Category Archives: Reviews

The Troiacord (El Troiacord) by Miquel de Palol


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


Filed under Reviews

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.


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.


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, 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


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.


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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The Quiet Fields (Спокойные поля) by Alexander Goldstein

I was reluctant SpokoiniyePolya to tackle The Quiet Fields mostly because I didn’t want to be left without any Goldstein novel to look forward to reading. This may sound a bit strange as he lived to write only two novels, but the sheer literary might of the first one, Remember Famagusta, persuaded me that its author was one of the greatest Russian language stylists of his time, and therefore  his next book must be something out of this world as well. Needless to say, this turned out exactly the case.  The Quiet Fields is a work of  intoxicating linguistic virtuosity and vast erudition which make most of the recent Russian literary produce pale by comparison. Partly fictionalised memoir, partly cultural criticism, this work is Goldstein’s swansong, his final legacy, his ticket to literary immortality. The author was terminally ill with lung cancer when writing this book, and he managed to finish it just shortly before his death. Aware of the fact that the end was near, Goldstein created an intricate tapestry in which he tried to capture as much of the world he was leaving behind as he could. Even partial understanding of this literary arras might require several careful readings as the density of the writing, high as it is, on many occasions goes off-scale.

The narrator, who shares many biographical details with the author, tells the story of his childhood and student years in the Soviet Baku as well as of his later life in Tel Aviv as an Israeli immigrant. But it is not just a story of the people he has known, the places he has visited, and the experiences he has had. It is also a story of literature, art and philosophy that have shaped the narrator and given him his particular voice. Just like in Remember Famagusta, the narrative is fragmentary, with unexpected temporal and spacial leaps. The novel is populated by real and imaginary characters: some of them are the individuals Goldstein personally knew, some are the figments of his imagination, some are historical figures he read about in books. A  life spent reading is as important here as a life spent living, maybe even more. Books, booksellers and bookshops are omnipresent in The Quiet Fields. Throughout the whole novel books are read, discussed, analysed. It appears that for Goldstein literature is just another country, like The Soviet Union or Israel, but more comfortable and more familiar than either of these. He definitely knew it better than any place in the physical world. The abundance of literary allusions playfully scattered on the pages of the novel reveals an encyclopedic mind equal to that of Roberto Calasso or Umberto Eco. We are not talking here about mere references to other works of literature.  The cultural material at Goldstein’s disposal is treated with exceptional subtlety  and is further enriched by passing through the centrifuge of his prose. There seems to be nothing he cannot do with language. Rich in meaning, alliterative and allusive, Goldstein’s sprawling sentences strike by the sheer inventiveness and the originality of looking at things. Even the most mundane situations gain loftiness and solemnity once couched in the baroque luxury of Goldstein’s prose. Nothing which is written nowadays in Russian comes even close to this filigree wordsmithery.

There are fourteen chapters, and the longest one has the same title as the novel – The Quiet Fields. This chapter is the most plot-driven part of the book, although it is unlikely to provide any kind of linearity for an impatient reader. It is a story of friendship of three bookish guys (one of whom is the narrator) in  Baku during the Soviet time.The quiet fields are none other than the Elysian Fields described in Book VI of Virgil’s Aeneid, which happens to be the favourite book of Pavel Torgovetsky, one of the three friends. The other friend is Oleg Blonsky, the narrator’s second cousin who provides him with rare books, some of them banned in the Soviet Union. The ordinary story of sharing and discussing books, of joint walks in the streets of Baku, of meals and  teas taken together is not only energised by the verbal pyrotechnics of the narrative, but also by the intrusion of mystical elements. Oleg’s mother Fira, who has some psychiatric disorder, also possesses a supernatural gift of drawing people the way they will look in the future, in ten or more years. When she was a girl, many relatives and  friends of the family came to her to pose for the prophetic portraits, and even paid money for that. The fun continued until one day she  was not able to fulfill the request of a man who wanted to see how he looked in eight years.  As Fira revealed,  there were just five years left for him. One cannot help but see the parallel between this mystical prophesy of death and a lethal medical diagnosis.

The three most important books the narrator acquires with Blonsky’s assistance are Varlam Shalamov’s Kolyma Tales, Rainer Maria Rilke’s The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, and Jens Peter Jacobsen’s Niels Lyhne.  Goldstein writes about each of these works at some length, but even without his explanations, the reader of the novel who has reached this point will be able to see their significance for the narrator given his background, ideas and aspirations. Kolyma Tales narrates one of the most horrible moments of history of the country in which he and his friends have come of age. Shalamov is the Russian Virgil offering to the reader a descent into the hell of Stalin’s labour camps. Whereas in other works on the subject, like Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, some aspects of camp labour are presented in the positive light as a source of meaning and self-actualisation for the dejected inmate, for Shalamov forced labour is a just a type of slow execution. Its only purpose is to wear out and degrade the prisoner until he succumbs to untimely death. Both Rilke’s and Jacobsen’s novels deal with the struggles, hopes and inevitable disillusionment of the aspiring poet who finds it hard to come to terms with the alienating society. It is important to remember that one of the genres mined by The Quiet Fields is the Künstlerroman, albeit the narrator’s formation as an artist, as opposed to that depicted in more conventional works of such kind, is shown  in non-linear, kaleidoscopic manner, with many gaps remaining unfilled.

The trio of intellectuals becomes just a duet after the tragic death of Oleg in a drowning accident. The two friends continue seeing each other, but  it’s not what it used to be. They slowly grow apart as Pavel becomes more and more obsessed with the Aeneid which he considers a prophetic book. He tries to predict the future by opening it at random and reading the arbitrary passage. The literary value of the poem gives way to its purported occult powers. Their walks together become rare until they cease meeting  altogether, restricting their communication to weekly phone conversations. After some time even the phone calls stop. When Pavel dies, the narrator is conveniently sick with flu, which gives him an excuse not to attend his funeral. Interaction with great writers and philosophers via books come easier to  Goldstein’s protagonist than human relationships in real life. Not that it is so uncommon among artists.

The story of three friends is just one of many recounted in The Quiet Fields. It stands out among others as it is the longest and the most fleshed-out narrative in the book. The nature of Goldstein’s novel is such that very often we get just a glimpse or hint of some event, and then it gives way to another before we become fully aware of what has just taken place. Some events and characters reappear later in the book, others disappear forever leaving to the reader a lingering taste of mystery. Besides that there are numerous set pieces of insightful commentary on various writers, artists, philosophers, and historical figures. The list of personalities discussed by Goldstein includes Bertold Brecht, Ernst Jünger, Giacomo Casanova, Iamblichus, Siyyid Ali Muhammad, Paul Scheerbart, Andy Warhol, Ferdinad II of the Two Sicilies, Garcilaso de la Vega, Witold Gombrowicz, Sergei Diaghilev, Sergei Kuriokhin, Louis Althusser and even Tupak Shakur. In the company of Goldstein’s inquisitive and critical mind, we discover a lot of fascinating facts and ideas. For instance, we learn why Andy Warhol’s photograph with a bulldog and a Roman bust counters the ancient doctrine of the great chain of being and also get to know the four important conclusions stemming from Garcilaso de la Vega’s description of the mummified Inca kings. The novel is full of little gems like these. Not less captivating are some ways in which the narrator gets hold of the books that provide him with food for thought, for sometimes the circumstances of acquiring a tome are tinged with the sense of mystery, of occult initiation. The case in point is his acquisition of a book with the writings of the Syrian Neoplatonist philosopher Iamblichus. The book is given to him by a mysterious barefoot man whom he meets in a forest. The narrator asks the man about the meaning of Nothing. After delivering a protracted monologue on the nature of being and reality that touches, among other things, on the philosophical teachings of Gautama Buddha, the artistic ambition of Ezra Pound, and the many-worlds interpretation of Hugh Everett III, the sage wanderer disappears in the woods  leaving the cloth-bound Iamblichus on the moss-covered stone he was sitting on just a while ago. The style of the wanderer’s speech fully conforms to the overall aesthetics of Goldstein’s novel: his ramblings are learned, convoluted and impressionistic. This is how, for example, he illustrates the impossibility of escaping the material world (please note that in no way my translation can do any justice to the original):

Where is the lie? It’s not so easy to explain, but I’ll try. As a sectarian immured in the masonry of the real, totally ignorant of anything but matter in the broad presence of its manifestations, – mettlesome cynic challenge – I was free as a bird, a flaneur on a voyeuristic walk,  everywhere finding the proof of my case. From The Capitals-talmuds, unread, leafed through out of boredom, from the orators’ speeches, radiochaos, strikes, from the newspaper columns with stock quotes and crime rates, from aviation, jazz, mustard gas, Rabelaisian devaluation and resurrection of money, from the tempo-rhythm of the city flooded by new iniquity (secret clubs, underground lupanars, Roman indecencies of the petite bourgeoisie of Weimar, night life opening the fan of sexual and racial exoticism for the first time surpassed the daytime in saturation), from the discontent of factory workers, from the political provocations, from the black weariness crying for the rabble-rousing to be fettered,  from the plebeian lies and violence there crept the red inflamed carcass of reality, live and complacently rotting meat bored by a million-headed worm, and even the cinema, lunar and theatrical, mistakenly chartered by doubles, psychosis, hypnosis, cocaine and morphine, lacerated him with hooks, thin like Chinese needles, like needles of embalmers.

On the last page of the novel there is the phrase “the morphine splits the text in two “. It is a grim reminder of the circumstances under which Goldstein was putting finishing touches to the manuscript of The Quiet Fields. Both as a linguistic tour-de-force and as a testimony of its author’s stoicism in the face of death, this book has a special place in contemporary Russian literature. I am not fazed in the least by the small print run of the edition that I have read: just 1,000 copies. It is true that Goldstein is little read in Russian-speaking countries and is almost unknown in the rest of the world. However, judging by his two novels which, when their time comes, will be keeping busy more than one generation of scholars, I personally have no doubt that his fabulous prose already belongs to the pantheon of eternity.

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Corporal (Corporale) by Paolo Volponi

I boughCorporalet Paolo Volponi’s novel in Rome as a souvenir during my brief stay in that incredibly beautiful city this July. I gave it preference over the selfie sticks, cheap Colosseum replicas, and t-shirts with provocative slogans. Corporal has a reputation of a difficult book, and when it is mentioned in different overviews of modern Italian literature the word “experimental” is invariably attached to it. Alberto Moravia held this work in high regard, writing that “Corporal is an almost impressionistic recovery of magma in which a man incapable of relations with the world moves, and here emerges the extraordinary quality of Volponi as a writer”. These words have become the staple blurb for the novel which is rarely read, has not been widely translated (there is only French translation to the best of my knowledge), and has a nasty habit of regularly going out of print. Now that I’ve read it, I can confidently say that we’re dealing with a literary treasure that is due to various reasons is not treasured at all these days. Corporal is a stylistic gem, a profound exploration of an anxiety-ridden consciousness in the atomic age as well as a skilfully designed and orchestrated narrative that rewards a patient and attentive reader.

The general mood is set from the outset by the epigraph, which is taken from Elsa Morante’s essay Pro o contro la bomba atomica (For or Against the Atomic Bomb):

Our bomb is the flower, or rather the natural expression of our contemporary society, just like Plato’s dialogues are of the Greek city; the Colosseum – of the Imperial Romans; Raphael’s Madonnas – of Italian Humanism; gondolas – of Venetian nobility; tarantella – of some southern rural populaces;  and the extermination camps – of petit-bourgeois bureaucratic culture already infected with a rage of atomic suicide.

That is a very powerful passage, but, if the reader expects Volponi’s novel to be just one of the numerous post-Cuban-Missile-Crisis nuclear-holocaust ephemera, they couldn’t be wider off the mark. Although the topic of nuclear destruction is prominent in this book, it is just one of the several motifs which are explored in painstaking detail via the disturbed and distorted consciousness of the main character Gerolamo Aspri.

Aspri’s stream of consciousness to which we are exposed from the very first page is bound to disorient and exasperate even the most seasoned readers of experimental fiction. My personal impression when reading the book  was akin to watching a David Lynch movie: extremely preposterous actions were carried out and utterly absurd and illogical statements were made with such an air as if all the violations of common sense were the most mundane occurrences not worth any second thought. The main character of Corporal most probably suffers from a mental disorder.  His narration is erratic, jumpy and volatile. He tends to fuse reality and hallucinations to such a degree that it is almost impossible to tell which is which. He splits the language the way scientists split the atom to create the nuclear weapons he is so paranoid about. On many occasions  his rants and diatribes transform into something reminiscent of automatic writing or William Burroughs’ cut-ups: incompatible concepts are put together, familiar phrases are divested of their usual meanings, syntactic relations are disrupted, all this to create an alienating effect. That being said, it is not that difficult to follow the general plot of the novel, and although some of the reasons for the characters’ actions remain vague, we are never completely in the dark as to what happens.

The first part of the novel is narrated in the first person by Gerolamo Aspri. When we first meet him, he is on vacation in Rimini with his wife and two kids. As we learn later, he is currently employed as a school teacher with an Italian Communist Party membership and a managerial post at a factory left forever behind. He takes long walks along the beach, inspecting the place where a murder has been recently committed. He is morbidly obsessed with the unknown perpetrator. This fascination is as strong as his another obsession: an erotic longing for a teenage girl called Ivana whom he meets on the same beach. Eros and Thanatos are Aspri’s faithful companions wherever he goes, and their most sublime embodiment seems to be the hydrogen bomb whose explosion he expects with a mixture of horror and excitement.

Aspri’s infatuation with Ivana is never destined to consummate because of a devastating tornado that strikes the beach. She and her boyfriend are riding in a paddle boat when this happens. The drowned boy’s body is recovered later, whereas Ivana is never found. Distraught and heartbroken, Aspri moves on. He will be meeting more people, and doing things one hardly expects from a school teacher. An overheard conversation about a lawyer and art seller from Urbino who is rumoured to have killed his son refuels Aspri’s obsession with the mysterious murderer: he superimposes his image with that of the man mentioned  by the speakers. Equipped with the knowledge that the possible perpetrator’s last name ends with “ati”, Gerolamo travels to Urbino where he soon enough finds a certain attorney called Trasmanati. The attorney’s collection of paintings is likely to interest Aspri’s German friend with whom he maintains a long-lasting correspondence. Without hesitation, he telegraphs Overath to come to Urbino. This Overath is a very strange and elusive person. I’m tempted to view him as some kind of Mephistophelian presence in Aspri’s life. Art collection is just one of many activities pursued by Overath, and only few of those seem to be legal. Their visit to Trasmanati’s house ends up in a scuffle as Aspri suddenly attacks Overath, intending to bludgeon him to death with the host’s cane. The teacher goes haywire when the German, overwhelmed by the dark beauty of Trasmanati’s Renaissance paintings, utters a pompous disquisition on the immortality of the soul. Nobody is seriously injured and the friends part their ways, but only for a while, as they are to be reunited again under very specific circumstances.

The second part is narrated in the third person, which does not prevent it from being as confusing as the first one. We come to know the Mr. Hyde side of Aspri’s personality as we encounter him in Milan actively involved in drug trafficking and prostitution under the alias Joaquin Murieta, which is the name of the notorious 19th century Mexican outlaw. Aspri’s alter ego keeps a diary and some of its entries  appear in the narrative. Murieta keeps a colourful company consisting of smugglers, pimps, drug dealers, whores and hustlers of any stripe. There is also an Ivana, but this time she’s anything but the nymphet from Rimini: she is a prostitute married to her own john who is simply referred to as Ivana’s husband. There is a competition between Murieta and the omnipresent Overath for Ivana’s attention, and her husband doesn’t seem to mind. When we come to think of it, why should he, with as many as forty street walkers under his control? Besides the forty prostitutes, we are also introduced to the same number of greyhounds whose names are abstract nouns like Equality, Liberty, Fraternity, Mendacity, Death, Wickedness: Murieta and his associates decide to expand their business by opening a dog race track. The accounts of these nefarious characters’ wheeling and dealing  often include lengthy political and philosophical discussions which are tinged with the sense of the grotesque, not the least due to the way the main character perceives and interprets reality.

For some time, the shadowy existence as Joaquin Murieta is everything Aspri the teacher, constrained by societal norms, could wish for. However, the protagonist’s stint in the criminal underworld, despite all the adventures, dangers and passions, can neither stop his growing alienation from the surrounding world  nor curb his terror of nuclear war. Eventually, he casts the adopted gangster persona aside to become a mere teacher again. The catalyst for Aspri’s decision to leave Milan is his son’s tragic death in a boating accident.

The third part, again narrated in the first person, is set in the magnificent city of Urbino. Aspri has moved there to work at a local school. His main mission, however, is scouting the nearby foothills of the Apennines in search of the most appropriate place for an atomic shelter. Aspri also enters in a relationship with Trasmanati’s housekeeper Imelde who, after the lawyer commits suicide, is left in charge of his home and the numerous art pieces pending the auction. But when Gerolamo finally rents an estate that satisfies his goals both geographically and meteorologically (he is very meticulous about the direction of the winds that are likely to carry radioactive fallout), he does not even conceive the possibility of sharing his ark with anyone else. In fact, fully aware of the Biblical undertones of his project, Aspri calls the shelter Arcatana (literally arklair or arkburrow). Exhibiting enviable capacity for work,  he manages to construct the facility single-handedly in less than two years.  Aspri is portrayed as a kind of Anti-Noah whose primary goal is not to preserve the seed of humanity for the future regeneration, but rather to create conditions for his complete detachment from mankind and its history, reaching the state of ultimate solipsism that he is going to maintain until and beyond the atomic annihilation of life on the planet.  Rather than pondering on conservation of the human race, Aspri fantasises about a new species that will evolve out of his mutating organism:

[…] man-animal-emerald prepared to get resurrected (this word is so ugly, religious, and so papally filled with lead that it won’t bring back to the surface even a cork, not even a turd) to re-emerge different, encrusted, made thinner, split in half, discoloured, one-eyed, rendered bat-like by darkness, lizard-like by earth, eel-like by mud, monoped, coelenterate, with or without fur, mute, feathered, carnivorous, omnivorous, virus, bacterium, blue alga, moss, sponge, fungus, mould, jellyfish, disflagellated (here we go again, religious thoughts), flagellated (but has nothing to do with some column of Hellenistic imitation, and Palestinian portico, centurion’s red tunic), multi-cellular, capable or incapable of photosynthesis, provided that it is alive, alive, alive, and therefore able in its own way to think, to grow, to reproduce, and different, different, different from the present fearful creature, naked and covered in sticking plaster (not me, dear Imelde of the blue little nose, not me) sedentary and stercoraceous, with the brain, the nose, the prick chasing after services to give and to receive.

While Aspri is building the fallout shelter, he begins studying his new scripture,  a sacred text that will prepare him for the world to come: an issue of a medical journal dedicated to the survival during and after nuclear war.

The fourth and final part is very short. Just like the second, it is narrated in the third person. The main setting is the hospital where Aspri is admitted after sustaining a pelvis injury at the farm. Confined to his ward, he nevertheless tries to manage various issues related to the up-keeping of the rented property by employing a waiter from the billiards bar he used to frequent. The waiter is happy to run errands for him, but gradually it becomes apparent that he is hiding something from his employer, as well as that Overath, unbeknownst to Aspri, might be interfering with his grand project of resurrection from the nuclear ashes. But there is no way to be sure if any of Gerolamo’s suspicions are true, as his dreams, hallucinations and reveries keep re-inventing the drab reality he is incapable of escaping.  Straddling a rocking horse on his bed, brought to him so he could look through the window, he cuts a solitary and grotesque figure. The waiter reports to him that some unknown vandals have started raiding the estate, and the dismantling of the fallout shelter is just a matter of time. Where will Aspri go when he is dismissed from hospital? What will he do? How much of what has been seen or told by him is true? I am afraid that the burden of answering these questions has been laid on the readers, provided that they have managed to reach the novel’s end.

Corporal was written between 1966 and 1974, the period which corresponds to the heyday of Italian auteur cinema. Fellini’s 8 1/2, Pasolini’s Il teorema, and Antonioni’s L’avventura were made during that time. There is a certain affinity between Volponi’s novel and those groundbreaking films. Corporal manages to encompass the existential void of Antonioni, the eroticism of Pasolini, and the carnivalesque dreamscapes of Fellini. It is in many ways a product of its time with its hysteria around the atomic bomb and the preoccupation with leftist politics. But, just like those great cinematic works, Volponi’s novel succeeds in transcending its topicality, which is now a mere curiosity, a bizarre insect in the amber of the Cold War era. After all, the main concern of this astonishing monument to the Italian language is neither nuclear war nor the split personality, although these topics are most likely to attract the attention of the reader. In this unusual, uncomfortable, often frustrating novel Paolo Volponi, like nobody else, makes us aware of the two grand complexities that we cannot avoid, no matter how we try, no matter what kind of shelter we try to build around us: those of the world we are born into and of the language we use to make sense of it. That sounds hopelessly trite, I know. But it takes a genius to express this idea in such a grandiose, multi-layered verbal symphony that is Corporal – yet another great unknown patiently waiting for us to catch up with it.


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