The Virtuosi: Five Translators Whose Names are Hallmarks of Quality

Agnes Lawrence Pelton, Translation. Image Source

I have to confess that I don’t read works in English translation that often. The main reason is neither my language purism nor snobbishness but the prosaic lack of time: in order to maintain seven reading languages besides my native Russian and near-native English, I have to devote the bulk of my reading time to works of literature written in or translated into those languages, which is often a logistical, managerial and mental torment. The very nature of my blog presupposes a tangential role for English-language translators: they are rather the intended audience of The Untranslated, than its subject matter. Ideally, I would love them to read a review of some humongous, linguistically dazzling, arcana-laden novel (and there are quite a few reviewed here) and say: “Yes, I  wanna do it!” Of course, you might wonder skeptically:”Is there still anyone left who can pull it off?” Are there human beings capable of translating such bemusing behemoths as Los Sorias and El Troiacord? such a paragon of untranslatable wordsmithery as Remember Famagusta? such unjustly underappreciated, uncomfortable, mesmerising masterworks as The Absolute Marshal and Corporal? The answer is yes. Although the earlier titans of translation might be departing from the scene, either leaving this mortal coil like Gregory Rabassa and William Weaver or retiring like John E. Woods, new names are coming to the fore. There are industrious, talented, determined, and self-abnegating translators who are up to the task of struggling with the most challenging and the least commercially appealing projects to recreate in English the splendour of a foreign language masterpiece, to reinforce its deserved place in the pantheon of world literature. I have selected five such translators, of whom I’d like to think as the Shadow Cabinet of The Untranslated, for if somebody can face the challenge of rendering some of the books reviewed here in English, it is them. Based on their  achievement up to now, I have no reservations in stating that their names are hallmarks of quality and should be sought out on book covers  as vehemently as the names of your beloved authors. I have included here brief information about each of the five translators as well as excerpts from the works published in their translation. They should speak for themselves.

 

Adrian Nathan West is a Renaissance Man of literary translation. Not only does he translate from Spanish, German, Catalan, French, Italian, and Portuguese, but he is also extremely ambitious and as uncompromising as it gets when choosing which texts to translate. It is Adrian West who has introduced Marianne Fritz and Josef Winkler to the English-speaking reader, and it doesn’t surprise me in the least that one of his aspirations is to translate an encyclopedic novel by the Catalan polymath Miquel de Palol, provided that he finds a publisher as intrepid as himself.

From Natura Morta by Josef Winkler, translated from the German by Adrian Nathan West:

Neither ferns nor algae covered the five small sharks, ten to twenty centimeters in length, lying prone in their white styrofoam coffin, their gray skin coarse as sandpaper. A bee sucked greedily at a viscid white calamari ring, and a fat fly, blue-green and shimmery, roamed through the eye socket of a swordfish, glinting silver beneath the sun. With the long green nail of her index finger, a humpbacked woman pulled open a fish’s gill to check it for freshness. A sparrow with a piece of fish meat in its mouth, nearly a third of its weight, flew faltering to the tin roof of the seafood stand before taking off again to light on a pine tree branch in the park of Piazza  San Vittorio where it began to tear the flesh apart. While a nun, her face covered in warts, was passing her payment for the mussels she had selected to Piccoletto, the end of the white cord she wore looped over her hips fell over the neck of a slimy squid. Indignant, unnoticed by the fish- monger, she pulled the cord from the white styrofoam crate of squids.

If somebody writes a mammoth novel containing a Pandora box of horrors and narrated by an unrepentant Nazi war criminal or a one-sentence novel with an overwhelming abundance of historical and cultural allusions, there should be somebody who can skilfully render these and other similarly intimidating texts in English. Charlotte Mandell is the person in question. She is more than a translator. She is an ambassador of French language and culture in the English-speaking world.

From Compass by Mathias Énard, translated from the French by Charlotte Mandell:

Existence is a painful reflection, an opium addict’s dream, a poem by Rumi sung by Shahram Nazeri, the ostinato of the zarb makes the window vibrate slightly beneath my fingers like the skin of the drum, I should go on reading instead of watching Herr Gruber disappearing under the rain, instead of straining my ears to the  swirling melismata of the Iranian singer, whose power and timbre could make many of our tenors blush with shame. I should pause the CD, impossible to concentrate; pointless reading this offprint for the tenth time. I don’t understand any of its mysterious meaning, twenty pages, twenty horrible, frosty pages, which reached me precisely today, today when a compassionate doctor may have named my illness, declared my body officially diseased,  almost relieved at having given my symptoms a diagnosis – a deadly kiss – a diagnosis we’ll need to confirm while beginning a treatment, he said, and following the disease’s evolution, evolution, there it is, there we are, contemplating a drop of water evolving toward disappearance before it reforms itself in the Great All.

Thanks to Brendan Riley, many can read Carlos Fuentes’ critical exploration of the Latin American novel from its inception until the present day.  It is also Brendan Riley who put Juan Filloy on the map for the Anglophone readership by translating his Caterva, the notorious tale of seven erudite vagabonds. However, it was just a warm-up for his current project: the translation of Luis Goytisolo’s novel-cathedral Antagony. The first Englished part of this literary monument is already available, and judging by the reaction in this post at Messenger’s Booker, it is spellbinding. I have shamelessly “borrowed” the  following excerpt from that blog post. This is what happens when a great prose stylist contemplates a great piece of architecture, as conveyed to us in a great translation.

From Recounting: Antagony, Book I by Luis Goytisolo, translated from the Spanish by Brendan Riley:

And to the right, the Portico of Faith, enraptured altarpiece centred on the presentation of Jesus in the temple, with an outline of images now solemn and impassive, now violent, like the one of John the Baptist preaching in the desert, foretelling the coming of the Messiah, all that upon an embroidered background of wretchedness and suffering, of an interwoven framework of thorns and flowers, buds, corollas, thalamus, sepals, petals. Stigmata, honeybees drawn to pollen, and superimposed on the bramble-crag crenellations, the lantern, a three-peaked oil lamp, eternal triangle, base of Immaculate Conception, dogmatic effigy rising in ecstasy, like an ejaculatory prayer from within a large cascade of sprigs and grape clusters, all those details one can spot carefully from any one of the points of the belfry towers, as you climb the airy spiral staircases, from the doorways, from the enclosed balconies sinuously integrated on the projections of architraves and cornices of the frontispiece, balconies with bulbous wrought iron railings, small contoured galleries, catwalks, small steps, intestinal cavities, twisted corridors of irregular relief, passages conjoined in a coming and going from the belfries to the façade, four intercommunicating bell towers, harmonically erect. Which, if near their bases appear rather strangely compounded with the parameters of the porticoes, as the separate, each acquiring its own shape, they becomes curving parabolic cones, the two outer pairs equal in height, the two center towers taller.

Isabel Fargo Cole doesn’t just translate from German – she also writes fiction in German. Her thick novel Die grüne Grenze was nominated for Klaus Michael Kühne Debut Prize. It is owing to her efforts that the GDR genius Wolfgang Hilbig has suddenly materialised in the Anglophone dimension to stun and enthrall his readers.

From Old Rendering Plant by Wolfgang Hilbig, translated from the German by Isabel Fargo Cole:

While all the other plants along the watercourse looked sickly and surfeited—all the vegetation struck me as corpulent and phlegmatic, overfertilized and overbred, its natural processes strangely retarded in the fall, when all foliage looked fatter than usual and seemed to eat its way rampantly onward, though its dark green looked dull and unclean, so that I expected to see it collapse at any moment—I thought I could see the willows devolving into hitherto unknown wildness: in the twilight, when the mist rose ever denser from the bank, they seemed transformed into fantastic creatures, the spawn of a freakishly fertile subsoil, ugly crippled excrescences that through their very degeneration had come into power and evil. I saw shapes in them like grimacing faces, not quite identifiable as vegetation, nor as any species of animal I knew; their expression had something strangely skulking, and they seemed ever ready to pull up, like worms from the mud, the roots that held them so unreliably, and shamble many-footed along the course of the waters that, for them, were both nourishment and death… In this contorted skulking, in their eldritch age, there was a spectral dignity, like invalids hobbling through weird tales, creaking and gray with craftiness…thus they seemed filled with abilities beyond their due, and like monstrous creatures long believed extinct they seemed gifted with supernatural senses that called into question the very death whose nearness bowed them down.

And of course, this list wouldn’t be complete without mentioning somebody working with the  Russian language. Oliver Ready has taken up the  challenge of translating some of the most complex prose writers of contemporary Russia: Yuri Buida and Vladmir Sharov. Thanks to him, a lot of English-language readers were astounded, puzzled, mystified and delighted by Sharov’s phantasmagoric canvas of a novel Before and During. Now that his translation of Sharov’s another apocalyptic masterpiece, The Rehearsals, is forthcoming in 2018, we can safely assume that the Russian author’s reputation among Anglophone readers will only continue to grow.

From Before and During by Vladimir Sharov, translated from the Russian by Oliver Ready:

“In music, for all his innovation, Scriabin undoubtedly remains within the bounds of tradition, albeit in the broadest, freest sense; in smells, he denies not only tradition, but culture in general. It is the destruction and negation of everything, first and foremost of organized, man-made bouquets, whether cheese or perfume. Yet still, in that cacophony of smells that permeates Scriabin’s score, two interwoven themes can be clearly distinguished: the city in its St. Petersburg guise and the Russian south – the beginning of the movement of the Mysterium to India. Both themes are treated at ostentatious length; and through them, through these smells, it becomes easier to grasp how Scriabin imagined the course of the Mysterium than, strangely enough, through the music.
“‘St. Petersburg: war and gradual weakening, the dying away of the smells of normal, manicured life, of confectioner’s shops, restaurants, bakeries, where everything—who should smell, how and where – has long been established and become a matter of habit; in their place are the smells of men engaged in their primordial labor of war, leaving for the front, briefly returning home after hospitalization, leaving once more; the artificial smells of the sick quarters: iodine, spirit, carbolic, ointments of various kinds—all this mixed up with the smell of a body rotting alive, of excrement, urine, and the rich, abundant sweat of the wounded and the dying; the smell of the desperate and hopeless struggle for life, the smell of your body being cut into pieces like meat, the table where you are carved up, your part – an arm, a leg – is already corpse, but you are clinging to life. The sweat of deadly fatigue and deadly labor. And also: the smell of freshly laundered bandages, which take the place in this world of freshly laundered linen; the smell of a rotting wound and of the bandages, white and medicine-soaked, that have just been applied to it. Yet stronger than all is the smell of corpse, and it gets stronger all the time; you can’t get rid of it, it’s the definitive, terminal smell of man – the end of life.

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Forthcoming: Geography of Rebels Trilogy by Maria Gabriela Llansol

Poetic and hermetic, unlike anything else you’re going to read for the remainder of the year, Audrey Young’s forthcoming translation of Maria Gabriela Llansol’s trilogy is a true gift to the English-speaking connoisseurs of meditative erudite prose. The three texts combined under the title Geography of Rebels (Geografia de Rebeldes) are hard to pigeonhole: it is quite possible that the writer, little known outside her native Portugal, invented her own genre which I will abstain from labelling but rather encourage my readers to experience for themselves when the book is brought out this December by the adventurous Texas publisher Deep Vellum. The magnificent heterotopia, constructed by the Portuguese author out of the debris of European history and culture, brings together Thomas Müntzer, the leader of the ill-fated peasant uprising during the early Reformation, St. John of the Cross, the Spanish Catholic mystic and poet whose masterpiece Dark Night of the Soul (La noche oscura del alma) narrates the peregrination of the soul on its way to the unity with God, and Friedrich Nietzsche, a rebel philosopher par excellence. The real protagonist of this tripartite extravaganza, however, is the sensual and cerebral Ana de Peñalosa, the major driving force of the community of rebels. She is also a mystic, as well as an intellectual whose goal is to recreate some kind of transcendental  space exclusively devoted to knowledge. Known today as just a marginal figure to whom St. John of the Cross dedicated the four stanzas of The Living Flame Of Love (Llama de amor viva), Ana de Peñalosa takes centre stage in Geography of Rebels to tell her story and the story of a Europe torn between the Reformation and Counter-reformation in a unique and utterly absorbing manner, weaving a complex tapestry of allegories, symbols, allusions and revelations, which is likely to invite just as many interpretations and learned discussions as the poetic heritage of her more renowned admirer.

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Solenoid (Solenoide, Solenoid) by Mircea Cărtărescu

I have read Mircea Cărtărescu’s latest novel in Marian Ochoa de Eribe’s Spanish translation, which was kindly provided for this review by the publishing house Impedimenta. Unfortunately, it is unlikely that there will be an English translation any time soon – indirect evidence of that is the fact that the English translation of Cărtărescu’s acclaimed trilogy Orbitor ground to a halt after only the first volume came out in English as The Blinding back in 2013. So, if you can read Spanish or Catalan, or any other European language in which the book will appear within the next few years, I recommend getting this novel and plunging right into it: it is one of those awe-inspiring literary juggernauts which grace exacting readership only once in a decade.

Moreover, I will allow myself to be outrageously opinionated and blunt: Solenoid is the greatest surrealist novel ever written. I can imagine it firmly sitting at the top of a gigantic totem pole sculpture built out of the debris representing  the evolutionary chain kick-started by the publication of Breton and Soupault’s The Magnetic Fields in 1920. Among the myriad elements of the construction  you can make out the manuscripts of The Surrealist Manifesto and Nadja, a screen showing a repeating loop of Un Chien Andalou,  paintings featuring the milestones of visual surrealism: the anthropomorphic chests of drawers and insect-legged elephants of Salvador Dalí, the sentient blobs of Ives Tanguy, the paradoxical tableaux of Remedios Varo, as well as more books: Julien Gracq’s The Castle of Argol, Max Ernst’s Une semaine de bonté, Raymond Roussel’s Locus Solus, Giorgio de Chirico’s Hebdomeros, Tristan Tzara’s Approximate Man, and so on until this enormous column of artifacts terminates with the hefty volume written by  Cărtărescu. Here is the most advanced stage of this century-long development: a surrealist novel, which is also a maximalist novel whose encyclopedic penchant for exploring various realms of human knowledge is only matched by its savage commitment to bending, exploding and metamorphosing the “reality” it depicts.

Now, if that were not enough, Solenoid is also one of the four great novels of the 21st century exploring the theme of the fourth dimension, the other three being Miquel de Palol’s El Troiacord, Thomas Pynchon’s Against the Day, and Alan Moore’s Jerusalem.

That being said, Solenoid is far from perfect. It hasn’t avoided the usual pitfalls of  ambitious long novels: the book may feel repetitive, turgid and navel-gazing at times. Nevertheless, going through it relatively quickly took my breath away, and my main reaction after closing the book was: “What an achievement! They don’t write like this any more!” Reviewing it will not be an easy task, but I will try my best.

So, where do I even start with this? In a nutshell, the novel is presented as a manuscript of a failed writer who teaches Romanian at an elementary school in Bucharest, hates his job and wishes to find an escape route from the confinement of his body and the three-dimensional world around it. As in his epic poem The Levant, Cărtărescu includes plenty of biographical details in Solenoid. The nameless narrator, in fact, lives a life very similar to that of the Romanian writer until the crucial bifurcation point at which their paths begin to diverge. The moment in question is a literary soirée at the Faculty of Letters at which the aspiring author reads his long poem The Fall, hoping it would launch his literary career. Instead, he suffers  a complete fiasco as the audience ruthlessly tear his work apart, making the young man forsake his literary ambitions forever. He will go on to have the mediocre life of a schoolteacher, whereas his other version  will become a successful writer in an alternative world created by the positive reception of his poem.

The manuscript of the failed writer is not meant for publication – it is there to document his quest for the escape. This metaphysical journey is narrated through childhood recollections, the accounts of the everyday life at the school he teaches in, which exemplifies the sordidness and absurdity of the existence under the communist regime in Romania, the excerpts from his personal diaries, descriptions of his dreams and hallucinations, fragments of his “unsuccessful” literary experiments. On more than one occasion, the narrator emphasises that what we are reading is not a novel. He believes now, after his failure, that writers, just like artists and other creative people in general, are mere charlatans: they create trompe-l’oeils, doors so realistically painted on walls that for a moment we might even think that they lead somewhere, only to realise upon closer inspection that they don’t. His manuscript, however, presents ample evidence of the existence of  doors into other dimensions, which are as difficult for us to conceive as is our 3D world for a Flatland inhabitant.

The preconditions making the nameless narrator an eligible candidate for the escape attempt are to be found, naturally, in his childhood. The lonely kid reads voraciously and has the first glimpses of the possible existence of other dimensions in sci-fi and mystery stories. His favourite is the one about a prisoner who manages to flee captivity thanks to the inmate in the neighbouring cell who transmits the getaway plan encoded in a system of knocks. The protagonist of the story translates the knocks into his own symbolic notation and breaks free. Some years later he returns to the prison to find his saviour and express his gratitude only to find out that the adjacent cell doesn’t exist and the wall that the mysterious neighbour used for his message faces outside. Another important source of knowledge is the narrator’s dreams, hallucinations and the nightmares brought about by what appears to be sleep paralysis, i. e. a state of numbness one experiences between wakefulness and falling asleep, during which the person has an illusion of being in the presence of strange things or people, often of threatening nature. In case of Solenoid‘s main character, during the episodes reminiscent of sleep paralysis he sees strange individuals sitting on his bed. The “visitors”, as he prefers to call them, might as well be messengers from another world trying to get across some important clue he’s yet unable to understand. The narrator also keeps diaries in which he writes down detailed descriptions  of his dreams, some of which  are reproduced in the manuscript. There is no sharp distinction between actual events, memories, dreams and hallucinations when it comes to the narration in Solenoid. As the protagonist himself confesses  “I live in my own skull”; so, everything he sets down here is the subjective product of this limitation. Not that he’s very content with this state of things either, which is evident in his other statement: “All I’ve been doing my entire life is looking for cracks in the seemingly smooth, solid, logical surface of the mock-up of my skull”.

Besides the constraints imposed by our five senses, there is a more sinister limitation: that of  human life expectancy. The inevitability of death and various ways of coming to terms with it inform the strong  thanatological element of the novel. The narrator, whose first significant encounter with death happens when he loses his twin brother when still a child, dedicates considerable part of his enquiry to the nature of last things. The perfect environment for such ruminations is the tuberculosis sanatorium Voila to which he is sent after testing positive for TB in school. The narrative about the sanatorium  is a morbid and fascinating set piece that can be read as a children’s version of The Magic Mountain. There the young narrator gets to know another boy called Traian who becomes his companion and even mentor in his search for the cracks in reality. Traian has arrived at his own eschatological model which he readily shares with his friend. According to it, after death people are doomed to a millennia-long journey in a dark otherworldly realm along a branching and crisscrossing  path, occasionally meeting monstrous beings who ask them questions. If the answer is wrong, the monsters lock the traveller up in their own hell; if not, the journey continues for millions of years interrupted by scarce encounters with other monsters. When this seemingly infinite trek comes to an end, the dead soul enters a cave where he meets his mother who can take up any shape: a lioness, a moth, a lizard or even a translucent larva. The wanderer crawls into the womb of his mother to be born again in our world. For the mother is the final monster. It is also Traian who first shows to the other boy a secret sign that is going to be widely used by various sects prophesying death-defiance in Romania at the time when the grown-up narrator works at school: an insect sitting on the open palm.

Mina Minovici National Institute of Forensic Medicine. Image Source

One such sect is called “picketers”. What they actually do is gather around places associated with death and dying (for example, morgues, cemeteries or hospitals) and picket them, holding up protest signs with slogans against death, mortality and disease. The narrator attends one of their most significant pickets which takes place near the Mina Minovici National Institute of Forensic Medicine, a veritable palace of death that comprises a morgue, an amphitheater, a library, forensic laboratories and a pathological anatomy museum. Cărtărescu takes the real historical building and embellishes it to the state of grandeur worthy of St. Peter’s Basilica. In his version the cupola of the institute is surrounded at the base by twelve allegorical statues representing twelve gloomy states of mind, whereas the thirteenth statue, four times bigger than the others, is hovering half a metre above the top of the building. It represents Condemnation. Led by the preacher with the telling name Virgil, the picketers intend to implore the statue of Condemnation to interrupt the never-ending series of death and suffering the countless generations of humans are condemned to go through. In return, Virgil offers as a sacrifice his body and all his memories, invoking the total sum of human knowledge, the scientific and cultural achievements which will be saved along with humankind if the brutal cycle of destruction is broken. However, this offering does not appear as valuable for the forces in charge of the grim determinism of human life as the preacher believes. Eventually, it will be up to our narrator to come with a better offer, but in order to reach that status he still needs to learn and experience a lot.

The statue of Condemnation is suspended in the air on account of a huge solenoid (a coil of wire producing magnetic field when electricity runs through it) embedded in the wall beneath the imposing cupola of the forensic institute. The discovery of huge solenoids hidden in certain “energy nodes” of Bucharest marks an important development in the teacher’s search for the access to other dimensions. One such coil is immured in the foundation of the house he buys from the crackpot scientist and inventor Nicolae Borina. Perhaps due to the influence of the solenoid or some other mysterious forces, the newly-bought house turns out to be a receptacle of ambiguous and paradoxical spaces bringing to mind the architectural puzzles of M. C. Escher. Not only it is impossible to say how many rooms there are, not only the owner himself has to be cautious not to get lost in his own home, there is also a mysterious place concealing a rip in the fabric of reality behind a window designed as a porthole. The place in question is a turret that can be accessed only by a staircase. Inside the turret the teacher finds a chamber occupied by a dental chair with the relevant armamentarium, a reified metaphor for human pain and suffering easily identifiable by those who had to visit the dentist before the 1990s. The round window in the turret offers a glimpse of an alien world, a different dimension which might grant the coveted escape route for the narrator, but it is unlikely that he would be delighted to take it. What he sees is a bleak and crepuscular landscape populated by nightmarish beasts:

With a melancholy impossible to express in words, processions of entities roamed this landscape: herds of creatures that sometimes resembled elephants — but on spider legs, like the ones in Saint Anthony’s vision by Dalí — at other times, cows with bestial masks on their heads, and, on occasion, insects of a long-gone kingdom. On their articulated legs, similar to the fingers of a human hand, they were laboriously dragging a shapeless body covered by soft carapace through which sprouted sparse hair. Each protuberance, each rough spot, each bulge and each bristle looked limpid as if under oblique light. Their faces, dominated by beaks and hooks, were blind. They were making way through intertwined fibre by virtue of the sensitive filaments with which they were palpating the backs of those walking in front.

Salvador Dalí, The Temptation of Saint Anthony, 1946. Image Source

There will be more inter-dimensional rifts like these, and each time the narrator comes across a similar portal into the unknown, he will feel being closer to the solution of his main problem, all the time aware of the giants who came before him, and on whose shoulders he is carrying out his research.

Nicolae Borina, the inventor of the paranormal solenoid, is a fictitious character, but besides him there are quite a few real historical figures in the book. We get to learn about Mina Minovici, the founder of the above-mentioned institute, who was one of the greatest forensic scientists of his time. Even more curious is his brother Nicolae, a keen researcher of the effects of hanging upon the human body, who conducted hanging experiments on himself. In Solenoid, Nicolae Minovici is portrayed as a thanatological visionary who produces a number of gruesome engravings that depict his hallucinations experienced while hanging himself. Another important contributor to the narrator’s growing database of recondite knowledge is the psychiatrist and psychologist Nicolae Vaschide. He is also a real historical personage who devoted a lot of effort to the exploration of dreams, which resulted in the publication of his treatise Somnul și visele (Sleep and Dreams) in 1911. In the novel Vaschide  proves to be a member of a secret fraternity of oneiromants  with the uncanny ability to see other people’s dreams. His goal is to experience the crystal-clear dream he calls “orama”, the highest manifestation among all types of dreams. We follow his search through a series of lavish oneiric adventures, such as entering a giant skull excavated in a hill in the Ferentari neighbourhood of Bucharest and finding inside a little girl resting on the butterfly of the sfenoid bone.

Alicia Boole Stott’s models of  cross-sections of 4D polytopes. Image Source

George Boole, his wife Mary Everest and their children deserve a special mention. Their incredible story feeds the narrator’s insatiable curiosity about the four-dimensional world.  It all starts also in childhood, with his reading of Ethel Voynich’s The Gadfly, a cult book in the Soviet Bloc countries due to its romantic portrayal of the revolutionary struggle in the 19th century Italy. Ethel was one of the daughters of the two mathematicians, George Boole, the founder of the logic of algebra (later known as Boolean algebra) and Mary Everest, an author of progressive education materials on mathematics. His other daughter married Charles Howard Hinton, also a mathematician and an intrepid investigator of the fourth dimension who introduced the term “tesseract” for the 4D hypercube and who developed a complex system for visualising it using a collection of colour-coded cubes. And then, there is yet another daughter: Alicia Boole Stott, who elaborated on her brother-in-law’s research and made an important contribution to the study of  four-dimensional polytopes by calculating their three-dimensional central sections and making their models. So much effort invested in the attempt to approach the hidden world in which tesseracts and hyperdodecahedra are as mundane as the Platonic solids are in our 3D reality! So, will the penetration into the fourth dimension grant true freedom? Our protagonist thinks about this issue a lot, marvelling at the extraordinary possibilities of those existing outside the prison of length, width and height. The inhabitants of the four-dimensional world would be able to cure patients without opening up their bodies and even to resurrect the dead; they would be able to appear and disappear in the 3D world whenever they pleased. When the contact with the dwellers of the higher dimension does occur, it happens within the context of the now happily forgotten communist-regime enforced practice of collecting waste paper and empty bottles.  It takes the writer of Cărtărescu’s peculiar wit and inventiveness to come up with the idea of a schoolgirl bringing a genuine 4D Klein bottle to school along with regular empties. Having stumbled upon the impossible object, the author of the manuscript seeks out the girl who shows him her impressive stash of  polytopes which she picked up in some kind of zone visited from to time by a mysterious bubble. At the same spot, the invaders from another world  abduct the heavily-drinking school doorman, perhaps in exchange for their gifts. The man eventually comes back, not as an enlightened mouthpiece of the salvation message, however, but as a  victim of a cruel medical experiment. What kind of freedom is that?

Doc. RNDr. Josef Reischig, CSc. (Author’s archive) Itch mite (Sarcoptes scabiei). Optical microscopy technique. Image Source

There is one more lead offered by the history of the Boole family: as we know, Ethel got married to Wilfrid Voynich, a book dealer who came into possession of perhaps the most mysterious manuscript of all time, which has carried his name ever since. The narrator’s enquiry into the history and possible meaning of the Voynich manuscript brings him to a man who has interest not only in enigmatic books, but also in the subclass Acaridae, all representatives of which can be found in his personal library of glass slides. Having examined the possibilities of extra-body experience provided by dreams, hallucinations, death and the fourth dimension, the narrator is ready to take a dive into yet another mysterious realm, that which we can normally see only through a microscope. In a hilarious episode, weird even in comparison with the other surreal vignettes, the protagonist travels to the subcutaneous city of itch mites with the good news of salvation entrusted to him by the scientist who cultivated the scabies on his own hand. Maybe, before trying to decipher messages from higher dimensions, before attempting to puzzle out the motivation of  entities beyond our reach, we can make our presence known to the creatures to which we, in our turn, may appear as inconceivable godlike inhabitants from another world? With this episode, Cărtărescu accomplishes something extraordinary: a bio-punk rewriting of Kafka’s Metamorphosis in which an itch mite possessed by the human mind encounters aggression and incomprehension among the fellow acarids and is ultimately doomed to martyrdom. The inconvenient truth is that humans might also be just parasites on a super-colossal body without any prospects of getting their voices heard.  Not only here, but throughout the whole novel Franz Kafka is a salient presence. He is the most important writer for the author of the manuscript, but not because of his fiction. The teacher believes that his greatest work is the diaries, and that the most stunning thing Kafka has ever written is this baffling short text: “The Dream Lord, great Isachar, sat  in front of the mirror, his back close to the surface, his head bent far back and sunk deep in the mirror. Hermana, the Lord of Dusk entered and dived into Isachar’s chest until he disappeared.” Here, according to the protagonist, the great writer managed to distill the pure essence of his self, leaving out all unnecessary artificial elaborations employed millions of times in millions of useless literary works.

The protagonist’s girlfriend Irina, with whom he habitually makes love levitating above his bed thanks to the energy emitted by the solenoid, at one point presents him with a dilemma that proves to be the cornerstone of the whole novel: if you had to choose between saving a baby and a great work of art, what would you choose? The answer isn’t so obvious as it may seem, since there are always additional factors: e.g. the baby is incurably sick or it is going to become Hitler when it grows up. The narrator firmly replies that the baby is more important to him than any piece of art, even more than Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights (which has considerably influenced Solenoid itself, by the way, not even if it is an artwork created by himself and opening thus a different kind of escape route: the one of cultural immortality. This is the question  which the narrator will have to answer again at the end of the novel in the murky hall of the Mina Minovici Institute, in front of the monstrous statue of Condemnation sitting in a giant dental chair. A monster demanding a reply – just like in the eschatological scenario  revealed to him by Traian in the Voila sanatorium. Perhaps the true portal of escape is to be found in his manuscript. After all, it was never meant to be a trompe-l’oeil, but the distillation of the narrator’s self in all its baroque complexity. Is he ready to sacrifice the child he’s had with Irina and turn his personal notes into a work of art, a novel? No, even if what is going on is just a hallucination, an allegorical masque performed inside his skull, he is not. The narrator will forever remain a man without a name. He is ready to give up his dreams of artistic transcendence in exchange for the cessation of pain and suffering, albeit temporary, and even if that means letting go of Bucharest, the saddest city on the face of earth, which gets torn away from the ground and, like Laputa – both Swift’s and Miyazaki’s – soars up powered by the vibrating solenoids and disappears in the sky. But can we be sure that Mircea Cărtărescu,  the successful double of the author of the manuscript in an alternative world, would have made the same choice?  What sacrifice has he offered to write such an extraordinary novel? I pray to God we’ll never learn.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 A la vera de un camino

dos enanos castigaban una flor

mientras le decían:

—Aunque tengas buen olor

¡no nos gustan las florcitas!

 

On the edge of a road

two dwarfs were tormenting a flower

all the while telling it:

“Although you smell good,

we don’t like little flowers!”

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

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The Great Untranslated: Raadsels van het rund (Enigmas of the Cow) by Jacq Firmin Vogelaar

The 1970s were the miraculous decade of American literary postmodernism when some of the wildest and most daring novels were published: Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow (1973), Donald Barthelme’s The Dead Father (1975) Robert Coover’s The Public Burning (1977), John Barth’s LETTERS (1979). Judging by the odds and ends of scarcely available information, Dutch writer Jacq Firmin Vogelaar’s wacko creation Raadsels van het rund (1978) belongs to the same paradigm as those novels, and had it been translated into English, we might now be mentioning it in the same breath as the metafictional monstrosities of Barth and Coover.

The protagonist of the novel is architect Ekke who is assigned the task of creating outlandish machines, using a manual written by Leonardo da Vinci. The machine construction, an apt metaphor for producing texts at the heyday of postmodernism, goes inevitably awry with each attempt, and one starts wondering if Ekke was fooled into a senseless yet very sophisticated  wild-goose chase whose only purpose is to show the futility of  encapsulating  the exponentially growing amounts of knowledge. The elusive substance “forza” mentioned in the great Florentine’s document is the philosopher’s stone of Ekke’s neo-alchemical pursuit, and, for all we know, it might stand for the grand signifier itself. J.F. Vogelaar’s novel is a mash-up of various genres, at different points assuming the guises of the historical novel,  the essay, and the encyclopedia, complete with an appendix featuring profiles of great representatives of the Renaissance. The enthusiasts of Dutch artist Constant  Nieuwenhuys’s concept of New Babylon (an anti-capitalist city built of inter-linked mega-structures above the surface of the earth for the leisurely activities of  Homo Ludens) will be delighted to find in the novel a critical examination of this idea. Perplexing, meandering, and erudite, Raadsels van het rund has a lot to offer both content-wise, and linguistically. The fact that some of the Dutch critics branded the novel as “unreadable” is a good sign. The only English-language description of the novel I was able to dredge, and to which I am mostly indebted for writing this post, is Anthony Merten’s article Postmodern Elements in Postwar Dutch Fiction. Let me quote this brief summary of the novel, which is likely to make you yearn for its translation as it made yours truly:

The novel stages in various ways all the themes that are prominent in the debate on modernity (technology, progress, power, the role of the intellectual), but always in relation to rewritings of texts that are borrowed from the historiography of the modern period and from various representatives of modern literature (from Beckett, Flaubert, Musil, Valéry to Gaddis and Patchen). […] it is a historical novel in a reverse sense, a novel that tries to present its own history. Ekke’s assignment reflects the ways in which the collected textual materials are processed. Time and again these are put into a spotlight so that the ‘forza’ may be tracked down. Next to these eight chapters we find in the novel an appendix in which the profiles of five ‘contemporaries’ are presented: Leonardo, Faust, Paracelsus, Jan Hus and Heinrich Anton M. – the last one a schizophrenic who also constructed machines – and whose activities refer to the so-called ‘art brut’ to which the novel will every now and then refer. […] References to the mannerist art of the 16th and 17th centuries evoke a picture of the historical genre as an (alchemist) laboratory in which chemicals (in this case historical documents) form compounds, are decomposed, melted down, and analysed. […] The book itself is written out of a sense of possibilities rather than out of a sense of what’s real. In this way there is a relation with Musil’s Mann ohne Eigenschaften.

 

Constant Nieuwenhuys’s New Babylon. Image Source.

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The Great Untranslated: Days of Ziklag by S. Yizhar

daysofziklag Days of Ziklag is the longest novel in Hebrew literature. Its collective protagonist is a commando unit of Israeli soldiers fighting against the Egyptian troops for the possession of a strategic hilltop during the 1948 Arab-Israeli War. Most of the novel is made up of the stream of consciousness of the Israeli servicemen and the extended descriptions of the Negev Desert region, where the battle takes place: its landscape features, its fauna and flora. Published in 1958,  a decade after the events upon which it is based, Days of Ziklag provoked heated discussions among the literary critics of Israel. The novel had its enthusiastic supporters and staunch detractors. The latter berated it for the experimental excesses which rendered the novel well-nigh unreadable. It was castigated for the lack of plot, monotonousness, repetitiveness, the indiscriminate use of historical facts recreated with obsessive  fastidiousness. But, as is the case with many outstanding novels, the “weaknesses” ascribed to it by the traditionalist critics have proved to be the hallmarks of its brilliance, making this novel so different from everything else written in Hebrew before. The novel is a monumental, meticulously detailed, and even, as some would say, photographically hyper-realistic depiction of the seven days of the brutal fight where, it seems, no tire of an armoured truck, no sight on the barrel of a rifle, no curve of a wadi, no tussock of sun-scorched vegetation has escaped the comprehensive, Funes-the-Memorious gaze of the writer. Here are just two sentences from the novel beautifully translated into English by Gideon Nevo for his article The Realism of S. Yizhar’s  ימי צקלג (Days of Ziklag) (Hebrew Studies, Volume 47, 2006):

Going downward, past unworked earth and humps bunioned with fallen scattered stones, rattling along flattened land on which the neglected path becomes blurred and runs downward with a frightening leap, but soon the flattened ground turns into a sloping ridge and you hardly have time to shake off the cascade of dust before you’re crossing a field full of dusty, shriveled thorns—and behold, stretched out at your feet is the course of the great wadi, the deep ravine whose roots are way back in the mountains, and whose end is in the sea, and you go down it very carefully, with grunts and the screeching of brakes, and terrific jerks and trumpetings of the engine, and are shaken by the rough uneven surface of pebbles and gravel at its bottom, and go splashing through a mildewed pool of green algae, between the pebbles and the reeds, green and fresh, not at all belonging here. Clutched in a strenuous leap, and coming out on the opposite bank with a further shock and a great noise in order to go down again at once to a cub of a ravine rubbing up against its mother’s side, and once again to ascend to a field of yellowish clods with dust covered mulleins, the shape of a Hanukkah lamp, and when the wind snatches for a moment the column of dust and forcibly thrusts it aside, the big mound is revealed in the back in all its grey height, steep and bulky, at its peak the puff-foliaged tamarisk that casts its shadow upon the drowsy hollow sodden with dreams, which have, apparently, got lost.

David Defeats the Amalekites. Image Source.

The verisimilitude of each tiny detail of the battle derives from the extensive research conducted by the author. S. Yizhar used as the prototypes for the novel the Yiftach Brigade soldiers who engaged the Egyptian forces in a fierce combat for the control over the hill Khirbet Mahaz. The ultimate goal of the fight was to lift the siege of the Israeli enclave in the Negev region. A notable fact is that one of the Egyptian officers taking part in the battle was the future president of Egypt Gamal Abdel Nasser. This novel, however, is not just a thinly veiled chronicle of the well-documented historical battle that occurred during Operation Avak. There is much more. Besides exploring the obvious military and political aspects of the depicted event, the novel probes the existential depths revealed by the uninhibited thoughts of its participants as well as the mythical dimension lurking in the contemporary armed engagement. The small patch of the desert with the hill that keeps changing hands, taken, lost and retaken several times by the adversaries, irrigated by their blood, becomes the biblical Ziklag. In 1 Samuel 30 it is related that this town, used by King David and his army as a camp, was assaulted and burned down by the Amalekites, a tribe hostile to Israel. The raiders also carried off as captives the families of David and his warriors.  The king and four hundred men pursued the raiders, defeated them and liberated the women and children. The hypothesis that the contested elevation might be the site of the legendary town, although it is never confirmed, leads the soldiers fighting in the Negev to keep calling the hill their Ziklag.

Talking of biblical proportions, if ever translated into any European language, the resulting version of Days of Ziklag will considerably exceed the impressive girth  of the original (1,143 pages) since the vowels are not shown in Hebrew writing. The question is, who would be ambitious or reckless enough to tackle this Goliath of a novel. What kind of David?

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The Levant (Le Levant, Levantul) by Mircea Cărtărescu

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

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

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

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

The Coltea Tower in the mid-19th century

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Magnificent Seven: Reviews of the Untranslated Novels You Should Know About

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Artist: Jonathan Wolstenholme. Image source.

All the reviews at The Untranslated examine works of literature not available in English at the moment the respective posts are published.  There are some novels whose translation was imminent when I was writing about them, like Umberto Eco’s Numero Zero or Michel Houellebecq’s Submission, so those blog posts could also be regarded as the early previews of the forthcoming English editions relying on the original works instead of the ARCs of the translations. (As I have already mentioned elsewhere, knowing at least one foreign language frees you from the hassle of soliciting those from the publisher). Most of my reviews, however, are of the works that I do not expect to see translated into English within the next decade or thereabouts despite my unflagging optimism and belief in the power of spreading the word. From time to time, I also post announcements about the forthcoming translations that I find noteworthy, but those are not reviews — they are rather brief notes whose purpose is to draw my readers’ attention to some interesting titles that have recently become available thanks to the exploits of the invisible army of literary translators. I do not know any other blog in English specifically dedicated to reviewing literature which has not been translated into English, which makes The Untranslated not only unique, but also extremely unpopular: as my blog stats show, very few people are really interested in learning more about books they can’t read. This attitude is understandable, and I realise that I am viewed by some as an evil polyglot subjecting them to a literary variation of the tortures of Tantalus. However, when I think of the recurring readers of The Untranslated, I imagine that most of them are a little bit like myself: people fascinated by obscure, untranslated, forgotten, and simply unavailable literature, people intrigued by the potential of some legendary book they have heard about but cannot read. The product of this fascination is The Great Untranslated category, which includes the books highly valued within their literary traditions, but which I cannot read because I don’t know the languages in which they have been written. I am really happy that some of the visitors of my blog share this enthusiasm and even embark on learning new languages in order to read some of the works mentioned on my site. I am so delighted that my review of Miquel de Palol’s sprawling masterpiece The Troiacord sparked some people’s interest in Catalan, a language that despite being spoken by just 9 million people boasts incredibly rich and original literature whose treasures will be mined by several generations of translators. The circle of these enthusiastic visitors of my blog is very narrow, but exactly for this reason it is all the more valuable for me. Although I am presumptuous enough to claim that there is no analogue of The Untranslated on the English-language web, there are lots of litbloggers and online critics, way more productive and talented than I am, who can read foreign languages, and who also review books not yet translated into English along with those originally written in English or available in English translation. I have chosen 7 such reviews, and I would like to share them with you. None of these books have been translated yet, and this fact, to put an optimistic spin on it, should make us really excited about all the goodness that is in store for us in the coming years. The list is in the alphabetical order and does not represent any kind of hierarchy.

Mikhail Gigolashvili’s Чертово колесо (The Devil’s Wheelreviewed at Lizok’s Bookshelf

I think my feelings about the book are complex because Gigolashvili creates such complex, human characters: he develops believable people by gradually revealing, in concrete terms, their actions, hopes, ambiguities, individual demons, and intertwined fates. With dozens of characters flitting in and out,The Devil’s Wheel often reminded me of War and Peace.

Héctor Vásquez Azpiri’s Fauna reviewed at The OF Blog

Fauna is one of the better Premio Alfaguara winners that I have read over the past several years.  Its blend of introspective questioning and wild imagery make it a memorable read that promises to retain its exuberance upon future re-reads.  While it owes something to Joyce and other mid-20th century writers of stream of consciousness narrative, Fauna does not feel too derivative, as it contains enough originality of thought and theme to make it worthwhile readers’ time to read.

Nis-Momme Stockmann’s  Der Fuchs (The Fox) reviewed at Literary Ecology

The novel contains some interesting moments: it traffics heavily in the grotesque, with a series of unexplained murders and a severed arm that washes up on the beach; it extends from Schliemann’s immediate past into an imagined (?) post-Earth science-fiction future, and it unbinds and ultimately rebinds its various narrative strands in a way that deserves further consideration.

Marcus Malte’s Le garçon (The Boy) reviewed at Book Around the Corner

The fairy godmothers and godfathers of literature and poetry have sure cast their spell on Marcus Malte and his novel. It’s novel with a literary family tree. It is built on the foundations of previous works and relies on different novel shapes. Picaresque. Correspondence. 19th century novel. Poetry. Traditional tales and oral tradition of ancient storytellers. It’s subtle. Grave. Funny. Erotic. Violent.

Hans Henny Jahnn’s Perrudja reviewed at Shigekuni

There are mythical passages, modern short stories, folk tales, Jahnn is equally adept at levity and gravitas, he can write a chapter about a Babylonian king in almost Lutherian style and shine, and a small Kafkaesque story about a lost boy and dazzle. All these are interwoven with the main story, they both comment upon the story and are commented upon again by the main story.

Germán Sierra’s Standards reviewed by Adrian Nathan West at Words without Borders

In the opening chapter of Standards, entitled “The Fad,” an Argentine hypnotist sends out, before his suicide, a series of hand-drawn maps that will lead to his dead body, which is perfectly preserved in snow; the accompanying letter encourages his invitees to devour it.

Alberto Chimal’s La torre y el jardín (The Tower and the Garden) reviewed at The Modern Novel

Most of the action takes place in the Brincadero, a building that is, from the outside, seven storeys high but, on the inside, is much bigger. Like the house in The House of Leaves or Dr Who’s Tardis (Chimal is a science fiction fan), the Brincadero is much larger inside. Indeed, the lemmings alone take up twelve floors. It also changes its appearance – rooms come and go, for example – and has the ability to repair itself when damaged. The Brincadero has one main function. It is a brothel but not a brothel in the conventional sense […]

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Forthcoming: Radiant Terminus by Antoine Volodine

radiantterminusAntoine Volodine’s radioactive phantasmagoria, in which futuristic communism is intertwined with the magic of East Slavic oral traditions, is forthcoming from Open Letter Books in Jeffrey Zuckerman’s translation. You might remember that I mentioned this novel among the most notable releases of the Rentrée Literaire in 2014. Voilà, in a few months you will have the opportunity to decide for yourselves if there are any limits to the wild imagination of this particular heteronym of the French author, who also writes under the names of Elli Kronauer, Lutz Bassmann, and Manuela Draeger. If you’d like to get some idea about the person behind all these noms de plume, I recommend reading the interview he gave to The Paris Review in 2015 .

In the distant future, the city of Orbise, the last stronghold of communism in Siberia, falls into the hands of the invading hordes. The scale of the catastrophe is comparable to the capture of Constantinople by the Ottoman Turks. This is the final downfall of the Second Soviet Union. Two men and a woman fleeing the destroyed city venture into the vast expanse of the bleak and unwelcoming steppe, collecting lethal rays emitted by the ruined nuclear plants that used to provide collective farms with electricity. They are looking for a safe haven that would accept and take care of the proletarian fugitives like themselves. Perhaps kolkhoz Radiant Terminus is just the place?

The truly radiant heart of the kolkhoz is a huge warehouse built around a two-kilometer deep hole created by the sinking reactor in the wake of the melt-down of the farm’s nuclear station. Since that time, this luminous well has been serving as an omnivorous dumping shaft, swallowing with equal appetite radioactive debris and the hapless individuals who have fallen into disgrace with the local authorities. The chief of the kolkhoz is known simply as Solovyei. His name (the Russian for “nightingale”) is an obvious reference  to Solovei the Brigand, the notorious villain of Russian bylinas. The anarchistically-minded leader of this forgotten commune is impervious to radiation, possesses shamanistic abilities of entering other people’s dreams and expresses his creativity by composing hallucinatory texts which are as far from the dogmas of socialist realism as it gets. Equally immune to the deathly particles is his first wife Mémé Oudgoul, who is in the habit of talking to the sunken reactor when she is not busy feeding it.

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Nikolai Blokhin, Соловей-разбойник (Solovei the Brigand). Image source

Well, that’s what I call a promising start. If you fancy lingering a bit longer in the grotesque world sketched above as well as learning scores of names of different herbs encountered in the taiga region, you’re welcome to pay a visit to Radiant Terminus this February.

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The Troiacord (El Troiacord) by Miquel de Palol

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

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

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

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Platonic Solids

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The apse of Santa Maria del Mar

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

jeanmetzingerloiseaubleu

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

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

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

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