One day in July, 1952, the man dressed in mourning weeds appeared in that little village on the Chaco River.* He was a tall, thin man with vaguely Indian features and the inexpressive face of a half-wit or a mask. The townsfolk treated him with some deference, not because of who he was but because of the personage he was portraying or had by now become. He chose a house near the river; with the help of some neighbor women he laid a board across two sawhorses, and on it he set a pasteboard coffin with a blond-haired mannequin inside. In addition, they lighted four candles in tall candleholders and put flowers all around. The townsfolk soon began to gather. Old ladies bereft of hope, dumbstruck wide-eyed boys, peons who respectfully took off their pith hats—they filed past the coffin and said: My condolences, General. The man in mourning sat sorrowfully at the head of the coffin, his hands crossed over his belly like a pregnant woman. He would extend his right hand to shake the hand extended to him and answer with courage and resignation: It was fate. Everything humanly possible was done. A tin collection box received the two-peso price of admission, and many could not content themselves with a single visit.
What kind of man, I ask myself, thought up and then acted out that funereal farce—a
fanatic? a grief-stricken mourner? a madman? a cynical impostor? Did he, in acting out his mournful role as the macabre widower, believe himself to be Perón? It is an incredible story, but it actually happened—and perhaps not once but many times, with different actors and local variants. In it, one can see the perfect symbol of an unreal time, and it is like the reflection of a dream or like that play within a play in Hamlet.
The man in mourning was not Perón and the blond-haired mannequin was not the woman Eva Duarte, but then Perón was not Perón, either, nor was Eva, Eva—they were unknown or anonymous persons (whose secret name and true face we shall never know) who acted out, for the credulous love of the working class, a crass and ignoble mythology.
NYRB published Esther Allen’s English translation in 2016. It is excellent.
What is Zama about?
Zama tells the brutally funny and often sad story of Don Diego de Zama, a bored and horny americano wasting away in the provincial backwaters of Paraguay. It’s the end of the world at the end of the 18th century, and there’s not a lot to do. Zama fills his time with schemes of lust and petty pride, shirking his job as a nominal governmental authority. He longs to be reunited with his wife and family in Buenos Aires, but seems to sabotage every opportunity to get back to them. He also longs for his glory days as a corregidor, putting down “the native rebellion” in the service of Spain’s imperial project. Zama is a confusing and confused character, frequently frustrating but also oddly sympathetic. He is a loser who does not seem to see that he is a loser, although life gives him every opportunity to come to this conclusion. As South African novelist J.M. Coetzee’s puts it in his excellent in-depth review of the novel:
[Zama] is vain, maladroit, narcissistic, and morbidly suspicious; he is prone to accesses of lust and fits of violence, and endowed with an endless capacity for self-deception.
He is also the author of himself, in a double sense. First, everything we hear about him comes from his own mouth, including such derogatory epithets as “swaggering” and “dogslayer,” which suggest a certain ironic self-awareness. Second, his day-to-day actions are dictated by the promptings of his unconscious, or at least his inner self, over which he makes no effort to assert conscious control. His narcissistic pleasure in himself includes the pleasure of never knowing what he will get up to next, and thus of being free to invent himself as he goes along.
Coetzee captures the joy of reading Zama in those last few lines: It’s the joy in watching a first-person perspective invent itself in shambling picaresque adventures born of sheer boredom. It’s the pleasure of seeing an asshole who refuses to acknowledge that he is an asshole try to pretend that he is not an asshole—all in a kind of language that is simultaneously romantic and flat.
Let me give you a taste of that language, reader. Here are the opening bars of the novel:
I left the city and made my way downriver alone, to meet the ship I awaited without knowing when it would come.
I reached the old wharf, that inexplicable structure. The city and its harbor have always been where they are, a quarter-league farther upriver.
I observed, among its pilings, the writhing patch of water that ebbs between them.
A dead monkey, still whole, still undecomposed, drifted back and forth with a certain precision upon those ripples and eddies without exit. All his life the water at forest’s edge had beckoned him to a journey, a journey he did not take until he was no longer a monkey but only a monkey’s corpse. The water that bore him up tried to bear him away, but he was caught among the posts of the decrepit wharf and there he was, ready to go and not going. And there we were.
There we were: Ready to go and not going.
The ship that won’t come in, the floating dead monkey, the state of unknowing—these abject and negative motifs are the paradoxical genesis of the novel. The clipped repetitions, culminating in “Ready to go and not going” recall Samuel Beckett, whom translator Esther Allen acknowledges as “a perfect counterpoint to the prose voice of Zama” in her introduction.
In addition to Beckett, easy points of comparison are Dostoevsky, Camus, Borges, and especially Kafka. In his perceptive analysis of Zama, critic Benjamin Kunkel points out the novel’s existential core, absurdist peripheries, and realistic contours:
As with novels by Kafka, Camus, Sartre, and Beckett, the story’s preoccupation is the tension between human freedom and constraining circumstance. Zama, a man as impetuous as he is stuck, resembles other existentialist antiheroes as he swings between spellbound passivity and sudden lunges into action. But Don Diego never seems like a figure in an allegory, like K. in The Castle; or an ambulatory philosophical argument, like Roquentin in Nausea. Zama induces a rare feeling—to put it as naïvely as possible—of the main character’s realness. Don Diego is consistently surprised by his own behavior, but not as much as he would like. His abrupt acts and swerving meditations have an air of unplotted inevitability about them. He is a character more convincing than coherent, and more persuasive than intelligible.
The spider approached the drunk. From a quarter vara away, these spiders can leap and bite so that if taken by surprise, even a man who’s awake has no time to defend himself. I had no wish to move. I could crush it with my boot but would postpone until the last.
The spider moved toward the sleeping head and I watched to see whether anything out of the ordinary would transpire. Would the man—obedient to some mysterious warning instinct—suddenly awaken and kill it? He did not. Now the insect was crawling in his hair. I didn’t see it climb up; I saw it there on him and then I was quite certain I should do nothing.
The episode continues in this way, building in tension as the large spider crawls over the man’s face while Zama remains inert and fascinated by his own inertia—until the drunken man absently bats the spider from his face. Zama is paradoxically stunned by this anticlimax:
I reviewed the episode. At no point had I felt any emotion, except when I imagined the man had wakened and was about to deliver himself of an entirely justified diatribe against me.
The passage is representative of Di Benedetto’s rhetorical skill—he gives us a deceptively lucid first-person narrator who articulately elides key information, both from the reader and himself. Zama refuses to name his intense desire to see the spider bite the man. Additionally, his emotional identification is bound to righteous anger, the righteous anger appropriate to the would-be-bitten drunkard. Instead of genuine pathos, Zama would usurp this man’s self-righteous anger, the anger that he feels all the time at his (literal and figurative) position in life. But the spider bite that would license self-righteousness never comes. Basically, Zama just wants something to happen.
And that’s the plot of Zama, more or less.Our (anti-)hero’s picaresque jabs at adventure and romance are sent awry or thwarted, usually by his own loutish passions. Zama’s would-be escapades unravel, that is, until the book’s final section, 1799—
–Okay, let me digress momentarily: Zama, a slim 200 pages, is structured into three sections: 1790, 1794, and 1799. The connective tissue between these sections hangs transparent, nearly invisible, but nevertheless accessible via small clues, motifs, scant threads. Di Benedetto gives us modernism in the last decade of the 18th century, boredom that tiptoes around the abyss of insanity. Rereading the three sections is a joy. But let me return to the central thread—
Zama’s would-be adventures unravel or collapse until the book’s final section, 1799, when Di Benedetto puts our hero in genuine harm’s way (and cunningly exfiltrates any opportunity for overt heroism on Zama’s part). The novel earns its drive toward what I take to be its central question: “Do you want to live?”
Di Benedetto hides his answer to this question not so much in the central figure Zama, but rather in Zama’s put-upon secretary, his mozo Manuel Fernández. Fernández is, at least for me, the secret star of the novel. When we first meet Fernández, Zama joins in gently mocking him at the lead of their boss, the governor. They tease Fernández when he tells them that he is writing a novel. “Make sons, Manuel, not books,” admonishes the governor, but the clerk replies: “I want to realize myself in myself…Children realize themselves, but whether for good or ill we don’t know. Books are made only for truth and beauty.” Later, Zama, in more of a ruse than in good faith, asks Fernández to read some of his book. He finds the “entangled” prose “incomprehensible,” to which Fernández replies: “the first man and the first lizard were each incomprehensible, as well, to all those who surrounded them.” Fernández declares that he writes for “no master.” If he has no audience today, his pages will be understood by his “grandchildren’s grandchildren…Things will be different then.” Later, Fernández reveals that he’s given away his manuscript to an old man, a stranger suffering boredom while waiting for a delayed ship to take him somewhere other than the end of the world.
Fernández sees himself as an author doomed to obscurity in the present, an author who awaits a future that will catch up to his originary vision. Perhaps it’s a bit much to suggest he’s a stand-in for Di Benedetto, but there are traces here. Above, I cited Benjamin Kunkel’s essay on Zama, “A Neglected South American Masterpiece,” and J.M. Coetzee’s review, “A Great Writer We Should Know.” Those titles point to the novel’s obscurity, an obscurity which I sense is now being (if in increments) reversed. Esther Allen’s English translation obviously opens Zama to an even wider audience, and Argentine director Lucrecia Martel is apparently adapting the novel to film. But it’s perhaps Roberto Bolaño, a writer who time caught up to, however too late, who helped guide new readers—however obscurely—to Zama. In Bolaño’s 1997 short story “Sensini,” the titular character is a clear transposition of Di Benedetto, a cult author, a writer’s writer:
The novel was the kind of book that circulates by word of mouth. Entitled Ugarte, it was about a series of moments in the life of Juan de Ugarte, a bureaucrat in the Viceroyalty of the Rio de la Plata at the end of the eighteenth century. Some (mainly Spanish) critics had dismissed it as Kafka in the colonies, but gradually the novel had made its way, and by the time I came across Sensini’s name in the Alcoy anthology, Ugarte had recruited a small group of devoted readers, scattered around Latin America and Spain, most of whom knew each other, either as friends or as gratuitously bitter enemies.
Thank goodness, or thank evil, or thank boredom: thanks for word of mouth, for friends and enemies alike (as long as they have good taste); thanks for writer’s writers (and writer’s writer’s writers) and the cult books they transmit to us—like Zama.
Zama is a cult novel that deserves a larger cult. After two false starts (I admit I misread the voice, missing the humor), I read Di Benedetto’s novel in a kind of hunger. Then I read it again. Then I wrote this thing, to tell you, dear reader, that you should read it too. Very highly recommended.
[Ed. note–Biblioklept originally ran this review in April, 2017.]
I can’t remember which particular Surrealist I was googling when I learned about Gisèle Prassinos. I do know that it was just a few weeks ago, and I’ve had an interest in Surrealist art and literature since I was a kid, so I was a bit stunned that I’d never heard of her before now—strange, given the origin of her first publication. In 1934, when she was 14, Prassinos was “discovered” by André Breton, and the Surrealists delighted in what they called her “automatic writing.” (Prassinos would later reject that label, and go as far as to declare that she had never been a surrealist). Her first book, La Sauterelle arthritique (The Arthritic Grasshopper) was published just a year later.
I somehow found a .pdf of one of her stories, “A Nice Family,” a bizarre little tale that runs on its own surreal mythology. The story struck me as simultaneously grandiose and miniature, dense but also skeletal. It was impossible. Surreal. I wanted more.
Luckily, just this spring Wakefield Press released The Arthritic Grasshopper: Collected Stories, 1934-1944, a new English translation of a 1976 compendium of Prassinos’s tales, Trouver sans checher. The translation is by Henry Vale and Bonnie Ruberg, whose introduction to the volume is a better review and overview than I can muster here. Ruberg offers a miniature biography, and shares details from her letters and visits with Prassinos. She situates Prassinos within the Surrealists’ gender biases: “For a young writer such as Prassinos, being involved with the surrealists would have meant gaining access to resources like publishers, but it also would have meant being fetishized and marginalized.” Ruberg characterizes Prassinos’s tales eloquently and accurately—no simple feat given the material’s utter strangeness:
Taken collectively, their effect is a piercing cackle, a complete disorientation, rather than an ethical lesson. The politics of these stories are absurdist. They upend the world by making children dangerous, by reanimating the dead, by letting the carefully tended domestic deform, foam, and melt. No social structure holds power in the world of these stories—not on the basis of gender, or nationality, or class. The force that reigns is chaos.
Let’s look at that reigning chaos.
In “The Sensitivity of Others,” one of the earliest tales in the volume, we get the sparest narrative action seemingly possible: A speaker walks forward. And yet dream-nightmare touches impinge on all sides and on all senses. The opening line shows a world that is never stable, and if monsters and other dangers lurk just on the margins of our narrator’s shifting path, so do wonders and the promise of strange knowledge. Here’s the tale in full:
I still have no idea what to make of the punchline there at the end, but those final images—a father, a faulty library, a power failure—hang heavy against the narrator’s trembling walk.
Many of Prassinos’s anti-fables conclude with such apparent non sequiturs, and yet the final lines can also cast a weird light back over the previous sentences. In “Photogenic Quality,” a dream-tale about the act of writing itself, the final line at first appears as sheer absurdity. A man receives a pencil from a child, whittles it into powder, blots the powder on paper, and throws the paper in the river (more things happen, too). The tale concludes with the man declaring, “Brass is made from copper and tin.” It’s possible to enjoy the absurdity here on its own; however, I think we can also read the last line as a kind of Abracadabra!, magic words that describe an almost alchemical synthesis—a synthesis much like the absurd modes of transformative writing that “Photogenic Quality” outlines.
You’ll see above one of Allan Kausch’s illustrations for The Arthritic Grasshopper. Kausch’s collages pointedly recall Max Ernst’s surreal 1934 graphic novel Une semaine de bonté (A Week of Kindness). Kausch’s work walks a weird line between horror and whimsy; images from old children’s books and magazines become chimerical figures, sometimes cute, sometimes horrific, and sometimes both. They’re lovely.
Surreal figures shift throughout the book—monks and kings, daughters and mothers, deep sea divers and knights and salesmen and talking horses—all slightly out of place, or, rather, all making new places. Even when Prassinos establishes a traditional space we might think we recognize—often a fairy trope—she warps its contours, shaping it into something else. “A Marriage Proposal,” with its unsuspecting title, opens with “Once upon a time” — but we are soon dwelling in impossibility: “the garter snake appeared in the doorway, arm in arm with the snail, who was slobbering with happiness.” Other stories, like “Tragic Fanaticism,” immediately condense fairy tales into pure images, leaving the reader to suss out connections. Here is that story’s opening line: “A black hole, a little old woman, animals.” At five pages, “Tragic Fanaticism” is one of the collection’s longer stories. It ends with a four line poem, sung by five red cats to the old woman: “Go home and burn / Darling / You’re the only one we’ll love / Trash Bin.”
I still have a number of stories to read in The Arthritic Grasshopper. I’ve enjoyed its tales most when taken as intermezzos between sterner (or compulsory) reading. There’s something refreshing in Prassinos’s illogic. In longer stretches, I find that I tire, get lazy—Prassinos’s imagery shifts quickly—there’s something even picaresque to the stories—and keeping up with its veering rhythms for tale after tale can be taxing. Better not to gobble it all up at once. In this sense, The Arthritic Grasshopper reminds me strongly of another recently-published volume of surreal, imagistic stories that I’ve been slowly consuming this year: The Complete Stories of Leonora Carrington. In their finest moments, both of these writers can offer new ways of looking at art, at narrative, at the world itself.
I described Prassinos’s tales as “anti-fables” above—a description that I think is accurate enough, as literary descriptions go—but that doesn’t mean there isn’t something that we can learn from them (although, to be very clear, I do not think literature has to offer us anything to learn). What Prassinos’s anti-fables do best is open up strange impossible spaces—there’s a kind of radical, amorphous openness here, one that might be neatly expressed in the original title to this newly-translated volume—Trouver sans checher—To Find without Seeking.
In her preface (titled “To Find without Seeking”) Prassinos begins with the question, “To find what?” Here is a question that many of us have been taught we must direct to all the literature we read—to interrogate it so that it yields moral instruction. Prassinos answers: “The spot where innocence rejoices, trembling as it first meets fear. The spot where innocence unleashes its ferocity and its monsters.” She goes on to describe a “true and complete world” where the “earth and water have no borders and each us can live there if we choose, in just the same way, without changing our names.” Her preface concludes by repeating “To find what?”, and then answering the question in the most perfectly (im)possible way: “In the end, the mind that doesn’t know what it knows: the free astonishing voice that speaks, faceless, in the night.” Prassinos’s anti-fables offer ways of reading a mind that doesn’t know what it knows, of singing along with the free faceless astonishing voice. Highly recommended.
[Ed. note–Biblioklept originally ran this review in August of 2017.]
Describing Geometry in the Dust is a challenge. I’ve deleted so many openings now and my frustration is mounting: so some very basic description:
Geometry in the Dust is a novel by the French author Pierre Senges with accompanying illustrations by the Oubapo comix artist Killoffer. The novel was originally published in France (as Géométrie dans la poussière) in 2004. The English translation is by Jacob Siefring, and was published by Inside the Castle earlier this year. Geometry in the Dust is 117 pages and includes 22 black and white illustrations. The prose is set in two columns per page, with infrequent inclusions of inset notes of a smaller font obtruding into the text proper. The typeset is Venetian. The book is approximately 217cm long, 172cm tall, and 10cm thick. It weighs approximately 210 grams.
This is a lousy way to describe a book.
What is it about?, you’ll want to know. What’s the plot? Who are the characters? What’s the drama, the conflict, the themes?, you’ll insist.
So there’s a geometer.
The geometer is a first-person “I” who addresses himself to the “inheriting prince” who rules a “country of sand.” The geometer is of course also addressing himself to you the reader. In addition to being a geometer, he is also
your minister (of Economy, of Religion, of War, and also of the City, we decided). As your sole, faithful minister, your counsellor, chamberlain, and your scapegoat, having weathered many dry seasons and countless reorganizations of your cabinet, I am your confidant too, and, judging from appearances–one can say this without offending the dignity of your kingdom or its constitution, we might even call me your friend.
And so we have our characters: Geometer and his absent audience, his sultan, his reader.
And so for plot? What is our friend, our confidant doing in Geometry in the Dust? He is trying to describe the city that he and his monarch (?) have…dreamed up? Built from scratch? Proposed as a thought experiment?
(I’m not sure.)
The reality or unreality of the city in question should be dispensed with entirely of course. The city is made of words, and it exists in Geometry in the Dust through words. Our narrator implores us in the novel’s second paragraph: “do not be afraid of words!”
So our narrator the geometer tries to describe the city, this city, the sultan’s city, in words. But of course capturing a city in words is a problem—
How does one form an idea of the city, when all one has seen of it are little pieces of it brought back from voyages in trunks? how to describe a metropolis to someone who has only ever known sand and its forms through the cycle of seasons? how to speak of snow to a Moor, of cannibalism to a vegetarian Jesuit?
Measuring a city for our narrator amounts to measuring the angles of waves as they break on the shore: an impossible task. Even metaphors run dry, point in the wrong directions, and ultimately, “all of these measures will be in vain and mediocre , the descriptions will be lost in allegories.” Nevertheless, our narrator will try.
This trying to describe the city is the plot, I suppose, such as it is. And it’s really quite marvelous, far richer and smarter and funnier than I’ve managed to capture here so far. Our geometer is observant, sharp, witty, strangely sincere, flighty and whimsical at times. He advises his prince, his reader, on the value of getting lost in the city (the only way to know it), and a lot of Geometry might amount to our narrator getting lost himself, losing us, leading us in, out, around.
“You will readily understand that a city is not composed only of itself,” he avers at one point, continuing that, “a city is composed of city, the intentions present in the city, and the difference between the city and those intentions…” Perhaps too Geometry is our narrator’s effort to measure the gaps and lacunae between split intentions, and to situate the various players that fill these gaps: black marketeers and insomniacs, calligraphers and macabre dancers, crowders and loners, musicians and animals (including “an alligator of the White Nile” to reside “in the conduits of our main sewer,” whose presence will surely “spice up the lives of your people, those incorrigible auditors of fables.” And if such an alligator can’t be find, never mind–just spread its legends. Words).
Andthemes?, you ask after. I don’t know. I’ve read Geometry twice now and it’s thick with themes, the basic one, I suppose (and I could be wrong) is: What is a city? (This is too easy, I know). Senges’ narrator invokes and evokes every manner of archaic text, imagined or otherwise; he considers our native tendencies, the roles outsiders play, the movements of crowds, what constitutes a garden, and so forth.
Maybe a better description of Geometry is to simply look at the text itself. Here is a short chapter (go on, read it—click on it if you need a bigger version):
Notice the punctuation: the semicolons, the dashes (em and en), the periods, the parentheses, the commas. Senges’ prose in Geometry is syntactically thick. Sentences, like alleys in a strange city, begin in one place and end up somewhere quite different. The interposition of jostling clauses might cause a reader to lose the subject, to drop the thread or diverge from the path (or pick your metaphor). The effect is sometimes profound, with our narrator arriving at some strange philosophical insight after piling clause upon clause that connects the original subject with something utterly outlandish. And sometimes, the effect is bathetic. In one such example, the narrator, instructing his sovereign on the proper modes of religious observance in the city, moves from a description of the ideal confessional to an evocation of Limbourg’s hell to the necessity of being able grasp a peanut between two fingers. The comical effect is not so much punctured as understood anew though when Senges’ narrator returns to the peanut as a central metaphor for the scope of a city (“there are roughly as many men in the city as peanuts in the city’s bowls”), a metaphor that he extends in clause after clause leading to an invocation of “Hop o’ my Thumb’s pebbles,” a reference to Charles Perrault fairy tale about a boy who uses riverstones to find his way home after having been abandoned in the woods by his parents.
What is the path through Geometry in the Dust? The inset notes, as you can see in the image above, also challenge the reader’s eye, as do the twin columns, so rare in contemporary novels.
Killoffer’s illustrations also challenge the reader. They do not necessarily correspond in pagination to the sections that they (may) illustrate; rather, they seem to obliquely capture the spirit of the novel. The following image is perhaps the most literal illustration in the novel, evoking something in the passage I shared above:
The experience of reading Geometry is confounding but also rewarding. The first time I read it, at least for the first third or so, I kept looking for all those basic signs of a novel—character, plot, clear conflict, etc. I was happy to find instead something else, something more challenging, but also something unexpectedly fun and funny. In its finest moments, Geometry evokes the essays that Borges disguised as short stories. Readers familiar with Italo Calvino and Georges Perec will find familiar notes here too, as well as those who love the absurd tangles Donald Barthelme’s sentences can take. But Senges is singular here, his own weird flavor, a flavor I enjoyed very much. Recommended.
As a huge fan of Remedios Varo’s art, I was thrilled last year when Wakefield Press published Margaret Carson’s Letters, Dreams and Other Writings.I reached out to Margaret, who was kind enough to talk to me about her translation in detail over a series of emails.
Biblioklept: When did you first see Remedios Varo’s art?
Margaret Carson: I first heard of Remedios Varo in the mid-80s, when I was living in Madrid. But it was by reading Janet Kaplan’s biography, Remedios Varo: Unexpected Journeys, that I learned more about her life and first saw many images of her paintings. That was in the 90s. On a trip to Mexico City at that same time, I was surprised to find in a bookstore a small collection of her writings, Cartas, sueños y otros textos, and I brought it home with me. I started translating parts of it and later heard about an exhibit of her paintings at the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington D.C., in 2000: The Magic of Remedios Varo. That was my first experience seeing her paintings up close, and it blew me away. Nothing compares to standing in front of one of her paintings to see the meticulous details, the true color, and the actual scale (her artworks can be much smaller than you imagine). Since then, I’ve seen other paintings, includingMimetismo/Mimicry andLa creación de las aves/The Creation of the Birds, at theMuseo de Arte Moderno in Mexico City, which has over thirty of her paintings—the largest collection in the world.
Exciting news for Varo fans in the New York area: MoMA has acquired one of her most extraordinary works,The Juggler, which will be put on display when the museum re-opens in October 2019. Can’t wait to see it!
Biblioklept: I’ve yet to see one of Varo’s pieces in a museum, unfortunately—just reproductions in books and online. But I love them. I think the first time I saw one of her works was in Women, Art, and Society by Whitney Chadwick, sometime in the late 1990s. There’s a tiny black and white reproduction of Celestial Pablum in there, next to a reproduction of a Dorothea Tanning painting. Leonor Fini also gets a black and white reproduction in that chapter, while Leonora Carrington’s Self-Portrait gets a larger, full-color reproduction. All of these painters, with the notable exception of Varo, also show up in another of Thames & Hudson’s World of Art series that was important to me when I was younger, Sarane Alexandrian’s Surrealist Art. While internet archives have made images of Varo’s works easily available to those who search for them, she is still something of a comparatively obscure figure, at least next to other Mexican artists like Frida Kahlo or Leonora Carrington. Have you noticed any change in her prominence as an artist since you first encountered her work?
MC: You brought up Whitney Chadwick, which reminds me of her essential book, Women Artists and the Surrealist Movement, first published in 1985 and still in print. If you don’t know it, take a look. That’s where many readers have had their first encounter with women surrealists. Chadwick devotes several pages to Varo and includes three color reproductions and many black and white images of her work. As to how well known Varo is, it’s hard to tell what causes an artist to move up or down in the fame game. Varo seems to have a solid core of admirers who had an encounter with her work, almost always in reproduction, and the images stick. Why is that? What is it about her paintings? Their inherent narrative quality, their mystical elements, their humor? The simple pleasure of looking at her meticulously composed scenes? I think she’s still fairly unknown, but did you know that in the first chapter of Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49 there’s a fascinating description of Varo’s Embroidering the Earth’s Mantle? I just met a young bookseller who told me that that’s how she first heard of Varo. And did you know that in chapter 9 of Amulet, Roberto Bolaño imagines that the main character, Auxilio Lacouture, visits Remedios Varo in her house? So Varo has already popped up in ways that go beyond her artwork.
Biblioklept: I’m a huge fan of Bolaño, and I read Amulet eight or nine years ago, but I’d honestly forgotten about the Varo episode! I just went back and reread the chapter, and there’s this wonderful strange moment where Varo shows Auxilio a landscape painting, the “last one,” or maybe the “second-to-last one” she’ll paint, and the painting causes an anxiety in Auxilio that manifests in the vision of “a man made of ice cubes, who will come and kiss” her on the mouth. I love the line because it’s so strange; it shows a kind of poetic rivalry on Bolaño’s part with Varo’s own imagery.
I’m also a huge Pynchon fan. I remember that I wasn’t able to find a reproduction of Embroidering the first time I read The Crying of Lot 49—like in the late nineties—but when I reread it a few years ago it was as easy as a simple internet search. So I think the internet is making her work more accessible. Pynchon apparently actually got to see Emboidering at a retrospective of Varo’s work in Mexico City in 1964, and, as Bill Brown notes, Pynchon essentially reinterprets the painting’s details from memory. He probably didn’t have a reproduction of it. Again, the author enters into a kind of rivalry with the poet.
Letters, Dreams & Other Writings contains a section that features Varo’s own descriptions of her paintings, comments intended for her family back in Spain. She describes Embroidering the Earth’s Mantle like this: “Under the orders of the Great Master, they’re embroidering the earth’s mantle, seas, mountains, and living things. Only the girl has woven a ruse in which she is seen beside her beloved.”
I’m curious about your translation here, particularly of the word “Only,” and the singular “girl,” which seems to contrast the “they” referenced in the previous sentence. Varo seems to describe two parts of the triptych, the second and the third panels. Can you talk a little bit about translating this description?
MC: Varo has a description for each of the paintings in the triptych (her descriptions, of course, shouldn’t close off other interpretations). That singular “girl” is introduced in the first painting,Toward the Tower, which shows a group of convent school girls riding fanciful bicycles made in part from their capes. Varo writes that while the eyes of the other girls are “as if hypnotized,” only the girl in front “resists the hypnosis.” (Sólo la muchacha del primer término se resiste a la hipnosis.) The girl clearly has a mind of her own. Varo follows her into the second painting, Embroidering the Earth’s Mantle. The original is: “Bajo las órdenes del Gran Maestro, bordan el manto terrestre, mares, montañas y seres vivos. Sólo la muchacha ha tejido una trampa en la que se le ve junto a su bienamado.” There’s a repetition in the Spanish, “Sólo la muchacha….” that I picked up in the translation “Only the girl has woven a ruse….” She’s the exception—she stands out from the other girls (“they”) who are under the influence and control of the Great Master and are embroidering what he commands. I could have said “Except that the girl has woven a ruse in which she is seen beside her beloved.” to underscore her act of rebellion more clearly, but then the parallelism would have been lost.
Getting back to the Bolaño, I’d like to re-read Amulet and think about how he works Varo into the narrative and whether he’s referencing any of her paintings or making them up — from your description, I suspect the latter. But more importantly, what did Varo represent to Bolaño? How did he come to know about her work? Did she have some sort of underground fame in Mexico City while he was living there?
I’m also fascinated by the fact that Auxilio visits Varo at her house, which I always make a point of passing by when I’m in Mexico City. (Again, Bolaño’s description is not based on reality.) Varo lived in Colonia Roma on Avenida Álvaro Obregón in a four-story building that’s now boarded up—someone told me it was damaged in an earthquake. But lights are on at night behind windows covered with newspapers, so someone’s living there. Is there any memory in the neighborhood that Varo lived there? It’s where she painted her most famous works. To me, it has a special aura, even in its dilapidated and boarded-up state.
Biblioklept: I’m pretty sure Bolaño made the painting up, although I did spend quite a bit of time looking for a real-world corollary for it. He definitely had a penchant for invention, often taking cult or outsider artists and then attributing works to them that don’t always exist. It seems possible that he could’ve been aware of the location of her house, but I’m guessing he was living in Spain and had been away from Mexico for ages when he wrote Amulet.
On of my favorite pieces in Letters, Dreams & Other Writings is “On Homo rodans,” a Borgesian send-up of scientific monographs. (Varo attributes the monograph to one “Hälikcio von Fuhrängschmidt”). While its style isn’t a huge departure from that of the letters or even fragments in the collection, it stands out a bit. Can you tell us a bit about translating “On Homo rodans,” and a bit about the piece itself?
MC: Homo rodans is one of Varo’s oddest creations. It has two parts: first, the “fossil find” of the humanoid figure with one big wheel instead of legs, which she crafted out of chicken and turkey neck bones and fish vertebrae. The second part is a pseudo-scientific treatise she wrote to accompany the “fossil,” which purports to explain its origin and the great significance it has—it’s basically a missing chapter in human evolution, a predecessor to Homo sapiens that depicts a road not taken: before evolving into a biped, humans were creatures on a monowheel. (That sort of figure is a recurring leitmotiv in her work—seeTransmisión ciclista con cristales from 1943,Caminos tortuosos from 1957.) I’d now like to clear up a misunderstanding that’s arisen with the English translation. To an English-speaking reader, “rodans” might look like a corrupted version of “rodents.” It’s a similarity that exists only in English. To Varo, rodans was a creative spin on rota, the Latin word for wheel, from which the Spanish rueda descends (in English we have rotate, rotary, rodeo). Varo wasn’t suggesting humankind descended from rats; she was imagining a wheeled ancestor and giving it a suitably Latinate name.
Varo wrote “On Homo rodans” by hand, in the style of an old illuminated manuscript (see attached photo), and gave its narrator the farfetched but seemingly authoritative name of Hälikcio von Fuhrängschmidt, an anthropologist who sets out to correct a colleague’s error about bones discovered on the southern slopes of the Carpathians. I think this was all for the sake of fun, like a lot of her writings. She probably never imagined that anyone would be interested in buying the sculpture and the treatise. It was just by accident, apparently, that someone happened to see it when she was showing it at a bookstore and acquired it for his boss, who was none other than the President of the Republic, Adolfo López Mateos. That was in 1959.
On an investigative level, I’d love to find out who owns Homo rodans now—the sculpture and original manuscript (does the López Mateos family still own it?). I’d also like to do some sleuthing to discover how it was that a small facsimile edition of the treatise was published a few years after Varo’s death. What called that into existence? Who read it? Was it reviewed? It’s because of that edition that we have the text in Spanish.
As to the translation itself, something that helped me catch the antiquated tones of the pedantic von Fuhrängschmidt were nineteenth-century bulletins on scientific expeditions and fossil excavations you can easily find using Google Books. But on the whole it was a wild ride. You’ll notice that the Homo rodans itself only comes up once, toward the end of the piece, after countless disquisitions on unrelated subjects (Babylonian wet nurses, the universal tendency toward hardening and softening (wink-wink), the transcendence of canes, the pterodactyl-turned-first-umbrella…), interspersed with quotes by ancient sages in nonsense Latin. Before I translated it, I thought “On Homo rodans” would mostly be about the one-wheeled fossil. It was only after I got into the translation that I realized the fossil find was just one stop on an extended absurdist romp.
Biblioklept: It’s interesting to me that you used old pieces of science writing as reference points. Was this to help convey the flavor of Varo’s prose, and to give an aural sense of what she’s parodying? Did you use similar techniques elsewhere in this translation, or in other translations of yours?
MC: The Edinburgh Encylopaedia, published in 1832, was an excellent resource to mine for old-fashioned scientific prose. Some of it rubbed off on the translation. “Osseous,” for example, referring to bones, was a word that peaked in the nineteenth century, according to Google Ngram, and it fit in perfectly.
For Varo’s recipes “To Induce Erotic Dreams” and “To Dream You Are King of England,” I consulted cookbooks such as Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking to see how the instructions were worded. As strange as the recipes are, I had to keep to the conventions of the cookbook genre: “Set hens to boil.” “Reserve feathers.” “Take the four kilos of honey and with a spatula spread on the bedsheets.” It’s one example of how translators often look at companion texts in the language they’re translating into—some text that shares some stylistic feature with whatever is being translated, or that treats a similar topic. In a previous translation I did, Sergio Chejfec’s Baroni, a Journey, there’s a scene in which a cockfight takes place. Knowing nothing about cockfighting, I looked at Nathaniel West’s The Day of the Locust, where there’s a play-by-play of a cockfight in progress. I pilfered some of the language and phrasing there to help make the translation ring true in English.
Biblioklept: Varo’s “recipes” are a great example the tension between a conventional form and a kind of, I don’t know, absurd pivot in the language that creates a surreal image. Her letters, too, are infused with vivid and surreal images. She describes raising a “supernatural puppy,” details enclosing a “small volcano” and turning it into a kitchen, and tells one unidentified painter that he may be interested in her “residence in a piece of quartz.” Can you tell us a little bit about translating the letters? Were there letters of Varo’s that were perhaps more conventional that aren’t collected in Letters, Dreams & Other Writings?
MC: The original Cartas, sueños y otros textos contains only eight letters, but I’m sure Varo wrote many more. She had a genius for letter-writing, too—it was simply another medium she excelled at. As you say, the letters are infused with all sorts of surreal images and absurd scenarios, such as the “small volcano” that begins to rise on its own in the courtyard of someone’s house, throwing off lava that her friend Leonor Carrington is allergic to. That’s in my favorite letter, no. 7, “To Mr. Gardner,” i.e. Gerald Gardner, the great British popularizer of Wicca in the 1950s. It’s completely over-the-top! The most notorious is Letter 5, a kind of Surrealist prank, in which she picks a person’s name from the phone book and invites him to a New Year’s Eve party. (See Varo’s “Letter to a Stranger”). What comes next is left to your imagination: did the stranger show up, and if so, what happened?
As to other letters being published elsewhere, I’m aware of a few additional ones, to her mother and to some friends from her schooldays back in Spain, which were included in a personal memoir written by her niece, Beatriz Varo. I suppose you could call those letters more conventional, but they’re equally amusing to read, even when she’s telling her friends about her arduous ocean journey to Mexico in 1941, when she sailed from Europe on the Serpa Pinta with many other refugees who had been granted asylum in Mexico.
I was enchanted by all the letters and I’m hoping more of her correspondence turns up. I’d be especially interested in her side of the correspondence with Benjamin Péret after he returned to France in 1948. His letters to Varo are collected in his Oeuvres complètes, but no one seems to know where hers are…
Biblioklept: It’s a shame that we don’t have Varo’s letters to Péret. It seems like a lot of the work by the women surrealists of the twentieth century was perhaps at the time not seen as important as the work by the men. (I think of The New York Times’s obituary for Frida Kahlo, which opened with this line: “Frida Kahlo, wife of Diego Rivera, the noted painter, was found dead in her home today”). I think that your work, the work of Wakefield Press in general, and the work of other independent publishers is helping to bring the work of people like Varo, Leonora Carrington, Gisèle Prassinos, Unica Zürn and others to a wider audience though. What other women writers and artists would you like to see gain a wider audience?
MC: What writings are out there, out of print, or unknown, hidden in archives, uncatalogued, untranslated? The French poet and artist Alice Rahon, who also lived in Mexico City and moved in the same artistic circles as Varo, should be better known. She published a few books of poetry during her lifetime, and there’s an archive of unpublished work in Mexico City in both French and Spanish to be explored. A few poems in translation appear in Mary Ann Caws’s The Milk Bowl of Feathers, an anthology of surrealist writing published last year by New Directions, and I believe Mary Ann has been translating more of Rahon’s work. The Spanish artist Maruja Mallo, who was slightly older than Remedios Varo, also deserves more attention. Like Varo, she graduated from the prestigious Academia de Bellas Artes in Madrid and also lived in exile, in her case in Uruguay and Argentina, before returning to Spain in the 1960s. They both spent time in Paris in the 1930s, and I’m fairly sure they knew one another. Mallo has gotten some renewed interest lately—there was a recent gallery show in New York—and she has a short text “Surrealism as Manifest in My Work” in Penelope Rosemont’sSurrealist Women: An International Anthology. The artworks clearly take the lead for all three women, but their writings give a window into their strange art (and vice-versa), or maybe, can even stand independently, as do Leonora Carrington’s writings.
Biblioklept: Thanks for that list! I’m curious if you know how much of Carrington’s fiction Varo might have read. Was Carrington a stylistic influence? I’m also curious about other influences you detect in her writing, which seems so strange and original. “On Homo rodans” is definitely Borgesian, and Varo mentions reading Borges’s story “Deutsches Requiem” in one of the “Dreams” in the collection…who and what was Varo reading? How might it have influenced her writing?
MC:It’s hard to talk about influence because there must have always been a back-and-forth between Varo and Carrington and an intense sharing of mutual passions. They collaborated on a play, El santo cuerpo grasoso (“The Holy Oily Body”), written in the late 1940s and as far as I know, never performed for the general public. The original manuscript shows that they composed it in alternating lines, one hand followed by the other and back again, somewhat like a cadaver exquisit. They appear to have written it as a private amusement, to be performed by a small circle of friends. Carrington has a Varo-like character in The Hearing Trumpet, Carmella Velazquez, who, just as Varo did in the letter mentioned above, wrote letters to complete strangers she picked out of the phone book. She was the one who introduced Varo to Gerald Gardner, the Wicca popularizer. She may also have introduced her friend to Frank Sherwood Taylor, the British author of The Alchemists. A Spanish translation of this book was in Varo’s library.The heroine of Varo’s story “Mistress Thrompston Discovers by Accident the Source of the Tremendous Humidity that Reigns in the County of Kent” seems to be modeled on Carrington. There are other appearances by Carrington in the translation. Varo’sMimicry (Mimesis) makes an obvious nod to Carrington’sSelf-Portrait.
About their writings, keep in mind that Varo, unlike Carrington, never published her work during her lifetime, and it’s not clear she would have done so if offered the chance. Most of the texts I translated were found in Varo’s notebooks after her death. And don’t forget her long relationship with Benjamin Péret. A comparison of Varo’s and Péret’s writings would also be interesting. Her automatic writings probably date back to the time they were together. In Letters, Dreams Péret appears in the Felina Caprino-Mandrágora story as Benjamin Pérez, an avid bicyclist and the owner of a carrier-pigeon business. It’s a funny little scene, perhaps Péret-like in how it unfolds. All speculation, because I don’t know his work that well.
At a recent exhibition at the Museo de Arte Moderno in Mexico City of items from Remedios Varo’s archive, there were a few shelves of books from her library. I saw titles (in the original French, Spanish or English or in translation) by Jean Ray, H. P. Lovecraft, Rodney Collin (a British writer influenced by the mystics Pyotr Ouspensky and Gurdjieff), Orwell, Aldous Huxley, Katherine Mansfield, Simone Weil. That gives you an idea of other directions her reading took besides Borges. No way of knowing, though, all the books she read, or what her earliest reading was like growing up.
Biblioklept: Varo clearly read works of literature both in translation as well as in their original languages. In our own era, it’s very easy to quickly access all kinds of media from around the globe, including media that might not be as challenging to understand as literature might be. Why is reading literature in translation still important?
MC: You’re right—there’s more “content” than ever before and you can find it in a split second via Google. But if you’re asking, is there still a place for literature given the glut of writing, etc. on the Internet, I’d say yes, because it’s not an either/or. At the same time, I don’t think reading literature in translation is something meritorious in itself. It’s simply a natural consequence of being curious about what’s being written in other places: fiction, poetry, essays, plays, graphic novels, comics. It’s inevitable: a lot of it has to come to you in translation.
Biblioklept: One of the longer pieces in Letters, Dreams & Other Writings is titled “Project for a Theater Piece,” which you note was likely to be a collaboration with Leonora Carrington. For me, “Project for a Theater Piece” is simultaneously rich and frustrating. It opens with a character list that includes characters that we never get to meet (and omits characters we actually do meet), and has like a dozen plot openings that remain unresolved. This is what we might expect from a surrealist text: aporia, incongruity, dream logic (and some wonderful humor). At the same time, Varo’s writing strikes me as not bound to any kind of genre expectations.
MC: “Project for a Theater Piece” is indeed fragmentary and puzzling. Leonora (Carrington) and Eva (Sulzer) are inspirations for the Ellen Ramsbottom character. Daphne Fitz is inspired by Edward James, the eccentric Scottish arts patron who was a close friend of Leonora Carrington’s. He also seems to be the inspiration for the Poltergeist, who appears in the story wearing a short plaid skirt, sneakers and ankle socks, and is mistaken at first for a woman. I have no idea why it’s called “Project for a Theater Piece,” since it’s basically a cast of characters followed by two unconnected short stories. I’m assuming the editor of the original book, Isabel Castells, gave it that name. All the texts are said to be from Varo’s notebooks, so everything needed to be transcribed: in her introduction, Castells says that Varo’s last partner, Walter Gruen, did the transcription. I’m not sure if Castells saw the original; she may have been working only with Gruen’s transcription. Did the order in the book follow the order of the texts in Varo’s notebooks? Or was there some editorial intervention by Gruen and/or Castells linking them together? I don’t know. Castells also suggests that Leonora Carrington may have written parts that are missing, in a kind of surrealist chain story. If that’s true, it would be interesting to read “Project for a Theater Piece” against the collaborative play I mentioned above, El santo cuerpo grasoso/The Holy Oily Body, for stylistic similarities. Whatever the case, I wouldn’t read it as a finished text. It’s open to all sorts of speculations about the context in which it was written and about the editorial interventions that occurred later on in preparing the original edition of Cartas, sueños y otros textos for publication.
Biblioklept: I’m curious about the samples of automatic writing in the collection—specifically, I’m curious about how you approached translating them. Translating strikes me as a hyper-conscious art, a practice that involves a precision and command of tone, diction, rhythm, etc.—but automatic writing is, ostensibly, writing without consciousness.
MC: These texts seemed like prose poems to me, wonderful bizarre and disconnected, which led to some head scratching, and yes, a hyper-conscious translation. The text starts off with what seems to be a list of ingredients, like a recipe… or is it for some kind of magical spell? Each “ingredient” then becomes the lead word for a short sequence of images that often evoke Varo’s art: the egg, the crevice that widens (Harmony/Armonía), the raw silk being spun, which reminded me of the delicate lines crisscrossingFellow Feeling/Simpatía). The sequences in themselves don’t make much sense, but the words themselves are very clear and simple. Sometimes there’s some wordplay, such as “trasto trastorno, torno” in Incense (literally, “dish upset/overturned, turned”) which I translated as “dish depraved, lathe” to get some of the sound effects of the original and suggest the spindle in the next line. We don’t, unfortunately, have Varo’s description of the conditions under which she wrote these texts, or anything that tells us how she understood “automatic writing.” (Also, remember that she didn’t label these writings as such— it was the book’s editor.) She may not have been a purist. Whatever the case, this section is one of my favorites in the book. I love her random scattering of images and the lack of narrative direction. For me, the more nonsensical, the better.
Biblioklept: The issue of the editor’s hand is of course interesting. The “Automatic Writings” do feel…I don’t know, more automatic than some of the project ideas and fragments, which have narrative properties. There’s something wildly imagistic about the “Automatic Writings,” something cinematic really, mental imagery that seems like it couldn’t be painted. But then you read Varo’s descriptions of her own paintings, and you realize that her imaginative vision could realize seemingly impossible images in both paint and words.
MC: Yes, you wonder what her jumping-off points were. There are a couple of clues. In her “Unpublished Interview” at the beginning of the book, for example, she talks about how a painting develops: “I visualize it before I begin painting, and try to make it conform to the image I’ve already fashioned” (“lo visualizo antes de comenzar a pintar y trato de ajustarlo a la imagen que me he formado”). That’s about as close as she comes to describing her process explicitly. (By the way, it’s very possible that she created this interview herself. It was in one of her notebooks, undated, with both the questions and answers in her handwriting. A published version has never been found.)
I read the comments she made on her paintings a bit differently, though. She wrote these on the back of photos she sent to family in Spain after the paintings were finished, so she had her brother, mother and other family members in mind as she wrote. The wild creative impulses that went into the act of painting them have calmed down now. Still, she’s not giving away any of their secrets. Of course, when you’re reading the descriptions, you should also be looking at the images, just as her family was. She talks about things you notice in the paintings, but not about all of them.Her descriptions of Harmony and Talleur pour dames (p. 102) are little gems, in my opinion.
Biblioklept: Can you tell us anything about your next possible translation project?
MC: No projects at the moment and I’m not sure when I’ll pick up a new translation. Right now I’m doing some investigations around Remedios Varo and her circle of friends. I want to put her writings more in context, for example, that play she collaborated on with Leonora Carrington, or the Homo rodans piece. Or widen the lens to write about the “Surrealists of Calle Gabino Barreda,” the street in Mexico City where Varo and Péret lived in the 1940s. It seems to have been the center for a lot of creative and collaborative activity among the European surrealists in exile.
Biblioklept: Have you ever stolen a book?
MC: I’ve taken books people leave in laundry rooms or out on their front stoops, which happens a lot in brownstone neighborhoods in New York City. I also pass by a “Little Free Library” box on my way to work. I’m usually not tempted to take anything, but one day I saw a volume of Virginia Woolf’s Diaries and grabbed it!
Islam tells us that on the unappealable Day of Judgment, all who have perpetrated images of living things will reawaken with their works, and will be ordered to blow life into them, and they will fail, and they and their works will be cast into the fires of punishment. As a child, I knew that horror of the spectral duplication or multiplication of reality, but mine would come as I stood before large mirrors. As soon as it began to grow dark outside, the constant, infallible functioning of mirrors, the way they followed my every movement, their cosmic pantomime, would seem eerie to me. One of my insistent pleas to God and my guardian angel was that I not dream of mirrors; I recall clearly that I would keep one eye on them uneasily. I feared sometimes that they would begin to veer off from reality; other times, that I would see my face in them disfigured by strange misfortunes. I have learned that this horror is monstrously abroad in the world again. The story is quite simple, and terribly unpleasant.
In 1927, I met a grave young woman, first by telephone (because Julia began as a voice without a name or face) and then on a corner at nightfall. Her eyes were alarmingly large, her hair jet black and straight, her figure severe. She was the granddaughter and greatgranddaughter of Federalists, as I was the grandson and great-grandson of Unitarians, but that ancient discord between our lineages was, for us, a bond, a fuller possession of our homeland. She lived with her family in a big run-down high-ceiling’d house, in the resentment and savorlessness of genteel poverty. In the afternoons— only very rarely at night—we would go out walking through her neighbor-hood, which was Balvanera. We would stroll along beside the high blank wall of the railway yard; once we walked down Sarmien to all the way to the cleared grounds of the Parque Centenario. Between us there was neither love itself nor the fiction of love; I sensed in her an intensity that was utterly unlike the intensity of eroticism, and I feared it. In order to forge an intimacy with women, one often tells them about true or apocryphal things that happened in one’s youth; I must have told her at some point about my horror of mirrors, and so in 1928 I must have planted the hallucination that was to flower in 1931. Now I have just learned that she has gone insane, and that in her room all the mirrors are covered, because she sees my reflection in them—usurping her own—and she trembles and cannot speak, and says that I am magically following her, watching her, stalking her.
What dreadful bondage, the bondage of my face—or one of my former faces. Its odious fate makes me odious as well, but I don’t care anymore.
The stories in Unions, drawn from Martha’s [Marcovaldi, Musil’s wife] life, explode conventional morality; explore questions of self, union, and dissolution of self; and approximate exceptional sensations of erotic and intellectual perception in a shimmering and exceedingly dense proliferation of metaphors. The images, Musil tells us in a note, are the bone, not just the skin, of these carefully crafted stories. Each word is as motivated as the internal and external moments it attempts to embody in language. Although Musil did not continue to work in this experimental style in his later writing, in a late note he affirmed that Unions, the fruit of much artistic struggle and deep personal engagement, was the only one of his books that he sometimes still read from.
Belgium Stripped Bare is bad boy Baudelaire’s bad-mood visit to Belgium in the mid-1860s. This translation by Rainer J. Hanshe is comprised of Baudelaire’s journal entries, observations, and clippings of his time in Belgium, the place he left Paris for in 1864 in self-imposed exile. The entries, like this one, are fucking mean:
And I have no idea what to make of this—
I have yet to read Hanshe’s lengthy introduction for context, though—but from the blurb:
Belgium Stripped Bare is an aesthetico-diagnostic litany of often vitriolic observations whose victory is found in the act of analysis itself, in the intoxication of diagnosis, just as great comedians exult in caustic and biting observations of society, a slap in the face of the status quo.
I am a woodcutter. My name doesn’t matter. The hut I was born in, and where I’m soon to die, sits at the edge of the woods. They say these woods go on and on, right to the ocean that surrounds the entire world; they say that wooden houses like mine travel on that ocean. I wouldn’t know; I’ve never seen it.
I’ve not seen the other side of the woods, either. My older brother, when we were boys he made me swear that between the two of us we’d hack away at this woods till there wasn’t a tree left standing. My brother is dead now, and now it’s something else I’m after, and always will be. Over in the direction where the sun goes down there’s a creek I fish in with my hands. There are wolves in the woods, but the wolves don’t scare me, and my ax has never failed me. I’ve not kept track of how old I am, but I know I’m old—my eyes don’t see anymore. Down in the village, which I don’t venture into anymore because I’d lose my way, everyone says I’m a miser, but how much could a woodcutter have saved up?
I keep the door of my house shut with a rock so the snow won’t get in. One evening I heard heavy, dragging footsteps and then a knock. I opened the door and a stranger came in. He was a tall, elderly man all wrapped up in a worn-out old blanket. A scar sliced across his face. The years looked to have given him more authority than frailty, but even so I saw it was hard for him to walk without leaning on his stick. We exchanged a few words I don’t recall now. Then finally the man said:
“I am without a home, and I sleep wherever I can. I have wandered all across Saxony.”
His words befitted his age. My father always talked about “Saxony”; now people call it England.
There was bread and some fish in the house. While we ate, we didn’t talk. It started raining. I took some skins and made him a pallet on the dirt floor where my brother had died. When night came we slept.
It was toward dawn when we left the house. The rain had stopped and the ground was covered with new snow. The man dropped his stick and he ordered me to pick it up.
“Why should I do what you tell me to?” I said to him.
“Because I am a king,” he answered. I
thought he was mad. I picked up the stick and gave it to him. With his next words, his voice was changed.
“I am the king of the Secgens. Many times did I lead them to victory in hard combat, but at the hour that fate decreed, I lost my kingdom. My name is Isern and I am of the line of Odin.”
“I do not worship Odin,” I answered. “I worship Christ.”
He went on as though he’d not heard me.
“I wander the paths of exile, but still I am king, for I have the disk. Do you want to see it?”
He opened his hand and showed me his bony palm. There was nothing in it. His hand was empty. It was only then that I realized he’d always kept it shut tight. He looked me in the eye.
“You may touch it.”
I had my doubts, but I reached out and with my fingertips I touched his palm. I felt something cold, and I saw a quick gleam. His hand snapped shut. I said nothing.
“It is the disk of Odin,” the old man said in a patient voice, as though he were speaking to a child. “It has but one side. There is not another thing on earth that has but one side. So long as I hold it in my hand I shall be king.”
“Is it gold?” I said.
“I know not. It is the disk of Odin and it has but one side.”
It was then I felt a gnawing to own the disk myself. If it were mine, I could sell it for a bar of gold and then /would be a king.
“In my hut I’ve got a chest full of money hidden away. Gold coins, and they shine like my ax,” I told the wanderer, whom I hate to this day. “If you give the disk of Odin to me, I will give you the chest.”
“I will not,” he said gruffly.
“Then you can continue on your way,” I said. He turned away. One ax blow to the back of his head was all it took; he wavered and fell, but as he fell he opened his hand, and I saw the gleam of the disk in the air. I marked the place with my ax and I dragged the body down to the creek bed, where I knew the creek was swollen. There I dumped his body.
When I got back to my house I looked for the disk. But I couldn’t find it. I have been looking for it for years.
João Gilberto Noll’s short novel Lord is an abject and surreal tale of madness. Madness is perhaps not the correct term, although it does point towards Lord’s gothic and abject modes. Perhaps it’s more accurate to say that in Lord, Noll gives us a consciousness dissolving and reconstituting itself, a first-person voice shifting from one reality to the next with absurdly picaresque energy.
That first-person voice is “a Brazilian who wrote books that were mostly well received by critics but not the public.” The Brazilian novelist travels to cold winter London on an unspecified “mission.” Indeed, the mission remains unspecified to both reader and narrator alike, although it does seem to involve an English university. The man who arranges for the narrator to come to London is himself a shifting cipher in Lord, transforming into different entities—at least in the narrator’s (often paranoid) view. We get the sense in Lord that consciousness is always under radical duress, that a state of being might collapse at any time or give way to some other, unknown state of being.
Throughout Lord, Noll dramatizes abject consciousness in turmoil. Early on, the narrator, already feeling uncertain about why he has moved halfway across the world, arrives at a university’s Portuguese department. In a book-lined office, he attempts to stabilize himself through the textual “reality” of printed matter:
The walls were covered with books. I trailed my hand over them as if to confirm the reality I was living in. Though I knew I was not living an unreality per se—like those born out of a simple dream and ending up in a nightmare, which we can only escape from when we wake up sweaty, trembling, and confused.
The irony is that the narrator has not fully comprehended yet that he is living an unreality, that he is actually narrating the nightmare. Noll’s hero is an unfixed voice, a voice that can’t square the signifiers around him with any stable signified meaning in his consciousness.
Slowly (but not too slowly—Lord moves at a steady clip), the narrator embraces this abjection and wills the dissolution of his self and its reformation into some new other. “My tiredness did not demand sleep, but, damn!, how I craved some indistinguishability between bodies, volumes, and formats,” he tells us.
The narrator carries his project of transformation even farther, applying cosmetics and hair dye to alter his appearance and “find a new source for [his] new formation”:
My lack of definition was already greater than me, although I had lost myself and begun to suspect that even my English boss couldn’t do anything to bring me back to me. I needed to keep up this task of being every- one somehow, because without it I wouldn’t even make it as far as the corner: without asking anyone, I happened to have overcome being the individual whom I had mechanically created for other people. I had to find a new source for my new formation, even now in my fifties, and that fountain would come from him, that light brown-haired man with makeup on, who lived in London for the time being without exactly remembering why.
Lord’s narrator takes this new version of himself on various London adventures, most of which are lurid and gross, and many of which are downright horny. Our Brazilian writer (who is slowly unbecoming a Brazilian writer) visits museums and has weird sex encounters, sleeps on the streets and takes a soapy bath with a Professor of Latin American Studies. Lord moves at a rapid and occasionally bewildering pace, giving the narrator’s quest a mock-ironic urgency. In Edgar Garbeletto’s capable English translation from the Portuguese, the paragraphs go on for pages but the sentences are choppy, riddled with colons and dashes, lurches and leaps, falls and stops.
Through this turbulent rhetoric, Lord’s narrator channels other voices, sublimating them into the text proper. The narrator absorbs bits and pieces of the other voices he encounters, dissolving his consciousness into and out of them as he strives for transformation. He also absorbs bits and pieces of bodies—fluids and other detritus, other abject bits of our human borders.
Our narrator is obsessed with borders, but his transgression of them has little to do with a moral framework. For the narrator, moral semblance is simply the result of an “individual…mechanically created for other people.” Rather, the narrator is fascinated by what makes a consciousness conscious. However, he’s not yet willing to cross the ultimate border, despite his fascination. In one little episode of Lord, our hero happens upon a dying man on the street. He watches the man pass from life:
I squeezed his hand. His mouth opened, and I could see the pool of blood that had overflowed his rotten teeth. That death, in some way, in some corner of my mind, gave me tremendous satisfaction. Someone was not afraid to go all the way to the end. To do for others what everyone tried to avoid. I wished I could follow him, but I didn’t have his bravery; I lacked the necessary elements to consummate the act. I needed that hug today.
A strange hug indeed!
The apparent finality of death as cessation-of consciousness holds a certain appeal to Lord’s narrator, whose quest is perhaps to overcome abjection via transformation. But it’s not easy,
It’s not just a snap, man: it’s being stuck in this limbo between staying in England and going back to South America that made me unrecognizable to myself anymore, it didn’t let me transfigure myself, it wouldn’t let me leave this stupid little body here, vomit myself out in disgust, or turn me into someone else.
Indeed, the quest in Lord might be summarized by that phrase: “vomit myself out in disgust.” While the voice in Lord remains untethered by the normal strictures of narrative (or even moral) logic, it is hardly free or disembodied. Indeed, the relationship between bodies and consciousness is perhaps the primary problem of Lord. Our narrator’s voice has a body that can’t catch up to what’s happening in its consciousness. Hence the novel’s preoccupation with the corporeal reality of bodies: blood, urine, semen, sweat, vomit…all the leaking stuff of humanity spurting out, transgressing the apparent borders and showing those borders are but a moral fiction.
In one abject episode, our narrator attempts to dispel London himself from his consciousness:
On a corner in Bloomsbury, a totally unexpected need to vomit hit me. I wiped myself with a sheet of newspaper that was fluttering by. But I couldn’t stop; I realized it was London I was throwing up, London with its ghosts and impossible missions, already entirely unsuccessful.
Tellingly, the narrator grasps a newspaper that just happens to be “fluttering by” to clean himself, to restore the moral fiction of an arranged, presentable self. The newspaper, like the books in the university office, is another nod to Lord’s metatextual motif. The written word proves to be illusory as an anchor in Noll’s novel—it cannot codify consciousness, it cannot fix meaning. Hence, the novel’s strange, disruptive rhetorical program, which takes first-person consciousness and literally deconstructs it.
The fact that Noll’s hero is/was a writer, “a Brazilian who wrote books that were mostly well received by critics but not the public,” suggests another metatextual nod. Lord’s narrator is a strange cipher of Noll himself. In 2004, the year Lord was published, Noll served as writer-in-residence at the Centre for the Study of Brazilian Culture and Society at King’s College London. But the narrator is a cipher of Noll only—a voice that deconstructs and reconstructs itself, autofiction that dissolves the self.
This abject voice tries to reinvent itself from the outside in, only to vomit the inside back out again. Utter disintegration seems fatally imminent; madness seems inescapable. As one reaches the final pages of Lord, one senses that the narrative might fall apart into nothing—which, to be clear, it doesn’t. Lord sticks its ending a strangely and suitably satisfying way. I won’t give away the end, but instead reverse the course of my previous sentence: Lord falls apart into something.
Like Quiet Creature on the Cornerand Atlantic Hotel (the other Noll books currently available in English translation), Lord is propelled on its own dream-nightmare logic. It’s fucked-up, gross, abject, and surreal. It’s permeated by a vague horror. Reading it might make parts of your stomach hurt. I like these particular flavors, and I particularly like a book that doesn’t just upset me with its themes and its plot, but also with its style and its rhetoric. Lord certainly isn’t for everyone, but I loved it, and I think that there’s an audience of weirdos out there like me who will really dig this book too. Highly recommended.
João Gilberto Noll’s Lord is new from Two Lines Press. It is the third novel by Noll Two Lines has published. I hope they publish more.
I cleaned up a large bookcase this weekend, and filled a purge box with close to two dozen books. I took that box to the used bookstore I frequent to trade in for store credit, and browsed a bit, hoping to find a used copy of Joy Williams’ The Visiting Privilege (I finished her debut collection Taking Care this weekend).
No luck with the Williams. I ambled down by the Zs though, where I found a new copy of Unica Zürn’s novella The Trumpet in English translation by Christina Svendsen. I knew a bit about Zürn (mostly her art and text poems, as well as her relationships with Hans Bellmer and Henri Michaux), but I hadn’t heard of Trumpets.
The Trumpets of Jericho is published by Wakefield Press, which has a great track record as far as I’m concerned. I loved their edition of Gisèle Prassinos’ The Arthritic Grasshopperand they’re recent book Letters, Dreams & Other Writings by Remedios Varo is one of my favorite things this year. Anyway, here’s the Wakefield blurb for The Trumpets of Jericho:
This fierce fable of childbirth by German Surrealist Unica Zürn was written after she had already given birth to two children and undergone the self-induced abortion of another in Berlin in the 1950s. Beginning in the relatively straightforward, if disturbing, narrative of a young woman in a tower (with a bat in her hair and ravens for company) engaged in a psychic war with the parasitic son in her belly, The Trumpets of Jericho dissolves into a beautiful nightmare of hypnotic obsession and mythical language, stitched together with anagrams and private ruminations. Arguably Zürn’s most extreme experiment in prose, and never before translated into English, this novella dramatizes the frontiers of the body—its defensive walls as well as its cavities and thresholds—animating a harrowing and painfully, twistedly honest depiction of motherhood as a breakdown in the distinction between self and other, transposed into the language of darkest fairy tales.
The Trumpets of Jericho includes a few of Zürn’s illustrations, including this one—
I also browsed John Barth books a bit. I’ve been reading Robert Coover’s early novel Origin of the Brunists, which reminds me a bit of John Barth’s first two novels, The Floating Opera and End of the Road. It’s not the content as much as the style of these early works that I find similar, and I wanted to dip into the prose of The Floating Opera, which I do not own.
(I have a movie tie-in version of End of the Road. I have never seen the movie, but one of my favorite reading memories is reading the entire novel in a friend’s mother’s childhood bedroom in an entire night. We had gone down to Miami for a few days and were staying with his grandfather. His mother had been an English major, and her bedroom seemed wholly unchanged from like, 1973 (the whole house seemed stuck wonderfully in 1973), and I picked up End of the Road at like midnight and read until four or six or whatever. Great times).
Anyway, this round-cornered Avon copy (1964) of End of the Road jumped out at me. I was smitten! I feel like I’ve seen round-cornered massmarket paperbacks before, but I don’t really remember any specifically. So I googled, and came up with this unsigned article from The New York Times from 17 March 1964:
Avon Books, a division of the Hearst Corporation, has attacked the problem of the dogeared paperback by cutting off the ears. The result is a book with rounded corners at the edges and square corners at the binding.
The company has also improved design, type and paper of its paperbacks. The first titles in the new format are “The Time Has Come” by John Rock, Brendan Behan’s “Borstal Boy,” Herbert Tarr’s “The Conversion of Chaplain Carr,” Nathaniel West’s “Miss Lonelyhearts,” Aldous Huxley’s “After Many a Summer Dies the Swan” and “Those Barren Leaves,” and Van Wyck Brooks’s “The Writer in America.”
Roberto Bolaño died at the young age of 50 in 2003, just as his work was beginning to gain a wider audience and broader critical acclaim. It wasn’t until after his death that his work was published in English. Just a few months after Bolaño died, New Directions published By Night in Chile in translation by Chris Andrews. A year later, they published Andrews’ translation of Distant Star, and completed the loose trilogy of these short novels with the publication of Amulet in early 2007. A few months after the publication of Amulet, FS&G published Natasha Wimmer’s translation of The Savage Detectives, which had been originally published in Spain a decade earlier. By the time Wimmer’s translation of 2666 hit the shelves in 2008, Bolaño had become a literary sensation in the U.S., only half a decade after his death.
2666 is arguably Bolaño’s masterpiece, and certainly one of the defining books of the first decade of the 21st century. I read the book in a fevered rush, and then read it again, and then again. As far as I can tell, there are more essays and reviews about 2666 on Biblioklept than any other book. It was the second book I read by Bolaño—admittedly, a first reading of The Savage Detectives left me a perplexed and cold, but I’ve since returned to that novel with a broader understanding and appreciation of Bolaño’s project, a project that seemed to expand yearly after Bolaño’s demise.
Indeed, it became something of a joke in literary circles, What, another Bolaño? He drops books from beyond the grave like Tupac drops albums! There are the short story collections (translated by Andrews) that trickled out between 2007 and 2012, along with harder to classify collections, like The Secret of Evil (Andrews, 2012) and Nazi Literature in the Americas(Andrews, 2008), a jangling set of keys to the Bolañoverse. Another set of keys came in the wonderful collection The Unknown University, a compendium of Bolaño’s poetry in translation by Laura Healy published by New Directions in 2013.
Then there are the novels that seemed to arrive every year or so: The Skating Rink(Andrews, 2009), Monsieur Pain (Andrews, 2010), Antwerp (Wimmer, 2010), The Third Reich (Wimmer, 2011), A Little Lumpen Novelita (Wimmer, 2014). Bolaño composed these pieces primarily in the 1980s, when he still thought of himself as a poet. These novels lack the vitality and vibrancy of his later work—the short story collections, the trilogy of short novels that began with Distant Star, and his big books, The Savage Detectives and 2666.
Indeed, for many Bolaño fans, reading these early novels feels like its own project—winnowing for seeds, pulling at the threads that will cohere into something grander in the Bolaño’s future (which, from a readerly perspective, is the past). So when FS&G published Wimmer’s translation of Woes of the True Policeman in 2012, it was hard for many readers to see the novel as anything but ancillary materials for 2666—it was hard to read the novel as a discrete work, on its own. Instead, the question Woes asked Bolaño fans was, Where does this fit in the Bolañoverse?
The same question is in play for the latest posthumous Bolaño release, The Spirit of Science Fiction (Penguin, Wimmer). A simple read, and one that is not incorrect, is that The Spirit of Science Fiction feels like a trial run at The Savage Detectives. In particular, Spirit blueprints the first and third sections of The Savage Detectives, sections that revolve around the immature adventures of two would-be poets in Mexico City in the 1970s. Instead of Arturo Belano and Ulisses Lima though, we get Jan Schrella (“alias Roberto Bolaño”) and Remo. These two heroes divide Bolaño’s literary ambitions into poetry and prose, posterity and potboiler pulp fiction. In The Savage Detectives, Arturo Belano and Ulisses Lima will synthesize these ambitions more grandly in their literary quest.
Jan and Remo’s questing in Spirit isn’t quite as grand. Remo wants to figure out why there are so many literary magazines in Mexico City; Jan spends his days writing to American science fiction writers. They manage to get mixed up with a set of sisters and their friend—poets of course. (Everyone in the novel is a poet, even—especially—a skinny motorcycle mechanic). The sisters prefigure the Font sisters of The Savage Detectives, and much of their plot feels like a sketch for that richer work.
Their friend Laura is a more interesting figure—a bit sinister, a cipher really, an iteration of the Lisas and Lupes that we find elsewhere in Bolaño’s fiction—in particular in some of the poetry collected in The Unknown Univeristy. Indeed, the final section of The Spirit of Science Fiction, “Mexican Manifesto,” was originally published in a different form in that collection. Some of the best parts of Spirit feel like failed poems, poems that want to be prose, unpoetical, mad, howling, jolly poems. Like 2666 or The Savage Detectives, the plot of Spirit careens, splinters, dares the reader to put the fragments together.
There is structure though: The main of the novel is told in first-person perspective by Remo. He’s seventeen, and has come from Chile to Mexico City with his friend Jan to live destitute in a garret and write bad articles under a pseudonym while he pursues his poetry. He gets sidetrack by love and other matters.
A third strand runs throughout Spirit. In a series of segments set in some presumable future, a female journalist interviews Jan in the middle of a bizarre drunken party somewhere in the dark woods. Jan has won a prize for a sci-fi novel that he summarizes for the journalist who listens, downing vodka after vodka. Jan’s prize-winning sci-fi novel meshes elements that will be familiar to Bolaño’s readers—apocalyptic desolation, failed communication, esoteric histories of Latin America, mystery authors. Etc. It’s even partially set in the Unknown University. The interview segments seem perched on the edge of their own sinister apocalypse, a typically-Bolañoesque move, as if a seemingly-normal situation might topple over into malevolence at any moment. Unfortunately though, these sections seem to have been abandoned.
Indeed, much of Spirit reads like a patchwork of abandoned drafts, riddled with material and ideas that will pop up in later novels—the tabletop gaming of The Third Reich, the fascination of Nazi iconography we see in Nazi Literature in the Americas, the reckoning of post-colonialism which belongs to The Savage Detectives in particular, as well as the Bolañoverse as a whole. Too, Spirit shares the ominous swells and sinister reverberations that we identify with both Bolaño’s prose and poetry—the book shows the joyful optimism of youth poised on the cusp of unnameable disaster.
In short, there’s a lot of great writing in The Spirit of Science Fiction—plenty of moments that satisfy, if only temporarily, our cravings for more Bolaño. And yet the novel is clearly unfinished, which, if you’ve read Bolaño—and I’m assuming if you’ve hung out this far into this review, you’ve read Bolaño, and like, if you haven’t read Bolaño, I think he’s great, and a great starting point for reading him would be Distant Star or the short story collection Last Evenings on Earth—and, where was I? Okay: The Spirit of Science Fiction is clearly an unfinished piece, which, if you’ve read Bolaño, may seem like a Bolañoesque feature—his works point to an indeterminancy, an oblique, inconclusive, resolutely unfinishedness. (Think of the final lines/images of The Savage Detectives, for example).
And yet Spirit’s unfinishedness is not of a piece with the general aporia that belongs to Bolaño’s finished unfinished works—it seems, rather, an abandoned project, a draft to be repurposed later. Which, of course, it was—we already got the material that Spirit helped inspirit—in The Savage Detectives, in Nazi Literature, in 2666—in Bolaño’s best materials.
Paradoxically then, The Spirit of Science Fiction leaves the reader—by which I mean the Bolaño fan—by which I mean, let’s be honest, this Bolaño fan—Spirit leaves this reader hungry for more, for the pages to gallop on and on, to careen into more dread and manic joy and bad poetry and good poetry and pilfered stories and excessive metaphors. More: More Bolaño.
And then how could this review be a complaint? Well it isn’t. I enjoyed The Spirit of Science Fiction, was hungry for it before I even touched it, and then left hungry, wanting more: More Bolaño.
Wars can be ended with sex or religion. Everything seems to indicate that there are no other citizen alternatives; these are dark days, heaven knows. We can set aside religion for now. That leaves sex. Let’s try to put it to good use. First question: what can you in particular and American science fiction writers in general do about it? I propose the immediate creation of a committee to centralize and coordinate all efforts. As a first step—call it preparing the terrain—the committee must select ten or twenty authors for inclusion in an anthology, choosing those who have written most radically and enthusiastically about carnal relations and the future. (The committee should be free to select who they like, but I would presume to suggest the indispensable inclusion of entries by Joanna Russ and Anne McCaffrey; maybe later I’ll explain why, in another letter.) This anthology, to be titled something like American Orgasms in Space or A Radiant Future, should focus the reader’s attention on pleasure and make frequent use of flashbacks—to our times, I mean—to chart the path of hard work and peace that it has been necessary to travel to reach this no-man’s-land of love. In each story, there should be at least one sexual act (or, lacking that, one episode of ardent and devoted camaraderie) between Latin Americans and North Americans. For example: legendary space pilot Jack Higgins, commander of the Fidel Castro, participates in interesting physical and spiritual encounters with Gloria Díaz, a navigation engineer from Colombia. Or: shipwrecked on Asteroid BM101, Demetrio Aguilar and Jennifer Brown spend ten years practicing the Kama Sutra. Stories with a happy ending. Desperate socialist realism in the service of alluring, mind-blowing happiness. Every ship with a mixed crew and every ship with its requisite overdose of amatory activity! At the same time, the committee should establish contact with the rest of American science fiction writers, those who’re left cold by sex or who won’t touch it for reasons of style, ethics, market appeal, personal preference, plot, aesthetics, philosophy, etc. They must be taught to see the importance of writing about the orgies that future citizens of Latin America and the U.S. can take part in if we take action now. If they flatly refuse, they must be convinced, at the very least, to write to the White House to ask for a cease in hostilities. Or to pray along with the bishops of Washington. To pray for peace. But that’s our backup plan, and we’ll keep it in under wraps for now. In closing, let me tell you how much I admire your work. I don’t read your novels; I devour them. I’m seventeen, and maybe someday I’ll write decent science fiction stories. A week ago, I lost my virginity.
Jan Schrella, alias Roberto Bolaño
From Roberto Bolaño’s novel The Spirit of Science Fiction. English translation by Natasha Wimmer.
“Yesterday I dreamed about Thea von Harbou. . . . It woke me right up. . . . But then, thinking about it, I realized that I dreamed about her because of a novel I read recently. . . . It’s not that it was such a strange book, but I got the idea that the author was hiding something. . . . And after the dream, I figured it out . . .”
“Silhouette, by Gene Wolfe.”
“. . .”
“Want me to tell you what it’s about?”
“All right, while I’m making breakfast.”
“I had some tea before, when you were asleep.”
“I’ve got a headache. Are you going to want another cup of tea?”
“Go on. I’m listening, even if my back is turned.”
“It’s the story of a spaceship that for a long time has been looking for a planet habitable by the human race. At last they find one, but it’s been many years since they set off on the voyage, and the crew has changed; they’ve all gotten older, but you have to realize that they were very young when they set off. . . . What’s changed are their beliefs: sects, secret societies, covens have sprung up. . . . The ship has also fallen into disrepair—there are computers that don’t work, blown-out lights that no one bothers to fix, wrecked sleeping compartments. . . . Then, when they find the new planet, the mission is completed and they’re supposed to return to Earth with the news, but no one wants to go back. . . . The voyage will consume the rest of their youth, and they’ll return to an unknown world, because meanwhile several centuries have gone by on Earth, since they’ve been traveling at close to light speed. . . . It’s just a starving, overpopulated planet. . . . And there are even those who believe that there is no life left on Earth. . . . Among them is Johann, the protagonist. . . . Johann is a quiet man, one of the few who love the ship. . . . He’s of average height. . . . There’s a hierarchy of height; the woman who’s captain of the ship, for example, is the tallest, and the privates are the shortest. . . . Johann is a lieutenant; he goes about his duties without making too many friends. Like nearly everyone, he’s set in his ways; he’s bored . . . until they reach the strange planet. . . . Then Johann discovers that his shadow has grown darker. . . . Black as outer space and dense . . . As you probably guessed, it’s not his shadow but a separate being that’s taken over there, mimicking the movements of his shadow. . . . Where has it come from? The planet? Space? We’ll never know, and it doesn’t really matter. . . . The Shadow is powerful, as we’ll see, but as silent as Johann. . . . Meanwhile the sects are preparing to mutiny. . . . A group tries to convince Johann to join them; they tell him that he’s one of the chosen, that their common fate is to create something new on this planet. . . . Some seem pretty loony, others dangerous. . . . Johann commits to nothing. . . . Then the Shadow transports him to the planet. . . . It’s a vast jungle, a vast desert, a vast beach. . . . Johann, dressed only in shorts and sandals, almost like a Tyrolean, walks through the undergrowth. . . . He moves his right leg when he feels the Shadow push against his right leg, then the left, slowly, waiting. . . . The darkness is total. . . . But the Shadow looks after him as if he’s a child. . . . When he returns, rebellion breaks out. . . . It’s total chaos. . . . Johann, as a precaution, takes off his officer’s stripes. . . . Suddenly he runs into Helmuth, the captain’s favorite and one of the heads of the rebellion, who tries to kill him, but the Shadow overpowers him, choking him to death. . . . Johann realizes what’s happening and makes his way to the bridge; the captain and some of the other officers are there, and on the screens of the central computer they see Helmuth and the mutineers readying a laser cannon. . . . Johann convinces them that all is lost, that they must flee to the planet. . . . But at the last minute, he stays behind. . . . He returns to the bridge, disconnects the fake video feed that the computer operators have manipulated, and sends an ultimatum to the rebels. . . . Whoever lays down arms this very instant will be pardoned; the rest will die. . . . Johann is well acquainted with the tools of falsehood and propaganda. . . . Then, too, he has the police and the marines on his side, who’ve spent the voyage in hibernation, and he knows that no one can snatch victory from him. . . . He finishes his communiqué with the announcement that he is the new captain. . . . Then he plots another route and abandons the planet. . . . And that’s all. . . . But then I dreamed about Thea von Harbou, and I realized that it was a Millennial Reich ship. . . . They were all Germans . . . all trapped in entropy. . . . Though there are a few weird things, strange things. . . . Under the effects of some drug, one of the girls—the one who sleeps most often with Johann—remembers something painful, and, weeping, she says that her name is Joan. . . . The girl’s real name is Grit, and Johann thinks that maybe her mother called her Joan when she was a baby. . . . Old-fangled and unfashionable names, banned by the psychologists, too . . .”
“Maybe the girl was trying to say that her name was Johann.”
“Possibly. The truth is, Johann is a serious fucking opportunist.”
“So why doesn’t he stay on the planet?”
“I don’t know. Leaving the planet, and not going back to Earth, is like choosing death, isn’t it? Or maybe the Shadow convinced him that he shouldn’t colonize the planet. Either way, the captain and a bunch of people are stuck there. Listen, read the novel, it’s really good. . . . And now I think the swastika came from the dream, not Gene Wolfe. . . . Though who knows . . . ?”
“So you dreamed about Thea von Harbou . . .”
“Yes, it was a blond girl.”
“But have you ever seen a picture of her?”
“How did you know it was Thea von Harbou?”
“I don’t know, I guessed it. She was like Marlene Dietrich singing ‘Blowin’ in the Wind,’ the Dylan song, you know? Weird stuff, spooky, but very up-close and personal—it’s hard to explain, but personal.”
“So the Nazis take over the Earth and send ships in search of new worlds.”
“Yes. In Thea von Harbou’s version.”
“And they find the Shadow. Isn’t that a German story?”
“The story of the Shadow or the man who loses his shadow? I don’t know.”
“And it was Thea von Harbou who told yo all this?”
“Johann believes that inhabited planets, or habitable planets, are the exception in the universe. . . . As he tells it, Guderian’s tanks lay waste to Moscow . . .”
From Roberto Bolaño’s novel The Spirit of Science Fiction. English translation by Natasha Wimmer.
Gene Wolfe’s 1975 novella Silhouette was originally published in The New Atlantis, an anthology of sci-fi edited by Robert Silverberg, and later collected in Endangered Species (1989). Silhouette begins with an epigraph culled from Ambrose Bierce’s short story “A Psychological Shipwreck” (1879):
To sundry it is given to be drawn away, and to be apart from the body for a season; for, as concerning rills which would flow across each other the weaker is borne along by the stronger, so there be certain of kin whose paths intersecting, their souls do bear company, the while their bodies go foreappointed ways, unknowing.
In Bierce’s story, this passage is itself quoted from “that rare and curious work, Denneker’s Meditations.”
Thea von Harbou wrote many novels and screenplays, including numerous screenplays for her husband director Fritz Lang, including the classic sci-fi film Metropolis. After its ascendance to power, von Harbou remained loyal to the Nazi party.
Set millennia in the future, Yevgeny Zamyatin’s 1921 dystopian novel We tells the story of a man whose sense of self shatters when he realizes he can no longer conform to the ideology of his totalitarian government. Zamyatin’s novel is a zany, prescient, poetic tale about resisting the forces of tyranny, conformity, and brute, unimaginative groupthink.
We is narrated by D-503. D-503 is an engineer building a spacecraft, the Integral, which will expand the domain of OneState. Although OneState has conquered earth (after the apocalyptic Two Hundred Years War), they seek to expand their empire of conformity to the stars, perhaps replicating their giant city-state on planets yet unknown. In its physical form, OneState is a glass panopticon surrounded by a great Glass Wall that keeps the wild natural world out. In its ideological form, OneState mandates uniformity, mechanization, and mathematical precision. The denizens of OneState conform to this ideology at all times. They wear uniforms — “yunies” — that bear the numbers that serve as their names. Indeed, they are “Numbers,” not people. The Numbers wake and sleep at the exact same hour. They march in unison and live and work in glass buildings. They “vote” to elect the same Benefactor each year, who runs unchallenged. They eat foods made from petroleum and produce children in a machine-like process that follows a system of “Maternal and Paternal Norms.” Numbers that don’t meet these Norms are forbidden from reproducing, but any Number can register for intercourse with another Number on Sex Day. A secret police force, the Bureau of Guardians, monitors the population, but it’s ultimately groupthink that keeps the Numbers in line.
One-State’s groupthink ideology is neatly summed up in propaganda that D-503 shares late in the novel:
Here’s the headline that glowed from page one of the State Gazette:
For henceforth you are perfect! Up until this day your offspring, the machines, were more perfect than you.
IN WHAT WAY?
Every spark of the dynamo is a spark of purest reason. Every stroke of the piston is an immaculate syllogism. But do you not also contain this same infallible reason? The philosophy of the cranes, the presses, and the pumps is as perfect and clear as a circle drawn with a compass. But is your philosophy any less perfect? The beauty of the mechanism is in the precise and invariable rhythm, like that of the pendulum. …But think of this: The mechanism has no imagination.
Imagination is the ultimate enemy of the machine, and the Benefactor and his Guardians have a plan to finally root it out and exterminate it.
Throughout much of We, D-503 is very much attuned to this ideology. D-503 thinks of OneState as “our glass paradise.” What we see as dystopia he sees as utopia, he initially constructs We as a testament to OneState’s glory that he will include as part of the cargo of the Integral. However, as the narrative unfolds, D-503 unravels. His sense of self divides as signs of mental illness emerge–first dreams, then an imagination, and then—gasp!—a soul.
D-503’s internal conflict stems from discovering his own innate irrationality—namely, a soul which cannot be measured in numbers or weighed in physical facts. This internal conflict drives much of the narrative of We. Zamyatin delivers this conflict in D-503’s first-person consciousness, a consciousnesses that contracts and expands, a consciousness that would love to elide its own first-person interiority completely and subsume itself wholly to a third-person we—but he can’t. Consider the following passage;
I lie in the bed thinking … and a logical chain, extraordinarily odd, starts unwinding itself.
For every equation, every formula in the superficial world, there is a corresponding curve or solid. For irrational formulas, for my √—1, we know of no corresponding solids, we’ve never seen them…. But that’s just the whole horror—that these solids, invisible, exist. They absolutely inescapably must exist. Because in mathematics their eccentric prickly shadows, the irrational formulas, parade in front of our eyes as if they were on a screen. And mathematics and death never make a mistake. And if we don’t see these solids in our surface world, there is for them, there inevitably must be, a whole immense world there, beneath the surface.
I jumped up without waiting for the bell and began to run around my room. My mathematics, up to now the only lasting and immovable island in my entire dislocated life, had also broken loose and floated whirling off. So does this mean that that stupid “soul” is just as real as my yuny, as my boots, even though I can’t see them now (they’re behind the mirror of the wardrobe door)? And if the boots are not a disease, why is the “soul” a disease?
What initiates D-503’s anti-quest for a soul? It is a woman of course. I-330 interrupts D-503’s routine life, puncturing his logic with irrational passions, taking him on transgressive trips to the Old House—and eventually, leading him to the greatest transgression of all. You see, there’s an underground movement, a secret resistance force—one that not uncoincidentally needs access to the Integral—and this resistance plans to…but I shouldn’t spoil more.
Or really, could I even spoil the plot of We? So many novels and films have borrowed heavily from (or at least echoed) its premise that you already know what it’s about. The major examples are easy—Huxley’s Brave New World (1932), Lang’s Metropolis (1927), Orwell’s 1984 (1949), Vonnegut’s Player Piano (1955), etc. Then there are all their followers—the cheap sci-fi paperbacks of the sixties and seventies, their corresponding films—Logan’s Run, Soylent Green–and so on and so on, well into our Now (Running Man, Total Recall, The Matrix, The Hunger Games, etc. forever).
You get the point: We is a generative text. And after reading We, I couldn’t immediately think of a clear generative text that generated it. From what materials did Zamyatin craft his tale? The closest predecessor I could initially think of was Jack London’s The Iron Heel(1907), or maybe bits of H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine (1895), neither of which feel as thoroughly modern as We does. However, cursory research (uh, skimming Wikipedia) turned up Jerome K. Jerome’s 1891 short story, “The New Utopia,” which does feature some of the tropes we find in We. Set in city of the future, “The New Utopia” features uniformed, nameless, numbered people whose government attempts to destroy the human imagination. Here, the “Destiny of Humanity” has become an egalitarian nightmare.
While it’s likely that “The New Utopia” furnished Zamyatin some of the tropes he needed to construct We, Jerome’s story simply doesn’t have the same epic themes of underground resistance to technological bureaucracy that have became the stock of so much 20th and 21st-century science fiction. (I rewatched Terry Gilliam’s Brazil (1985) while reading We, and the parallels are remarkable—but the same can be said for any number of sci-fi films of the last sixty or so years).
More significantly, Jerome’s “The New Utopia” is beholden to a rhetorical scheme that makes it feel closer to an essay than a finished work of art. The story is essentially a one-sided dialogue—a man falls asleep, wakes up a few thousand years later, and gets the skinny on the utopian nightmare city he’s awoken in from an enthusiastic Future Person. Reading “The New Utopia” reminded me of reading London’s The Iron Heel, which essentially works in the same way—London’s plot often feels like an excuse to stitch together Marxist readings into monologues posing as dialogues.
Zamyatin’s book, in contrast, is Something New. We is a work of Modernism, not just a collection of new tropes, but a new configuration of those tropes. Zamyatin’s D-503 is a consciousness in crisis, a self that simultaneously dissovles and resolves into something new—a creature with a soul. Consider D-503’s recollection of a nightmare:
It’s night. Green, orange, blue; a red “royal” instrument; a yellow-orange dress. Then, a bronze Buddha; suddenly it raised its bronze eyelids and juice started to flow, juice out of the Buddha. Then out of the yellow dress, too: juice. Juices ran all over the mirror, and the bed began to ooze juice, and then it came from the children’s little beds, and now from me, too—some kind of fatally sweet horror….
The prose here showcases Zamyatin’s vivid style. We, crammed with colors, often evokes Expressionist and Futurist paintings. We get here a painterly depiction of D-503’s abjection, his sense of a self leaking out in “some kind of fatally sweet horror” — his boundaries overflowing. The dream-synthesis here is at once joyful, terrifying, and utterly bewildering to our poor hero. It is also poetic in his rendering. D-503 laments early in his narrative that he is not a poet so that he cannot properly celebrate OneState in writing for his readers. But later, his friend R-13—a poet himself—tells him that he has “no business being a mathematician. You’re a poet…a poet!”
R-13 is correct: D-503 is a poet, a poet who cannot abide all the metaphysics gumming up his mathematical mind. This poetry is rendered wonderfully in the English translation I read by Clarence Brown (1993), and is showcased in the very “titles” of each chapter (or “Record,” in the book’s terms). Each “Record” begins with phrases culled from the chapter. Here are a few at random:
An Author’s Duty
The Most Difficult Love
An Absolutely Inane Occurrence
These are the titles of four random chapters, but I suppose we could string together the whole series and arrive at a Dadaist poem, one that might also serve as an oblique summary of We.
And yet for all its surrealist tinges and techno-dystopian themes, the poem that We most reminded me of was, quite unexpectedly, Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself (1855). Whitman’s poem sought a new language and a new form to tell the story of a new land, a new people. He wanted to be everyone and no one at the same time, himself a kosmos, form and void, an I, a you, a we. Whitman addressed his poem to both the you of his readership, an immortal future readership beyond him (“Listener up there!”) as well as himself, famously declaring: “I loaf and invite my soul.”
D-503 presents almost as an anti-Whitman. He directly addresses his “unknown readers” in nearly every chapter, and with a Whitmanesque turn, like this one: “You, my unknown readers, you will be told everything (right now you are just as dear, as close, and as unapproachable…).” His ebullience and optimism are ironic of course—they are honest performances that crack under the increasing reality of his emerging soul. Unlike Walt Whitman, D-503 cannot loaf and invite his soul. He can’t sustain the negative capabilities Whitman’s poem engenders. His we cannot reconcile with an I, even as it seeks a mediating you in its dear readers.
And yet for all its bitter ironies and for all its hero’s often feckless struggle, We is a comedy. The book is a cartoon-poem-satire, its comedy sustained in the careening voice of D-503. It’s somewhat well known that George Orwell used We as a template for 1984 (he began that novel less than a year after penning a review of a French translation of We). Orwell’s novel though falls into the same essaying that we see in The Iron Heel and “The New Utopia.” It’s also awfully dour. In contrast, We shuttles along with zany elan, inviting us to laugh at modern absurdity. Indeed, Zamyatin posits laughter as resistance to tyranny, myopia, and brutish closed-mindedness. Late in the novel, D-503 arrives at the following epiphany:
And that was when I learned from my own experience that a laugh can be a terrifying weapon. With a laugh you can kill even murder itself.
I could end by cataloging the various parallels that might be drawn between We and our own dystopian age, but I think that they are too obvious, and, as I’ve noted, have been repeated (with degrees of difference) throughout the body of dystopian narratives that We has helped generate. What the book does though—or I should say, what it did for me—is offer the strange comfort. A century after Zamyatin diagnosed the emergence of another modern world, the human position remains essentially unchanged, and in times of despair we can remember to laugh—and imagine to imagine. Very highly recommended.
Now I’d reached the second of them, the curving road that runs along the base of the Green Wall. From out of the boundless green ocean beyond the Wall a savage wave of roots, flowers, branches, leaves rushed at me, rose up on its hindquarters, would have swamped me, would have turned me, a man, that most delicate and precise of mechanisms, into …
But fortunately, between me and the wild green ocean was the glass of the Wall. O, mighty, divinely delimited wisdom of walls, boundaries! It is perhaps the most magnificent of all inventions. Man ceased to be a wild animal only when he built that first wall. Man ceased to be a wild man only when we built the Green Wall, only when, by means of that Wall, we isolated our perfect machine world from the irrational, ugly world of trees, birds, and animals….
Through the glass, dim and foggy, the blunt muzzle of some beast looked at me, its yellow eyes insistently repeating one and the same thought, incomprehensible to me. We looked each other in the eye for a long time—through those shafts connecting the surface world to that other beneath the surface. And then a little thought wormed its way into my head: “And what if yellow-eyes, in his stupid, dirty pile of leaves, in his uncalculated life, is happier than us?”
I waved my hand, the yellow eyes blinked, backed off, vanished in the foliage. Pathetic creature! How ridiculous—him happier than us! Happier than me—that could be, all right. But then I’m simply an exception, I’m sick.
From Yevgeny Zamyatin’s 1921 novel We. English translation by Clarence Brown.
Thai author Duanwad Pimwana’s novel Bright is new in English translation by Mui Poopoksakul this spring from Two Lines Press. I hadn’t heard of Pimwana before this reader’s copy showed up on my doorstep, but her work sounds intriguing. Here’s the publisher’s blurb:
When five-year-old Kampol is told by his father to sit in front of their run-down apartment building and await his return, the confused boy does as he’s told—he waits and waits and waits, until he realizes his father isn’t coming back anytime soon. Adopted by the community, Kampol is soon being raised by figures like Chong the shopkeeper, who rents out calls on his telephone and goes into debt extending his customers endless credit.
Dueling flea markets, a search for a ten-baht coin lost in the sands of a beach, pet crickets that get eaten for dinner, bouncy ball fads, and loneliness so merciless that it kills a boy’s appetite all combine into this first-ever novel by a Thai woman to appear in English translation. Duanwad Pimwana’s urban, at times gritty vignettes are balanced with a folk-tale-like feel and a charmingly wry sense of humor. Together, they combine into the off-beat, satisfying, and sometimes magical coming-of-age story of an unforgettable young boy and the timeless legends, traditions, and personalities that go into his formation.
“What?” he asked, startled. “What did you say?”
“Gallows,” she confirmed, with a provocative movement of her shoulder.
And: I’ve always wanted to start my novel that way, with a sentence that slaps them in the face. And him: Your novel? You aren’t seriously going to write it? And anyway who is slapping whom? And her: It just hauls off and slaps them, all of them, the overfed slaves of Europe, pudgy little slaves and their tie wearing masters, and all the managers, militarized by America, and the employers’ serfs and all those pathetic types, subjugated by everyone, and the social-traitors and their bulldogs, and you as well, my bulldog, you as well.
He sensed she was drifting, on the verge of hysteria again, and if that happened she was liable to lose the fundamental sense of things, attracting the not necessarily indulgent attention of the passers-by, and creating a scene and, in the wake of that scene, a disaster; for herself certainly, but also for him, for he was up to his neck in this affair. “A slap to the snout of the Western pig,” she hissed playfully. “Please don’t tell me you’re going to ruin everything by writing a book riddled with information,” he countered, “where anyone who cares in the German police will find all he needs to pluck you from your hiding-place, not to mention plucking me from my not so hiding-place and breaking me, dismantling in turn what’s left of your network of nutjobs? Don’t forget I’m up to my neck in this thing.” And her: Would you get a hold of yourself, my brave bulldog, I’d never rat on you. I wouldn’t rat on you for anything in the world. And him: Again happy. And her: Nevertheless, my novel will open with a vision of gallows. And him: That’s absurd. Don’t write anything. And her: I remind you that we are in fact on the Rua do Arsenal, in Lisbon, and gallows do abound. As throughout Europe, I might add. And him: Darling, let me just say: you’re fucking nuts.
He hastily examined the messages being sent by her pupils, diving immediately for the shadows and light, which conveyed, from the other end of this tunnel, her intellect. She’d turned toward him, her sunglasses perched atop her head, as if to hold back abundant curls, but for the past two weeks she’d worn her hair short; it was the face of a young woman sunning, only tormented and hard; her features ravished by passions, hatreds and fear. An arid veil was morphing the transparent blue-green of her eyes; darkening the silver glints, until recently so bright: a wind carrying charred dust across an age-old steppe, where presently everything alive was tempted to rave. She’s going mad, he thought. Despondency rose in him. Her mind is fading, she’s drowning. A cynical mistrust had sunk its claws into him, and already he was drawing up contingency plans, already he was preparing emergency measures, sirens wailing. Their joint survival rested on a ruse. If Ingrid were to crack, she would take him down with her. And he, Kurt, had no intention of stumbling into the void just to keep her company.
As he stared her down, she reigned in her smile, and then broke free, joyous. She nodded with her chin towards the clumps of dried cod hanging in front of the markets.
And: You see, I’m not lying, all around us it’s nothing but disfigured corpses. And him: I’m sorry, I misunderstood. I thought you were sinking into madness. And her: Oh don’t worry I sank ages ago, now I’m just pretending. My bulldog was the only one to realize, such a clever bloodhound. And him: Forget about writing this book. The trail will be too visible. And what’s the point of leaving clues? Forget about literature. And her: First I give up my machine gun, and now black ink; is that how it is, my bulldog?