostages to the potentially hostile nations was a common practice at the time: the historical Attila was himself such a hostage in the Western Roman Empire, whereas the young Flavius Aetius, his future adversary at the Battle of the Catalaunian Plains, was sent to live as a hostage among the Visigoths and later among the Huns. Quijote is planning to get married to his beloved Ipsibidimidiata, the daughter of Rome. At that point, he receives two different offers, one from his father and the other from his would-be father-in-law, and is faced with a tough choice. Attila’s grand plan is to revoke all the Hunnic hostages from the Western and Eastern empires and, using the Classical knowledge they have acquired in the course of their upbringing by the Romans and Greeks, to build a new apolitical and highly cultured society in the steppe. Quijote is expected to play a major role in the construction of that utopia. Rome also has serious plans for Quijote. He wants him to be in charge of the new codification of Roman civil law. Upon deliberation, Quijote rejects both the doomed Empire of the Romans and the projected ideal civilisation of the Huns, contracts a ship crew and sets sail together with Ipsibidimidiata with the ultimate goal of reaching a Greek colony and settling there. After many days of ploughing the high seas, their liburna makes a brief stop off the coast of Vandal Africa during which Quijote and Ipsibidimidiata come ashore and get inside a mysterious cave where they spend a night full of visions and epiphanies. Everything which happens afterwards does not seem quite to belong to the same reality which has been described up to the moment they enter the cave. There might be different interpretations of where the action takes place after this crucial moment. Maybe it is a higher metaphysical plane or, possibly, the mind of Quijote. It could also be the cave, which he and his fiancée never left. In Attila, the cave, as opposed to the one described by Plato in the Republic, is not a place of false perceptions but that of esoteric illumination and glimpses of hidden dimensions.

In the vision Quijote and his beloved share while in the cave they are split into two. They meet their doubles, Hidatila and Ipsibidimidiata, in a forest. The doubling effect is triggered when the horseman carrying Attila’s message to Quijote takes both roads at a bifurcation and turns into two identical riders: one who is preceded by a cloud of dust and one who is followed by it. The message to Hidatila is perfectly understandable; in it, his father asks him to get engaged with Ipsibidimidiata. The text in the missive received by Quijote is either encoded or gibberish: “xrstkjlmfffayñpzdrsejktvwulairmpxosknbaaagch”. The trope of doubling is also associated with King Solomon who the couple meet in their vision. The king orders the Ghost of Absalom to “recompose” the two children of the harlots from the well-known biblical narrative so that the dead one is alive, and the live one is dead. Something goes wrong, and, as a result, one child is “doubly” alive and will be eventually “doubly” dead, being an amphicephalous apod (i. e. has two heads at each end of the body and no feet), but the fate of the other one is even worse, for he is doomed to exist as an acephalous tetrapod (i. e. has four feet and no head). It should be noted that King Solomon and the Ghost of Absalom first appear at the beginning of the novel as characters in an esoteric play called Solomon along with the Queen of Sheba, the Living Son of a Whore, the Dead Son of a Whore, the Bad Whore, and the Good Whore. These characters keep cropping up at various points throughout the whole book.

After Quijote and his bride supposedly leave the cave and re-embark the liburna, the story, or rather a semblance thereof, develops in four subsequent settings. We never learn what happens to the liburna once it resumes its journey with Quijote and Ipsibidimidiata again on board. What we witness instead is the scenario in which the protagonist returns to his father and takes command over a large mounted troop of the Hunnic warriors. As Quijote and his detachment ride towards Rome, the alarmed forward scouts return to inform their commander of the strange and startling events they have witnessed farther ahead. Among those weird visions, there are scenes of futuristic warfare: bronze cauldrons spitting fire, heavy horseless chariots smashing through houses, birds without feathers throwing exploding eggs from the skies, and, the most terrifying of all, a single drop of the sun evaporating a whole city. Is the familiar course of our history the natural outcome of Attila’s attempt to create his utopian society? Is it a warning from the future about the inherent danger of any endeavour aimed at artificially subverting the natural order of things no matter how well-intentioned might be the goal, such as, for instance, the enforced equality of all people or a crash course in Western democracy? Either way, Quijote does not see any of that when he finally reaches Rome with the main body of his troops. What he does see is the capital of the once-mighty empire, in which he has spent most of his life, engulfed in flames and devastated by the hordes of the Vandals who cut a bloody swathe through it while fleeing from the Huns.

The next location is a desert landscape with seven stone trees and a vibrating dash (“una vírgula, que vibra”) instead of the sun. It’s a static environment in which Attila, Ipsibidimidiata, Hidatila, Quijote, and some of the dramatis personae from the play that opens the novel engage in abstruse conversations. Laocoön, Antigona and Melanthus are also present. These three happen to be the characters of yet another literary work inside Attila, namely the novel titled Laocoön. A ten-page excerpt from this novel immediately follows the play about King Solomon. In this frustratingly obscure episode, Attila announces to Ipsibidimidiata that she is his historical and utopian daughter as well as delivers a protracted encomium to the ruin, for even love itself is its integral part.

After the metaphysical desert, we are transported to the ancient Chinese city of Luoyang, famous for being the capital of various ruling dynasties as well as for its status as an important Buddhist hub. Quijote arrives in the city alone. The Chinese civilisation appears to him more vibrant and resilient than that of the Roman Empire. He is confident that China would have absorbed any Barbarian intrusion without any significant damage to its foundations and would have used the influx of the new ideas and worldviews brought by the newcomers to reinforce its imperial status.  Attila’s son is awestruck by the city and its environs; this awe is reflected in the long, cascading sentences with jostling townscape images, which as if try to capture and retain as many fragmentary impressions of his overwhelmed mind as possible. In Luoyang, Quijote has encounters with several women, in each of whom he ultimately sees the profile of Ipsibidimidiata. The most memorable of the women is an old prostitute who he follows all the way to the brothel. But the most significant meeting, which is evidently the main goal of his visit to the city, takes place in a spacious garden with a jade pavilion. The garden is the hermetic core of the whole setting, and what unfolds there is an uninterrupted flow of allegorical scenes that defy an easy explanation. In the garden, Quijote comes across the threshold between two worlds or two planes of existence, and at this threshold, the earth goddess Gaia waits for him in the guise of a blind woman. Their conversation is accompanied by a series of mystical visitations: cherubim descend from the skies followed by celestial dogs and dwarfs armed as hoplites, and then an apsara and a dragon, their tails intertwined, land on the blind woman’s bosom, whereas a mounted hunter chasing a doe escapes from her hair. Eventually, the blind woman departs from the threshold allowing Quijote access to “the temporal corner of the space dimension”. A ladder is lowered from heaven, but it does not reach the ground, and, therefore, Quijote cannot climb it. There is one more place left for him to visit.


White Horse Temple in Luoyang. According to tradition, the oldest Buddhist temple in China. Photo Credit: Gary Todd

We are in a desert again. It is either a different location in the same desert or a different desert altogether. There seems to be a black mango tree (at least that’s how I understood the word “manga” here) with four archangels sitting in it. A little farther, there is a deep crevice out of which Quijote emerges. In the distance, the heads of horses loom above the line of the horizon. Near the mango tree, there is a two-step staircase. The whole scene is a bit reminiscent of a Salvador Dalí painting. Most of the previous characters reappear in this episode; its general tone seems to be that of reconciliation and harmony. Quijote’s decision to reject the proposals of Rome and Attila in favour of an independent life together with Ipsibidimidiata must have been right. There is a glimpse of all their descendants, while Attila and Talía declare, having mounted the two-step staircase: “Finally, we have been born by our children into the splendour of the day” and “We are beyond the utopia.” However, we should take this harmonious resolution with a pinch of salt because a little earlier we stumble upon a melancholic counterpoint coming from Quijote himself, which acquires tragic proportions when we remember what happened to the author of the novel when it was finished: “and he desired suicide, if only to discontinue existence, to put an end to the pain, and he remembered all the trees Attila used to name for him in his childhood, the trees in bloom with their leaves intact, and he desired suicide, if only not to become a brute, not to vegetate”.

This entry was posted in Fiction, Reviews and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to Attila (Atila) by Aliocha Coll

  1. Scot says:

    Is this, or one of his other works, being translated for Open Letter? During a search I see translator Katie Whittemore connected to both author and publisher.

    • Yes, in a couple years or so there should published an English translation with Open Letter. How is it possible to translate such a book is another question altogether!

      • Scot says:

        I look forward to giving it a try and have lots of respect for Open Letter charting such an adventurous and out-of-the-way course. Another Marias novel is not going to change the world, but it sounds like this one just might for the people who need it. As ever thank you for your efforts—your reviews are wonderful and mad in the best way!

      • Thanks for the good words! I hope they will get even madder in the future!

      • Jose says:

        that’s good to hear! finding the book in spanish is surprisingly difficult so I can’t wait to get the translation, really hope it measure up to the bits and pieces i’ve seen of coll’s writing.

  2. languagehat says:

    El polvo no pudo esconderse en el lubricán ni en el polvo el lobo.

    That sentence all by itself makes me want to read Coll. As for your explication of lubricán, it’s worth pointing out that there’s a Latin expression inter canem et lupum ‘between dog and wolf’ meaning ‘twilight,’ which gave rise to the French entre chien et loup. And since Coll chose a first name from Russian literature, I might add that the same expression was borrowed and translated by Pushkin in Eugene Onegin IV:XLVII (following “Вечерняя находит мгла”):
    Люблю я дружеские враки
    И дружеский бокал вина
    Порою той, что названа
    Пора меж волка и собаки
    And those lines were used by Sasha Sokolov as an epigraph for his 1980 masterpiece Mezhdu sobakoi i volkom, having recently (and improbably!) moved out of untranslated status with the 2017 appearance of Between Dog and Wolf, heroically wrestled into English by Alexander Boguslawski. Bless the publishers who are willing to take a chance on difficult literature!

    • Yeah, the adventure of the dog and wolf in literature is a fascinating topic in itself. Atila is now being translated for Open Letter, and, in my opinion, this challenge is similar to that of rendering Sasha Sokolov’s book into English.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.