Bastard Battle by Céline Minard

Céline Minard’s novel is written in a brilliant pastiche of Middle French speckled with amusing anachronisms. She has drawn inspiration from Jean Froissart’s Chronicles as well as Villon’s poems and Rabelais’ satirical pentalogy. The other major source of influence lies in kung fu movies, samurai cinema, and westerns. The anachronistic clash of these two media, the late Medieval/early Renaissance texts and popular movies of the second half of the 20th century, has brought into being a monstrous hybrid that portrays the unspeakable cruelties of the Middle Ages with cinematic intensity and panache.

The novel is set in 1437, a time when French towns still suffered from raids of well-armed, ruthless brigands known as the écorcheurs (flayers). These bands of pillagers mostly consisted of unemployed mercenaries who had earned their lurid nickname for the frequent practice of stripping their victims naked.  Denysot the Cleric, aka the Hash, aka Spencer Five, narrates the gripping story of how the small town of Chaumont is first liberated from and then successfully defended against one such band led by Aligot, the bastard of Bourbon.

For the inhabitants of the neighbouring areas, the seizure of Chaumont marks just the beginning of a chain of iniquities committed by Aligot and his troops. Using the captured town as the home base for the écorcheurs, the bastard and his lieutenants unleash a gory orgy of murder, torture, rape, and desecration wherever their forays take them. However, the bastard’s well-established routine of unredressed atrocity from time to time gets interrupted by the sudden appearance of warriors whose extraordinary fighting skills provoke cognitive dissonance in the medieval minds of the brigands. It is no wonder, for these preternaturally gifted individuals owe their skills to the conventions of action movies. The first one to shock the brazen bastard is Six-Foot Adder (Vipère-d’une-toise), a Chinese woman with Shaolin Kung Fu training, who expertly wields a pole-arm tasselled with a scalp and can single-handedly defeat scores of the murderous mercenaries. Another shock comes when the Japanese swordsman Akira (an hommage both to the famous film director and the cult manga series) demonstrates his incredible mastery by splitting with his katana a flea on the cheek of a monastery novice without causing him any injury and thus saving his life from the jeering raiders, after which he takes the bastard himself as a temporary hostage and effortlessly escapes the retribution of his men. There is also a phenomenal archer called Billy (based on Billy the Kid, naturally) whose secret weapons are a pair of miniature culverins with revolving cylinders. In contrast to the two Asian masters, Billy briefly joins the bastard’s band, but his sympathies will eventually shift to the abused citizens and villagers. The recapture of Chaumont is precipitated by the arrival of the Valencian master of the spear Enguerrand de Montorell. Instead of confronting the bastard in fair one-on-one combat, he is forced to engage a whole bunch of his lieutenants; the resulting mêlée rapidly evolves into an organised armed resistance. The main actors of the recapture are all of the above combat experts plus three reluctant members of the bastard’s cohorts, each proficient in his own way:  the peasant Tartas, who is unsurpassed in fighting with the spiked club “morning star”,  the forger Sunday the Wolf (Dimanche-le-loup), who is well versed in espionage and reconnaissance methods, and the narrator himself, who, aside from being a competent scribe and copyist, also proves to be skilled in the fighting style of the drunken master. Thanks to these seven leaders or “the seven samurai”, as they start calling themselves after Akira fills them in on his background, the bastard and his men find themselves stranded outside the city walls, yearning for revenge.

Still from Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai, 1954.

Each of the seven commanders organises combat training of the townspeople in the respective discipline. Thus, for example, the donjon court becomes a dojo in which Six-Foot Adder teaches women and young men the basics of kung fu. Her most talented pupil is Brucelet, who will demonstrate wonders of hand-to-hand combat at the end of the novel, terrifying the enemy both with his fighting technique and the stridency of his battle cry. After getting the blacksmith to forge swords similar to his katana, Akira instructs his students in the subtleties of swordsmanship, while Billy is in charge of training longbowmen. All the other members of the cadre are also involved in some kind of mentorship. When the citizens are well-trained and the fortifications are reinforced, Chaumont is ready to withstand any assault of the bastard’s troops. Even if some of “the seven samurai” are destined to perish in combat, we know that Aligot de Bourbon doesn’t stand a chance. We know it because unlike him, we have seen the films featuring fighters similar to his opponents.

The clash of the two worlds orchestrated by Céline Minard in her bastardised text is anachronistic, for sure, but it is not incongruous. The writer’s main message is that although the sets and props of the human drama change with time, the primal violence accompanying it from the very beginning will always remain a constant. The last sentence in Denysot’s chronicle is “Et ainsi ja l’histoire ne finira” (And thus the story will never end). He writes this after the story of the bastard battle is long over and all the survivors have moved on with their lives. But he doesn’t mean that story, of course. It is a pessimistic observation regarding the violent nature of humanity. On the whole, Minard’s novel is a powerful and eloquent statement about our ambivalent relationship with violence. Many of us crave its aestheticised representation in novels, films and comic books, yet we are shocked when confronted with raw violence in reality, not less because the modern civilised society has insulated our daily lives against it. With Bastard Battle, Minard makes us acknowledge this ambivalence by infiltrating into the sordid and brutal Middle Ages familiar agents of aesthetically pleasing violence, so that we can catch ourselves at the exact moment when we start feeling relief, that crucial moment when the repugnant and horrific massacre perpetrated by the brutal denizens of the medieval world gives way to the fun massacre gracefully performed by our favourite action movie heroes.

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Finisterra: Landscape and Settlement (Finisterra: Paisagem e Povoamento) by Carlos de Oliveira

Carlos de Oliveira’s brief novel is a thing of exceptional, exquisite beauty. It’s one of the rare cases when the expression “to paint with words” is not just a glib figure of speech, but the only possible way to characterise the imagistic splendour of the Portuguese author’s writing. Finisterra is something to be seen, contemplated, gazed at, rather than simply read. And no, there are no typographical gimmicks or fanciful illustrations — just plain text, but the evocative power of the words used by this virtuoso is so great, that you will see things. I guarantee you that. Before I proceed,  let me quote the passage from the very beginning of the novel, taken from the extract translated by Kenneth Krabbenhoft (this sample translation used to be available on the site of the publisher And Other Stories, but, regrettably, it has been taken down):

The familiar garden (first stage of disrepair): brambles in shapeless mounds, untrimmed boxwood, nettles, wildflowers. Stunted palm trees, so swollen they look like aging, diseased dwarfs, their long hair and matted leaves bent to touch the ground.

Perched on a whale bone, more correctly the middle section of a whale’s backbone, fifty-five centimeters wide and thirty-three high: two vertebras spread open like the blades (arms) of a propeller, quite far apart, providing a resting place for the elbows. Balancing the sketchpad on his knees he is able to draw (pretty soon the summer rain will send him indoors). Whale bone, the texture of softwood, waterlogged and weatherbeaten but free of rot: when light strikes its muted grain it raises a gray powder, as if re-igniting. The stone hardness relents, and they both float (the child and the whale bone) above the bilious moss, the stalks of gisandra, the lichen — these lingering afflictions.

A clashing in the clouds catches him by surprise then fades away, but it is enough to open a crack (irreparable) in his memory, and he reproduces the landscape outside his window, from memory. He shapes primordial beings, mixes summer and winter, tones down the blinding (excessive) summer sunlight that strikes the sand, crushed mica, mortar-ground glass (whatever), swells the grains of sand to the size they seem to have at night when the wind throws fat fistfuls of pebbles at the windows. At this point the rain drives him from the garden. Not much time for floating.

If a novel begins like that, you get a hunch that your display of all-time favourite books might require additional shelf space.

Besides being beautifully written, this short but extremely dense novel is as enigmatic as a coded alchemical treatise. Even several close readings will not reveal all its mysteries. It’s one of those books that can be continuously re-read, each time yielding new revelations and insights. If upon the first reading I was sure that Finisterra was an extraordinary book, after reading it for the second time I knew that it was a timeless masterpiece and that I would re-read it again. There is nothing like it not only in Portuguese letters but also in world literature as a whole.

The first impression of the novel is that of an incomprehensible and gorgeous pandemonium. It is hard to tell when the given scene is set and who is talking.  The dialogues are unattributed and even the circumstantial evidence hinting at the speakers is scarce. There are no clear time indications, which often misleads the reader into thinking that the current events happened a long time ago, and, conversely, that the occurrences from the distant past are the most recent developments. Yes, Carlos de Oliveira masterfully pulled this off long before Westworld. It takes patience, concentration and resourcefulness to make a semblance of the blueprint for the plot of this mysterious novel.

A man returns to his childhood home, now derelict and dilapidated, and tries to piece together the history of his family, the house, and the enthralling landscape around it. A folder with the family papers is of some help in his task, but the key element of his probe into the reasons that brought about the ruin of the house, eventually devoured by the forces of ruthless nature, is the prodigious theatre of his mind. It is his staged recollections and reveries which are mostly responsible for the befuddling effect of the text on the reader. As it becomes apparent, the man’s main conversation partner is his younger self from the past, the little boy who once drew a picture of the landscape as it appeared in the window of the house, revealing thus that he had inherited from his parents a very peculiar obsession.

We learn next to nothing about the backgrounds of the boy’s father and mother. Not even their names. What we do learn in spades is their approach to representing the landscape. The father believes in the objective representation by means of photography. He attaches an enlarged photograph of the landscape to the same wall as the window overlooking it: the original and the faithful copy side by side. The mother’s method is subjective and, therefore, more creative. She burns the picture of the landscape with a pyrography tool on a sheepskin cushion. It is their child who advances the farthest, of course. His drawing, executed from memory, represents the landscape as an environment subject to the transformative power of imagination. In contrast to his parents, the boy not only considerably distorts the original by making the lake tiny like a drop of water and the sand grains huge like rocks but also populates his version of the landscape with pilgrims who are fleeing their native land stricken by apocalyptic calamities. The fugitives’  heads are black and wrapped in flames. The livestock and other domestic animals of the pilgrims are also depicted with deviation from the norm: the lambs are larger than the oxen, and the horses slither on the ground like snakes.

The efforts of the family members to capture the landscape via different media might be seen as the irrational attempt to save their house from the encroachment of nature embodied by thick fog and viscous corrosive mud whose main ingredient is the sap of the fungal plants gisandras, which are solely the author’s invention. The only external protection their dwelling appears to have is the “halo”, a mysterious shield of light surrounding the house, but there is little hope that it will keep staving off forever the intrusion of the elements. Another threat is of legal origin: the house was bought on a mortgage loan and the family are behind in payments. The boy’s uncle studies old alchemical writings, hoping to find the secret formula of some fabulous translucent porcelain and to save the house with the riches it will bring him. But it is obvious to everyone that he’s on a fool’s errand. The original sin lies with the first settlers, the pioneers, who more than a thousand years ago claimed the wilderness, which is now home to the family. The mortgage is just the latest stage in the long-term imposition of order and structure on the dunes, the lake, and the wild grasses that make up the landscape.

Yet another version of the landscape is added to the existing ones when the adult protagonist makes its three-dimensional model on the top of a table, using sand, ashes and salt as his main materials. His most impressive creation, however, is the imaginary space in which the past and the present converge and which draws a lot on the fantastic world of his childhood drawing. This new dimension serves as the stage for an expiatory masque produced by the man in order to enact symbolical salvation of the doomed home. The performance is saturated with Christian motifs; there is even a sacrificial lamb bought from the pilgrims, which is to be decorated alive by the mother’s pyrography tool. Despite the higher degree of sophistication present in the theatre of the mind, nothing can be done to save the house from wrack and ruin. Nature will not accept another man-made system, no matter how creative, in exchange for its mercy. The place with the rotting house (known as the End of the Land or Finisterra in Latin), after all these centuries, is about to enter a new epoch which begins as soon as the oppressive human presence ends.

Carlos de Oliveira’s last and greatest novel is very short — just 140 pages, yet it fully deserves to be called his magnum opus. Beautiful, poetic, philosophical, and boldly experimental, the text of Finisterra showcases density and depth that very few present-day doorstoppers possess.

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Forthcoming: Abel and Cain by Gregor von Rezzori

New York Review Books is going to publish Gregor von Rezzori’s novelistic diptych in all its toxic splendour. Joachim Neugroschel’s 1985 translation of the massive, controversial The Death of My Brother Abel (Der Tod meines Bruders Abel) has been revised by Marshall Yarborough for this publication, and the prequel Cain (Kain. Das letzte Manuskript)translated by David Dollenmayer, will appear in English for the first time.

It is the year 1968, and the middle-aged narrator of The Death of My Brother Abel looks back at his hectic and eventful life from his room in a Parisian hotel. Making use of the copious notes for the unwritten autobiographical novel distributed over the four folders labelled Pneuma, A, B and C, he gives us a disjointed and rant-fuelled account of his turbulent past: early childhood in Bessarabia, the adolescence in Vienna where he witnesses first-hand Hitler’s Anschluss, the subsequent service in the Romanian army, the years spent in post-war Germany where he manages to attend the Nuremberg trials of the Nazi criminals and get his foot into film industry. While leading us through a number of Europe’s locations and relating some crucial moments in its history before and after the Second World War, the erudite and polyglot narrator subjects us to a cacophonous barrage of cultural references, philosophical concepts, and literary allusions demonstrating the universal knowledge characteristic of the archetypal Central European intellectual fostered in the multicultural cauldron of the disintegrated Austria-Hungary.

Here are some of the reactions to the book when its English translation was first published.

Elie Wiesel in The Washington Post:

Pathos, humor, a disillusioned but strangely generous irony, an appreciation for the beauty of a landscape, the lyricism of an erotic moment — the narrator knows all these and all the languages of the uprooted: French quotations, Yiddish songs, sentences in Romanian, Hungarian names, Russian shouting. He talks breathlessly of everything — Rembrandt and Art Deco, Nietzsche and Art Nouveau, the religion of pleasure, the Apocalypse.

Gabriele Annan in The New York Review of Books:

You need to think big about it: think of terms like epoch (1918–1968), epoch-making, Gargantuan, Promethean, apocalypse, holocaust, maelstrom, Götterdämmerung, Wirtschaftswunder, The Decline of the West, A la recherche du temps perdu, the mega-Mann of The Magic Mountain, Dr. Faustus, and The Confessions of Felix Krull. […] Sexual boasting is matched by cultural boasting, with classy quotations in every European language dropping like crystals from a chandelier in an air raid.

Robert Leiter in The New York Times

Readers conversant with the great works of modernism will be familiar with the almost foolhardy ambitiousness of Mr. von Rezzori’s novel; what may give some people justifiable pause are the narrator’s opinions. His remarks about the Nuremberg trials are troubling. […] ACCORDING to him, the Nuremberg trials were ”a process of revenge wreathed in embarrassing claptrap and carried out against inferior losers by men who just barely won, and who might be accused of the same crime tomorrow, since they failed to prevent what happened from happening.”

The story in the unfinished and posthumously published Cain unfolds, for the most part, in a ruined and defeated Germany immediately after World War Two but also captures the restless atmosphere of the Wirtschaftswunder years and provides an insider scrutiny of the West German cinema scene of the period. The disorienting narration is contested in a feverish tug-of-war between three voices: those of Aristide Subics (the storyteller in the previous novel), his editor Schwab, and Rezzori himself.

As usual, NYRB Classics does a sterling job not only of re-acquainting the readers with a forgotten classic, but also of introducing to them an important addendum to it, which is likely to enrich the overall reading experience even for those already familiar with The Death of My Brother Abel. As for the first-time readers of Gregor von Rezzori’s magnum opus, they will decide for themselves if its rescue from oblivion has been justified.

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Guest Post: Simon Collings on Georges Limbour

Georges Limbour. Image Source

Michel Leiris, writing in Atoll in 1968, described the writer Georges Limbour as: ‘a great poet in every heart-beat of what he wrote, but a poet without fanfare or vain display’. In ‘a society less gross than ours’ Leiris went on to say, Limbour would have had a far larger following. Limbour was greatly admired by his contemporaries, many of whom he knew as friends, including Max Jacob, Jean Cocteau, George Bataille, and Raymond Queneau. But very little of his work has been translated into English, and even in France he is not widely known.

He was born in 1900 and grew up in and around Le Havre. His childhood friends included the painter Jean Dubuffet, and Raymond Queneau. He started writing in his teens. Aged 18 he went to Paris to study medicine, then switched to philosophy. But he spent more time in literary circles than with his text books, drawn to both André Breton’s Surrealist group, and the experimental artists and writers who met at the studio of the painter André Masson. Limbour’s first story, L’enfant polaire (The Polar Child), heavily influenced by Surrealism, appeared in two parts over the winter of 1921/22. A slim volume of poems, Soleils bas (Low Suns), with illustrations by Masson, was published in 1924. More poems followed, and more stories, three of them published in 1930 as L’Illustre cheval blanc (The Illustrious White Horse).

Limbour never fully applied the strict ‘automatic writing’ methods demanded by Breton, and these early works already reveal a level of literary artifice which other Surrealist texts of the period eschew. He was, accordingly, denounced by Breton, in the second Surrealist manifesto of 1929, and expelled from the movement for ‘literary coquetry in the worst sense of the word’. By this time Limbour had aligned himself with the writers linked to George Bataille and the journal Documents, and he contributed to the anti-Breton pamphlet Un Cadavre (A Corpse).

First page of the 1930 pamphlet Un Cadavre. Image source

After 1930 Limbour’s writing shifted register, with prose becoming his primary focus. The excesses of the Surrealist phase modulated into a gentler, more subtle style, yet still magical.  He published four novels: Les vanilliers (The Vanilla Plants, 1938), La pie voleuse (The Thieving Magpie, 1939), Le bridge de Madame Lyane (Mme Lyane’s Bridge Club, 1948) and La chasse au mérou (Fishing for Grouper, 1963). Les vanilliers won the Prix Rencontre the year it was published.  After his death Limbour’s short stories were collected and published in two volumes by Gallimard. He also wrote a play, and three opera librettos.

During much of the early period of his life Limbour lived outside of France. Between 1924 and 1939 he had teaching jobs in Albania, Egypt and Warsaw – and he travelled widely in Europe. In his later years he spent a great deal of time in Spain, where two of the novels are set – La pie voleuse and La chasse au mérou. The other novels, and many of the stories, also have exotic settings. Les vanilliers is set in Réunion, and Le bridge de Madame Lyane on the Danube. Several tales are set in Egypt (including Le main de Fatma, and Lettre d’Omdah), À l’encre sympatique takes place in Albania, and Le chien blanc in a remote mountain village. Even the stories set in France tend to happen on islands off the coast, as in Le calligraphe, La Chapelle de la Joie, and Un petit micro-climat. The events in the Surrealist influenced stories of the 1920s, of course, take place in imaginary landscapes, only loosely anchored in reality, where locations dissolve into each other with the fluidity of a dream.

The American writer Donald Heiney published a perceptive overview of Limbour’s writing in The Iowa Review in 1974. This is the only extended piece of writing on Limbour in English, which I have been able to find. Heiney says:

It is an odd fiction, rich in energy and full of partly resolved conflicts. There is a great note of enthusiasm and sensual delight running through it, yet the verbal effervescence is always tempered by intelligence. Leiris characterizes him as a being ‘intoxicated with life and at the same time too lucid not to perceive its inanity.’ The heroic is established in deft sketches and then deflated by the playful.

Heiney’s essay provides details about the novels, as well as commenting on a few of the stories. I have been particularly focused on the stories, which I am in the process of translating, and it is to these I will now turn. Limbour wrote short fiction throughout his life, and the evolution of his style can be clearly traced through these works.

The Surrealist stories are madcap, plotless adventures, full of rich invention. L’acteur du Lancashire (The Lancashire Actor), written in 1923, includes a wonderful rant against British imperialism – delivered by a horse. The hero, Herodstar, is looking for somewhere to bury his companion Pamela who has suddenly died. At one point on his quest he wakes up a bookseller in the middle of the night in order to buy a Spanish dictionary:

…marvelling at how the words of this foreign language were like fruit fresh from the tree and not old and dry; they touched the senses delightfully, new like the young beggars that assail you, no longer words but the things themselves which they designate, happy to run naked before clothing themselves in abstraction.

A battle with three policemen ensues, in a passage which anticipates Ed Dorn’s  Gunslinger, and the story ends with Herodstar gassing himself in the apartment he once shared with Pamela, while filling coloured party balloons. The balloons drift away into the night, across space and time, the last of them falling at dawn into a sandstone courtyard where the ‘glory of Rome’ slumbers, the balloon startling ‘the geese of the Capitol’.

Les yeux de verres (The Glass Eyes), from 1924, is a more straightforward tale with a macabre twist at the end. The central character purchases a ‘fist-full’ of glass eyes at an optician’s and gives them to a group of children playing marbles in front of a bench on which a group of blind old men are sitting. On discovering that the children are using eyes instead of marbles several of the old men go mad, thinking the eyes are their own.

From 1930 onwards the stories are less frenetic, more ‘naturalistic’, though no less magical.  In Conte d’été (A Tale of Summer), the narrator is on a deserted beach with the strange name of ‘Domino’. In the brilliance of this landscape, memories of a masquerade in Venice, and of a former lover, take on bodily form and seduce him.

The charm of the south held me, unmoving: then two hands (with the lightest of touches) suddenly placed a mask, without holes for eyes, over my face, thus divesting me of the world, and a voice (seductive and amused) sang out behind me, like the sound of small black, shining pebbles cast into the sparkling sea, these three sombre and clear notes: Domino!

The text unfolds in a series of lyrical descriptions of the sensuous visions he experiences, culminating in a revelation of the woman and the world as one:

That’s when the sea, the sky and all things lifted for a moment their frail domino, to allow me at last to expose their secret. As vast as the sea, higher than the sky (and speaking on a human scale, with the true dimensions of love and the size of my hands, for that image was close to me beneath far off things) your limpid face reigned in its fresh and tender nakedness. Your hair crowned the golden splendour of the universe and the light gleamed in the hollow of your shoulders which rounded off the horizon. Through you, I saw everything, the face not of a dream but of one woman, and the material of the world was your body, and the sea covered it…

Conte d’été was later reworked into a text called Domino: Project for a Ballet, in which the events of the original story are expanded and developed into a dance piece.

Limbour’s tendency to write long, involved sentences, piling image upon image, is evident in the above quoted passages. Heiney comments on this in his essay, but also observes that: ‘…the style is less sentimental than it seems at first. In spite of the curlicues and little flourishes it is tightly controlled; the excesses are not really effusive or emotional, they are gongoristic. A verve of irony chills them sufficiently to avoid the mawkish.’

Le chien blanc (The White Dog) of 1953 has the quality of a story by Kafka, though without the sense of menace. The narrator is writing from a small inn high in the mountains. It is a winter’s night, and time has a fluid quality, moving at a pace divorced from that of the rest of the world. There is a white dog at the inn which the narrator is drawn to. But the landlady is suspicious, and discourages his attempts at familiarity.

After his second visit to the inn he has a vision of a woman he knows and desires floating naked in an icy stream flowing through the hamlet. The next day he witnesses a woman with a broken leg being brought to a roadside chalet, where he buys a scarf with the motif of a white dog printed on it. The story ends with him back in the inn. The dog is by the fire when he enters, but is led out by the landlady when she sees the scarf. The text concludes:

As he passed the door he turned and looked at me, but I couldn’t tell what he was thinking. Yet everything is clear to me now. I am approaching that night in the inn I have dreamed of.

Unfortunately the evening hasn’t even begun yet, and in a short while the woman will put me out. (Donald Heiney’s translation)

Jean Dubuffet. Image Source

The theme of the absent lover is returned to in Description d’un tableau (Description of a Painting) from 1957, which is based on a painting by Dubuffet, Pierre aux figures (Stone with Figures), given to Limbour by the artist. In this abstract work, in which the ‘figures’ are barely discernible, the narrator of the story sees different shapes and patterns. A small splash of red in one part of the picture makes him think of the coat of a lover, Pauline, who he believes is lost to him. The description of her implies she is dead, perhaps drowned, but this isn’t clear. The narrator decides to throw out all the letters he has from her ‘in order to reach her through space, and even to wound her a little’. Having considered various options for their disposal, he casts the bound letters into a pond in a forest.

The narrator is considering selling the painting to a collector called Falseau, but doesn’t like the man’s obsession with ‘owning’ things, nor share his views about the picture. Limbour is making some interesting observations here about art and its place in society. At the end of the story, having decided not to sell the painting, the narrator revisits the pond in the forest. It is winter, the pond is frozen, and he finds Pauline there skating on the ice.

The later stories have less of the elaborate lyricism of the earlier work and are written in a more straightforward style. This is the case, for example, with Description d’un tableau, and is mirrored in the novels.  As Heiney notes, Fishing for Grouper is the most ‘conventionally structured’ of the novels.

At the end of his life Limbour published a number of short tales which draw on his memories of Albania and Egypt. These are humorous, whimsical pieces. In À l’encre sympathique (In Invisible Ink), dating from 1965, a young teacher stationed in Koritza in Albania decides to visit a nearby lake in search of solitude and inspiration. He tears some pages from an exercise book, stuffs them into a bag, and hitches a lift to the lake. While looking for somewhere to spend the night he runs into a mysterious group of men who hand him over to the local police. The corporal in the police post is soon convinced the pages in the man’s bag are written on in invisible ink. In the morning the young teacher is escorted back to Koritza by two officers who take pot shots at birds and squirrels along the way, though always missing their mark. Back in town the young man is released after further questioning by the police commandant. The story ends:

Was he convinced of my innocence when he allowed me to leave? He had placed the sheets of paper in a folder, and I imagine now, with the passage of time, that the invisible ink has become legible, and how I would love to read the secret message which it concealed.

Fortnightly Review recently published translations I have made of three short tales, written in 1968 and all set in Egypt where Limbour lived from 1926 to 1928. I am currently working on translations of other stories, and of the long poem Le manteau rouge (The Red Coat) written between 1945 and 1949, which Limbour drew on for Description of a Painting. For further biographical information on Limbour see the English Wikipedia entry which I recently updated.


About the Author

Simon Collings is a writer based in Oxford, UK. His poems, stories and essays have appeared in a range of publications, and he has published two pamphlets of poetry.

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Guest Post: Matthias Friedrich on Karin Moe’s 39 Whirlwinds: The Immeasurable Wanderings of Louise Labé the Younger & Other Specula (39 fyk: Louise Labé den yngres ustyrtelige vandringar & andre spekulum)

This is a novel, a hybrid, a text collage, a poem, which disappeared nearly immediately when it was published. Øystein Rottem, who wrote a small paragraph about it in his Norwegian post-war literary history (1998), stated that it was “a frolic”, but that it appeared to be “mannered”, that it was affected by its “nebulosity, its many digressions and an inventiveness which was on the verge of strangling itself”. And, in fact, the book is as immeasurable as its title suggests: a female first-person narrator is speaking; but about what or to whom, is uncertain. Pictures, photocopies, still-lifes, illustrate the 39 paragraphs named as fyk, “whirlwinds”. The fyk is a Norwegian word for an exuberant person, and the verb (fyke) describes a breathtaking velocity. These texts have taken a fast lane: Karin Moe reinvents the figure of Louise Labé, a French poet, and places her in Norway; but she isn’t influenced by the Petrarchan School of poetry, as it is the case with her historical archetype, but by feminist theory, surrealism and linguistic experimentalism. The result is a text which surpasses its own borders.

Louise Labé lived approximately between 1524 and 1566. She was influenced not only by Francesco Petrarca’s sonnets but also by Ovid’s Metamorphoses and by Spanish poetry. Labé, who married Ennemond Perrin, a rich cord-maker, was a member of a group called École Lyonnaise and wrote sonnets which later became known for their extreme formal skilfulness. The other poets of this school, e. g. Maurice Scève and Olivier de Magny, are forgotten; Louise is the only one of them whose celebrity lasts until today. Her texts are often featured in French anthologies and seem to be paradigms of accomplished love poetry.

Louise Labé. Engraving by Pierre Woeiriot, 1555

However, it is rumoured that Louise Labé didn’t exist at all. Her sonnets and odes are regarded as a collective work of male poets who intended to glorify the female genius they had made up of their own accord – thus, they had wanted to praise their own would-be ingeniousness. Therefore, Louise Labé ‘reveals’ ‘herself’ as a fiction and as a projection screen for male poets’ fantasies. Ironically, poets like Scève or de Magny seem to have assured their personal legacy by erasing their own insignificant names from literary history. Although this thesis has been debated, as for example by comparing Labé’s laconic and eloquent style to Scève’s obfuscations and de Magny’s platitudes, it is still appealing to those who intend to criticize the constant marginalization of female authors in literary history. However, 39 Whirlwinds establishes Labé’s figure as a living paradigm of ‘female’ writing. Born into a postmodern society still dominated by men, Labé the Younger has to find her own way – and, more important, her own language. She must disenthrall herself from the threads male authors have wrapped her in. The text she writes does not rely on the artificial structure of a plot; it is a “whirlwind” which raises a storm and comes to a sudden halt. Thus, the 39 fragments or fractures do not form a whole. They are a hole, an abyss, and absorb everything. Louise Labé the Younger, as she is depicted in Moe’s text(s), doesn’t use the conventional love images of her French predecessor – for her, love has nothing to do with a sudden flash of ice and fire, and cannot be described as the expectable amalgamation of contrasts and oxymora – but she speaks Nynorsk, a language which is based on old Norwegian dialects and nearly exclusively used in written texts; furthermore, she introduces many colloquial forms into her speech (“kje” instead of “ikkje”, “not”) or she can employ Bokmål forms such as “kjærlighet” (in place of “kjærleik”, “love”). Her idiolect is characterized by violent digressions, aggressive vulgarisms, and erratic punctuation; thus, Louise is able to expectorate a whole paragraph of invectives without separating her sentences with the aid of commas, semicolons, or full stops. In a passage which is full of gruesome humour, Louise meets a man who has been bleeding from his breast for three days in a row; she asks him if his blood coagulates. It doesn’t. She tastes it and says: “You are menstruating.” She realizes that the discourse in the room “coagulates” immediately. “Comprehensions by way of language can take a few generations”, she notes. She subverts the roles: Firstly, she acts as the man who constantly denies the value of female experiences; secondly, she adapts his toxic masculinity (which is based on sheer ignorance and a striking lack of empathy) and commands him to have sex with her – although he is bleeding. Of all things, the man Louise has encountered is a sociologist, a researcher whose insights are based on empirical examinations – and she confronts him with facts which might seem mind-boggling and offensive to him: “No litmus paper in urinals, no dead rats dissected after one thousand electric shocks. It happens to you! Feel it! It’s fantastic. I’ve made an important observation: Possibly, the sex drive is reduced during male menstruation.” The sociologist becomes furious and accuses Louise of having caused his pain, but she answers that his reactions are an indication of his defective adaptability to extreme situations.

Language is afflicted with its own coagulation.

Louise’s mission does not consist of repeating Petrarca’s desiccated paroles of love to an ideal, Platonic mistress; it consists in liquefying a speech which has suffered from its own meagreness for a very long time. The time has come to swap the roles and change every misconception of what it means to write as a woman. Hélène Cixous’ essay The Laugh Of Medusa, which might have influenced Karin Moe in a considerable way, is centred around the following plea: “And why don’t you write? Write! Writing is for you, you are for you; your body is yours, take it.” Thus, Louise searches for a way to reclaim the female body she has forgotten; after having found it, she tries to reinsert it into history again. But history has been deformed by a Reason which always favoured a male point of view. Louise must invent another form of rationality: a playful, swirling form of writing which is suitable for her own experiences in a literature dominated by men. The 19th century was marked by writers like Ibsen who wanted to engage in societal debates; and Georg Brandes, the Danish critic who coined the slogan of the Modern Breakthrough, called one of his books Det Moderne Gennembruds Mænd – he didn’t bother to be on the lookout for female writers, he referred exclusively to male authors. A perspective which has proved to be ignorant: recent studies have highlighted the importance of female voices, and anthologies like Nordisk Kvinnolitteraturhistoria provide informative insights into texts which have been neglected and ignored. But this awareness has increased gradually. The four most influential Norwegian writers – De Fire Store – are all men: Henrik Ibsen, Jonas Lie, Alexander Kielland, and Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson.

The latter enters Labé’s text for a short and embarrassing performance. Having arrived in the hypermodern Oslo of 1983, Bjørnson is scandalized at finding Synnøve Solbakken, the female protagonist who contributed her name to his homonymous novel has escaped her narrow textual prison and become the director of Gyldendal, the most important Norwegian publisher. Louise is amused about what happens next: “In P2’s live broadcast, Norwegians can hear a sepulchral voice in heavy need of logopaedic assistance railing against Synnøve Solbakken who has become the director of Gyldendal Norsk Forlag: aren’t there any male protagonists? A Happy Boy has been overlooked! Aren’t there any male authors, wrinkled, weather-beaten? No male publishers? No male editors? Not a single male typesetter who could be kept busy with metrics? Not a single vigorous offer? Not a single stallion?” Bjørnson’s times, they are a-changin’; the Venerated Skald, who wrote the lyrics for Norway’s national anthem, proves to be a braggadocio who needs to be restrained. The often-repeated legend states that Henrik Ibsen, the Admired Dramatist, never came to terms with his opprobrium: his father had become insolvent; therefore, the family had to move to a smaller house where Henrik lived for eight years. But a legend is a legend is a legend; in fact, the Ibsen family could afford housemaids and a commodious kitchen. Later, the playwright decorated the story about his trauma; actually, he disdained countrymen and was anxious about distancing himself from them in every possible way. Synnøve leaves Gyldendal; and this is how Louise comments the twist: “As the daughter of a bankrupt merchant, I understand that Henrik Ibsen didn’t throw his hat in the ring.” She seems to know that Ibsen’s heroic biography isn’t as heroic as the dramatist tended to present himself; it is the tale of a peacock who succeeded in leaving an altruistic mark which in fact was pseudo-altruistic. Thus, Louise’s opinion about the most important Norwegian writers is affected by scepticism; she takes nothing for granted.

Louise wants to establish a border between herself and those men who still believe that they alone are allowed to define what literature is. Love is connected to masculinity; make-up, fashion, nursing, and many other things, are connected to love. A small detail belongs to a whole: thus, everything is, in some way, intertwined with masculinity. It is Louise’s mission to cut these threads. She wants to create another language: a language which is more flexible, which doesn’t rely on metonymical similitudes, but on metaphorical volatilities. Thus, she intends to prevent men from invading the room which exclusively belongs to herself; with this conception of love, Louise wants to avoid “some old men’s colossal, territorial love to some other men” getting in the way of her own language. Her love isn’t territorial; it is based on coincidental connections, ephemeral combinations, and spontaneity; in short, it is a “whirlwind” which is capable of tearing everything apart. It is a love based on language’s erotic capacities: a love which accepts the unknown and the unconscious without even trying to reject it.

 39 Whirlwinds begins with a quote by Arthur Rimbaud. In one of his famous letters, the French poet imagines that women – after the end of their “infinite thraldom” – will be able to “find the unknown”; they will discover “strange, fathomless, abhorrent, delicate things”, and they will be “understood”. By whom? By men? Probably. Rimbaud’s quote can be read as a programmatic comment on Louise Labé as she is depicted in Moe’s hybrid text. With the aid of metaphorical volatilities, she learns how to break free from the tight and narrow shapes men’s aggressive and toxic language has detained her in. But she still needs to gain access to her new self: a new mirror to reflect herself in. This new mirror – or, as it is subtly called in the book’s title, the speculum – is the written text with its potential to combine many distant impressions into a fragmentary whole. Thus, the first “photocopy” shows a mirror; beneath are Rimbaud’s quote and a French-Norwegian Labé palimpsest, a translation, obviously conducted by Moe, where “amoureux” becomes “manful” and “braise” “munchkin”. A poem which differs radically from its source text: it doesn’t show the (old) woman who is willing to abandon herself to a man; instead, it shows the (new) woman as Arthur Rimbaud depicts her, a woman who isn’t afraid to transcribe tradition, to unleash unconscious drives, to scrape together a language which isn’t affected by metonymy’s “stickiness”, but by “metaphorical volatilities.”


About the Author

Matthias Friedrich, born in Trier (Germany) in 1992, studied Creative Writing in Hildesheim (2012-2015) and is currently studying Scandinavian Literature in Greifswald. Last publication: kleine thanatoiden (Berlin, Sukultur 2016). Facebook:

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On French Translations of Anglophone Literature

Garçon et crâne by Paul Cézanne. 1896-98.

Welcome to our alternative universe. It is quite similar to the one you happen to inhabit, but there are slight differences. For example, in this alternative world, I and you, my dear readers, are French monoglots. Yes, we can speak and read only French, and, as a matter of fact, this text is also written in French or, at least, you have to pretend it is. “Why French?” you might ask. “Why not German, Italian or Korean?” Well, because French was the first thing that came to my mind, and now you have to deal with it. In this world, all of you are French speakers. That’s a given, don’t argue with me.

We love reading French literature, of course. But even more so, we enjoy reading foreign literature translated into French, especially anglophone literature, you know: the US, Canada, Great Britain, Ireland, Australia, all those countries. More than fair share of that literature finds its way into French: most of Stephen King’s, JK Rowling’s, Dan Brown’s, and E L James’ books are available in quality French translations. However, there are some writers, some really good writers, as we have heard, whose works are woefully under-represented in French translation, and we feel really bitter about it. There is this Irish writer James Joyce whose short-story collection Dubliners finally made it into French thanks to a small independent press. We really like his stories, but there are also some novels he has written that nobody wants to translate and publish: A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and Ulysses. Especially the latter looks interesting — it has been compared to Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu, but, as some of the few English-speaking French critics say, it is much shorter and at the same time much denser. It plays a lot with different literary styles and there is a long monologue at the end without any punctuation. His last book is the experimental novel Finnegans Wake, but even the English-language readers say it has to be translated into English for them to be understood, so I’m not holding my breath for this one.

Then there is this American fellow called William Faulkner. If my memory serves me right, only his debut novel Soldier’s Pay is available in French. We keep hearing good things about his novels The Sound and the Fury and Absalom, Absalom! but since the publisher of his only novel in translation has gone bankrupt, it is very unlikely anyone will risk investing in the translation and publication of these novels. Some even say it would be more realistic to spend  two or three years learning to read English, a very challenging language as we all know, than to wait for the miracle of seeing these books appear in French.

We also keep hearing about Thomas Pynchon, another American writer. As you all know, his short novel The Crying of Lot 49 enjoyed a short-lived success in France before going out of print. All the American critics, however, keep praising his other novel: Gravity’s Rainbow. I’m particularly curious about that one, as some Americans say it is a bit like big novels by Maurice Dantec (as you know, in contrast to the situation here, most of French-language literature gets translated into English), but I have to resign myself to the idea of never getting to read it. Even if there was someone capable of translating this novel into French, no publisher would agree to deal with such a difficult and commercially unviable doorstopper or, as we say, un pavé.

Alas, our only consolation seems to be the quirky blog Le non traduit, which features the reviews of these and other challenging novels unavailable in French. The person running the blog has a good command of English, a rare asset these days, and mostly focuses on innovative anglophone literature. Besides his critical appraisal of the above-mentioned authors, I recommend reading his posts about Virginia Woolf, T. S. Eliot (that Wasteland poem sounds phenomenal!), William Gaddis, John Barth, Robert Coover, William Gass, Cormac McCarthy, Angela Carter, and William T. Vollmann. Although I have to confess that sometimes I feel like punching him for teasing us with all those great books that we’re unlikely to read.

P.S. In a Borgesian fashion (you might remember several of Borges’ stories appearing in French translation in Mots sans frontières), I came into possession of this list of translated titles, which cannot possibly belong to this world, and therefore is the sure sign of the existence of parallel universes. I believe you might find it of interest.

Portrait de l’artiste en jeune homme de James Joyce, traduit de l’anglais par Jacques Aubert et Ludmila Savitzky.

Ulysse de James Joyce, traduction sous la direction de Jacques Aubert.

Finnegans Wake de James Joyce. édition intégrale, traduit de l’anglais et présenté par Philippe Lavergne.

Le bruit et la fureur  de William Faulkner, traduit de l’anglais par Maurice-Edgar Coindreau.

Absalon, Absalon ! de William Faulkner, traduit de l’anglais par René-Noël Raimbault.

L’Arc-en-ciel de la gravité  de Thomas Pynchontraduit de l’anglais par Michel Doury.

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Games of Eternity (Giochi dell’eternità) by Antonio Moresco


The trilogy consists of the following novels: The Beginnings (Gli esordi), Songs of Chaos (Canti del caos), and The Uncreated Ones (Gli increati). To the best of my knowledge, only the first novel has been translated into another language. Aufbrüche, the German translation of the book by Ragni Maria Gschwend, was awarded The Leipzig Book Fair Prize in 2006. As for English-language readers, for the time being, they have to content themselves with Moresco’s slim novel Distant Light (tr. by Richard Dixon), the only work by the Italian author that has appeared in English so far.

For the most part of its gestation, Moresco referred to the main literary project of his life as The Uncreated (L’increato), but eventually, when it was time to reissue all three novels as parts of the greater whole, he chose the title Games of Eternity (Giochi dell’eternità), which is the expression we come across on the first page of The Beginnings when the narrator describes how he is polishing his boots trying to catch the moment when the shoe polish disappears, and only “shining light” remains instead: “I play this and other games of eternity”. The entire opus is 2,760 pages long, and it took Moresco more than 30 years to create it: from 1984, when he started writing the first novel of the trilogy, to 2015, the year when the final volume came out. This long stretch of time comprises the four years it took the unknown author to write the first novel and eleven more to get it published with considerable revisions, as well as the fifteen years spent on writing the second novel. Not to be overwhelmed, I have decided that the best way to tackle Games of Eternity is by looking at one volume at a time, and, having accomplished that, to draw some general conclusions bearing on the entire trilogy. Stay with me — it will take me a while.


The Beginnings (Gli esordi)

In the second edition of the novel, we can find a rather unusual document, one of those professional texts from the world of publishing that common readers usually don’t get to see. It is the synopsis of the book written by Italian writer Tiziano Scarpa for the publishing company Feltrinelli at which he was working as an editor. I would like to quote some sentences from this synopsis, which, in my opinion, accurately reflect the ambition, scope and anomalousness of Moresco’s novel as well as give us the idea why the literary establishment of the 1990s Italy was not ready for this bold and uncompromising work.

Let’s say that we deal with writing which is completely imbued, soaked with images. Come to think of it, Kafka comes to mind, but a Kafka completely stripped of any explicit argumentation or metaphysical discussions. […] in this writing any psychological drift has been removed; what is left is an animal, creatural, physical perception of the events. […] We are thrown into some kind of uninterrupted pre-Socratic dawn or, better still, into an atemporal tour in the claritas of the creation. […] what happens is, so to speak, aion, not chronos. […] I do not hesitate to say that The Beginnings is the cornerstone of our literature of the second half of the century. It resolves a myriad of aesthetical problems being neither mimetic nor fantastic; it gives a definitive word on the destiny of the individual in our time, on his prospects of finding an existential posture, a mark of his calling, a space of political expression, a connection between I am and I do. It is a book that will remain a literary event, the work of a lifetime.

A 600-page novel totally devoid of character psychology and blatantly unforthcoming with the motives for their actions is an uncomfortable read, to say the least. It would be easier to accept the book if it was a slim nouveau-romanish exercise in form and style, instead of an epic narrative spanning more than 20 years of Italian history in which the minutiae of everyday life and surreal episodes of brain-searing intensity are recounted in the same dead-pan, unreflective tone. There is some affinity between The Beginnings and Mircea Cărtărescu’s latest novel Solenoid: both novels integrate the fantastic, bizarre and extraordinary into the mundane to a stunning effect. Both are ironic subversions of the Künstlerroman and both contain a heavy dose of autobiographical material. But Solenoid is all about the voice and attitude of its main character, who obviously serves as the mouthpiece for Cărtărescu’s own ideas. By shutting down this “channel” for his characters, Moresco heavily sacrifices the readability of his book: it’s as if he had chosen to show a sound film without the sound. Out of the two novels, Solenoid is by far more enjoyable, whereas The Beginnings is more iconoclastic in the uncompromising pursuit of its artistic principles to the detriment of readerly comfort.

The three parts of Moresco’s novel show us the three main stages of the unnamed narrator’s life: his studies at a seminary, involvement in the political activities of a left-wing extra-parliamentary group, and the period of uphill battle to get his novel published while living a lonely life in an apartment block in Milan. Moresco himself, of course, went through all these stages. He was a seminary student, spent a decade fighting for such leftist organisations as Servire il popolo and Autonomia operaia, and, having discarded the youthful illusions and maximalism, set out on a long and gruelling journey of becoming a writer.

The first part of the novel is called Scene of Silence (Scena del silenzio). It gives an account of a certain period in the narrator’s stay at a seminary in an unidentified Italian region interrupted by a short trip to his relatives in a country estate called Ducale. The boy has taken a vow of silence and doesn’t utter a word until the very end of the first part. Everything we see and hear is channelled through his consciousness; he acts as an observer and chronicler of the events taking place in the seminary and its environs as well as in the Ducale estate. Although the events are narrated in the most neutral and objective tone possible, it would be rash to call the young seminarist a neutral observer. From the very beginning, we are trapped in the ambiguous position between accepting the wild flourishes of surrealism as the inherent feature of the novelistic world and shrugging them off as the mental fabrications of the protagonist. As we proceed, we realise that there won’t be any resolution to this issue and the best way to act is just to let the outlandish imagery wash all over us without looking for the underlying cause. The narrator contemplates with the same detached curiosity a can of shoe polish and the head of his fellow student covered in a translucent gelatinous crust with a whole shimmering city sprawling underneath, complete with an airport from which miniature planes take off. In the same matter-of-fact manner, the protagonist describes how the calluses on his uncle’s foot grow into a complex structure of ramifying calcified protuberances which are expertly cut off by a chiropodist to be later used as animal feed or how a recently married woman goes through pregnancy and enters labour in a matter of hours.

A distinctive feature of The Beginnings worth mentioning is that the characters are not called by their proper names. They are mostly referred to by their occupation (i.e. the prior), their relation to the narrator (i. e. the Uncle) or by a nickname. Among the many eccentric personalities we encounter in the first part, the most prominent are the Cat (il Gatto), the senior prefect at the seminary who is about to get ordained as priest, the Black Sister (la Suora Nera), a mysterious black nun with a passion for knitting whose long hair completely wraps her body like a cloak, and the Peach (la Pesca), a strabismic girl at the Ducale estate who, as can be surmised, is the narrator’s love interest. The cat, as we know, is anything but an angelic creature: we’ve got centuries of folk and traditional literary forms depicting the animal as the faithful companion of witches, warlocks and other malicious entities consorting with the devil. For example, it’s not without reason that one of the members of Woland’s retinue in Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita has the appearance of a giant cat with the fitting name Behemoth. There is something diabolical about the senior prefect in Moresco’s novel, although we are not given any clear indication of that. But the way he can hardly contain laughter during a religious service or the fact that his newly tonsured scalp reveals an ugly scar that he constantly tries to hide from the narrator gives us an early hint that the Cat will not remain in the service of God for long. Neither will the narrator, for that matter, although the first part ends with him uttering an emphatic “yes” after the prior asks the boy whether he stands firm in his calling.

1970 Fiat 500 L

Fast-forward to the 1970s, the years of social unrest and political violence in Italy. In the second part of the novel titled Scene of History (Scena della storia) we catch up with the narrator as a young man performing various agitation tasks for an underground organisation whose agenda remains obscure despite the detailed descriptions of its members’ frenetic activities. The boss of the main character, known simply as the bald man, makes him in charge of a certain zone that comprises several rural towns. His duty is to travel from town to town (first in a plastic car, then in a small yellow Fiat) equipped with a loudspeaker and a portable stage, disseminating leaflets and holding political rallies. The sheer absurdity of the task becomes apparent as we realise that most of the time there is no audience to listen to the protracted political rants of the young man. Moreover, the content of his speeches is never revealed. The empty squares of Italian towns harking indifferently to the lonely voice of the narrator remind us of the eerie town squares depicted by Giorgio di Chirico in his famous series of metaphysical paintings. Gradually, the agitator picks up a company of collaborators, who might have easily migrated from the works of Beckett: a blind man with extraordinary hustling skills, a constantly yawning man with rotten teeth called Drowsiness (Sonnolenza), a factory worker with a blank face — literally blank: no eyes, no nose, no mouth — and an eye-seeing dog that eventually gets pregnant. By some feat of accommodation, the whole crowd fits into the interior of the little yellow car together with the rally equipment, and in this composition, they continue conducting their cryptic mission for a little while. In one of the rare episodes featuring a crowded square, the Black Sister, wrapped in the mantle of her long hair, reappears as the ringleader of violent protesters clashing with the riot police. The brutality of the confrontation stands in stark contrast to all the vacuous agitation errands run by the narrator and his companions. Stunned, he watches the Black Sister murder a police officer by driving a knitting needle through his nostril.

Giorgio de Chirico, Italian Square, 1948.

The folly of the whole pseudo-revolutionary enterprise reaches a crescendo when the narrator is dispatched on a new mission in the fictional town of Bindra. His task is to join one of the regional headquarters of the organisation situated in an imposing three-story building. When he arrives at the site, he finds out that the building has long been abandoned and fallen into neglect: its spacious rooms that still contain some duplicating equipment and the cell’s documentation are now hung heavy with cobwebs and infested by rodents. In the same expressionless manner in which he does everything else, the newly arrived undertakes the futile task of reviving the local cell by tracking down all the people who at some point applied for the membership in the organisation. But the more he tries, the more conspicuous becomes the scale of the entropic dissolution that has permeated the activity of his group and, in fact, the whole cause of the radical left. Apart from the small boy remaining as the deputy head of the deserted HQ, the only other faithful member of the cell proves to be an eccentric old man called the Fop (il Gagà) who, when confined to sickbed, recounts a wildly delirious tale that cries to be included into any major anthology of weird literature. The story is about his early years of apprenticeship to a wandering embalmer who one day receives a commission to go to Vladimir Lenin’s residence in Gorki, a locality in Moscow Oblast, and carry out around-the-clock surveillance of the half-paralysed Communist leader. Their secret mission is to catch the moment just before Lenin’s demise and to carry out, as swiftly as possible, the initial steps of the embalming process. A considerable obstacle to the venture is posed by Lenin’s chambermaid who proves to be none other than Anastasia Romanov, a daughter of the assassinated Russian czar: the girl develops an uncanny affection for the wheelchair-bound leader, which is consummated in a hallucinatory coupling ritual involving a double split on cupboard tops and a sudden change of seasons. Like the previous part, this one ends with the narrator saying “yes”. This time the answer is given to the bald man’s proposal for him “to become a warrior”, i. e. a revolutionary terrorist. Next thing we know, instead of a Che Guevara there is a frustrated writer living on his own in one of Milanese tower blocks.

Scene of Celebration (Scena della festa) is the final part of the novel and is perhaps the most Kafkaesque. The parallels with The Castle are all too obvious. The narrator’s continuously forestalled efforts to meet the chief editor of a publishing house, who has expressed unbridled enthusiasm about the manuscript of his novel (actually, the first and second parts of the book we are reading), are only matched in their doggedness by the surveyor’s single-minded quest to enter the Castle. In the course of numerous phone calls, enquiries and visits to the publishing company’s offices, the writer on many occasions seems to be tantalisingly close to meeting the editor, but at the last moment some circumstance gets in the way and the cherished encounter has to be postponed. When the narrator gets through the web of chicanery and finally confronts its sleazy architect, he is surprised to see none other than the sinister Cat from his seminary days who, fittingly enough, has acquired a devilish limp. According to the Cat’s skewed logic, the best way of dealing with such an extraordinary novel is to destroy it, to consign it to flames. I see here an obvious nod to The Master and Margarita with a very peculiar twist. As you might remember, Bulgakov’s Woland utters the proverbial phrase “manuscripts don’t burn” before conjuring up the restored novel about Pontius Pilate that was earlier burnt down by its author. The Cat as if refashions this famous saying into something like “truly remarkable manuscripts must burn”, for only then they will forever remain pure and intact.

After participating in a literary-themed variation on Walpurgisnacht that takes place in a roadman’s house and is attended by famous writers and book characters (i.e. Alexander Pushkin, Emily Dickinson, Giacomo Leopardi, Bartleby, Smerdyakov), and where he is briefly reunited with the Peach, the narrator goes for a walk with the Cat for the last time. In the final scene, imbued with Faustian undertones, the writer and his dark companion end up on the roof of Milan Cathedral, which they call “the cathedral of foam”. The third “yes” is in order, yet we do not hear the narrator pronounce it. This “yes” is embedded in the Cat’s wicked proposition: to take a leap into the uncreated. Although it appears that the Cat wants them both to do that when he says “let us throw ourselves headfirst into the uncreated” (gettiamoci a capofitto nell’increato), he nevertheless suggests that the writer should be the first to step off the roof of the beautiful building so that he can see “how worlds re-open” and enter “the realms where one appears and disappears at the same time”. The Cat is praying to God that his former seminary schoolmate make the fatal step into the void even before his mouth utters the third “yes” — the limping plotter seems to be well informed about the two previous assents of the narrator. However, the reader is left in the dark as to whether the writer will fulfil the wish of his diabolical editor by giving the expected assent and immediately acting upon it.

Milan Cathedral. Image by Jiuguang Wang.

Moresco builds his strange world not only by the unexpected injections of the surreal but also by the orchestration of the recurrent motifs and symbols. Mirrors, ladders, and, especially, fire, play as important a role in creating the effect of estrangement as more bizarre objects like the severed cat’s paw, which keeps appearing on different parts of the Peaches’ body or the glass reliquary in the hothouse at the Ducale estate containing a stuffed golden pheasant, grey heron, and toucan. There is a lot of confusion about the Peach’s ascending and descending the ladder: sometimes it is difficult to say whether by going down she is more likely to reach the ground or end up upstairs. Depending at which angle the Peach places the mirror, the topography of the estate suddenly changes to correspond to its skewed reflection. As for the fire, one of the key scenes in the whole novel is the conflagration of the enormous pile of dry leaves at the Ducale, which utterly mesmerises the narrator. No less fascinating to him is the Fop’s description of the fireplace in Lenin’s villa in Gorki, which he comes to see as the metaphysical double of the Ducale estate.  And, of course, the narrator’s games of eternity consist primarily of his interaction with fire and light. At the seminary, he is fascinated by the shoe polish turning into pure light on his boots. Later on, he discovers the ability to split candle flames with his finger. The real purpose of these and other games could be getting a glimpse of or maybe even access to what lies beyond everyday reality. Could it be that his unconscious search for the uncreated has already begun at an early age?


Songs of Chaos (Canti del caos)

 The second novel of the trilogy came as a shock. Based on a handful of the reviews in the Italian media, I had naively believed that I was ready for it. Not only because I had read the first volume, but because I had read François Rabelais, Jonathan Swift, the Marquis de Sade, Herman Melville, James Joyce, William Burroughs, Gertrude Stein, Günter Grass, Thomas Pynchon, Robert Coover, Joseph McElroy, Carlos Fuentes, Paolo Volponi, Alexander Goldstein, Alberto Laiseca, Miquel de Palol and, more recently, Mircea Cărtărescu. So, I thought nothing could surprise me anymore, there was no weirdness left that would be too weird for me, no imagery so violent and outlandish it would be scorched into my brain to haunt me for weeks, no narrative and language idiosyncrasies that would leave me infuriated, appalled, dismayed and, at the same time, intoxicated with the unexpected exhilaration of being in the presence of something significant, albeit extremely disturbing, being synthesised right in front of my eyes. Man, was I wrong! Songs of Chaos seems like a book from another dimension, written in some inconceivable language, which has been smuggled into our world and clandestinely translated into Italian. It doesn’t belong in this time and space. Yet it is here. I am far from declaring this flower of evil the greatest work of Italian literature — God forbid! But, if Earth was invaded by aliens and I was responsible for selecting just two Italian books for their museum of human culture, I would choose without hesitation Dante’s Divine Comedy and Moresco’s Songs of Chaos.

This novel represents a drastic shift in the Italian author’s poetics, comparable to the leap from Newtonian mechanics to Einstein’s relativity. Despite being a direct continuation of The Beginnings, the second book is a whole new world in itself and there is precious little in the first novel which can help the readers stranded in the chaosmos of Songs of Chaos to find their bearings. The arduous task of disentangling the complexities of this depraved world will rest solely on their shoulders, and even if they manage to reach the final page, none of them will walk away from this experience unscathed.

Before I even start discussing this 1,000-page opus, I would like to quote Moresco himself who throws some light on the research that went into the making of the book in the brief note at the end of the novel:

Manuals, encyclopedic entries, scientific books and articles on astronomy, computer science, genetics, anthropology, human, pre-human and post-human biology, artificial intelligence, religion, history; travel accounts, fashion show reports and catalogues, but also first-hand investigations, inquiries, private meetings in the world of advertising, sperm banks, publishing, economics, pornography etc. … have been merged in an autonomous and unpredictable way in this adventure in the shape of a book that lasted for fifteen years.

The first remarkable thing about the novel is that while reading it, you wouldn’t have noticed all this insane amount of research. This is because Moresco, unlike many lesser writers who go out of their way to appear encyclopedic, does not parade the tremendous knowledge gained while writing Songs of Chaos — he seamlessly integrates it into the fabric of the text, modifying and transforming it to fit the purpose of his poetic vision.

The novel starts with the preface written by the Cat for the as-yet-unwritten book by the narrator of The Beginnings,  who finally gets a name, or rather a nickname, from his Mephistophelian editor: from now on the writer is going to be called the Madman (il Matto). Please note that in Italian their names differ only by the initial letter: Gatto/Matto. (I owe this and some other insights to Raffaele Donnarumma’s brilliant essay La guerra del racconto: Canti del caos di Antonio Moresco). As was to be expected, the Cat refused to publish the Madman’s first novel, The Beginnings, because it did not correspond to the new spirit of our materialistic and information-saturated global society. Now the author is expected to write a new book, which is apparently destined to become the Songs of Chaos we are reading at this very moment. The problem is that the first pages of the new novel, in which the narrator finds himself lying in the grave and listening to the voices on the surface, do not satisfy the editor at all. The Cat is sure that the Madman is experiencing writer’s block and, therefore, he sends him to the Muse for inspiration.

The Muse is a prostitute moonlighting as a hard-core porn actress who receives blocked authors at her home and instils in them the cherished inspiration by a variety of manipulations, not all of which are of identifiable sexual nature. She introduces the first characters of the Madman’s future novel by telling their stories and thus sets in motion the erratic and unpredictable narrative-spouting machine which Songs of Chaos proves to be. The characters rapidly multiply and most of them have stories to tell with more characters in them, and then some of those characters unexpectedly show up at the principal narrative level to tell more stories. The violation of the diegetic hierarchy is perhaps the only constant in the highly volatile environment of this book. The narratives are created by a variety of ways: as oral tales, as written texts, as visual storytelling, as drug-induced hallucinations. A very important form of narrative is the song. In the novel, a song (canto) is a character’s incantatory monologue midway between prose and poetry embellished by rhetorical sweeps, rhythmic patterns, fixed epithets and recurrent motifs. It is through the songs that many of the characters reveal their backgrounds and the major events in their lives. And most of these characters are rather strange, to say the least.

There is a programmer who also happens to be a sperm donor. He is developing software for a video game whose main theme is the conflict of generations. The idea springs from the never-ending feud between his father Pericles and sister Grace. In the game, the young generation is represented by hoodlums zipping around on roller-skates, whereas the old one by geriatric stilt walkers. Both groups are wearing stylish helmet masks of the designated colour. There is a woman called the Interface (L’interfaccia) who is artificially inseminated with the programmer’s sperm. She gets inspiration and instruction by pressing her vagina to the screen showing the Muse’s vagina broadcast via a private TV network. There is the hit-and-run driver (l’investitore) whose hobby is driving through the city streets at night and running over pedestrians. Mind you that investitore also means “investor”. There is Inspector Lanza who has no previous experience of solving crime cases but aspires to become a writer and is responsible for a few exciting narratives in the novel. There is the old man suffering from a masturbatory paresis, who is constantly trying to foist on the Cat his manuscript. The editor eventually borrows its title for the Madman’s novel: Songs of Chaos. There is the woman who screams. There is the priest, who is addicted to heavy drugs. He keeps a cut-out picture of the Muse’s vagina in the tabernacle alongside the Eucharist and gets to meet the fugitive Pope Elvis II whose first edict was the dissolution of the Roman Catholic Church. There is a Bantu prostitute called Princess who falls in love with the mover (il traslocatore): a man in possession of a truck who almost daily moves to a new place completely removing not only all the furniture but also all the fixtures of the previous place of residence and installing them in his next domicile. There is the girl with the sanitary pad with an unnaturally copious menstruation flow and the girl with acne, who proudly proclaims that it’s the first sign of leprosy. There is the tamer (il domatore) whose principal task is to break the recalcitrant girls dragooned into hard-core pornography. He sports a world map tattooed on his penis, which reveals unexpected details during tumescence: an ancient sailing ship, Napoleon with his general staff atop a hill, a bas-relief depicting archers on the palace of Assyrian King Ashurbanipal. There is the prepuce trumpeter who sounds a prepuce like a trumpet. There is a snake involved in the making of underground porn movies. There is the lady with a tail, who is also an emissary of the world of underground porn. There is the spastic gynaecologist. There is the rapist of pregnant women. There is the man who steps into shit. Gradually, different geological layers of the substance on his foot soles coagulate to form some kind of flexible stilts and allow him to cover great distances and step over buildings. There is the sky of shit. Yes, it’s a fully-fledged character with its own song! There are the signs: people who got completely squashed on the highway and then unstuck themselves from the tarmac and started moving and showing directions. There are the flag wavers whose flags are anatomical extensions of their muscular bodies. There is stylist Lupus suffering from lupus who copulates with his own dogs. There are three men on the bridge of a ship traversing the ocean: in profile, who sees only the waves in transit – the present; from behind, who sees only where the waves end up – the future; in front, who sees only where the waves come from – the past. There is God who appears to humans as a man with a hoarse voice wearing a porcelain mask. And many, many others.

In Songs of Chaos to narrate often means to create, and once a character is mentioned he or she cannot be cancelled and might turn up at any place any time. The competition for the right to be the main narrator runs through the whole novel. If in The Beginnings all the events were filtered through the Madman’s consciousness who was the only first-person narrator of the highest level, in the second novel this position is contested, fought over, and usurped. The Madman maintains this high status until he decides to save his beloved Meringue (la Meringa), the Cat’s secretary, who is kidnapped by an unknown cyber-biological terrorist group that first demands that a novel should be written for their heinous purposes (and again, it is quite possible that Songs of Chaos is this novel), and then hands the girl over to an extreme pornography syndicate. The Meringue is wrapped in tinfoil with only two holes cut out (and those are not meant for her mouth and nose) and is carried from one secret porn set to another by a laryngectomised thug. If that wasn’t bad enough, there are preparations for brutally murdering her on the set of a snuff movie. The Madman sets off on a long quest to locate and rescue the girl, which is at the same time hilarious and shocking. Moresco is so over-the-top with all the naturalistic details of the porn set activities that at a certain point one stops perceiving all the accumulating intercourses as proper sex scenes but rather as conceptual elements of a greater surrealist collage. All the fornication and violence that pour onto us also have distinct Rabelaisian undertones and could be considered as the ultimate triumph of what Russian critic Mikhail Bakhtin called “the material lower body stratum”. Sperm, blood, shit, and other bodily substances gush on the pages without restraint. There are animals involved you would never think could be cast in bestiality porn: a crocodile, an ant-eater, and the already-mentioned snake. The Madman, guided by a mysterious and powerful ally named Lazlo, tracks the syndicate all the way to Los Angeles, to a decommissioned tower for space simulations, to save the love of his life with the help of a flamethrower. However, in order to do all that, the Madman becomes just one of the characters, and the privilege of narrating the frame story passes over to the Cat. It is also the Cat who takes the responsibility for writing the novel which the Madman failed to produce.

The cunning editor narrates the second part whose main focus is the greatest business transaction of all time: the selling of the planet Earth. It is God, of course, who has grown tired of his creation and wants to fob it off to somebody else. He commissions an advertising agency to plan, develop and carry out the media campaign for selling the planet, appearing to them, as we already know, as the mysterious man in the porcelain mask. It is worth noting that the chief members of the agency, the art director, the copywriter and the account executive, come from a short story written by the inept Inspector Lanza. Moreover, the book that the Madman was supposed to write and the video game developed by the programmer/sperm donor are all part of the advertising campaign. The course of the campaign is discussed by the Cat and the advertising agents during an interminable briefing somewhat similar to the mad tea party in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.  All kinds of absurdities and common sense violations thrive as more guests join the meeting, which is supposed to end with the announcement. This announcement, pre-heralded by the lady who screams and given by God, will declare the birth of the redeemer, the baby girl of the Interface artificially inseminated by the programmer’s sperm. The announcement should immediately follow the selling of Earth to the highest bidder in the heretofore unforeseen global auction. But what does it mean, to sell Earth? And who would buy it? As becomes clear from a conversation between the masked God and the account executive, this could only mean that the global market will buy itself. This situation is not unlike the destiny of a star collapsing into itself and becoming a black hole. And indeed, something of the kind happens in the third part of the novel. But let us not run too far ahead.

Among the first to join the briefing is the programmer with his computer. He continues working on the software, tweaking some details and following the multiplying storylines, while the advertising campaign is gathering momentum and the borderlines between the video game and reality are getting ever more tenuous. Some of the characters appear to operate simultaneously in the video game and in the real world. Moreover, by changing the code of the character on a computer, the programmer inevitably changes the appearance of the respective person in real life. His main concern is the safety of the Interface pregnant with his child, the future redeemer. The notorious rapist of pregnant women whom the programmer himself created for this game (because the Cat mentioned him, and anything which is mentioned in Songs of Chaos comes alive) is intent upon raping the Interface and thus thwarting the whole advertising campaign. The man who steps into shit is designated as the Interface’s guardian angel and saves her from several insidious encroachments of the rascal, ultimately bludgeoning him to a pulp with a car jack.

The large office in which the impossibly long briefing is taking place is a convenient environment for the participants to tell various stories, which provide entertaining digressions from the immediate business matters. The place serves as the modern analogue of the abandoned Florentine villa in The Decameron or, more appropriately, the remote mountain castle of The 120 Days of Sodom. One of those tales stands out in particular. It is the story told jointly by the girl with acne and her boyfriend copywriter, in which the girl recounts her terrifying experience of working as a model for stylist Lupus and the copywriter recounts his thrilling mission to rescue his beloved from a most horrible fate. It’s one of the greatest surreal set pieces I have ever read. I’d put it at the same level as the story of Byron the Bulb in Gravity’s Rainbow. If only fifty pages out of the whole novel could be translated into English, it must be those containing this story, which showcases in a condensed way, as if reflecting its subject matter, all the abilities of Moresco the stylist, the story-teller, the satirist, and the innovator. The main object of the Italian author’s satire here is the world of fashion with its detachment from everyday life and common people’s needs as well as its commodification of the female body. A similar critical attitude could be found in Robert Altman’s film Prêt-à-Porter, at the end of which the models saunter down the catwalk without any clothes on. But, Moresco, of course, goes well beyond that. In this narrative, the models strut about without skin, which has been abraded with sandpaper so that the girls’ bodies can have closer contact with space. The depraved and disease-ridden Lupus, always surrounded by his barking pack, chooses for his unusual fashion show only girls with perfect bodies but deformed or blemished faces. At first, they are even allowed to wear some shreds of clothing on the catwalk. Soon enough, they walk completely naked, for, in Lupus’ words it is “cosmos” which they are trying to put on. Then come the sandpaper and more grisly stuff. The real purpose of Lupus is to make his models tear down the invisible wall between their bodies and space itself, by pushing the latter to the point of absolute concentration, which will create a pocket of completely immobilised space, a present-day inferno. And it is from this inferno that the copywriter has to save his girlfriend, with the help of a jackhammer and guided by an unlikely Virgil in the person of a porn actress.  No retelling will ever convey the inventiveness and decadent poetic charm of this episode, and therefore I will stop here. It has to be read to be believed. The least I can do is to offer my translation, no matter how inadequate, of a passage in which the girl narrates her peregrinations as a member of Lupus’ entourage, couched in the typical for this novel style of a cascading litany:

And also other cocks and other shapes flickering in the dark, during the relocations, here and there on earth, in front of the tumultuous turreted cities we were traversing in the jeep, in the midst of the exploding bodies, all that detached live matter which swarms in the interstices of the confronted plane of space, the obtuse masks of faces, flashing teeth, turbans, those blind fissures of eyes riddling the entire space with holes, limbs moving over the gravitational line of the horizon, cities suddenly coming into view, at night, against the space, crenellated walls of mud and water in front of which we could make out the magnified shapes of the flag wavers stirring against the tumultuous celestial vault, while we were travelling beyond, tossing between sleep and wakefulness in the tundras, in the savannahs. Cities never seen, places almost imagined and dreamed about, our flayed, inflamed faces poked out the windows, we felt the air of the night teeming with starlight dust on a one-way journey through space wash over our projecting faces. The noises of the running engines, the convulsed barking of the perfumed dog pack running at large around the jeep and the cars, when Lupus unleashed the dogs in the dead of night and let them trot along by the vehicle column, in the cloud of red dust lifted by the large wheels crossing desert territories. Inside the cars more and more distinctly could be heard the sounds made by the girls who continued to sandpaper the egg-yolks of their bodies half-dormant in the seats, injecting the space with the yawns of what was remaining of their mouths and tongues. And then other relocations, and other journeys, rushing blindly in a confronted and retreated space. Other cities in turmoil, other skies, while we were racing through the cavity of the vertiginous and animate space. Other undulating bodies against the backdrop of the nocturnal structures of other cities of glass and steel. The bodies that were snapping into motion as we were passing by, greeting us with their incredible banners fluttering in the night wind, against the backdrop of other skies, retreated and ruptured, the jets of decorticated matter, the ignited, nebulous stars on a one-way journey in the massacred matter of the confronted universe, with their orbital movements, the shapes glimpsed in the wind raised by the flags, by the flag wavers. Their gestures silent, concentrated, solemn. In the night there was nobody to watch them but us. Their banners, glimpsed in the dark, appeared to make up a whole with the musculature of their flag-waving bodies. But what flags were those? Who could be those flag wavers?

Meanwhile, the avalanche of economic transactions is rapidly growing as the moment of the announcement and of the selling is approaching. The Ashanti sovereign, riding a bicycle across Africa and simultaneously travelling in time all the way to the Quaternary Period, has been designated as the symbolic driving force of the deal. By pushing the pedals he is dragging the economic avalanche towards the grandiose culmination. Lanza, who has become a TV presenter now, arrives at the briefing with the camera crew to live-broadcast it. At this point, the interpenetration of the various media harnessed for the purposes of the sale reaches the apogee. Everything and everyone is connected, and there is only one to narrate it all! For some time, the programmer usurps the right of the first-person narrator from the Cat, for it is his video game which gave the initial spark to the campaign and it is his sperm, which fertilised the Interface: “My semen and my video game have been explosively fused into one thing, here inside. Your figures have been thrown beyond themselves into that new uncreated space.” This fusion illustrates one of the overarching concerns of the whole novel: the impact of computer and information technologies on biology. But it’s not the software developer who will have the final say in the second part. He loses this privilege to the Meringue, the Cat’s secretary and apparent éminence grise, thus re-establishing the supremacy of the printed word embodied by her boss’s publishing house. That doesn’t last long either. Finally, the buck stops with the creator of the highest rank, as God himself sits down to give the announcement. And what an announcement is that! The man in the porcelain mask proclaims that from now on spacetime will become immobile, for his time has come and theirs is over. And it is in that frozen domain, also known as “the uncreated space” that the final part of the novel is set.

In the third part, which is radical even in comparison with the most off-beat passages in the previous two, Moresco undertakes to represent the unrepresentable: the uncreated space, which appeared as a consequence of time grinding to a halt. For that purpose, he invents a new language. He doesn’t introduce a lot of neologisms to achieve his goal, but rather manipulates grammar forms to approach the most suitable linear representation of a situation in which the past, the present, and the future are no longer relevant, which results in a progression of ambiguities when the characters themselves are not sure whether something has already happened, is happening or will happen. The resultant prose, repetitive, redundant, yet utterly mesmerising, reminds in equal measure of Gertrude Stein’s iterative narration in The Making of Americans and of the most rampant swirls of verbosity in Günter Grass’s Dog Years. The paradoxical statements enveloping all temporal possibilities permeate the text to such an extent as to make it extremely disorienting and difficult to understand, but far from rendering it illegible as some of the book’s detractors have complained. It just takes a bit of patience and perseverance to follow the final stage of Moresco’s visionary enterprise.

New characters appear, and most of them carry the names of Asian cities: Benares 2, Chongqing 3, Tokyo 4, Shanghai 5, Semarang 8. We follow the vicissitudes of their travels and encounters, with a special focus on the love story of Chongqing 3 (male) and Shanghai 5 (female). The symbolic mainstay of the whole part is the phenomenon of the Asian megacity, that sprawling conurbation with its towering skyscrapers, tangled multi-level stack interchanges, gargantuan shopping malls and the tiny flecks of its human population, hustling and bustling inside this cyclopean infrastructure, not unlike nimble spermatozoa in search of the ovum. And, in fact, this is what they are: all these characters fulfilling their minor missions, narrating stories and interacting with the participants of the briefing, because the briefing cannot finish when time has stopped, are just gametes each dreaming about its own potential provided they end up as zygotes and then get born. Chongqing 3 and Shanghai 5 are a potential couple that due to the paradoxes of immobilised spacetime has never met, but, at the same time, has met, fallen in love and had children. The situation gets even more complicated when the megacity dwellers/gametes, while trying to reunite/meet for the first time and also running away from a group of hostile creatures that want to merge with them, get unexpected assistance from their parents who are also their children: Shanghai 5’s fatherson (padrefiglio) and Chongqing 3’s motherdaughter (madrefiglia).

Chongquing. Image by Archey Firefly.

The final destination of these characters as well as of numerous other people/gametes is the ultimate megacity: the splendid city of sperm. And in order to get there, they have to break through the wall of immobilised spacetime. To that end, if we are to believe him, Chongqing 3 has created a Trojan virus, which is at the same time a huge wooden Trojan horse, in whose dark belly billions of spermatozoa attempt to reach the genetic utopia, the City of God for the information age. The foggy stainless steel megalopolis with the constant temperature of -80 °C is an enormous cryopreservation facility, and once its dam protecting the ova is burst by the deluge of the spermatozoa, the ovulation process will begin. This is how the process of “uncreation” takes place. As a result of the global collapse provoked by selling the planet and the subsequent immobilisation of spacetime, all humanity has been reduced to genetic material. The cycle of the creation has come to an end, and the new one is about to begin. The hope for the regeneration is offered by the city of sperm, but this time all the creation will be artificial and maybe even the masked God will not be able to predict the consequences. As he himself declares: “I am the shadow of the spermatozoon of God who will dream, who will be”.

All the while, the characters continue to sing, revealing more clues not only about the chaotic developments in the uncreated space but also about some of the significant past events narrated in the first volume of the trilogy. In his song, the Cat unequivocally admits his diabolical character, which was just hinted at in The Beginnings, by referring to himself as “the demon”. What is more, in his torrential, cadenced monologue he recounts a new version of the Gospels in which Jesus Christ appears as a donkey-riding man/spermatozoon called Jerusalem 9. Just like the biblical Satan, the Cat leads Jerusalem 9 to the top of a temple. However, if in the Gospels the Devil urges Christ to throw himself down alone, the Cat suggests that he and Jerusalem 9 jump together “headfirst into the uncreated”, which brings us back to the episode on the roof of the Duomo at the end of The Beginnings. As you remember, that time, the scenario was more similar to that of the Bible, although the Cat did say “let us throw ourselves” he wanted the Madman to do it on his own. By looking at the final scene of The Beginnings in the light of the devil’s temptation of Christ, we can surmise that the Cat was tempting the Madman as well, and that it was not the uncreated dimension he really wanted the writer to jump into, but something else.

The video game is finished, and the next step in “uncreating” is the wholesale massacre of the characters of the novel as the briefing continues inside the hit-and-run driver’s car. The right to destroy is contested as ardently as was the right to narrate. Despite all the violations of narrative hierarchies, when even God could be handled as just another character, there is one authority who can still effectively exercise his power: writer Antonio Moresco. His alter ego Madman, who even declares in his song “my name is Antonio Moresco”, regains the control over the narrative, pushing the tail of the ouroboros into its mouth. We get back to the story of the Madman buried alive, which was discarded by the Cat as inappropriate for the novel he commissions him to write. Only this time, the indeterminacy of uncreation has taken hold. The Madman’s monologue refers simultaneously to the past and the future, the epitome of which is the neologism “beforafter” (primadopo). He vaguely remembers being run over by a car and wonders what will be made of the manuscript of Songs of Chaos left on his desk: “No one will be able to understand anything, to decipher it, let alone discern its projections, incarnations.” Now, almost ten years after the novel’s publication, we know that this prediction is valid only to a certain extent, for more and more serious readers and academics tackle this fascinating and formidable novel. And so, just as the Madman deliriously shares his impressions of the uncreated dimension and its ramifications, declaring, paradoxically, that his time is over and now his time has begun, we brace ourselves for the final volume of this incomparable lifetime undertaking.


The Uncreated Ones (Gli increati)

It would have been hardly possible to surpass the feral energy of Songs of Chaos, so the final novel of the trilogy offers, understandably, a more subdued narrative, written in a more limpid language with fewer stylistic embellishments. Yet, it’s the most radical part of the trilogy. With this one, Moresco throws readability to the dogs, not at the lexical level like Joyce did in Finnegans Wake, but at the level of constantly reiterated and recycled phrases and sentences which pervade the text in such frustrating profusion as to drive nuts even the most patient reader. To make matters worse, there is no lack of painstaking recapitulations of many episodes from the previous novels, which might serve as useful reminders for those who read them a long time ago and forgot most of the evoked details, but prove to be a mind-numbing chore to read for those who, like me, have been reading all three novels in close succession. Although there are enough moments of original brilliance in this novel which do not allow me to call it a failure, it is definitely the weakest book of the trilogy: exhausting and not often rewarding. Who knows, maybe that’s the price Moresco had to pay for the faithful representation of the uncreated universe.

The challenge of the third part of Songs of Chaos now passes on to the whole of The Uncreated Ones: how to describe by linear and sequential means the situation inside the uncreated dimension, in which time has lost its relevance. On the one hand, the author cannot just dispense with the plot as this would render the novel too chaotic and incomprehensible. On the other, it should be obvious that we are no longer subject to the laws of everyday reality. As in the previous book, the ambiguity of the situation is conveyed through the employment of mutually exclusive tenses (i. e. something happened and is happening now, something happened and will happen later) as well as through the characters’ constant confusion with regard to the time of the events: how can something be happening for the first time now if it has already happened? There is no shortage of time warps, doppelgängers, and bilocations either. The basic categories of our logical universe are reversed by the main tenet of the novel according to which death always comes before life. So, the main character’s death is just the beginning of his journey that will take him to the world of the living and then beyond, to the state of uncreation. This might seem like typical linear progress from one point to another, but we shouldn’t forget that this is not what actually happens. This narrative is just a convenient approximation of the ineffable and unrepresentable process to which none of our criteria and none of the known terms can be applied, including the word “process”.

Like the two previous books, The Uncreated Ones consists of three parts. The first one, titled Preface of the Dead (Proemio dei Morti), follows the Madman, who is still the main narrator, on his journey across the continent of the dead where he ends up after being killed in the above-mentioned road accident. It’s worth noting that the nickname “Madman” has been revoked, and the protagonist once again turns into the nameless first-person narrator, just like in The Beginnings. The narrator travels through the enormous cities of the dead following the elusive Peach, who is there to show him the way out of the dark reign of death into the world of the living. The cities of the dead are similar to the sprawling megalopoli of our world, but they are constantly being shaken by tremendous earthquakes which inevitably cause the skyscrapers, in which most of the dead reside, to crack, crumble and ultimately collapse. The reason for the cataclysms scourging the dead cities is the waves of the new arrivals from the continent of the living. This process is called “overflowing” (tracimazione). When people die they “overflow” from one realm into another. At the same time, there is the contrary movement of the dead who “overflow” into the continent of the living. Some of the dead choose first to resurrect inside their realm and only then to overflow, and others prefer to get to the other side while still being dead. Thus, the two continents are caught in a perpetual collision.

On his journey, the protagonist meets a bunch of colourful characters, both familiar from the previous books and completely new. For some time he is accompanied by Lazarus, who is actually Jesus Christ, who resurrected Lazarus, lay into the tomb instead of him and then refused to get resurrected himself. While the Christ aspect of this character remains entombed and unresurrected in the biblical Bethany, his Lazarus aspect in the reign of the dead wants to resurrect as well as to trigger the “vortex” of resurrection on the whole continent. Things get more complicated when another Lazarus, identical to the first one, joins them. This one, on the contrary, is against resurrection within death and proselytises remaining dead within death. This and many other situations of that kind reflect the recurring mantra of the universe subject to uncreation: “everything is split in two”. Thus, for example, there are two gods: the God of the living who is dead and the God of the dead who is alive. Both are wearing a porcelain mask, naturally. The encounter with the Black Sister allows the narrator to fill in some of the gaps left in The Beginnings. While driving him to the next point of his itinerary in a stolen truck, the woman reveals to her passenger that she was having an affair with the Cat at the seminary. It also turns out that after she joined the left-wing terrorist organisation which can be easily identified as the Red Brigades, she was in charge of kidnapping the former Italian prime minister Aldo Moro.

The meeting with the Muse takes place underground where the narrator discovers vast subterranean cities quaking and rumbling on account of millions of bodies of the dead denizens engaged in sexual intercourse. All the sperm spilt as a result of that activity forms a turbulent river. The protagonist and the Muse have to swim in it in order to reach the upper regions of that realm. From there the narrator, alone again, passes through the sky of the underworld and back onto the surface to find the dead and the resurrected clashed in a furious battle that inaugurates the commencement of the Third World War between the living and the dead. The growing army of the resurrected is considered to be the fifth column of the living who are continuously overflowing into the continent of the dead, and there is no one better to perform the task of slaughtering the resurrected cohorts than Napoleon himself. But he is the dead Napoleon, of course. Moreover, the commander of the dead troops is Napoleon with a female womb, as the genitals were removed from his corpse on the island of Saint Helena. Another significant historical personage met by the narrator before he is temporarily reunited with the Peach is Vladimir Lenin accompanied by Anastasia Romanov. The Soviet leader’s mission is to foment the revolution of the dead, whereas the resurrected ones are dismissed by him as the equivalent of the Mensheviks. In order to get to the continent of the living, the dead have to jump down from the tops of tall towers, and that is what the Peach and the protagonist do. Following his beloved, he overflows into the world of the living, having resisted two temptations: that of resurrection within death and that of remaining dead within death. The Peach, his Beatrice, guides him to a different destiny, which, as we suppose, can only be uncreation.

The second and the longest part is Preface of the Living (Proemio dei vivi). It recounts the wanderings of the solitary narrator on the continent of the living, which are at the same time a journey into his past and the revisiting of some of the events narrated in The Beginnings and Songs of Chaos. In the course of what seems like a time-travelling adventure, the narrator keeps losing and finding the Peach again and again until their final reunion in a royal palace.

As the world war between the living and the dead rages on both continents, and, as the new belligerent force of the immortals enters the scene, the protagonist becomes a small boy and retrieves his family home in Mantua. As he keeps searching for the Peach, he grows up again and revisits all the most important places featured in The Beginnings as well as re-encounters all its major characters. At the same time, his quest is a fictional recreation of the main stages of Antonio Moresco’s life. The “everything is split in two” principle becomes especially evident when the protagonist meets himself two times: his younger self studying at the seminary, and his older self — a disillusioned writer who is about to die in his Milanese apartment. The narrating voice shifts from one self of the protagonist to another, which is yet another approximation on the part of the author to show that all the events take place in a timeless dimension. What is happening now has already happened in The Beginnings, but it is also yet to happen in the future.

Saint Lucy by Domenico di Pace Beccafumi, 1521.

Besides the well-known characters already seen in the first and the second books of the trilogy, the narrator interacts with an array of martyrs, rebels and the revolutionary heroes of his youth. He receives Letters to Nobody (Lettere a nessuno) (Moresco’s memoirs about his struggle to become a published author) and the Peach’s love letter from Saint Lucy, a Christian martyr who carries her torn-out eyes on a plate. She now acts as a letter-carrier between the worlds of the living and the dead. At the seminary, he meets the first cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, an icon of the Soviet atheism who, we could also say, has become the new martyr of the space age. There are also appearances by John Fitzgerald Kennedy, Malcolm X, Marilyn Monroe, Che Guevara, Pasolini, Jan Palach, a Czech student who committed self-immolation in protest against the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, and Mao Zedong, “the obese idol”.  The upheavals caused by the attraction of all matter towards the uncreated have affected not only human beings but also man-made images. There is, for instance, a captivating digression about the love affair between Che Guevara and the funerary effigy of Italian noblewoman Ilaria del Carretto. At one point, while traversing the war-ravaged Milan, the protagonist sees Leonardo’s Vitruvian Man engulfed in flames.

The Cat doesn’t remain unaffected by all the transformative processes either. Being just the devil in the world of the living does not appear to be enough for him anymore, so he has embarked on an evolutionary journey of his own. When the narrator sees him again at the seminary, the young Cat has become the prior and is now in charge of the derelict place with just a small cluster of students remaining under his supervision. In contrast to the narrator, who has just overflowed into the world of the living while still being dead, the Cat has been resurrected. The next step for him is immortality. But he will not become a mere immortal, of course, he will change his demonic status to the divine one by becoming the God of Immortals. The duality of everything is also reflected in the religious, or rather pseudo-religious, services held by the new prior. First, he celebrates the mass of the living, and then the mass of those who have overflowed (la messa dei tracimati). During the latter, conducted on Christmas Eve, the Cat is assisted by three people: the protagonist as a young seminarist, the protagonist as an adult, and Yuri Gagarin. The mass gets interrupted all the time by the appearance of Biblical characters, such as the prophet Micah and the angel Gabriel, as well as God himself, who impugn the veracity of the canonical account of the saviour’s birth.

Meanwhile, the character of the global war undergoes an important change. It is no longer a conflict between the dead and the living, but between the immortals and the joint forces of the living and the dead, as death and life turned out to be the same thing: lifedeath (vitamorte). The final destination of the protagonist is the city of Milan heavily bombarded by the immortals using missiles with genetic warheads. The blaze of explosions illuminating the city’s night sky brings to the narrator’s mind TV broadcasts of the US forces’ missile strikes against Baghdad during the invasion of Iraq. Most of the loose threads are tied here as the narrator undergoes his final test, which is inextricably linked to the Cat’s temptation at the end of The Beginnings. Escorted by a crowd of human torches led by Jan Palach, the protagonist enters, one after another, two identical palaces. The first one is hosted by the Muse and is the portal to immortality. There, the Cat as the God of Immortals tries for the last time (or perhaps for the first time, since there are no temporal coordinates anymore) to trick the narrator into accepting immortality. This harks back, once again, to the episode on the roof of Milan Cathedral in The Beginnings. When the Cat suggested jumping “headfirst” into the uncreated, he was tempting the protagonist with immortality, pretending to tempt him with uncreation. Such a tangled explanation would be in keeping with the perplexing character of the whole trilogy. Not yielding to the temptation allows the narrator to enter the second palace where the Peach awaits him. There he embraces love and uncreation. Finally, he is ready to take the jump into the uncreated from the roof of the Duomo. But this time, the magnificent cathedral is wrapped in flames, and it is the Peach who jumps together with him, leaving the frustrated Cat on the burning roof.

The last part, Preface of the Uncreated Ones (Proemio degli increati) is just about 100 pages long. It consists of three chapters that finally take us to the point where there is nothing left except the uncreated in its pure state. The characters of the final part somewhat resemble the ones in the first two, but it is impossible to ascertain whether we’re really dealing with some transformed versions of the Peach, the Cat, and the protagonist; rather, these are archetypes that demonstrate at a much higher and more abstract level the progress towards uncreation made by the main characters of the novel.

The chapters are tellingly titled The Creator (Il creatore), The Destroyer (Il distruttore), and The Uncreator (L’increatore), and can be regarded as some sort of holy scripture of the uncreated ones. The creator is similar to the biblical God who creates the earth, the first man and the first woman. However, the borderlines between the creator and his creation become blurred as the god falls in love with the first woman (who proves to be none other than the Peach), and as the first man (who in many aspects resembles the Cat) takes over the narration from his creator as he moves on to a more advanced stage of creation: that of destruction. The destroyer espouses the supremacy of destruction over creation, for the latter is comprised by the former, until reaching even higher ontological state and becoming the uncreator. What is interesting, it is hinted here that the main precondition for accessing the uncreated is the merging of the destructive and creative potentials personified respectively by the Cat and the protagonist. The great meeting of the creator, the destroyer and the uncreator accompanied by their spouses that takes place in the same royal palace in which the protagonist has been reunited with the Peach can inaugurate only one thing: at last nothing and nobody have any relevance, even the figure of the uncreator, the last link in this chain of transformations, as there is nothing left but the uncreated itself.

So, what is, after all, Games of Eternity, and why did the author decide to discard The Uncreated, the initial title of the trilogy, putting thus emphasis not on the destination but the journey, not on the result but the process, not on the findings but the search? This message, so simple and yet hard-earned, derives from looking at the development of the main character, which mirrors the development of Moresco the writer. After all, what is any creative writing if not a game, and what is any good creative writing if not a game of eternity? The protagonist escapes from the rigid systems of religion and ideology to break through to the pure essence of creation only to find himself trapped in yet another system: that of the predominant literary aesthetics upheld by the leviathan of the publishing industry. Only as the Madman he is capable to fully liberate his creative potential, which in equal measure proves to be destructive. This results in the emergence of Songs of Chaos, the terrifying masterpiece that threatens to engulf its own creator-turned-destroyer. It becomes clear that despite its immense appeal, destruction is not really what the protagonist has been looking for. Since there is nowhere he can move on further, the protagonist does not really move forward, but re-traces and, actually, re-assembles his previous life with a view to finding what he now firmly believes to be his Holy Grail: the state of uncreation predicated upon his love for the Peach. Perhaps, plunging into the uncreated is equivalent to reaching the Nirvana in Buddhism or returning to the One in Neo-Platonism. It is quite possible that Antonio Moresco, the greatest living Italian writer and one of the greatest writers of our time, eventually realised, along with his protagonist, that no matter how sweet and coveted the moment of achieving your goal could be, which is the dissolution in the uncreated for the latter and international recognition for the former, it is the boldness to play the games of eternity despite the odds that counts above anything else. And this whole trilogy, massive and messy, splendorous and horrendous at the same time, is nothing more and nothing less than an immortal paean to those who dare to play games.


Some final words about Songs of Chaos. Even if Moresco had not written the other books of the trilogy, even if it was the only book he had ever written, that would have been enough to secure him a prominent place in literary history. Riccardo Dal Ferro, a writer, philosopher, YouTube personality, and a fervent promoter of this novel, has said: “Songs of Chaos is perhaps the only contemporary work of Italian literature that will be studied in 200-300 years from now.” It was this statement that goaded me into reading the novel in the first place, and I have to admit that it’s not an exaggeration. The Anglophone trendsetting in innovative literature is over. If Ulysses was the pinnacle of modernism, and Gravity’s Rainbow of postmodernism, it is the Italian Songs of Chaos that is the next big thing for which we don’t have a name yet.

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The Great Untranslated: Jernalderdrøm (Iron Age Dream) by Steinar Løding


Jernalderdrøm (Iron Age Dream) is a giant literary project undertaken by Norwegian author Steinar Løding, about whose existence, most probably, you will learn only from this post. Do not be surprised. I myself discovered this writer and his ambitious, unclassifiable opus magnum just recently thanks to Matthias Friedrich, a true champion of lesser known Scandinavian literature. Obscurity is the usual fate of a literary work if it is voluminous, linguistically complex and not written in the lingua franca of our globalised society. So, in a few words, here is what we’ve been missing.

Thus far, the first three novels of the cycle have been published as five books (the third novel came out in two volumes with the two parts of the second volume published separately) clocking in at 2,616 pages. The stylistic exuberance and extensive erudition of the project have garnered comparisons to James Joyce, Hermann Broch, Umberto Eco, and Thomas Pynchon.

The first novel is titled Flukten til Ninive (The Flight to Nineveh) and, predictably enough, deals with the themes related to ancient Mesopotamia and its culture. There are four major narratives interwoven together. Firstly, there is the story of the main narrator, who is staying on Crete and profiting from the use of a large private library filled with books about the ancient civilisations in the Tigris-Euphrates region. Along with the account of his sojourn on the Greek island, we also get to read his richly annotated novel, which contains the other three narratives: the march of ten thousand Greek mercenaries from Persia to Assyria, known to us mainly from Xenophon’s Anabasis, the story of a Norwegian archeology enthusiast who finds himself in the same region during World War I, and, finally, the account of George Smith‘s discovery of The Epic of Gilgamesh in 1872, which allowed him to go on several archaeological expeditions to Nineveh.

The second novel, which has the mystifying title Og. Forsøk på en poetikk (And. Attempt at Poetics), resembles rather an academic treatise with novelistic elements than a conventional plot-driven novel: it is packed with references and quotations, not to mention the 600 footnotes that threaten to overwhelm the main text. The forays into social and political history give us an insight into the role of Nordic nations in the transatlantic slave trade, whereas the literary investigation is focused on the ancient genre of the Milesian tale and its influence on contemporary literature. And, to justify the strange title, there is also learned discussion on the significance of the conjunction and.

Fragmenter av en aldri ferdigskrevet familieroman (Fragments of a Never-finished Family Novel) is the third instalment of Iron Age Dream, and, in terms of size, it considerably surpasses the previous two combined. The main events take place at the end of the nineteenth century in the municipality of Fjære located in Southern Norway.  Among other notable locations are Chicago, London and the Caribbean island of Saint Croix. Generally speaking, this humongous undertaking is indeed a novel that traces the history of the several generations of a Norwegian family, but the panoply of the narrative and stylistic techniques employed by the author as well as the sheer linguistic audacity elevate this work to the realm well beyond the confines of any traditional novelistic genre.

Let me leave you at this point with the following assessments of Fragmenter… by two Norwegian journalists, which are likely to make this novel even more alluring to you:

Turid Larsen:

Reading Steinar is like entering a shrubland. Hardly passable. The sentences crawl around, break off, terminate, repeat themselves, pile up, wind their way across the pages until  suddenly bumping into a comma.

Fredrik Wandrup:

An insane family saga … No one else writes like Løding.  Absolutely no one. […] This literary structure, controlled with almost spooky precision, is a devilish feat of engineering … Løding is akin to sophisticated American writers like Thomas Pynchon or David Forster Wallace, and also to such poets as Mircea Cărtărescu […]

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Dedicated to Piranesi (Посвящается Пиранези) by Joseph Brodsky

View of Flavian Amphitheatre, called the Colosseum, 1776. Giovanni Battista Piranesi.

A while ago, my tweet about the Joseph Brodsky poem apparently recounting the conversation between the too tiny figures at the bottom of Piranesi’s famous etching provoked lively interest among my literary-minded followers. Apart from the highly original premise of the poem, this enthusiasm could be explained by the fact that there is no English translation of the piece. Even the bulky Collected Poems in English doesn’t have it. Half-heartedly, I tinkered a bit with it, intending to produce a more or less acceptable English translation to satisfy the curiosity of my audience, but, after the third stanza, it became obvious that I was spawning an abomination, and that I should the last person to attempt to convey to the English-language reader the sophisticated beauty of Brodsky’s poetry. To prove that I’m not being falsely modest, I  present to you the misbegotten product of my brief and conceited endeavour (the original is rhymed, by the way):

A lunar crater or a Colosseum, or a place somewhere 

in the mountains. A man in a coat

is talking to a man clutching a staff.

Nearby, a dog is searching for grub in the garbage.


 It doesn’t matter what they’re talking about. Apparently,

About something sublime; about such matters as bliss

And aspiration for truth. It’s quite natural to converse with a pilgrim

About this insurmountable sentiment.


The cliffs, or the remnants of erstwhile columns,

Are covered in wild herbs. And the way

The pilgrim’s head is bent belies certain

reconcilement  with the world in general and


with the local fauna in particular. …


Enough. So, instead of the horrible translation, I would like to offer a brief analysis of this strange poem.

I owe the discovery of Piranesi’s etching to the outstanding commentary by Russian poet and philologist Lev Loseff, which appeared in the recently published two-volume edition of Brodsky’s collected poems. At first, I thought that the poet simply had chosen to zoom in on the pair with the dog, think up their exchange and write it down in his versed description of the print. However, as Lev Loseff points out, Dedicated to Piranesi is not a pure ekphrasis. If you magnify the image and look carefully enough, you will notice that the two people in the picture are a woman and a man, and not two men as stated in the poem. So, it would be more appropriate to regard Piranesi’s etching as the initial inspirational impetus that sent Brodsky’s poetic imagination racing.

The protagonists of the poem are a modern man walking his dog and a discalced pilgrim who clearly belongs to some earlier epoch, perhaps the 18th century, when the etching was made or, maybe, the period of Roman Antiquity, with which the Russian poet was so enamored. The violation of the arrow of time represented by their impossible encounter is echoed in the indeterminate character of the setting itself: it is difficult to tell whether the conversation takes place in the mountains or in some ancient ruins. The topic of the discussion is one of the major leitmotifs in Brodsky’s whole oeuvre: the nature of time and its influence on human beings. As the poet himself said in an interview: “if I were to summarize, my main interest is the nature of time. That’s what interests me most of all. What time can do to a man. That’s one of the closest insights into the nature of time that we’re allowed to have.”  The pilgrim prefers to walk about barefooted because the prickling sensation given to his foot soles by the stiff tufts of grass and the hard-edged gravel reminds him of the difference between the present and the past. Although it is possible to experience directly only the present, this is not always clear to human beings who are compelled to inhabit the “mixture” of the past and the present due to the evanescent character of the latter. The man in the coat, on the other hand, always wears shoes. He cannot accept the pilgrim’s fixation on the present, believing it to be of minor significance compared to the vast solidified realm of the past. Nor is he in favour of the “heat-haze” of the future (in Russian, the beautiful word marevo is used), for all too soon it acquires the features of the past. To the sceptical pilgrim’s remark about the man in the coat himself not long ago being just a spot in the said heat-haze until the two met, his opponent bitterly responds that both of them are “two pasts”, which, by getting together generate the present.

The highest point of the modern man’s speculation about time is his bringing up their creator, the Italian engraver, who was kind enough to let them both exist in his elaborate landscape, which did not require any human presence at all.  Needless to say, the microscopic size of the people in Piranesi’s etching conclusively proves his point. Landscape is the quintessence of the past, and the notion of the fleeting present introduced into it by the inclusion of the wretched creatures like them is just an indication of the artist’s generosity.

The pilgrim’s next question catches the man in the coat off guard: “So, have you emerged from the past?” It is clear that with all the past trailing behind him, a 20th-century person cannot be somebody from the past with respect to a man who used to live centuries ago. Their brief encounter creates a concentrated node of the past, present and future, which, owing first to Piranesi, who made the engraving, and then to Brodsky, who described it in the poem, starts to expand. There is no way for the man in the coat to deny it. And he acknowledges this expanding present by describing what he and his dog are doing right now: “Not really, […] we’re just taking a walk here.” And then, finally, the dead ossified landscape dominated by the ancient ruins is ruptured by the prolonged barking of the dog, celebrating this convergence of the temporal aspects, to which yet another present is added: our aesthetic experience of reading the poem at this very moment. The dog is triumphantly barking at us.

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The Secret Year (Тайный год) by Mikhail Gigolashvili

It wasn’t Sergey Eizenstein’s bombastic epic Ivan the Terrible that Mikhail Gigolashvili had at the back of his mind when writing The Secret Year, but, as he mentioned in an interview, Alexei German’s infernal fresco Hard to be a God. The sprawling, slow-paced narrative unfolds within several weeks of the year 1575, when the Russian tsar ceded the Moscow throne to baptised Tatar Khan Simeon Bekbulatovich and withdrew to his residence in Alexandrova Sloboda, a fortified settlement 75 miles north-east of Moscow. Besides committing a synesthetic assault on the reader’s senses of smell and vision by virtue of its unflinching depiction of the sordid squalor and casual cruelty of the medieval times in Russia, the novel also impresses by its masterfully archaised language modelled on the florid style of Ivan the Terrible’s epistolary writings (you might be surprised to learn that the ruthless tsar, notorious for the barbaric acts of violence, was also one of the greatest stylists of the Russian language of his time). This linguistic experiment could be compared in its ambition to the famous pastiches of 18th century English prose accomplished by John Barth in The Sot-Weed Factor and Thomas Pynchon in Mason & Dixon. It’s one of those books where not much happens, and the plot is sketchy at best. What Gigolashvili’s novel offers instead is an atmospheric experience, an invitation to inhabit a period so little documented in the historical sources that the author feels free to create his own version of this past, a psychedelic fantasia dominated by the thoughts and voice of the imagined Tsar Ivan IV, which could possibly help us understand better the original historical figure.

Alexandrova Sloboda. Engraving by Theodor de Bry (d. 1598), published by Jacob Ulfeldt in 1627.

Most of the novel’s 15 chapters adhere to the same pattern. They usually start with a description of Ivan’s dream preceding his awakening and getting ready for the busy day lying ahead. The tsar’s official routine consists of receiving a number of sundry visitors: foreign ambassadors, messengers from Moscow and more distant parts of Russia, hired professionals from western Europe, and various members of his personal entourage. His prolonged dialogues with the guests provide us with a detailed picture of the situation in the country at the time when the main action takes place as well as give informative and vivid flashbacks of the earlier days of Tsar Ivan’s reign, most notably, the 7-year period of the oprichnina, the policy of repressions, executions and forcible relocations of the nobility carried out by the corps of oprichniki, an elite military guard and political police in one. After that, we follow the protagonist on whatever personal business or adventure he has in mind on the given day until the moment he goes to bed in his chamber. At the end of each chapter except the last one there is a short section dedicated to two servants who at night arrive at the printing house to make, by hand, fair copies of the two documents drafted by the monarch himself. The first one is called the List of State Servitors and includes the names of the faithful oprichniki. The second one bears the title Memorial List of the Disgraced (Sinodik opal’nykh) and contains the names of men, women and children executed by the tsar’s order. The list of the disgraced is meant for the churches as the pious Ivan wants prayers said for the soul of each of his victims. As a matter of fact, fourteen chapters of The Secret Year invariably end with authentic excerpts from both lists placed side-by-side in two columns: the murderers next to the murdered.

David Fassmann, Gespräche in dem Reiche derer Todten, Entrevue Nr. 84, Leipzig 1725, Title Page.

The general tenor of the tsar’s official meetings is the inevitable juxtaposition of the still medieval Muscovy and her western European neighbours enjoying the technological and cultural advances of the late Renaissance. Thus, while admiring the German pocket watch given to him as a gift, the tsar bitterly regrets that his country hasn’t produced anything of the kind, for up to this moment he could only relate the notion of a timepiece to a huge tower clock. The fortepiano for the music school in the Sloboda has been imported from Italy. The pig-intestine condom Ivan is compelled to use after discovering a syphilitic chancre on his glans is the invention of an Englishman. If it were not for his German engineer and factotum Ortwin Schlosser, there wouldn’t be the indoor menagerie, the bakery, the music school, and even the water-supply system in Alexandrov Kremlin. Almost every day the sovereign has to listen to never-ending complaints about the theft and corruption in the nascent Russian Tsardom’s ineffective administrative system, which renders Russia’s backwardness in comparison to the West even more poignant: they have universities, banks, well-established schools of visual arts, newspapers — and we don’t. Possessed by the idea of accelerating Russia’s development and bringing it closer to western Europe, Ivan makes arrangements for the establishment of the first school of interpreters, correctly believing that no transmission of knowledge is possible without effective communication. Establishing this dialogue is essential, but not so easy with the Livonian War at the background. In foreign states the Russian tsar is viewed as a sadistic and obscurant tyrant and Ivan IV strongly resents this image of a monster ballyhooed by his political opponents. The bias against him is even reflected in the translation of his sobriquet, for in Russian the word “groznyi” means “formidable”, not “terrible”. When he is shown a German print portraying him as a feral beast sitting on a throne amid mass executions, Ivan has mixed feelings about it. On the one hand, he is vexed by the hypocrisy and injustice of this attitude, for there is no lack of cruelty and despotism among his political opponents either. On the other hand, he feels flattered by the awe and fear he instills in them. The introduction of this engraving, by the way, is a brilliant touch of playful anachronism on the part of Gigaloshvili, for it appeared only in 1725, on the title page of German publicist David Fassmann’s moral weekly Gespräche in dem Reiche derer Todten (Dialogues in the Realm of the Dead).

The long-windedness of the book (my edition of the novel is more than 800 pages long) from time to time is jazzed up by the elements of detective and mystery genres. In a fit of the overwhelming desire to escape from it all, the tsar makes a botched attempt to flee to England by setting off alone in a horse wagon. He doesn’t make it far from his estate before the wagon breaks down and he is robbed by two wandering artisans who fail to recognise the monarch in the dishevelled and unkempt man before them. The detective thread of the narrative is represented by the subsequent probe into the case by the best representatives of the Banditry Office (Razboinaya izba), a fledgling criminal investigation department established by the tsar in the 1570s. The other mystery to be solved is of seemingly supernatural character, most probably involving witchcraft: a stone slab with writings in an ancient language falls from the sky and maims Ivan’s factotum Schlosser. But the most impressive “interruptions” of the mostly sluggish main narrative are provided by Ivan’s dreams and hallucinations. The oneiric experiences of the tsar are as important to him as his wakeful activities, for quite often the symbolic omens received in the dreams serve for him as clues or even instructions when dealing with practical issues at hand. In dreams he can directly communicate not only with angels, but also with demons, as the powers of evil also require close attention of the God-fearing man. The workings of the devil are especially evident in his opium-induced reveries — the tsar has become addicted to the drug as a means of mitigating the pain caused by his proliferating ailments. An admirer of Hieronymus Bosch, (in the novel there is an apocryphal story of Ivan IV getting hold of a stolen Bosch painting) the tsar generates mental pictures of matching weirdness:

The black dog put its front paws on the bed and opened its maw, giving off unearthly fetor. … But it’s not the dog’s mouth – it’s a twilight temple! The Ambon is black. Pitch candles are crackling.  Bundles of bats are fluttering in the corners. The icons show the muzzles of beasts wearing cone hats. A smoking chalice is sitting on the pulpit. Hairy scorpions, long-legged spiders, fish-snakes and toad-rats are crawling out of it, arshin-long worms are stretching their naked necks. In front of the Ambon, an obese priest is swinging a thurible with something shit-smelling. Greenish glistening slugs are slithering on his shoulders, leaving slippery trails. The priest has a black face, his eyes are scarlet, his mouth is spewing smoke, and his fingers seem charred. And here is the flock bustling about the corners: some freaks tear off their own noses, ears and lips and throw them into a rusty bucket. The filled bucket travels by itself through the air and right into the hands of the priest, who pokes his mug inside and begins to chomp with such gusto that the slugs start dropping onto the floor with a hollow squelching sound.

In a dream that Tsar Ivan has several days before Archangel Michael’s day, the culmination of the whole narrative, he is visited both by Michael and his fallen companion Dennitsa, which was the Russian word for Lucifer at the time. It is Dennitsa who marks his shoulder with a branding iron, leaving the acrid smell of sulphur in the air. Perhaps, after all, the satanic forces are getting the upper-hand in the struggle for the Russian monarch’s soul. The extent of the book allows the author to explore in depth the controversial dualism of Ivan IV, who is still viewed by many as a mere caricature of wanton cruelty not unlike the Wallachian voivode Vlad III (the Impaler).  The two different sides of the tsar are shown in all their horrendousness and splendour. For those morbidly interested in the ingeniuos methods of torturing and killing human beings applied by Ivan and the members of his court there is a veritable sick feast: the condemned get fried alive in enormous frying pans with boiling oil; outlawed oprichniki murder people in the manner which in some way corresponds to their last names (e.g. a man whose last name Sobakov is derived from sobaka, the Russian for a dog, is beaten up to pulp and fed to ravenous dogs); the teenaged Ivan and his cronies let loose four bears into the throng of Muscovites on a market day and set about punching to death the panicking folk with knuckle-dusters; a literal blood bath is given to Tsar Ivan by his cruellest henchman Malyuta Skuratov, who lets ten Tatar captives bleed into a basin and then washes his sovereign in the blood using a lopped curly-haired head as a sponge; a giant albino sheatfish in the tsar’s menagerie is given the nickname Glutton because of its appetite for the cut-off human fingers, noses and ears fed to him by the same Malyuta.  This list could go on, but I think that the few examples I have given here will suffice. Alongside the pathological cruelty there is another aspect of Tsar Ivan, which is often overlooked. Here we speak not only of Ivan IV as the architect of the centralised Russian state and the founder of the incipient empire during whose reign the territory of the tsardom was considerably expanded. It is also worth considering the tsar as a very knowledgeable and creative man whose talent manifested itself not only in his famous correspondence with the runaway Prince Kurbsky, but also in a number of religious musical compositions. Offering a powerful counterpoint to the atrocities witnessed and recollected throughout the novel, the final chapter concludes with a choir of children standing against a painted backdrop depicting Paradise and singing a magnificent canon in praise of Archangel Michael, the “terrible voivode”. This hymn was composed by Parfenii Urodivyi, which was the artistic pseudonym of the terrible tsar.

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