The Troiacord (El Troiacord) by Miquel de Palol


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

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


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


Platonic Solids

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The apse of Santa Maria del Mar

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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


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The Great Untranslated: Rondo by Gösta Oswald

rondoGösta Oswald was a prodigy of the Swedish modernist scene, publishing his first collection of poetry at the age of nineteen. His tragic death in a drowning accident in 1950, when he was just twenty-four years old, cut short a formidable literary career in the making. By that time the young man had published only one more text, the novel En privatmans vedermödor (A Private Man’s Hardships). The rest of his literary works  came out posthumously, the most notable of those being his highly experimental novel Rondo that was still unfinished at the time of Oswald’s death. This relatively short poetic work primarily inspired by Hieronymus Bosch’s The Haywain Triptych and Dante’s The Divine Comedy is regarded as one of the most original and challenging texts in Swedish literature.

In this intriguing piece, unfortunately available only in Swedish, writer and critic Carl Johan Malmberg mentions Rondo in the same breath as In Search of Lost Time, Finnegans Wake and Bottom’s Dream. This does not mean, of course, that the novel by the precocious Swedish talent is on a par with these heavy literary monuments, but rather that Oswald’s ambition of creating a work that would be marked by bold stylistic experiments with language as well as over-saturated with cultural and literary references placed him within the tradition of ground-breaking encyclopedic narratives represented by Proust, Joyce, and Arno Schmidt.


Hieronymus Bosch. The Pedlar, closed state of The Hay Wain.

Rondo lacks conventional plot. It is a poetic tapestry woven from a variety of motifs hearkening back both to the old masters such as Plutarch, Dante, Rabelais and the more recent ones: Dostoevsky, Hölderin, T. S. Eliot, Joyce. Structurally, Oswald’s text follows the arrangement of the scenes in The Hay Wain, as each part of the novel corresponds to a certain panel in the triptych. The most prominent theme of the novel is that of a metaphysical search. The main character Aran, named so after the group of Irish islands, is a wanderer just like the dog-deterring pedlar depicted on the closed shutters of Bosch’s triptych. The hostile environment in which the protagonist of Rondo wends his way, looking for a way out, is represented by the City, an allegorical dimension of suffering, sin, and death. The doomed City is counterpoised by Inis, a Beatrice-like character, who is the personification of love and beauty. The novel explores the beautiful and the grotesque in equal measure. It is written in gorgeous musical prose verging on baroque poetry and is replete with striking dream-like imagery.

Itself a product of intense artistic inspiration, Rondo, in its turn, has inspired Swedish composer Bo Nilsson to compose an orchestral tetralogy called Brief an Gösta Oswald (Letter to Gösta Oswald). The tetralogy consists of an overture and three cantatas based on the text of the novel. If you would like to learn more about this creative synthesis, there is an illuminating article by Anders Nilsson available online.

Gösta Oswald’s unfinished novel has not been translated into any language yet, which is understandable, given the fact that the author is virtually unknown outside Sweden. An important landmark of Swedish literary modernism, Rondo has to find its way to a wider readership. Publishers of literature in translation, it’s your chance.

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Forthcoming: Antagony by Luis Goytisolo


One of the next year’s most significant literary events is the publication of Brendan Riley’s translation of Book I of Luis Goytisolo’s massive tetralogy Antagony (Antagonía), which will be coming out in four volumes from Dalkey Archive Press. Here is what Mario Vargas Llosa writes about this epic novel that has taken its author twenty years to write:

Besides being an ambitious and complex book, difficult to read due to the protoplasmic configuration of the narrative matter, it is also an experiment intended to renew the content and the form of the traditional novel, following the example of those paradigms which revolutionalised the genre of the novel or at least tried to do so — above all Proust and Joyce, but, also James, Broch and Pavese –, without renouncing a certain moral and civic commitment to historical reality which, although very diluted, is always present, sometimes on the front stage, sometimes as the novel’s backdrop.

Antagony consists of four parts: Recuento (Recounting); Los verdes de mayo hasta el mar (The Greens of May Until the Sea); La colera de Aquiles (The Wrath of Achilles); and Teoria de Conocimiento (Theory of Knowledge). It is a Künstlerroman telling the story of  middle-class Catalan Raúl Ferrer Gaminde over the period starting with the immediate aftermath of the Spanish Civil War and finishing with the final years of Francisco Franco’s dictatorship. The first three parts are dedicated to the the life of the protagonist bent on becoming a writer: we follow his social, artistic, and political development since childhood and up to maturity when he fulfills his ambition by writing a novel called Theory of Knowledge which makes up the final part of the tetralogy. However, this is not a microscopic exploration of an individual fate — Antagony is much more than that.  We get to know many other characters, we learn about the social and cultural ambiance of Barcelona during that period,  about all the major upheavals experienced by Catalonia and its people in the course of the dictatorship. There are detailed and exquisite descriptions of rural and urban landscapes (Barcelona is represented with an unforgettable flair and verve),  learned discussions on literature, politics, and sex, as well as set-in analytical pieces examining a wide variety of topics such as ancient philosophy, religion, art, mythology, architecture and, of course, the novel.  For the appreciators of long serpentine sentences this novel is a veritable eldorado: any Sebald fan will feel at home in the intricacies of Luis Goytisolo’s syntax. First and foremost, it is a novel for those who have already been spoilt by the virtuosity of some of the greatest stylists of the 20th century and are not willing to settle for anything short of the brilliance brought into being by the pen of Marcel Proust or Hermann Broch. It is exhilarating to the point of vertigo to realise that this tremendous gap will be finally filled: Antagony will find a grateful audience among English-language readers.

There is only one English-language review of the tetralogy that I know of, which is available at The Modern Novel, one of the largest resources on contemporary world literature on the web. If you haven’t done it yet, I encourage you to explore this site. You can also read a brief description of the novel along with the high praise by such acclaimed authors as Guillermo Cabrera Infante and Pere Gimferrer on the foreign rights page of  Antagony at the website of its Spanish publisher Anagrama.


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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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Reading Zettel’s Traum Suspended

Medieval_sysiphus.jpegI started reading Arno Schmidt’s legendary magnum opus about a year ago.  I knew quite well that it was an enormous challenge not least because German is the weakest of my reading languages, although the “germanness” of Schmidt’s language in this book frequently emulates the “englishness” of Joyce’s in Finnegans Wake. By keeping my reading diary I’ve managed to stay on course until now. What is more, I’ve got somewhat accustomed to all the quirks and joyful transgressions of Schmidtian writing, and the scavenger hunts he has been constantly sending me on have been a lot of fun too, as all my favourite books such as The Recognitions, Terra Nostra, Los Sorias and Gravity’s Rainbow have stimulated my curiosity in a similar way. But, as with any cerebral pleasure, there is a serious downside to a thorough and attentive reading of Zettel’s Traum: the amount of time invested in the effort. While assiduously deciphering the Rosetta stone of Schmidt’s text, I was robbing myself, and consequently my readers, of other great books that had to be made known on my blog. I naively thought that I would manage to have it both ways until I realised that I was facing a serious dilemma: either abandon all my reading and dedicate myself solely for the reading and exegesis of Zettel’s Traum for at least a year (otherwise, at the present pace, it would take me four more years to finish the book) or to address all the backlog of the untranslated literature I’ve been meaning to review, some of it truly marvelous. I have decided in favour of the latter. This, however, does not mean that I have abandoned my project altogether: anything can happen, and I might resume my Sisyphean labour, especially when John E. Woods’ translation finally becomes available and, hopefully, throw some light on the numerous obscurities of the original. I know that there is a group of faithful readers who have been diligently following all my posts and  have encouraged me with their comments. Thank you all! Without your support I would probably have stopped much earlier. I know that there is at least one reading group of Bottom’s Dream already established on Goodreads under the auspices of Nathan “N.R.” Gaddis, who, for all I know, may be the present-day reincarnation of Borges. When you finally get your copies, you may want to join this or a similar cenacle, for I am sure you will get more out of the book by reading it along with others. As for my copy, to the shelf it goes (the lowest one, firmly resting on the floor, of course!) until better times as I am already reaching for the next untranslated book to be reviewed here.


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