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Bludgeoning Dwarfs to Death (Matando enanos a garrotazos) by Alberto Laiseca

The debut short-story collection by the recently departed Argentine maverick Alberto Laiseca contains the seeds of all the major themes that will be brought later to exuberant fruition in his mega-novel The Sorias. The thirteen stories first published together in 1982 cover a lot of grotesque, cruel, and absurd topics save the titular extermination of the dwarfs. As a matter of fact, there are no dwarf characters at all in this collection. Laiseca’s book begins and ends tongue-in-cheek, dragging the reader through the diseased Disneyland of his perverse imagination, in which each attraction is an affront to the good taste and an ingenious exercise in gallows humour that will make you  guffaw at the ridiculous atrocities unfolding before your eyes and immediately feel embarrassed at such a reaction. Not since Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal have we been in the hands of such an incandescent satirist holding a distorting mirror to our reality twisted beyond repair in the first place.

The world of The Sorias is already present in the collection, albeit in a rudimentary state. Most of the stories are set in the dictatorial state of Technocracy ruled by the cruel Monitor. There are also references to the rival state of Soria and to some geographical features of  Laiseca’s fictional universe such as the desert Satan’s Bronze. Here we meet for the first time the duo of hobos Crk Iseka and Moyaresmio Iseka relaxing at a vagabond resort which nobody would risk to take away from the homeless folks as the Monitor has a soft spot for hobos, believing them to be “magical animals”. Crk and Moyaresmio provide some degree of cohesion to the collection: they are featured in two stories  (the second and the last one) and one more story is presented as a tale narrated by Moyaresmio to Crk.  Moreover, in the final story there is a metafictional trick of suggesting that the whole collection might have been written by Moyaresmio and is to be submitted for a literary competition.

Despite the overall playfulness, the stories mostly deal with grim and disturbing topics. The most shocking, and at the same time, strangely enough, the funniest, is the first story titled The Great Fall of the Indecorous Old Woman (Gran caída de la indecorosa vieja). It is a tale about the sadistic torture of an old lady in an ostentatiously exoticised Arab land that one could only hope to encounter in One Thousand and One Nights re-written by the Marquis de Sade. It can be read as a morbid  allegory of the legal injustice of a totalitarian system. Maybe I am reading too much into it, but I think that the satirical effect is achieved by the inversion of the ludicrous situation described by Anton Chekhov in his short story The Death of a Government Clerk. In Chekhov’s story a petty clerk accidentally sneezes on the head of a high-ranking official sitting in front of him in the theatre and cannot forgive himself such an impudence. After several increasingly annoying apologies to the official, the miserable man arouses in his high-status “victim” an angry outburst and goes home to die, unable to reconcile himself with the offence he has committed. In Laiseca’s story  the tables are turned as a similarly minor insult provokes a disproportionate response from the affected party. An old woman inadvertently pokes a qadi in the eye with a corner of her bag while riding on an archaic bus propelled by a team of slaves. This hardly grave incident leads to her suffering unimaginably painful tortures at the hands of the qadi’s assistants, while the sadistic magistrate keeps wondering at the discourteous behaviour of the woman who refuses to answer his questions after red-hot nails have been driven into her gums as a new set of false teeth. Even the sweet music played on the flutes fashioned from the shinbones of her amputated legs is unable to obtain from her an intelligible response!

Laiseca’s two well-known interests, classical music and ancient Egypt, converge in The Mummy of the Clavichord (La momia del clavicordio), a tale recounted by Moyaresmio Iseka to his companion. The story tells about two egyptologists and their aides visiting the Valley of the Kings of Music with the purpose of extracting Mozart’s clavichord from the tomb of pharaoh Tutantchaikovsky (sic!). The clavichord is cursed, for, as it later becomes known, there is the mummy of Mozart hiding inside. The removal of the musical instrument triggers a chain of mysterious deaths among the members of the team led by the egyptologists. Quite soon everyone is dead except one of the heads of the expedition, a fellow called Pedro Pecarí de los Galíndez Faisán. His fate is the most dreadful of all: he is chased in a nightmare by the mummy of the great composer, bowed ponytail and all, wielding a huge fork.

The citizens of  Technocracy appearing in the collection, from the highest state officials  down to the grass roots, are usually obsessed with solving some intractable problem. For example, Professor L.B.J. Iseka aspires to build a flying machine capable of taking its pilot inside a tornado. Luckily for him, it is up for his assistant Laponio Iseka to find out whether the newly invented apparatus can sustain the destructive force of the rotating wind. Dionisios Kaltenbrunner, the chief of the secret police of Technocracy called the I Double E, wraps his head around the challenge of disposing of the millions of the dead bodies of the enemies of the state murdered in the numerous concentration camps. His solution, based on the mathematical calculations faithfully reproduced in the story, is to throw the corpses from aircraft into an enormous crevice with a recently discovered cavern adjoining its bottom. The cavern, which was exposed  by the Technocratic engineers, will provide the necessary additional space to accommodate all the victims of the regime. Political commissar José Kaltenbrunner Garbanzo (no relation to Dionisios), after declaring the independence of a small province in Technocracy and staving off the inept attempts of  the secrete police chief to oust him, now faces the major invasion led by the great Monitor himself, an operation which might grow into a civil war. During a staff meeting in the Situation Room of his HQ guarded by the SS troops (he has adopted the Nazi style of dictatorship) Garbanzo is also trying to solve a problem: he wants to put his finger on the exact moment during the historic Battle of Stalingrad when the equilibrium between the Soviet and the German forces was broken, which precipitated the ultimate defeat of the Third Reich. A typical Laiseca touch is the presence of the Nazi-sympathising dictator’s importunate mother who turns out to be a cartoonish stereotypical Jewish mum. She is constantly interrupting the meeting in the headquarters, asking in Yiddish if her son is alright and even brings to the participants a platter with traditional Jewish hot cross buns. The three problems that have been puzzling humankind for centuries are “solved” in the short story with the telling title The Quadrature of the Circle, Perpetual Motion, Philosopher’s Stone (La cuadratura del círculo, el movimiento perpetuo, la piedra filosofal). The leader of an esoteric sect talks about the outlandish ways in which he has succeeded in squaring the circle, inventing a perpetual motion machine and transmuting lead into gold. It is obvious that his elaborate solutions are just groundless fantasies worthy of a madman suffering from the delusion of grandeur. However, woe to those will dare to dispute his grandiose achievements: terrible retribution is in store for them. Perhaps, it is the sad fact the leader of the sect spent sixty years dividing the circle into ever-diminishing triangles that has made him so cruel and intolerant?

The last problem to be solved in this short-story collection is finding the right name for it. In the concluding piece, appropriately called Inventing Titles in the Winter Cave (Inventando títulos en la caverna de invierno), Moyaresmio Iseka discusses with Crk various possible names for the collection of short stories he has almost finished. There are dozens of variants: some are funny, some absurd, and some are pilfered from well-known literary classics. Finally, the cultured and respectable hobos decide to opt for the same title which, as we know,  Laiseca gave to the story collection in which they are prominently featured. Indeed, Bludgeoning Dwarfs to Death is a cool title, especially considering the absence of the little pesky creatures in the book. But what does it mean? Of some help is the epigraph to the collection taken from a quote in Argentine writer Horacio Romeu’s novel A bailar esta ranchera:

 A la vera de un camino

dos enanos castigaban una flor

mientras le decían:

—Aunque tengas buen olor

¡no nos gustan las florcitas!

 

On the edge of a road

two dwarfs were tormenting a flower

all the while telling it:

“Although you smell good,

we don’t like little flowers!”

Far from demanding to exact revenge on the flower-hating little men from a verse, Laiseca calls upon us to bludgeon to death the metaphysical dwarfs of political and cultural intolerance, state-sponsored violence and bigotry. At least, that’s my interpretation of the title. We shouldn’t forget that all these stories were written during the so-called Dirty War in Argentina, a period of mass persecution and murder of thousands of political dissidents by the military government of the country. So, the dwarfs must be a symbol of all things heinous in human nature that Laiseca exposes and castigates in this work the way he does it best: by diluting the mundane horrors of repressive regimes with the grotesque, the absurd and the fantastic.

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The Levant (Le Levant, Levantul) by Mircea Cărtărescu

I have chosen for this review the French translation of The Levant carried out by Nicolas Cavaillès. It’s essential to let you know from the outset that neither this version, nor the Spanish and the Swedish ones are the translations of the original epic poem Levantul. As stated by the Romanian author in several interviews, Levantul was composed as a seven-thousand-line rhymed poem that parodied the various styles of Romanian poetry and the language forms employed in it throughout different ages as a playful emulation of Joyce’s language experiment in The Oxen of the Sun. Cărtărescu was well aware that his finest stylistic achievement was virtually untranslatable, and it was unlikely that it would be as widely known abroad as his Orbitor (Blinding) trilogy. Realising that to present to the foreign audience this work, which was so deeply-rooted in the Romanian poetic tradition, would inevitably require sacrifice, he took upon himself to change and adapt the intractable piece to such an extent that it would be possible for the translator to come up with a faithful rendering. Cărtărescu changed most of the rhymed verse of the main narrative to prose, leaving untouched only the set-piece poems. The opera became an operetta, but, having lost half of its original appeal, it could now be translated. So, this is a review of the “simplified” version of Levantul  Cărtărescu gave to his translators. Despite the huge losses inflicted on it by its own creator, it is a remarkable and highly entertaining text, and Nicolas Cavaillès’s translation deserves the highest praise for recreating in French the lexical and stylistic richness of the modified original.

The poem consists of twelve cantos, and most of the events narrated in them take place in the historical region of the Levant encompassing the eastern part of the Mediterranean Sea. It is the early 19th century, a period of unrest in Wallachia (now part of modern Romania) reduced to the status of a vassal state by the Ottoman Empire. The people of Wallachia suffer under the oppression of the Phanariote prince or voivode, a representative of a large class of wealthy Greeks whose origins go back to the Phanar quarter in Istanbul. Phanariotes took important administrative positions in the empire and had been appointed as the rulers of the Danubian Principalities since the beginning of the 18th century. The poem recounts the adventures of a bunch of daredevils who travel across the seas and skies of the Levant to the lands of the long-suffering Wallachia in order to overthrow the tyrant. The historical context for their revolutionary activity would be most probably the events leading to the 1821 Wallachian Uprising, which coincided with the Greek War of Independence. Another important setting for the poem is a small apartment in a tower block in Bucharest where, at the end of the 1980s, high-school teacher Mircea Cărtărescu is writing his epic poem The Levant. Thus, Cărtărescu acts both as the author and a character in his own text,  following and elaborating upon the grand metafictional stance of postmodern writing whose influence has percolated into the countries of the Eastern Bloc despite the restrictions of communist censorship.

Although what I’m going to write next might cause some to wince, for it does sound like unforgivable platitude, I am absolutely sincere in stating that the true hero of The Levant is the language.  With astonishing mastery, Cărtărescu succeeds in condensing the Romanian literary tradition into a 200-page scherzo of a poem demonstrating a dizzying variety of register, style and diction.  Of course, for those reading the book in translation, this alchemist procedure is shown indirectly, like the famous play of shadows on the illuminated wall of Plato’s cave, but even with this handicap, we cannot help but gawk in awe at this scintillating display of wordsmithery. As a stark contrast to the author’s tiny kitchen in which he is sitting with all the gas stove burners lit to keep himself warm, clicking away on an old Erika typewriter, is the world he is creating: an overkill of colours, sumptuous details, florid verbosity and psychedelic descriptions liable to alter minds more effectively than acid.  It’s as if the bitter and bleak reality surrounding the writer is overcompensated by the sweetness of this temple fashioned out of a rock of halva, to borrow one of the tropes the author of The Levant applies to his poem. The resulting text is rich in meaning and overstuffed with allusions to many Romanian literary works few readers outside Romania have ever heard of. But, like much of great literature, The Levant works at different levels: those who miss the literary parody can simply enjoy it as a weird swashbuckling tale with occasional forays into steampunk science fiction right out of a Myazaki animated movie. Consider this passage, for example:

The motley crew was climbing the paths overgrown with wild herbs when new bizarre forms appeared down in the valley: a jumble of cogwheels oiled with brake fluid, of arches, and of Maltese crosses was enmeshed with the broken teeth of a helical rack, with ball-bearings and bowls that were shaking as if they imprisoned the Demon. A machine the size of a bread bin was cutting apricots from the trees and putting the fruit into baskets using its three copper fingers. Another one, smaller, was plucking feathers from a chicken, sharpening the quills and dipping them into the inkwells that had sprung up on the rock to write some fable on a parchment. […] Another device, on spider’s legs, seized a pirate who had approached too close and shoved him into a compartment in its body and shut him behind the steel door. Then it regurgitated the captive who was freshly bathed, bald and pomaded, the cheeks and the head shaved like those of a Tartar. […] A shiver possessed them, nevertheless, when one more miracle was manifested: a tangle of tubes issued from a cauldron in which black foam was bubbling: it was cerebral, full of stars. The curls of the smoke rising from it in bundles coagulated into fragile, ephemerous spheres that floated gently in the air, and each of these globules was a planet in its own right, with its nations, its rivers, its fauna and flora, its incomprehensible laws, its bloody history, its intentions, its geniuses, its masters and slaves, its diseases, its crystals… All of them hoped to be immortal, but they all ended up bursting like soap bubbles, as lies, tyranny and stupidity always overrode the truth in the end, and destroyed it.

The Coltea Tower in the mid-19th century

The author of these technological marvels is the Greek inventor Leonidas the Anthropophage who lives with his Romanian wife Zoe on the fabulous island of Hosna. His visitors, coming from the real island of Zante, are a recently formed band of rebels taking part in zavera, an organised revolt against the Ottoman Turks and their servile henchmen. The group consists of sea pirates under the command of Iaurta the One-Eyed and the Greek and Albanian militiamen called palikares . The informal leader of of the rebels is young poet Manoil, the protagonist of The Levant. He is accompanied by his beautiful sister Zenaida and resourceful French Zouave Languedoc Brillant who is in love with her. The plan of the revolutionaries is to persuade Leonidas to join zavera, and to use his  airship to fly to Bucharest where on a certain day the voivode and his family are supposed to climb the Coltea Tower, the tallest building in the city, in order to observe a comet through a telescope. The intention of the plotters is to kidnap the tyrant and his family members. To everybody’s joy, The Greek inventor accepts the plan, and thus the journey to the liberation begins. Manoil, Zenaida, Langedoc, Zoe, Leonidas, and his monkey Hercules get on the zeppelin, whereas Iaurta with his men and the palikares return to the ships. They have agreed to reunite in two weeks in Giurgiu, a city to the south of Bucharest. As the two groups part their ways, we follow the progress of both. The great cause of their mission with time attracts more supporters, as Iaurta’s team incorporates a whole Gypsy camp or shatra when they travel through Bulgaria.

From the very beginning of the poem, when we first meet Manoil on the prow of a caique furrowing the waters of the Mediterranean on the way to Zante from Corfu, and until the end, when “Mircea Cărtărescu” is treating his own characters to a cup of coffee at his apartment in Bucharest, we come across a rich assortment of poems and songs interspersing the narrative. These set pieces are undoubtedly parodic in nature, but, as I’ve already said, the uninitiated reader can enjoy them for what they are: ingenious constructs of all possible genres, rhyme and meter patterns, and usually with whimsical subject matter. There is an animal fable in which the wolf king orders the other animals to walk on their hind paws;  a song ballad recounting the chilling story of a princess preyed on by a lecherous strix endowed with buffalo testicles; a melancholy poem composed by a lonely geisha pining in a rock garden;  a panegyric to Wallachia as the Cockagne of the Balkans where almost everything is made of delicious comestibles; a sonnet dedicated to the amazing appearance of a balloon in the sky of Giurgiu; a circular philosophical poem musing on the idea of multiple worlds and Arthur Koestler’s notion of holon in which the first and the last stanzas consist of the last lines of the other stanzas; a verse chronicle documenting the air battle between the zeppelin of the rebels and the voivode’s gilded caique pulled in the sky by a team of swans, which is used in the film adaptation of the same battle and is read to the accompaniment of a mehterhane (an Ottoman military band) chanting pa, vu, ga, di. Far from being an exhaustive list, these several examples make us aware of the extent of the ambition underpinning this epic work and the incredible challenge facing its translator. Nicolas Cavaillès did a stellar job in rendering all these poems in French. When I finished the book, I kept re-reading some of them for pure enjoyment as standalone texts.

In Cărtărescu’s literary universe “reality” is frequently stranger than art inspired by it. This principle is evident in the main narrative of The Levant, which, let me remind you, is not rhymed in the translation. There is no lack of surreal episodes which  I might as well call “oneiric moments”, considering the cultural background of Cărtărescu. Oneirism is a medical term denoting a dream-like state experienced while being awake. This word was used by a group of Romanian avant-garde poets and writers in the 1960s, led by Dumitru Tsepeneag and Leonid Dimov, as a name for their literary school that drew its initial inspiration from surrealist paintings. Romanian oneiric poetry is virtually unknown to the English-language reader due to the lack of translations. I can refer you only to one study examining it in some detail, which is available in English: Dumitru Tsepeneag and the Canon of Alternative Literature by Laura Pavel (Tr. Alistair Ian Blyth). Cărtărescu  can be viewed as the postmodern inheritor of the Oneiricist aesthetics with its emphasis on the hallucinatory and the phantasmagoric and with its ambition to explore and comprehend dream logic. It is not only in the embedded parodies of his literary precursors that the writer employs the outlandish imagery of a wakeful dream — the framing story itself is chock-full of oneiric episodes, and there is a feeling that in his creative appropriation Cărtărescu has out-Heroded Herod.  The visions are unexpected and intense. When Iaurta and Manoil slit each other’s forearms in some kind of blood brother ritual, out of their blood emerge, respectively, a translucent baby homunculus and an ivory-fleshed seraph who recite patriotic verses before disappearing into thin air. In Cantos 6 and 7 we learn that the crew of the airship gets stranded on an island shaped like the letter H (it’s the first one in a group of islands forming the word HELLESPONT). Manoil and his friends enter a cave in the mountain where they meet a naked woman with a ball of quartz that gives access to all possible worlds. The protagonist wants to know if their revolution is going to liberate the common folk. The woman, Princess Hyacinth, suggests that he liberate himself (read: his consciousness) first, and gives him the ball. A gaze into the depths of this aleph-like object is enough to send the young poet on a wild hallucinatory journey of shape-shifting and revelations. Appropriately enough, at some point he reaches a land called Hallucinatria where clouds have skeletons, towers are wearing lace-embroidered attires and the moon sports blue shaggy eyelashes.  The main destination of Manoil is a city carved in the rocky mass of an island in the centre of the world. There, he is granted the revelation about the future of Romanian poetry dedicated to the exploration of dreams. Five quaintly fashioned statues representing the five classics of Romanian modernist poetry come alive and recite poems written in the style of Tudor Arghezi, Ion Barbu, George Bacovia, Lucian Blaga, and Nichita Stănescu. Manoil meets each of them in a network of passages and grottoes concealed within an ankle of another statue, that of the Virgin Mary, which forms part of a gigantic mechanism of Poetry:

It is equipped with pistons of shining metal, but it is also the Virgin with the child, and little Jesus’ bald head is divided into coloured squares. From his scalp extend electrodes along with a butterfly sucking with its trunk a pair of lovers coiled up between the sheets. Among the camshafts, levers, connecting rods and screws there is a man sleeping; he has female breasts and his body is covered with sores and boils, a dahlia growing out of each wound. A clay woman  dressed in gold and purple is working next to the steaming cauldron. A punch-card sticks out of her thigh and there is a coloured prism between her eyes, which reflects the chamber. She is pressing the pedal of her sewing machine to make the butterfly beat its wings, while Mary is caressing the solitary, gentle and tortured Messiah.

No less oneiric are the methods by which Zouave Langedoc receives secret messages from his agents: the upper body of a spy will suddenly appear out of the horn of a phonograph or the unzipped belly of a donkey to transmit some crucial information, or, if the addressee happens to be travelling in the airship, the message will be given by a parrot concealed inside a waistcoat pocket of his own effigy designed as a kite. Oneirism is omnipresent in The Levant both as a tribute to the said literary school and as the modus operandi of the poem itself. What is more, dream-like sequences are not limited to the world of the poem, but also spill over into the higher diegetic level inhabited by the author of The Levant as the boundaries between fiction and reality grow thinner.

One of the most curious characters of this work is the fictional Mircea Cărtărescu who is composing the epic poem as we read it, commenting upon his creative process as well as telling us about the circumstances under which the text is being written, which gives us an insight into the life of the real-life writer working at the end of the Ceaușescu era. The author of The Levant cares little for the verisimilitude of his pastiche, scattering anachronistic details as well as name-dropping an impressive constellation of twentieth-century writers, scientists, and thinkers who have influenced him: Jorge Luis Borges, Werner Heisenberg, René Thom, Mikhail Bakhtin, George Steiner, Claude Lévi-Strauss, Julio Cortázar. Early on, it becomes evident that the writer has no scruples in establishing a Pirandellesque relationship with his characters when he starts intruding in the fictional world of The Levant, making his creations mistakenly believe that they are visited by God. But of course, the writer is well aware, what with his interest in postmodern theories, that the author and God are not the same. The culmination of these games occurs when “Cărtărescu” decides to extract Manoil from the text into his “reality”, but, as a result of the ensuing scuffle, ends up being dragged into the world of The Levant. He joins the participants of zavera and takes part in some of their adventures, all the time wondering who is writing the text in his absence. He will have an opportunity to receive an allegorical answer to this question when he returns to the contemporary Bucharest along with the main characters, and the response will come as yet another oneiric vision: a tiny Erika typewriter is hatched from from an egg-like sphere and swiftly grows filling up all available space, sucking in “Cărtărescu” and his guests, eventually mushrooming to the size of the universe. A “gigantic Elohim” will type on this typewriter for eternity “with his fingers of comets and supernovas”. This hallucination may be seen as both as a grotesque illustration of the concept of the world as a text as well as a veiled hint to “Cărtărescu” about the existence of Cărtărescu who stands behind it all.

It would be wrong to regard The Levant with its metafictional excesses as just a work of a latecomer to the postmodern scene who is eager to make up for the lost time by over-egging the pudding. This is not only because Cărtărescu is as playful and ironic with regard to the postmodern tricks of the Western writers as to the avant-garde techniques of his Romanian predecessors. Written at the twilight of the Communist regime in Romania, and uncannily predicting the overthrow of Ceaușescu (for it can be read as a political allegory as well), The Levant is the quintessence of the total freedom of artistic imagination exercised within a society deprived of all other liberties. It was never meant to be published, and, consequently, the author had no restrictions in creating this landmark work the way he saw fit. Cărtărescu’s pessimism regarding the book’s fate was proved wrong as The Levant came out shortly after the Romanian Revolution of 1989. Thus, it turned out to be a work written on the fault-line between the tectonic plates of history, and all the more significant for that. Besides, The Levant can be viewed as Cărtărescu’s intermediate summa, a work of maturity that condenses his aesthetic worldview, showing us what lies at the foundation of his extraordinary talent and giving us a glimpse into which direction it is going to develop. As we know now, this development has been nothing short of dazzling.

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The Troiacord (El Troiacord) by Miquel de Palol

ElTroiacord

This review is the culmination of a decade-long obsession. I first encountered the name of Miquel de Palol in a book on contemporary Spanish literature in which there wasn’t a word on The Troiacord, his major work. This reticence, as I later found out searching for any shreds of useful information on the Internet, was explained by the simple fact that it hadn’t been translated into Spanish. I found a spate of articles on Palol as well as some interviews with him: most were in Catalan, which I could hardly understand, but some of them were in Spanish, which I could read passably well at the time.  The novel in question was mentioned in many of those texts and almost always with a string of superlative epithets. My curiosity was piqued, and I realised that I wanted to read that book really bad — except I knew I couldn’t. The most realistic solution would have been just to wait for the inevitable translation into Spanish. Several of his novels had already been translated, most notably El jardí dels set crepuscles (The Garden of the Seven Twilights) and Ígur Neblí,  having  enjoyed success among the Spanish-language reading public. It seemed obvious that the apex of his writing career would not tarry to follow. However, as years went by and nothing happened, I realised that waiting any longer made no sense and that the only realistic solution was learning Catalan well enough to read the novel, and that is what I did. Was it worth the effort? Absolutely. Here we’re talking about yet another milestone of  world literature woefully unknown outside its original language. Published in 2001, The Troiacord is perhaps the first great novel of the twenty-first century. If, despite its versatility, we decide to call it science fiction, it is the most complex and disorienting sci-fi novel since Samuel Delany’s Dhalgren. If it had been written in any of the major languages, I guarantee you, at least the rumours of its brilliance would have reached you. However, things being the way they are, most probably you will first learn about the existence of this novel from me, so fasten your seat belts and get ready for the journey into the geometric heart of Miquel de Palol’s The Troiacord.

The most regretful fact about this extraordinary accomplishment is that it remains for the most part unread  and unappreciated even in the author’s homeland. Prior to and following the publication of the book there appeared a slew of articles in different Spanish magazines marvelling at its ambition, size and complexity. For example, the title and the first sentence of this article in El País preceding the publication of the book draw attention to its impressive page count. There were also several interviews with Palol about the book, both in Catalan and in Spanish. But despite all the publicity, in the fifteen years that have elapsed since its publication, not a single serious study of the novel has been published. I was unable to trace any kind of in-depth review or an essay analysing this novel, even an amateur one. All I could find were just some opinions of the readers who were trying to tackle The Troiacord and the main tenor of which boiled down to two facts: it was very difficult, and it was unlike anything else written these days. It is not surprising that the novel is out of print now, and that the most popular work of Miquel de Palol is the less challenging (though labyrinthine and sprawling enough to scare off the unprepared reader) The Garden of the Seven Twilights. This situation is a bit like giving all the accolades to V. and overlooking Gravity’s Rainbow, if you know what I mean. I would like to see more discussion of Miquel de Palol’s magnum opus both in Catalan and in Spanish. I would like it to get the attention it deserves first and foremost by Catalan-language critics and scholars, and I would like to see it translated at least into Spanish so that more readers will have access to this important literary landmark, all of which, eventually, might lead to its being translated into other languages. There is no justification to the neglect and oblivion The Troiacord has undeservedly fallen into.

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The novel is the apotheosis of the ludic tradition in literature represented by such acknowledged authors as Jorge Luis Borges, Italo Calvino, Alain Robbe-Grillet, and Milorad Pavic, to name just a few. Compared to any of the works by these authors, Palol’s novel stands out not merely due to its impressive size — the book consists of five volumes  totalling more than 1,300 pages — but also on account of its ingenious structure and because of the overall conceptual integrity that the Catalan author has been able to sustain throughout the whole text. If pressed into giving a brief but pithy characterisation of the novel, I would come up with a rather strange way of describing it: this enormous, multifaceted, mind-bending novel-ouroboros is a fictionalised commentary on a single vague statement in Plato’s dialogue Timaeus. However, by this very virtue it is about nearly everything and contains multitudes. Having described the four geometrical shapes that are known nowadays as Platonic solids or regular polyhedra (i.e.: the tetrahedron, associated with fire, the octahedron — with water, the icosahedron — with air, and the cube — with earth), Timaeus says the following: “One other construction, a fifth, still remained, and this one the god used for the whole universe embroidering figures upon it” (Trans. by Donald J. Zeyl). The fifth solid is the dodecahedron, the polyhedron  whose shape is the closest to that of the universe, which, according to Plato, is spherical. There have been various novels that conceptually correspond to particular shapes or objects: David Foster Wallace structured Infinite Jest according to the principles of a Sierpinsky triangle, Milorad Pavic’s The Inner Side of the Wind is modelled after a clepsydra, and Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler is a classical example of the Chinese-box novel. Miquel de Palol has made his own contribution to this tradition by creating a novel in the shape of a dodecahedron. What is more, the book even comes with a do-it-yourself cardboard model of this figure that the reader is supposed to glue together and use as an an additional aid while going through the text.

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Platonic Solids

As befits an encyclopedic novel, The Troiacord is packed with references to a wide variety of subjects including (but not limited to) philosophy, geometry, mathematics, painting, music, architecture, cinema. The main difficulty of this text, however, does not stem from offhand evocation of concepts from algebraic topology, Neoplatonism, or exploratory engineering. As any obscure term or allusion can be clarified by a couple of clicks, the reader is only limited by their laziness when it comes to deciphering the erudite enigmas planted by Palol. What really makes the novel challenging is the way the information that is essential for the understanding of the plot has to be teased out of  the ever-increasing jumble of contradicting clues as well as the burdensome necessity to keep track of the numerous characters and the complex relations between them. Once you have lost the thread of the narrative, you have to retrace your steps and double-check all the connections, interrelations, hints, understatements, red herrings, and revelations that you must have missed the first time round. There is also the challenge of making sense of some puzzling episodes that bring to mind the most bewildering surrealist escapades of Raoul Ruiz and David Lynch. I wasn’t surprised to find a brief opinion piece in the Catalan culture magazine Benzina titled Two Poets: Lynch, Palol (Dos poetes: Lynch, Palol). This comparison is completely justified. Even at the level of visceral response to some passages in The Troiacord, I had a feeling kindred to that unforgettable sensation of “logic’s hangover” that I had after watching for the first time such films as Lost Highway, Mulholland Drive, and Inland Empire. You definitely saw something, but when trying to conjure up the details of a scene you realise that there is no way you can reconstruct the whole picture as the logical parts of your brain are in danger of burning down in the effort. Palol’s text functions in a similar way. You start thinking about what you have read: it was weird, beguiling, and frustrating at the same time, but what exactly was it? You feel that some important piece of the puzzle has been misplaced: if you could only find it, everything would make sense, and  you would clear the jumble in your head. But in vain, the disturbing gap in logic keeps yawning and beckoning you into the abyss of madness. Your anguish subsides only when you realise that this exactly what makes for the ultimate aesthetic pleasure in this type of art.

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Plate from Perspectiva Corporum Regularium (1586) by Wenzel Jamnitzer. Image source.

It is possible to single out in the entanglement of the multiple stories making up The Troiacord‘s three major plot lines that keep criss-crossing throughout the novel: the story of the double, the story of the historical research, and the story of the secret society. The most exciting of these is the narrative of the quest introduced in the second volume, and I will start with it. Bear in mind that the very structure of the novel makes the categories of the beginning, the middle, and the end irrelevant. The protagonist is a young journalist named Jaume Camus whose existentialist last name immediately sets the right mood for the events that are going to unfold. While working in a library on his final project before leaving the career of a journalist, he is approached by a stranger who has taken interest in his research: a work on the industrial applications of regular geometric figures, exemplified, for instance, by the manufacture of street lamps modelled on Wenzel Jamnitzer’s polyhedra. The man, who introduces himself as Dr. Fidel Pla, gives Jaume a lucrative job proposition: once his current work is finished, he wants the young man  to carry out a research on the missing second part of The Admission Speech at the Academy of Belles Lettres by Doctor Sebastià Rombí. The admission speech is a short summary of a longer study by the same historian which examines the activities of different secret societies in the 18th-19th centuries whose primary pursuit was a Neoplatonic game called the Fragmentation of the Epiphany. Using his influence within the Academy, Dr. Pla arranges for Jaume a generous grant which will support him for the duration of six months and will allow the young man to visit several cities in Italy, Austria, and Switzerland in search of the material for his report. In addition to that, the commissioner gives to Jaume several useful contacts who not only will be able to share valuable information, but will also lead him to other contacts that, in their turn, will link him up with others, thus sending the young man on a  a veritable journey through the garden of forking paths. During his research he is destined to meet a dizzying array of colourful characters, for the most part rich and highly educated, all of whom, as it will gradually become apparent, are connected in one or another way.

As Jaume sifts through all kinds of manuscripts and historical documents either found in the libraries or obtained through his new acquaintances, the true scale of the ritualistic pursuit, mostly referred to as the Game of the Fragmentation, becomes clear. The most important source of information for the young man, just as for Doctor Rombí earlier, is the voluminous correspondence between 19th century polymath Primo Pietrea and his cousin Elisenda Frescolamo. Of course, there are glaring omissions: first of all, all the letters addressed by Elisenda to Pietreia are missing, and the researcher has to make do just with the half of the picture. Secondly, one of Pietreia’s letters, which is of key importance according to Dr. Rombí, has also been irretrievably lost. Jaume’s research gets additional boost when he meets and starts collaborating with a woman called Francesca Egea who has been investigating the same Game on her own, as the history of her family has been affected by it. Their joint effort brings to light the major facts about the Game of the Fragmentation, though “facts” is too strong a word when talking about all the tenuous details gleaned from less than reliable sources steeped in esoteric symbolism. As it turns out, the are two theories on the origins of the Game, one of them situating its roots in the Hellenic world and the other in Ancient Egypt.  According to the first theory, the Game is primarily a symbolic manifestation of the siege of Troy by the Achaeans immortalised in Homers’s Iliad. The second theory maintains that the initial symbolism comes from the legendary labyrinth built near Lake Moeris,  fifty miles southwest of Cairo, described by Herodotus in his Histories:

Furthermore, they resolved to leave a memorial of themselves in common, and in pursuance of this resolve they made a labyrinth, a little above Lake Moeris, and situated near what is called the City of the Crocodiles. I saw it myself and it is indeed a wonder past words; for if one were to collect together all of the buildings of the Greeks and their most striking works of architecture, they would all clearly be shown to have cost less labor and money than this labyrinth (Trans. by David Grene).

Both opinions have the  right to exist, for the symbolism accumulated by the Game  in the course of centuries contains both the siege and the labyrinth as well as many other images suggesting the influence of the sincretism of Greek and Egyptian beliefs initially found among the Neoplatonists, the Gnostics, and the Hermetics and, more recently, in the symbols adopted by the Freemasons and Rosicrucians. By the end of the Middle Ages the Game acquires additional aspects via the quadrivium of the medieval university, i.e.  the subjects of geometry, music, arithmetic, and astronomy. However, its development does not stop there. The game continues absorbing and synthesising new disciplines, slowly evolving into a highly sophisticated practice. As the Game cannibalises poetry, the art of memory, geomancy, gemmology, and even gardening, it becomes clear that almost any art and any pursuit of knowledge suits it just fine. The parallel with Glass Bead Game from Herman Hesse’s famous novel is more than obvious, with the important difference that in contrast to the reclusive intellectuals of Castalia, the practitioners of the Game of the Fragmentation readily mix with other people and actively participate in all aspects of political, economic and social life of their countries. Another significant difference is the objective of the game. Whereas the creative synthesis of arts and sciences  pursued by the Castalians is confined to the realm of abstraction and is not meant to have any tangible effect on the world at large, the ludic practices of the initiated into the Fragmentation of the Epiphany are clearly aimed at bringing about changes in the society and, perhaps, in the very fabric of physical reality.

dodecahedronThe 18th century sees further considerable changes in the development of the Game. Not immediately conspicuous among the thriving Freemason organisations,  secret lodges dedicated to the Game of the Fragmentation come into being, complete with the inevitable alliances, rivalry, and schisms. The adherents of the esoteric practice that has little to do with the rituals of the Freemasons or Rosicrucians whom they sometimes mimic for the sake of security, are often referred to collectively as the Pilgrims of Moeris. It is also the period when two important elements are added to the Game: Three-Dimensional Chess, which is believed to be the “ludic manifestation” of the mysterious object called the Three-Dimensional Kaleidoscope. The “board” for Three-Dimensional Chess is represented by a huge cube divided into 512 squares. The chess pieces are attached to the cube by means of rings and rods and are moved by a couple of assistants scrambling up and down the ladders fixed along the edges of this edifice.  The Kaleidoscope, which is initially thought to be some kind of die for the game of Three-Dimensional Chess, is a metallic dodecahedron with movable parts covered in esoteric inscriptions, an object similar to the cardboard model coming with the book that the reader is expected to have put together by now. At the end of the 19th century, even more ambitious step is made when somebody attempts to design Four-Dimensional Chess in the wake of Bernhard Riemann’s work and the emergence of the new concepts in theoretical physics. The project proves tough to pull off, not so much because it would require 4,096 squares, more than 2,000 pieces, and the manual containing hundreds of pages, but because the systematisation of such a complex endeavour within reasonable spatial limits proves to be impossible.  Although there is precious little information about the actual proceedings of the Game of the Fragmentation, it is clear that the players stage some elaborate simulations which might be taken by the uninitiated for real events. These stagings also undergo considerable development throughout the centuries. The Siege of Troy is undoubtedly one such event. As Jaume’s research shows, whereas in the 18th century the Siege was recreated just on paper, in the 19th century there was evidence of it being carried out (albeit symbolically) in real life. In some  of Primo Pietreia’s sources there is a reference to the siege of a palace situated in the north-west of the city of Mannheim that supposedly took place in 1813. There is no historical evidence of any military action in that area in the given year, which means it was a staged event, though realistic enough for one of its  participants to be killed. A contemporary historian quoted by Pietreia believed that the palace symbolised ancient Troy, and one of its towers — the Labyrinth of Lake Moeris.

There is no lack of McGuffins to chase for Jaume and his collaborator, the main one of those being the elusive document known as the Third Act, issued by a powerful lodge with the fancy name the Resplendent Branch of Salzburg. The last available piece of information about the Act goes back to 1879 when it was transferred to the Vatican Library. As of now, its whereabouts are unknown.  Supposedly, this particular document contains important details of the procedures employed by the Lodge during the Game of the Fragmentation; there also might be connection between the Third Act and the missing letter of Pietrea to Elisenda. Although Jaume and Francesca fail to obtain the mysterious document, they make appreciable progress in tracking down the major attributes of the Game. They gain access to the only extant model of the cube for the Game of Three-Dimensional Chess in the basement of the Vatican Museums and locate the dodecahedral Kaleidoscope. They manage to copy the coded messages engraved around its vertices  and have them subsequently deciphered by a crypt-analyst in London. This information, as well as the help of an idiot-savant with extraordinary mathematical abilities, provides them with the necessary clues to make their own paper model of the Kaleidoscope, which is identical to the one possessed by the reader. By this time, they are fully aware of the fact that the secret Lodge of the Game is still active nowadays, that they have been bumping into the Pilgrims for the most part of their quest, and, the most striking, that the Game of the Fragmentation is in progress right now and they are its unwitting participants.

The second important strand of the plot is the story of the double. Here Palol taps into the rich cultural tradition that has formed around the mythology of the Twins.  The bulk of this narrative lies in the first volume of The Troiacord, which, let me reiterate,  does not mean that it is the point of departure of the book as a whole. There is no definite beginning in this novel, for, as I said earlier, it is a text-ouroboros, conceptually similar in this respect to Finnegans Wake with the technical difference that it does not end  in the middle of the sentence completed at the start of the novel. Miquel de Palol’s method is based on the geometric properties of the dodecahedron: the text just reflects a route traced along the edges of the figure. When the route returns to the initial point, which in our case is the vertex with the Greek letters Alfa and Omega, the text repeats itself. I will discuss in more detail the relation between the novel and the dodecahedron further on. Let’s get back to the double. The fellow is a hapless criminal called Damià Retxa, who escapes from prison, or so he believes at first, to find himself in the circle of very wealthy and powerful people who have engineered his jail-breaking from start to finish.  This upper-middle class public makes up the contemporary version of the Lodge; they are the so-called New Pilgrims, and many of them have been involved in the quest of Jaume and Francesca. The most popular types of cover for the Game adepts in the 20th century are commercial companies, governmental organisations and European Union institutions. Each member has at least one mansion in which the members of the Lodge regularly gather to manage their affairs. Damià Retxa is brought to one such mansion in the middle of a spacious manour. The reason for his delivery from the jail is his remarkable appearance: he is the spitting image of Gabriel Van Egmont, an influential diplomat, scientist and businessman. Damià is told that Gabriel was kidnapped by his competitors and shot during a botched rescue attempt. Since the general public does not know of this death (his absence since the abduction was presented in the media as resulting from a journey abroad), Damià’s rescuers-turned-captors  intend to pass him off as Gabriel Van Egmont. The would-be impersonator is kept in the dark about the purpose of this enterprise. In a short period of time he undergoes intensive training and is administered a course of  special drugs affecting his memory; the main goal is to make his behavioural patterns as close to those of the deceased as possible.  The training includes a crash course on the Western canon of literature, philosophy, and music as well as watching videos of Gabriel and imitating his gestures and mannerisms in minute detail. The most pleasant part of the training for Damià is, of course, practical exercises aimed at teaching him how to have sex exactly the way Gabriel did it.

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The apse of Santa Maria del Mar

When Damià is tolerably good at imitating Gabriel Van Egmont in front of the people oblivious of the former’s fate, he is entrusted with representing the interests of Aurica S.A, Van Egmont’s company, at a meeting with the potential investors. They discuss a possible merger between Aurica ant two other companies: Bertshell & Co and  Argensonica.  That is not, however, the most challenging assignment. In order to confuse ASTRAFECA, a hostile organisation controlled by mafia that is trying to thwart the financial salvation of Aurica, the stockholders (who are also the New Pilgrims, let’s not forget that) decide to simulate the abduction of Gabriel/Damià with his subsequent rescue. The ransom for the release of the fake hostage is a bunch of newspapers imitating important documents stuck in the briefcase of Alcandre Ferrany, a recently hired lawyer of Aurica. The venue for the staging is the small square in front of the apse of the Basilica of Santa Maria del Mar at the southwest end of Passeig de Born, the famous pedestrian street in Barcelona. More than a dozen participants of this open-air drama arrive. However, some of them do not perceive it as a make-believe piece of histrionics. There is argument, shouting, confusion, the street lamps go out and the sound of a pistol shot reverberates over Plaça de Santa Maria. The tragic upshot is the dead body of Gabriel/Damià carried away in a car. At this point, we realise that we have ended up knowing less than we did before this denouement. What exactly happened? A partial explanation is provided by the first sentences of the first and the last chapters of the first volume that recounts Damià’s story. They both contain a slightly modified phrase from Book 16 of the Iliad: “if the Trojans can see Menoetius’ gallant son” (I use here Robert Fagles’ translation). I am not sure you can see it, but if you could,  you would notice that this exact phrase is written around one of the vertices of the cardboard dodecahedron pictured above. The vertex is marked with the Greek letters A and Ω, which obviously suggests the beginning and the end. Suddenly, we realise that we have come a full circle in a bizarre Escherian loop: since Gabriel Van Egmont is killed, the stockholders of Aurica will have to look for a double and train him to impersonate the deceased. They will find the perfect candidate in prison: it will be a certain Damià Retxa, a spitting image of Gabriel. If we continue comparing the first sentences of each chapter of this volume and the phrases around the vertices of the cardboard figure we will realise that transtitions between chapters correspond to the movement from one vertex to another along the edges of the dodecahedron. We began at the Alfa and Omega vertex and travelled across ten other vertices to return exactly to the point of departure. If that was not enough,  as we read the other volumes of the novel we learn that the incident in the square at the end of Passeig de Born keeps repeating itself and that no one can say with certainty who the double is and what exactly happens during the botched rescue attempt. It appears that the Pilgrims themselves cannot agree or, perhaps, that they come up with conflicting versions on purpose so that the outsiders like Jaume Camus are kept in ignorance. There is an opinion that Damià Retxa is the real Gabriel, while the one who is believed to be authentic is the impostor who eventually gets killed in front of Santa Maria del Mar. According to another version there is no double: Gabriel plays both roles with the support of a team of psychologists, actors and technical assistants. Some side with the Iron Mask interpretation saying that Damià is Gabriel’s twin brother reported to be dead upon birth and raised secretly in captivity. Besides these, there are more unorthodox views. One holds that Gabriel’s double is himself replicated in an extra dimension and the other that the minds of both men have been digitised and switched with one another.

Even if we are at a loss about the details regarding the whole affair of the double, is clear that it is a crucial element in the Game. The mythology of the Twins permeates the activities of the Lodge and imparts an allegorical dimension to what they call the Project Van Egmont. What if the logic-defying abduction episode is not just an empty ritual performed by a bunch of bored occultists, but a landmark procedure  indispensable for the attainment of a much grander goal? As we know from some versions of the Greek myth, Pollux gave up half of his immortality to Castor. For the Game adepts there is a direct connection between memory and immortality; that is the reason mnemonics has been part of their practices since ancient times, while the possibility of new technologies that might allow not only the expansion of an individual’s  memory, but also its storage and transfer, makes this association even stronger. In order to explore this issue in more detail, we will have to take a closer look at the modern practitioners of the Game of the Fragmentation.

The third principle plot line of the novel follows the activities of the New Pilgrims who make up the biggest part of all the characters. As I have already mentioned, they are wealthy and eccentric people officially known to the general public as entrepreneurs, government officials, diplomats, scholars, and scientists. Almost all of them are the descendants of the Pilgrims of Moeris whose deeds have been recorded in the old manuscripts studied by the tireless researcher Jaume Camus. Most of their interactions take place in their sumptuous houses or at the venues of various functions such as exhibitions, official receptions, business negotiations and the like. While observing their meetings, which are usually replete with lengthy discussions on a wide selection of topics from all realms of human knowledge, one is constantly challenged by the dilemma: is it just a conversation or a part of the Game? Quite often their behaviour seems out-of-the-way and devoid of logic,  bringing to mind the mystifying activities pursued by some characters in David Lynch films who, maybe, from their own perspective, are performing mundane tasks. Their actions, however, appear to the viewer as otherworldly and vaguely menacing.  Similar feelings are aroused by the dealings of the contemporary members of the Lodge. For example, during a round of Game-related negotiations  between two different factions of the New Pilgrims, the representatives of either party use interpreters, although they both speak the same language. One of them talks in gibberish that is translated into Catalan by his cross-dressed interpreter; the other speaks in Catalan which his interpreter, also a drag-queen, “translates” also into Catalan, sometimes repeating verbatim what he has said,  but more often giving a short summary of his message,  not always accurate. On more than one occasion we see the members of the Lodge tinker with  video recordings in a rather peculiar way: they try to “synchronise” a series of nested videos. On a TV screen there is a video of people having a conversation while watching their own video with somebody inside, also watching a video. They viewers on the first level try somehow to achieve smooth and meaningful interaction between the “inhabitants” of all the other levels of this regression, all the time filming themselves in the act.  The Game practitioners baffle the reader not only by their shenanigans, but by their very presence:  they are just too many and most of them are not even briefly described when introduced for the first time to be more recognisable when mentioned again. The majority are known only by the names, and since some of them are relatives, they are only distinguished by first names. As a result, the reader soon starts mixing them up and losing the track of who is interacting with whom. Cataloguing all the adepts of the Game active at the end of the twentieth century in Europe is a tough proposition, better left for some kind of reader’s guide to The Troiacord, if such an endeavour is ever made. I’ll just try to single out some of them.

The most venerable practitioner of the Game, who is probably the grand master of the Lodge, is the octogenarian Maximillian Van Egmont. He is Gabriel’s first cousin once removed and the former president of Aurica. He is in charge of a low-profile company called CBP. It is difficult to say to which degree he controls the activity of his organisation (which, despite some semblance of hierarchy within, is far from authoritarian) but it is obvious that he has the final say in each important decision. Very close to Maximillian is Joan Florestan, a kooky archivist of the mundane and fervent devotee of mnemonics. He is the only high-ranking member of the Lodge who has been granted access to its mysteries not because of the dynastic privilege, but solely based on his personal merit. For thirty years he has been undertaking the project of recording all possible aspects of his daily life  with the meticulousness of a notary public: all the places he has been to, the people he has met , all the conversations he has heard, and the circumstantial details of every single day.  The result is lamentable. When double-checking the information in his notes, he compares it with what he and others remember, and it turns out that on many occasions what is recalled doesn’t match what is recorded. He doesn’t remember some of the facts which he himself wrote down, and, conversely, there are details mentioned in his testimony which he is sure were not to be found on that particular day. Florestan comes to the conclusion that memory as a “discipline after the fact” is doomed to failure, and the only effective method of preserving data is a “discipline in the moment” whereby the human mind is capable to restore any record in its entirety based on tiny bits of key information similar to the way compressed computer files can be unzipped at any moment. He has spent a lot of effort attempting to create an effective memory system that would allow the storage and subsequent retrieval of information as postulated by the principles of the “discipline in the moment”, but without success. Then there is also a young woman called Andrea Giselberti who takes active part in enlightening Jaume Camus on the history and some particulars of the Game. Once she tells Jaume an entertaining story that alludes to an incident which has recently happened to Jaume as well as accurately predicts yet another incident in the future. When the prediction is fulfilled, the researcher gets the first substantial proof that he is being manipulated. Andrea’s story involving an ecclesiastic orgy, staged theft of an esoteric opuscule, and Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s Elephant and Obelisk in Piazza della Minerva, is remarkable because of the geometric pattern produced by the characters running around in the centre of Rome. If we trace their movements on a map, we will get a regular pentagon with a five-pointed star inscribed in it, which is a classical representation of the golden ratio so admired by mathematicians, artists, and architects. Besides that, Andrea’s story is an amusing and witty parody of the Nouveau Roman, especially the techniques used by Alain Robbe-Grillet. When at one point two other Lodge members, Pirseu and Kamefes, come to visit Maximillian Van Egmont he refers to them as the demon returning from Egypt in allusion to the apocryphal Book of Tobit, another essential text for the symbolism of the Game. These two gentlemen behave like a comical duo: they crack jokes and from time to time try to hypnotise their interlocutors. Kamefes’ favourite conversation topic is a spherical animal whose body is covered by homogeneous skin that performs all the necessary functions of the body and is endowed with the five senses. The main dilemma he tries to solve is how to make such an animal see itself in its entirety. The secret society has also its own Don Juan, albeit a female version, — the beautiful seductress  Augusta d’Altena. Owing to her numerous lovers, she is the significant element in the Sexual Chain of the New Pilgrims. A Sexual Chain is yet another shibboleth in the philosophy of the Game adepts. It is  a branching system of relationship between people connected via sexual intercourse. The individuals in the chain have two degrees of relation: the primary — with the person they have had sex with, and the secondary — with the person their partner has been intimate. All minor chains can be interconnected so that the sum total is one enormous Sexual Chain of humanity. There is something to be said about most of the members of the Lodge featured in the novel, but this is where I will stop, as I believe that just these examples are enough for getting the idea what type of characters they are.

When we try to piece together different shreds of evidence, mostly conflicting, about the versatile activities of the New Pilgrims in order to understand their ultimate goal, this is where the science fiction aspect of the novel comes to the fore. Let’s not forget that the Fragmentation of the Epiphany is a Neoplatonic game, and it would make perfect sense if its modern practitioners aspired to the ideals similar to those pursued by the ancient followers of Plotinus, Porphyry, and Iamblichus. The Neoplatonist picture of the universe comprises three main principles: the One, Nous (Intellect), and Soul. The One is the divine principle that created reality via the mediation of Nous, which contains all Platonic forms, and Soul, which, emanating from the Intellect, gives rise to the material world. Human beings as macrocosms contain all the levels of the creation and, through strenuous philosophical practices, are capable of achieving the supreme goal of reuniting with the One. The contemporary adepts of the Game intend to achieve the desired unity by means of cutting edge technologies. Maximillian Van Egmont’s company CBP serves as a facade for the merger of the already mentioned Aurica S.A., Bertshell and Argensonica as well as a factory that, under the guise of a switchboard component, produces an innovative integrated circuit of cerebral application. This chip restores the totality of memory, including what happened before and what will happen after one’s death as well as allows anyone using it to move in time. This extraordinary accomplishment, considerably reducing the limitations imposed on the human being by his material existence, is just one step in a vastly ambitious project that will take millions of years to be implemented and whose goal is no less than the retention of entropy in the universe and the ultimate entelechy of humankind: the unification of all who lived and all who could potentially have lived in one harmonious whole.  We learn about the technical side of this undertaking in a document called Report on the Programme of the Renewal, Development, and Projection of Energy. The programme has three major phases: 1. the resolution of all current military conflicts; 2. the solution of all major issues immediately related to human survival, such as famine, ecology, health, technological development, production of energy; 3. the evolution of individuals and of their relation to reality. The 3rd phase is intended to be carried out concurrently with, as well as after, the first two; therefore, the time-warping chip produced under the aegis of CBP might be the proof of the launch of this programme. The extent of the human being’s development conceived in the third phase boggles the mind and looks like the fulfillment of any Pilgrim’s dream about memory expansion. Thanks to advanced genetic engineering, the mnemonic and processing capabilities of the mind will skyrocket as the  capacity of  human memory will increase by 216,000 %. The further development will see the fusion of the body and technology to such an extent that it will be difficult to say whether in the coming millennia the programme will be implemented by a society of robots with biological elements or by live organisms with integrated mechanical parts. The culmination of this technological evolution will be the advent of von Neumann machines which will spread life beyond Earth, all the time evolving and self-replicating, until a new type of being is produced: “a meta-cybernetic entity capable of controlling time, and emulate the totality of beings that have ever existed”.  The final stage of the programme will be realised in the infinitely brief moment before the Big Crunch, harnessing the energy of the dying universe, and contact with the Troiacord will be the climax of the whole project. The resulting state of eternal bliss echoes the Neoplatonic unity with the One and is envisaged as a kind of biological Library of Babel.

…as a result of the structuring of the universe, without distinction between matter and spirit (nor, hence, between the body and soul) there will be realised, simultaneously and in the most plenteous manner, all the combinatorial possibilities of all types of matter: atomic, energy, luminous, molecular, cellular, biological, and intelligent, not only all the individuals who have ever lived will find plentiful life and bliss in this sentient and intelligent totality, not only those who have died prematurely, including  newborn babies, will be realised as superior individuals, not only aborted foetuses, but also all the individuals produced by all the possible combinations of all embryonic cells in history, the individuals born out of the combination of all possible spermatozoa and ovules, including  the combination of all the possible spermatozoa and ovules of all the individuals who were not even conceived and that of all those who would never have had an opportunity to to join others  due to the circumstances of time and place. Not only the aborted and the murdered will live, which preoccupies the priests,  but also those who are of concern to the sorcerer’s apprentices: all those who could have been born if these two had gone to bed instead of going to the movies, if the other two had met each other, if those who weren’t born had met each other, absolutely all possible products of all their ovules and all their spermatozoa. […] The Total Sexual Chain will be formed, ψ =1. Each atom, each cell, each sub-particle of the universe will be in contact with each and every other one, without any distinction between the past, the present, and the future — outside of time according to the same principle which makes  absurd any question about what existed before the Big Bang […] Everything that we know today as aleatory misery will turn into a diaphanous geometric exposition. […] The structure of matter, the sensibility of the consciousness and the articulation of thought will be one single thing. Everything will be endowed with the same sensoriality and knowledge.

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Schlegel diagram of a 4-D dodecahedron. Image created by Robert Webb’s Stella Software.

The main agent of this all-embracing transformation resulting in the collective and individual immortality is the Troiacord. This complex metaphysical entity is the cornerstone of all the operations performed by the adepts of the Game. Even among the initiated there is no agreement about the etymology of the term.  The most popular speculations hold that it is either a corruption of “Troia-Cardio” (the Heart of Troy) or an ambivalent coinage  meaning “the Trojan Accord”  and thereby combining the notions of formal agreement and a harmonious union of sounds. According to rather vague explanations, the Troiacord is a cosmic algorithm capable of  imparting consciousness to matter via geometric structuring. It is manifested in three hypostases: the Great Troiacord, which orders the universe at its maximum expansion, the Final Troiacord, which brings about the said state of eternal bliss, and the individual Troiacord granting access to the other two. The various practices and rituals of the Game serve as a means of entering the individual Troiacord and then, if possible, ascending to the others. The Kaleidoscope used by the Pilgrims is the representation of the Final Troiacord, and the correct sequence of operations with that ludic dodecahedron is supposed to rupture the linearity of time.  The Troiacord is also manifested by Troiacordium, a chemical element with a dodecahedral structure that is a three-dimensional projection of a hecatonicosahedroid, a four-dimensional dodecahedron. The last atom of the universe will be an atom of this noble gas. If I haven’t lost you at this point, I would like to take this as a cue for moving on to the final point of this review: the 4th dimension.

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Jean Metzinger. L’Oiseau bleu (1912-1913)

It is important to differentiate from the outset between the two meanings of the term “fourth dimension”. One of them defines it as time fused together with the three spatial dimensions of the time and space continuum. This is not how the characters of the novel view this concept. For them, the fourth dimension is spatial; it is an intangible realm in which  the analogue of a cube is a geometrical figure consisting of 16 vertices, 32 edges, 24 square faces and 8 cubic cells.  As for the above-mentioned 4-dimensional dodecahedron, the stats are  obviously even more staggering: 600 vertices, 1200 edges, 720 pentagonal faces, and 1200 dodecahedral cells. Just like the hapless dwellers of Edwin Abbot’s classic Flatland are unable to experience the three-dimensional world and have to make do with the 2-D shadows of its objects, so we are doomed to judge about the head-spinning complexities of the 4-D world based on its 3-D projections. But once the idea of a higher dimension is firmly rooted in our mind, we cannot resist the temptation to explore it using the most powerful tool at our disposal: human imagination. As showed by Linda Dalrymple Henderson’s magisterial study The Fourth Dimension and Non-Euclidean Geometry in Modern Art, this concept was all the rage among renowned avant-garde artists at the beginning of the twentieth century, when Charles Howard Hinton began to popularise his technique of visualising the 4-D hypercube. Painters, sculptors, and graphic artists enthusiastically welcomed the idea of an extra dimension and readily set about tackling the challenge of representing the unrepresentable, which  resulted in the creation of such iconic works as Jean Metzinger’s L’Oiseau bleu and Pablo Picasso’s Portrait of Ambroise Vollard. This fascination with the 4-D world also spread among the adepts of the Game of the Fragmentation, one of its manifestations being the already mentioned plan to create Four-Dimensional Chess.  It would be logical to suppose that the Kaleidoscope required for this modification of the game would be a model of the 4-D dodecahedron and that a tesseract (a 4-D hypercube) would serve as the “board, both of which are impossible to faithfully represent in our three-dimensional world. There is sufficient evidence in the novel that the New Pilgrims utilise the chip allowing them to make brief journeys through space-time. But where did they get such an advanced technology at the beginning of the twenty-first century? These devices are supposed to be produced in the future. One of the explanations lies in the hypothesis, mentioned in the novel, that the present in which the New Pilgrims are preparing for the realisation of the Project Van Egmont is tampered with by somebody from the future. So, possibly, the technologies necessary for the production of the chip have been passed on from the descendants of the Lodge members who will live centuries from now. By the same token, it is quite possible that at some point in the future the practitioners of the Game have been able to make an authentic four-dimensional version of the chessboard and the Kaleidoscope without resorting to the use of 3-D projections. Having the ability to move through space-time, the Pilgrims of the future might be playing their own modification of the Game in which the present-day Pilgrims are manipulated  in the same manner as Jaume and Barbara are being used in the three-dimensional version. This is just my conjecture, and, perhaps, that’s not what is implied in Palol’s text; however, upon a second reading, I am more inclined to believe that the Game is simultaneously played in several dimensions.

Palol’s characters do realise that the reality they inhabit is governed by the arrangement of abstruse formulas inscribed around each of the twenty vertices of the dodecahedron which Jaume Camus has modelled on the Vatican Kaleidoscope. Some of these statements have been taken from the Iliad, and some from Spinoza’s Ethics. There must be other sources, but I haven’t checked further. Just like the readers of the novel, the characters can tell on which edge of the dodecahedron  they are at the given moment. Not all of them are resigned to this state of affairs. A group of like-minded people including Francesca and a renegade member of the Lodge decide to disrupt the self-referential loop in which everybody is caught. The pivotal point, as you already know, is the rescue attempt at the end of Passeig de Born. The plan of the conspirers is to intervene in this performance imbued with the symbolism of the mythical Twins, so that its repetition will become impossible. I guess they realise the futility of this attempt. They should also be aware of the possibility that their rebellion against the perfection of the most important Platonic solid might also part of the Game. But what could be more laudable than the determination of an individual to transcend any kinds of limitations, be they social, political, psychological, and, more in tune with the major themes of The Troiacord, those of space and time? Besides being an encyclopedia operating with a dizzying variety of artistic and scientific disciplines as well as a witty an insightful commentary on modern culture and politics,  Miquel de Palol’s novel can also be viewed as an ironic elegy to this irresistible urge of the humans to break free and find out what is on the other side, even if by doing so they will have merely swapped a smaller cage for a bigger one. No matter how far we will get on our journey to what we perceive as total freedom, we will keep creating systems that will keep binding us. But that does not mean that our quest is useless. Miquel de Palol’s novel offers to the readers a lot of different quests, sometimes even directing them to his other literary works meticulously referenced in the footnotes, but the answers gained in the end are not the primary purpose of this novel. Once you have finished the book and started reading it again, because one time for such a text is not enough, you will realise that you are reading The Troiacord for the sake of the journey rather than the destination. Once you have been accustomed to its manifold eccentricities, you will see that this book is essentially meant as an experience — not just intellectual and emotional, but also visual and tactile –and it is up to you to learn how to make the best of it. If you do, the rewards are immense. Catalan culture is a rich and vibrant phenomenon that has given the world an incredible number of masterpieces. Three of those stand out as the ultimate paragons of Catalan creativity: Antonio Gaudí’s Sagrada Família,  Salvador Dalí’s The Persistence of Memory, and Miquel de Palol’s The Troiacord.

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Merlin or the Waste Land (Merlin oder Das wüste Land) by Tankred Dorst (in collaboration with Ursula Ehler)

DorstMerlinIf you, like myself, have suffered through Thomas Malory’s indigestible Le Morte Darthur, you would feel vindicated by the large-scale deconstruction of the Arthurian romances undertaken by Tankred Dorst and his collaborator Ursula Ehler in this epic play. The 1981 premiere of Merlin in Dusseldorf  was nine and a half hours long — surely, an overbearing experience not any spectator can sustain, although neither that one nor the subsequent stagings were complete, as the play performed in its entirety would run to the tune of 15 hours. Consequently, seeing Merlin on stage so far has meant the inevitable foregoing of some parts of the original text.  Anyone who would like to experience this unwieldy play in its complete form has to read it. This situation is not uncommon for German language dramatic works: think, for example, of such monumental plays as Goethe’s Faust or Karl Kraus’ The Last Days of Mankind. Since there has been an English language production of Merlin based on an abridged translation, the play is well-known in the theatrical milieu. However, the complete text as an autonomous work of literature has not reached the English-speaking reader  yet — hence my modest contribution to filling in this gap.

In general lines, Dorst’s and Ehler’s play faithfully follows Mallory’s account of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table from the promising beginnings of this idealistic society to its tragic dissolution and the demise of its leader. The only glaring omission is the story of Tristram and Isolde (the bulkiest part of Le Morte Darthur, as you know) which is just slightly sketched out in several letters exchanged between Queen Guinevere and Isolde. The course of the major events recounted by Mallory has been preserved, and we know in advance how everything is going to end. Nevertheless, Merlin is full of surprises, as its authors add a new and rather gloomy spin to the familiar legends both in terms of narrative techniques, of how the stories are presented, and in terms of the specific details of each episode. Another significant instance of licence taken by the German playwright and his collaborator is the introduction into their text of “outsider” characters who do not belong to the traditional Arthurian world. By making a new embroidery on the old canvas the authors present the audience with a modern interpretation of the traditional motifs, in which the story of the Round Table serves as a blueprint for the destruction of a civilisation.

Merlin is a dynamic, I would even say stroboscopic, work that consists of 97 scenes some of which are just several sentences long. Genre-wise it is a patchwork comprising drama, verse, narrative and songs. Quite often the poems and songs are recited in foreign languages: English, Italian, Old French, Celtic Breton. The play consists of a short prologue in which Christ, illuminated by a thousand light-bulbs, drives away pagan gods, and the following four parts: Merlin’s Birth, The Round Table, The Grail, Destruction. Merlin is the controversial, complex protagonist of the unfolding drama who has something of Faust and something of Peer Gynt. He frequently behaves like a traditional Trickster figure provoking, tempting, misleading and making fools out of the gullible Arthurian knights. Merlin’s magic is of diabolical nature as he is the child of ugly giantess Hanne and the Devil himself. The sole purpose of Merlin’s coming into existence seems to be the fulfillment of his dark progenitor’s intention as he is already born as a grown-up man, ready to work miracles and cause mischief among human beings.  In the course of dialogues between the wizard and his father we learn what kind of grand and wicked design the Devil had in mind when begetting Merlin: to unite the knights of the Christian oecumen and to send them on the path of evil that will eventually lead them to hell. Being far from an obedient son, Merlin appears to be revolting against his father’s wish: while he readily gets down to the business of establishing the new chivalric society, he refuses point-blank to instill in his wards inclination towards evil. Instead, he opts to leave them with the choice which path to take. This, at first glance unbiased position suits the Devil just right, for he knows well enough that letting humans choose between good and evil is the surest way of dooming them to eternal perdition. When King Arthur, under the tutelage of Merlin, founds the fellowship of the Round Table, he is perhaps one of the very few who naively think that a great chivalric Utopia is being inaugurated, that thanks to the new order all strife and iniquity will become obsolete. What we see unraveling before us, instead, is not so much a sequence of courageous and noble deeds, but a series of petty conflicts between utterly depraved and vicious characters bent on satisfying their sadistic urges or monomaniacal goals. Yes, they have come together, but there is nothing noble or altruistic about their unity. The Round Table allows for synergy of wickedness that will inevitably result in a full-blown apocalypse.

Since some of the German reviewers were pointing out the excessive violence of the play, I was half-expecting a Texas Chainsaw Massacre treatment of the material which had been far from bloodless already in its medieval form. This did not turn out to be the case, although there are several scenes that are clearly meant to shock with its Grand Guignol attention to gore. For example, Parzival who comes to the king’s court as a feral adolescent obtains his first armour by gouging out the eyes of its possessor with a sharp twig and then by scraping the murdered knight’s flesh out of the armour with a knife like “the meat of a lobster out of the half-opened shell”. Most of the violence, however, is of psychological character. It is latent in most of the dialogues, even if they seem quite innocent or even benevolent at first. The atmosphere of lurking menace never leaves the stage. The characters may be exchanging opinions or sharing secrets, or just bringing one another up to date — but this is just on the surface. The ulterior motifs of betraying the trust of the other, of pushing them towards some harmful decision, of using them to one’s own purpose and then discarding them to a horrible fate are all too obvious to ignore. They are tangible in almost every scene of the play, and that is exactly what the dark magic that got the Arthurian society running in the first place is about. In this fictional world, nobody can escape the pervasive violence, even those who are perfectly aware of its fictitiousness. At one point, a skeptical spectator climbs the stage to check if the Siege Perilous at the round table can do him any harm. As soon as the man takes a seat, he is engulfed by flames.

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An Abrams tank exposing its Medieval roots. Art by Jody Harmon. Image Source.

Merlin is as self-reflexive as it gets. Lots of postmodern tricks are employed here, but they are not an end in itself. First and foremost, the play is a very dense, personal vision of the Arthurian romances, obviously refracted through the prism of avant-garde art and the cold war mentality and presented as a series of heterogeneous elements bearing the imprints of these preoccupations. The Theatre of the Absurd and the surrealists have definitely been a significant influence: there are echoes of Beckett and Ionesco as well as a couple of scenes that would make David Lynch proud. At the same time, without any direct reference, there is a subtle evocation of the menace characteristic of the period in which nuclear confrontation between the two superpowers and the subsequent obliteration of the life on earth were considered by many a possibility. Let us not forget that the fellowship of The Round Table is a society primarily based and totally dependent upon the use of lethal weapons. A knight covered in armour from head to toe loses humanity, his face is transformed into the soulless steel mask of war expediency. He represents the incessant drive to perfect the engines of destruction, thus himself becoming a symbol of future military innovations: tanks, submarines, strategic bombers. The Devil confers on Merlin the ability to look into the future, so that the mischievous magician can fully appreciate the coming reincarnations of the technocratic militarised societies similar to the Arthurian knights in appetites, morals, and ambitions, but greatly surpassing them in hardware and armament. For what it’s worth, the evanescent Sangreal sought after by the brave knights may be, in fact, enriched uranium whose significance they cannot yet grasp due to the limitation of their epoch. It is only Merlin who is allowed from time to time to talk anachronistically, and analyse the medieval goings-on around him from the point of view of a twentieth-century person.

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A Heap of Broken Images. Bartholomew Beal. Image Source.

The alternative title of Merlin is The Waste Land. It is not only an homage to T. S. Eliot’s modernist classic, but also the recognition of the leitmotif accompanying this extensive and overpopulated play from start to finish. The German for “the waste land” is  das wüste Land in which the word wüste can be translated as either “desert” or “waste”. Indeed, in Merlin we often come across the disquieting imagery of sterile lands, be they natural deserts or man-made wastelands of mass destruction. The wasteland is  a constant latency for the fellowship, even when the landscape around them is nothing but a flourishing idyll. For Dorst and Ehler, the barren environment of sand and rock is a hidden dimension that under certain circumstances can penetrate reality, for example with the assistance of Merlin’s wizardry. We get the first significant glimpse of the wasteland in a chilling scene called Have I dreamt my Life? In it, the youthful Sir Beauface viciously taunts the elder knights because of their old age and is punished by Merlin who inveigles him into plunging his face into a bowl with bewitched water. When Beauface lifts his face after just several seconds, everybody sees a decrepit old man who has just returned from a long journey to some distant desert clime. This magic occurrence leads to the sudden opening of the portal to the extra dimension, as the inhabitants of the desert with whom Beauface spent most of his life, enter the world of the Round Table knights looking for the missing sojourner. Their arrival is entrancing and eerie. The gathered knights watch them come with growing anxiety, for the spooky strangers also act as the harbingers of the fate reserved for the fellowship: a wasteland with mounts of iron-clad corpses and the myriads of bluebottle flies swarming above them.

A high, buzzing, mysterious sound is in the air. The light changes, becomes pale. A procession of strange, very large shapes slowly comes in: a huge black man is carrying an old woman, she is sitting in a contraption with a tall backrest propped against his head, her legs are on his shoulders, her face turned in the opposite direction. As a headdress she is wearing a golden bird with its wings spread. — Then comes a richly-clothed old man, the brother of the woman. — Four servants are carrying in a raised askew litter the corpse of the dead father in white winding sheets. — A frail old man with an iron mask on his face is dragging an enormous chopped-off human hand that has completely withered. — A man with wide, fluttering sleeves. — A naked man whose skin is spotted with wounds and scabs like the ailing skin of the earth. Swarms of midges. He is carrying a big bundle on his head. — A dried-up tree with brown leaves. The procession enters slowly and silently. There is no noise of the footsteps; it seems as if they were walking through deep sands and had to withstand a strong wind. They climb up the tabletop. The bundle is unfolded: it is a large silk cloth embroidered with figures. The man with the wide sleeves raises his arms, and sand starts running out of his sleeves, infinite amounts of sand; it keeps running all the time while the strangers are standing there. Little by little, the round table turns into a sand desert.

This motif of the sterile sun-dried land becomes more prominent in the penultimate part of the play in which the Arthurian knights search for the Holy Grail. Once visiting the barren realm of the King Fisher and failing to heal the wounded grail keeper, Parzival is no longer able to leave the wasteland. He continues wandering in the desert even when he is physically present in a lush green meadow with singing birds. Sir Gawain, who meets his befuddled fellow roaming about in the invisible wasteland tries to bring him back to reality, but all is in vain. Parzival is doomed to remain there, perhaps until one of the knights finally achieves the Grail. This scene, called The Waste Land, is key to the whole play because it contains the metaphor of the wasteland we carry within. It is a question of time when it becomes a wasteland without. Dorst and Ehler take over the symbolism of the wasteland poetically examined by T. S. Eliot and develop it further keeping in mind the horrors and the anxieties of the second half of the twentieth century. The legend of the maimed king whose land has been turned into a desolate, sterile desert mimicking his own infertility resulting from a genital wound was utilised by Eliot with respect to the torpid, disoriented, weak society that has recently survived the senseless butchery of the Great War. In Merlin, the image of wasteland acquires additional aspects, for it is applied to the society that has experienced by far more destructive Second World War and is hypothetically facing nuclear annihilation.  The wasteland in Merlin comes to signify the destructive potential of any progressive urge of man, a metaphysical desert that man will never tire of materialising in real life with each new spiral of his technological development until the wasteland is large enough to swallow the whole planet. Here is what the Devil has to say on this count:

The idealists, the Grail seekers, the founders of Round Tables and ideal states, of new orders and systems, who promise salvation with their theories and want to bring great happiness to humankind […] I am not only speaking of Arthur, I also mean others who come after him in hundreds of years –, in the end they lead whole nations straight to hell! — To me!

How_Mordred_was_Slain_by_Arthur

How Mordred was Slain by Arthur, and How by Him Arthur was Hurt to the Death. Arthur Rackham.

In another crucial scene almost at the end of the play, when the armies of Mordred and King Arthur have obliterated each other, effectively putting an end to the Utopian fellowship, we are granted a peculiar glimpse of the future. The scene consists of a monologue that perhaps is being delivered by a scientist from some extraterrestrial civilisation. By that time the life on earth has been extinguished as the sun has run out its course.  The speaker does not know what kinds of cataclysms happened before that, but it doesn’t matter any more. The humans have disappeared forever, and, in the speaker’s words: “the few traces of their existence remain mysterious”. The drama of human progress is over, and, as has been foreseen, it has ended in wasteland. We do not know what those remaining artifacts are, but, perhaps, among them there is a chronicle of devastating intercontinental warfare that will be eventually deciphered and read by the aliens with the same interest as we now read about the bloody and cruel exploits of the Arthurian knights.

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The Book of Illuminations (كتاب التجليات, Le Livre des illuminations) by Gamal al-Ghitani

Livredesilluminations

A severed human head is floating in the sky above the holy city of Kufa. After a while it spots an iridescent green bird slowly approaching it. When the bird is close enough, it becomes apparent that the strange creature has a human face. The head recognises the features of Khalid Islambouli, an Egyptian officer who led the assassination of President Anwar Sadat during the Victory Parade in Cairo on October 6 , 1981, and was executed together with the other conspirators by a firing squad the following year. The bird inserts its beak into the flying head’s mouth and gives it three drops of a sweet drink that immediately alleviates its hunger, making it forget the taste of all the food ever consumed before. There is a bleeding wound in the body of the anthropomorphic bird. A drop of its blood flies into the outer space to become a star, the Star of Khalid. When the bird flies away, the head continues its solitary travel through the air until it sees somewhere in the desert a group of armed men. The troop of seventy is led by the second president of Egypt Gamal Abdel Nasser, and its mission is to take revenge on the murderers of Husayn ibn Ali, son of Prophet Muhammad’s cousin Ali ibn Abi Talib, who was killed and decapitated in the Battle of Karbala on October 10, 680. The participants of the punitive expedition eventually come toe to toe with an enemy force comprising thousands of fighters. The opposing coalition includes the army of the second Caliph of Umayyad Caliphate Yazid ibn Muawiya (it is they who slaughtered Husayn and his companions), Israeli troops, agents of Mossad in mufti, US quick reaction force servicemen, and mercenaries of all types. Amidst this motley rabble, cowardly keeping to the rear, is discernible Nasser’s notorious successor Anwar Sadat. The other well-known political figures supporting the assassins of Husayn are Jimmy Carter, John Foster Dulles, Ronald Reagan, Moshe Dayan, and Ariel Sharon. A ferocious battle ensues: the arrows are fired, the lances are thrust, and the swords are crossed. The supporters of Nasser (most of them were killed in the Arab-Israeli wars in another spacetime) put up a stiff resistance, but the strengths are unequal, and they fall one by one until there is only one man standing – their leader. The enemy fighters close in on the defenseless Nasser from all sides and pierce him with arrows. The treacherous Sadat delivers the coup de grâce by lopping Nasser’s head off with a sword. The horde of marauders then pounces on the headless body and rips its clothes off for souvenirs. The flying head contemplates the massacre with great bitterness, knowing all too well that it cannot interfere and change anything. It’s role is that of a passive observer. What makes the whole thing even more unbearable is the fact that amongst the fallen supporters of Nasser is its father. The head belongs to the acclaimed Egyptian writer Gamal al-Ghitani, and it was detached from his body some time before by the great master of Sufism Muhyiddin ibn Arabi aslo known as al-Shaykh al-Akbar.

A hasty disclaimer is in order. This wacky episode is in no way representative of al-Ghitani’s novel, and, if you approach it expecting something in the vein of Robert Coover’s The Public Burning with Oriental colour, you will be gravely disappointed. Despite its non-linear structure and a heavy slant towards the supernatural or, rather, the mystical, the book mostly deals with a very straightforward story based on the biographical facts of the author’s life as well as the life of his parents. It is a very personal book that can even be regarded as an exercise of self-therapy couched in the form of a novel. I ended up having love/hate relationship with it. It certainly did not turn out what I had expected it to be. At some points I found it hard going and even thought of abandoning it altogether. Nevertheless, I am glad to have experienced this peculiar novel, for I have learned a lot of new things and had an opportunity to look at the known political and historical events from a perspective different to the one I am used to. This book will not be to everyone’s taste, but there is little doubt that it is an important literary accomplishment that should not be ignored by a serious reader of world literature. As you probably know, last year Gamal al-Ghitani passed away. I have decided to read and review The Book of Illuminations as a tribute to one of the most important contemporary writers in Arabic. While working on this review I benefited a lot from Ziad Elmarsafy’s study Sufism in the Contemporary Arabic Novel that has a whole chapter dedicated to al-Ghitani’s book. Where the credit is due, I will say so. The numerous annotations by Khaled Osman, the translator of the book into French, have also been of great help: without them a lot more would have passed over my head than it eventually did. I also apologise in advance for all the inconsistencies in the romanisation of Arabic terms here, but since different sources used different approaches to this task, I resigned myself to keeping the transliterations the way they had been presented in each of the texts I consulted.

KitabAlTajalliyatFirst things first. Some of you may ask: “Why did The Untranslated choose to review a book that has already been translated into English and is easily available to anyone interested?” Well, not so fast, folks. Let the fact that Gamal al-Ghitani’s novel can be found in English (published as The Book of Epiphanies  by The American University in Cairo Press) not mislead you: it is just a partial translation of the original work. It is enough to compare the page count: the French translation which I have read has 874 pages, and the Arabic original – 815 pages. Now compare that to the piddling 288 pages of the English version: to say the least, a lot has been left out. As I have already said elsewhere, it is my philosophy not to read a book at all rather than read its abridged translation, which is why I regard al-Ghitani’s novel as good as unavailable in English, and will continue to look forward to its complete translation.

The original title of the novel is Kitāb Al-Tajalliyāt, where the first word means “book” and the second one is the plural form of the word tajallī which, being an important concept in Sufi philosophy, is rich with connotations and, therefore, can be translated in various ways. Here is what Ziad Elmarsafy writes in this regard:

The signifier tajallī from which the title is taken covers a wide semantic field. In The Book of the Definitions of Sufism Ibn ʿArabī defines it as “The secret illuminations that are revealed to the hearts [of the believers]. Revelation of this sort is a privilege reserved for the initiated, making manifest the presence and behaviour of the divine in the cosmos. […] In Ibn ʿArabī ‘s Kitab Al-Tajalliyāt, the author relates a series of dialogues with all of his [dead] predecessors on the Sufi path, who appear to him through the process of  tajallī. Were we to attempt a synthesis of the semantic field of tajallī in Ibn ʿArabī’s idiom, we would say that the word refers to the apparition, revelation, disclosure or unveiling of a given thing, person or idea that would normally be hidden in the order of the unknown or unknowable.

Not only does the title of al-Ghitani’s novel contain this rather complex term, but, taken as a whole, it is an allusion to the name of a treatise by one of the most celebrated Sufi mystics of all time. Of course, such homage found in the title of a novel is not such a rare case. We can recall here, for example, William Gaddis’ masterpiece The Recognitions whose title has been borrowed from a third-century religious romance believed to have been written by Clement of Rome.  The French translator of al-Ghitani’s novel in his introduction states that although the literal translation of tajalliyāt is “theophanies”, he has chosen to render this word in French as illuminations (illuminations) to better reflect the way the Egyptian author utilises the term, for he applies it for a wide range of the narrator’s mystical experiences that are not limited to the manifestation of the sacred, but also include the apparition of the profane. Taking my cue from Khaled Osman, I am going to refer to the novel in English as The Book of Illuminations.

One of the cornerstones of Sufi philosophy is the notion of journey or voyage (safar), the category which is applied to the spiritual journey of the novice on the way to unity with God. Such a voyage will consist of different stations, and the traveller may experience a number of states. The station (maqaam) denotes a certain stage in Sufi’s development achieved through his own hard work and through the guidance of his mentors. Each maqaam is a merit earned by the Sufi’s conscious endeavors on the spiritual path. In contrast, the state (haal) is a transitory state of mind that is granted by God to the mystic, and, being a product of God’s grace, it cannot be attained by intentional effort. All these concepts are used by al-Ghitani as the titles for the three parts of the novel: 1. The Journeys, 2. The Stations, 3. The States. Thus, just by looking at the title and the table of contents, we get a hint that the novel is steeped in Sufi philosophy, and that the novelistic form has been used to disseminate among the readership some of the concepts developed by Sufis, most probably presenting them in a new light. One realises upon completing the novel that these assumptions are actually true. In an article, the author himself stresses the tremendous role played by the writings of ibn Arabi in the composition of the Book of Illuminations.

I have relied upon the language of Ibn ‘Arabi. I have made pains to penetrate into its secrets, into the essence of this essential writing which is rare in the entire corpus of Arabic prose, into that amazing imagination which runs free with its particular visions and its ability to manifest itself.

In this respect, the book Kitāb al-Tajalliyāt is thick with the presence of Ibn ‘Arabi. He is a leading personality, and, as such, has guided me and solved problems that I have faced. He has made me see the truths of being and the details of humanity. Just as he ventures the propagation of an epistle in his amazing general introduction to the Futūḥāt al-Makkiyya, I have ventured the propagation of my view. What I want is to announce it to my people and to the children of mankind. Six-and-a-half years were spent in the writing of the Kitāb al-Tajalliyāt. Time shaped its production since my dear mother passed away three years into the writing of this book. It seems that the Kitāb al-Tajalliyāt is externally an expression of pain brought about by loss and death. However, essentially, it is an expression of life and the rare struggle on the part of those who are simple for the sake of the continuation of the dearest thing the Creator has given us.

The main impetus for writing the novel comes from Gamal al-Ghitani’s personal tragedy: the death of his father Ahmad al-Ghitani. When it happened, the writer was abroad and could not be present at the funeral. The ensuing feelings of loss, remorse and irreversibility inspired the author to write a novel in which his alter ego is granted the mystical gift of being able to travel in time by means of illuminations, thereby regaining the lost time when his father was still alive as well as rediscovering and reassessing his own self. In the introductory part called The First Illuminations the grief-stricken Gamal tells us how a mystical entity called the Divan is manifested to him and how its custodians endow him with the supernatural ability to travel within illuminations. We never get the exact explanation what the Divan is. When Gamal sees it for the first time he admits that his terrestrial vocabulary is insufficient to describe it. The best he can do is to say that some of the elements of this enormous edifice bring to his mind huge cenotaphs to unknown soldiers, the delicate facades of Asian temples, and natural canyons cutting through mountain ranges.  It is some kind of mystical headquarters that oversees our world, rules over our destinies and determines the shape of things to come. Personally I was reminded of the Aleph from the famous short story by Borges. The Divan is governed by a triad of historical personages belonging to Ahl al-Bayt (literally “People of the House” a term used to denote the family of Prophet Muhammad). Its president is Sayyeda Zaynab, daughter of Ali and Fatimah, and her two assistants are her brothers Hasan ibn Ali and Husayn ibn Ali, revered as the second and the third Shia Imams respectively. Every Saturday evening of Earth time the governors of the Divan hold a session during which they decide on the major events for the coming week.

Gamal’s wish to overcome the limitations of time and space is granted by the Divan. His subsequent journeys consist of three major stages covered in each of the three parts of the novel, and for each stage he is appointed a guide assisting him in each series of illuminations. In the first part his guide is Husayn himself. In the second part this mission is taken over by ibn Arabi. As for the identity of the third guide, it is open for conjecture, as Gamal is forbidden to reveal it. In the course of the mystic voyages under the guidance of the three masters Gamal revisits and relives both the past of his family and that of his country. He witnesses the events before his own birth, travels to the ancient times at the dawn of the Islamic civilisation, and also re-experiences the major events in his own life taking a detached view of himself. Following Gamal’s time travel is not always an easy task for the Western reader, as the amount of the required cultural baggage to fully understand the text is rather formidable. Just to give you the idea: imagine that you have to read Moby Dick knowing next to nothing about all the Biblical allusions running through it. Of course, you will be able to accomplish your reading, but your lacunae will be tremendous. In case of The Book of Illuminations, the concentration of all the Islamic lore diffused in it is even stronger: al-Ghitani integrates into his text numerous references to a variety of Sufi treatises as well as direct quotations from the Qur’an. Not to be lost in this wealth of information, the reader also needs a guide, and, luckily enough, this role is brilliantly fulfilled by the translator of the novel who has compiled an impressive collection of more than 300 end-notes explicating most of the obscure allusions and clearly indicating the origin of each Qur’anic quotation.

By visiting different episodes in the past as well as talking to inanimate witnesses of his family history, such as a stone wall, a palm tree, and a plot of land, Gamal gradually puts together the puzzle of his father’s life story. On the whole, it is a rather plain story of Ahmad al-Ghitani’s struggle at achieving social mobility and giving a better future to his children. Ahmad leaves his native city of Guhayna in Upper Egypt and sets out to Cairo in a mortician’s wagon with a big dream of receiving education at the prestigious Al-Azhar University and subsequently gaining financial stability and a higher social status. Although his ambitions mostly remain unfulfilled, he does manage to settle in the capital, get a menial job at the Ministry of Agriculture and later bring over his family. By his self-abnegating labour, grim determination and self-sacrifice Ahmad succeeds in providing for his children decent education and making it possible for them to escape poverty and get on in life. Despite all the supernatural elements and the mysticism, The Book of Illuminations is mainly a factological exploration of  the destiny of a single Egyptian family being pushed towards a better life by the perseverance and stoicism of the father. The story of the al-Ghitanis is narrated with an overwhelming feeling of gratitude, for the abandoned dream of Ahmad al-Ghitani has been vicariously fulfilled in the accomplishments of his son.

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Gamal Abdel Nasser (right) and Anwar Sadat in 1960. Image source

Besides narrating the story of his parents, Gamal al-Ghitani also tells us about the major military conflicts in the Middle East as well as about the host of political and social issues faced by Egypt during the presidencies of Abdel Nasser and his successor Anwar Sadat. At first glance, Gamal’s admiration for Nasser is liable to cause a certain bewilderment in anyone familiar with the author’s biography.  It is exactly during Nasser’s regime that al-Ghitani was arrested for political dissent, put in jail and subjected to torture. The writer’s imprisonment and tortures are recounted  in  unflinching detail in the third part of the novel. In spite of all that, Nasser is represented as one of the narrator’s spiritual mentors. In one of the illuminations he even speaks in the voice of Gamal’s father. Sadat, on the other hand, is shown as evil incarnate. Never called by his name, he is referred to in the original Arabic as الجلف الجافي (al-jilf al-jaafiy). This alliterative epithet is rendered in the French translation as butor brutal, and the corresponding English equivalent would be “brutish boor”. By depicting Sadat in a most derogatory manner and by pouring on him torrents of curses, al-Ghitani shares the hatred of many Egyptians who believe that Nasser’s successor betrayed his nation when he signed the Camp David Accords with Israel’s Prime Minister. For this deed, in the writer’s view, Sadat  has forever secured a prominent place among the arch-villains of the Arabic World. For Al-Ghitani the greatest virtue of Nasser is his care for the poor and the oppressed which found its expression in his socialist reforms. Nasser as the leader of common folk  is opposed to the supercilious and luxury-loving Sadat who has alienated himself from the majority of his nation. The personal suffering of the novelist cannot overbalance what he sees as the biggest humiliation in the history of the Arab Republic of Egypt perpetrated by Sadat when he sat at the table of negotiations with the Israeli leadership. The writer’s opposite attitudes towards the two presidents are vividly presented in the illumination summarised at the beginning of this review: Nasser is depicted as the valiant champion of just cause intent on avenging Martyr Husayn, whereas Sadat is shown as a cowardly and treacherous creep sided with Husayn’s assassins.

Qarawiyyin Mosque

The Al Qarawiyyin Mosque in Fez. Image source.

By mentioning the oneiric episode of the battle in the desert, I, most probably, will provoke a legitimate question: what is the meaning of al-Ghitani’s flying head that is observing this gory tableau? As I have already said, the head of the narrator was cut off by the Sufi philosopher ibn Arabi, and, in fact, it is just one of the several instances of the supernatural experience undergone by Gamal which Ziad Elmarsafy in his analysis of the novel identifies as “separation from the self”. When ibn Arabi’s sword falls on the neck of the novelist, this separation in the scholar’s words takes “brutal physical form”. The symbolism of decapitation in the novel is closely related with the martyrdom of Husayn ibn Ali. When al-Ghitani finds himself transported all alone to the city of Kufa in the distant past and is approached there by ibn Arabi, he desperately begs the philosopher to reunite him with Husayn, his guide appointed by the Divan at this stage of his journey . By subjecting the narrator to the same fate as befell Husayn in his earthly existence, Ibn Arabi both grants al-Ghitani’s wish and teaches him a lesson. As to what kind of lesson this symbolical execution exactly denotes, I guess there might be various interpretations, especially by those who are more familiar with Sufi philosophy than myself. As for the mystical separation of al-Ghitani’s self, one of its instances occurs when the writer is taking part in a literary colloquium in the Moroccan city of Fez. A mysterious stranger in a white bournous, who is invisible to everyone but al-Ghitani, beckons to the writer, and  the latter splits into two versions of himself one of which follows the summoner while the other stays in the conference room. The stranger takes the separated self of Gamal to the famous Al Qarawiyyin mosque where he witnesses all the major Sufi philosophers, mystics and hermits from all periods of history assemble for a prayer. After this grandiose spectacle, the double of  al-Ghitani  is catapulted by a rainbow into the outer space where he travels through the galaxies and nebulae at the speed of light. Elmarsafy identifies this incident as an instance of mi’raj or “spiritual ascension”. Although this term is primarily used with regard to Muhammad’s ascent to heaven, Sufis saw in mi’raj the culmination of the spiritual development and the acquisition of ultimate mystical knowledge.  Another noteworthy doubling of  the narrator takes place in an alternative past, in which the young Gamal lives with his family in Paris. In this version of the past his father works in an embassy; he is a poet and a political exile opposed to the regime of Anwar Sadat. Gamal meets a beautiful girl called Laura and immediately falls in love. They have a passionate affair whose outcome is a stunning revelation that Laura is none other than the female version of al-Ghitani. In general, the category of self is constantly challenged throughout the novel, being shown as unstable, unpredictable, and misleading. Not that one would expect something else form a book shaped to such an extent by the writings of Sufi masters.

For me The Book of Illuminations works best during its various miraculous and mystical moments, perhaps because they are unlike most of what I have encountered so far in Western literature. The weakest parts of the novel, in my opinion, are those in which al-Ghitani minutely narrates the everyday domestic problems of his family in Cairo. Although the hardships experienced by his parents and himself aroused my sympathy, I have to confess that all those recollections of childhood were a chore to read, and I tried to race through these episodes as fast as possible to reach the next instalment of fantastic journeys, transformations and revelations. It is a long and uneven novel that has as many flaws as merits, but despite my mixed feelings about it I consider my time with it well spent, and if I was given the supernatural ability to revisit the past like its protagonist, I would not  try to dissuade my earlier self from reading  and reviewing it.

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