Thursday, 11 October 2012

Gonzalo Torrente Ballester: La saga/fuga de J.B.

“One day I wrote that the place to the right of Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, author of the Quixote, vacant for many centuries, had been occupied by Gonzalo Torrente Ballester, author of La saga/fuga de J.B. I say it again now, I’ll have to repeat it tomorrow, knowing that many and many years will have to pass before a book like this is written again.” José Saramago wrote these words in his preface to the French edition. Gonzalo Torrente Ballester (1910-1999), a Spanish novelist from Galicia, was greatly admired by Saramago, who frequently mentions him in his diaries Cadernos de Lanzarote. This was how I discovered a writer who, although considered one of the greatest of his country, is practically unknown to the world. Even in Portugal, where he’s been amply translated, finding him is virtually impossible nowadays. Not willing to let this detail get in my way, I bought the book in Spanish. I never studied Spanish in my life and this was the second time I was going to attempt reading a book in that language (there was a failed attempt at reading Gabriel García Márquez’ Memories of my Melancholy Whores a few years ago). Now, contrary to what is believed, Portuguese and Spanish aren’t that similar; many things are written the same way, and some differences are so negligible one can guess their meaning from context, but there are also vast vocabulary differences. And to make it harder, I chose La saga/fuga de J.B, an 800-page novel. Surprisingly, with some patience and many dictionaries and online resources, I succeeded in understanding most of the novel. In any event, the effort was well worth it.

Written in 1972, La saga/fuga de J.B is a novel that defies explanations, definitions, synopses. It’s long, meandering, plotless, and downright bizarre. Even the censor who reviewed thought the novel was a bit confusing:

Of all the gibberish this reader has read in this world, this is the worst. Totally impossible to understand, the action takes place in an imaginary village, Castroforte del Baralla, where there are lampreys, a holy body that appeared from the water, and a series of madmen who speak lots of nonsense. From time to time something sexual, almost always as nonsensical as the rest, and some swearing in line with the current literary tendency.

This book deserves neither condemnation nor approval. Condemnation would find no justification, and approval would be too great an honour for so much stupidity and insensitivity. It is proposed applying ADMINISTRATIVE SILENCE.

The novel was approved. Now in fairness to the censor, his description of the novel is pretty accurate. The novel starts in media res with events that don’t catch up with the main storyline until the third part of the novel. In the first pages the reader is informed that a famous holy relic has been stolen from Castroforte del Baralla, a Galician village. In the second chapter, which has the form of a ballad, it is sung how the Holy Body of a woman saint was rescued from dangerous waters by a sailor called Barallobre, whose descendants would later help shape the history of Castroforte, “the city that dreams itself.” The recovery of the relic is of the utmost importance to the village not only because it sustains religious tourism but because without the relic the man-eating lampreys, which live in the village’s rivers and provide an integral part of the local economy, go away.

Castroforte is a strange place, and Juan Bastida, the protagonist, is its official historian and the reader’s guide to its historical and supernatural mysteries. José Bastida, an outsider, is an ordinary man, weak and ugly. “This boy is so ugly he can only be a priest,” his mother said of him. And he failed even at that because the bishop refused to ordain him due to his ugliness. A political radical, he’s been in jail, and now works as a teacher. Unloved but eager for affection, watched by the police, he lives in a pension room where he starves almost to death because of his meagre salary. Despised by the dwellers, his only friend is Julia, the pensioner’s daughter, whom he loves. He’s also a poet, although he writes in a personal language he invented in prison. When we first meet him, he’s living with four other individuals with the initials J.B. He calls them “sustained characters” and they’re figments of his imagination who have characteristics he admires; they are: Mr. Bastid (Englishman, confidence), M. Bastide (Frenchman, good looks), José Bastideira (Portuguese, romantic), and Joseph Petrovich Bastidoff (Russian, anarchist, man of action). “If I were as elegant as Mr. Bastid, or as refined and romantically attractive as Bastideira; as good looking as M. Bastide or as imposing as Bastidoff, it’s almost certain I’d have conquered her,” Bastida sighs.

Julia’s father is known only as the Spiritist because he frequents séances. And he’s obsessed with Hitler. Believing that Bastida is a medium, he takes him to these séances. Bastida hopes this will grant him a special treatment, but the Spiritist firmly believes his medium skills flourish the longer he starves. Treated like a freak, Bastida is however our gateway into Castroforte’s byzantine history that dates back to the Romans, or maybe not. Spending countless hours in the village’s archives reading old newspapers he discovers the history of the Round Table, a secret society that in the past worked to protect Castroforte from its enemies, particularly from the rival village Villasanta de la Estrella. Bastida, showing a contagious enthusiasm for Castroforte’s history, becomes the catalyst that sets in motion the restoration of the Round Table. Once involved in the mysteries of Castroforte, he also discovers the conspiracy to erase it from existence. Castroforte, it turns out, doesn’t exist on maps; buses don’t officially go there. Children don’t learn about it in school. Furthermore, the citizens don’t trust public functionaries, whom they call Goths, because they see them as invaders suppressing the village’s freedom. We can see how this mistrust of public functionaries troubles, for instance, the Spiritist:

To the Spiritist, convinced that the Führer hadn’t died and that he was hiding in Spain, he was worried to the point of obsession that he’d show up one day through the door of his inn and take a room in it with a false name. “For, in that case, how am I going to denounce him to the police, if the police is completely in on it?”

There’s also a prophecy that says that a J.B. always appears to save the village in times of need.

Thanks to Bastida we discover many fascinating things: for instance, Castroforte has thirteen instead of twelve Zodiac constellations, whose symbols have been updated for the scientific age. Bastida also discovers that the village levitates when its people are all worried about the same thing at the same time. There’s a female branch of the Rosicrucians. The most interesting part, however, is the story of the Round Table. “The history of the Round Table, at least as far as I can see it, is a political history and a pornographic history,” Bastida says. Oh, the censor was right: this is a dirty, bawdy, sexy novel. One of the members of the old Round Table describes the purpose of the group like this. “Our first obligation, after rescuing the old city from ignorant hands, and aiding the local girls – don Torcuato declared, in private – consists no more no less than liberating our fellow citizens from their ancestral erotic habits. What can one expect from a people that doesn’t know another posture but the normal one, and besides in the dark and with the pyjamas on?”

Also, the Round Table’ members are named after King Arthur, Merlin, Lancelot, et cetera. In modern times, when it comes to choosing names, everyone passes Parsifal. “I don’t think any of us would dare to take his name, because he was chaste,” Bastida says.

Don Torcuato, a 19th century amateur scientist and man of progress, wants to modernise Castroforte and fight the forces of ignorance and superstition. He’s the man who devises a didactic poem about lampreys. However, the group’s poet, Barrantes, disagrees on the form and produces a poem “without didacticism and almost no lampreys:”

His soul is being corrupted by the nefarious doctrine of Art for Art’s sake, which, as very French as it may be, is a reactionary doctrine. Art, either it serves human progress, or it’s useless. Why waste time inventing sufferings of love in verse, if his loves only matter to him? Apart from the fact, my friend, that one of the worst evils you can inflict on future generations is keeping them under the belief that love is an almost divine thing. It’s necessary to desacralise love, and we have to imbue the young with the idea that what we have so far called Love, with a capital L, is nothing but the coerced display, when not blocked, of sexuality, natural activity which we men have made an effort to mystify through the process of making it difficult or impossible. If you, instead of abstaining from all contact with females in the name of an imaginary fidelity to a woman that doesn’t exist, participated in the methodical, I’d almost say scientific, orgies that we, on fixed dates and with gymnastic synchronicity, offer ourselves to, you’d understand that what you call Love is no other thing but the result of cerebral perturbations caused by the accumulation of semen in Graaf’s vesicles, which, once empty, stop sending poisons into the brain until they’re full again.

But when the members of the Round Table weren’t having amorous adventures and misadventures, they’re fighting to preserve the spirit of the village, the capital of a Galician country that, like I’ve mentioned, isn’t on the maps, has been suppressed by the state. The existence of Castroforte has been erased from the national consciousness. The Round Table, which was founded in 1865, also possibly invented many of the legends and histories of the city, which is always under constant attack from thinkers and historians who want to disprove its historical existence.

And this is where the novel becomes complicated. Bastida recounts many historical episodes about Castroforte, but everything he reveals may just be lies concocted by the Round Table. The novel is one long first act. It’s all about set-up. When the reader thinks Bastida has finally revealed everything to know about Castroforte and the novel is going to move to the next act, someone exposes his facts as lies. Because of that the novel ends on a unsatisfying note. It just fizzles out. The novel only exists in the tension between building and demolishing the substance of Castroforte, exposing its unreality and solidifying its mythical existence. The novel oscillates between myth making and myth busting. There are revelations and counter-revelations, and counter-counter-revelations. It’s a lot like Franz Kafka’s The Castle. It also doesn’t help that the chronology is disorderly, that it moves back and forth, that incidents are left suspended to go back to explaining something better, then jump forward in time. Frustration is built into the fabric of the novel. And I’m left wondering if this may not be a metaphor for writing. He invents a city with painstaking detail. This isn’t mere historical recreation of a time, an era, a place. It’s a thorough invention of a fictional place. And then he unravels its creation by having people deny its existence. It does look like a metaphor to me.

At the same time, the history of Castroforte is cyclical. The same pattern keeps occurring in time, with subtle permutations. “In La saga/fuga de J.B., everything, in the literal sense of the word, is connected to everything, exactly as if it were a living body, a biological system, the skeleton connected to the blood vessels, the brain to the spine, the digestive chemistry to the chemistry of assimilation, the heart to the lungs, act to thought,” explains Saramago. There is always a poet in the Round Table (Bastida is the new one), a J.B. always dies in the Ides of March, the King Arthur is always a scientist. And the duels. The novel is full of absurd duels that symbolise Castroforte’s struggle against outside forces. There’s the legendary duel between the lampreys and the starlings who mysteriously appear out of nowhere, leading to an unprecedented aero-naval battle. There’s the duel of parrots. There’s the duel between the Castrofortinos and the Goths over how many words for penis and vagina they can discover. For the Castrofortinos it’s a matter of honour that they have more words for vagina. Oh, this is a strange novel.

And then there are simply many delicious incidents that make this novel worth reading. We can begin with Bastida’s alter egos who reject the idea that they’re fictional. “The idea of madness is incompatible with the solidity of my personality,” argues Mr. Bastid. There’s the modern King Arthur’s scientific vision of a universe without women, where reproduction is strictly done in laboratories. This version, however, isn’t as outré as his predecessor, Don Torcuato, who has original ideas about how men evolved from monocular to binocular vision, which segues into a dialogue between cavemen, one a painter, the other a thinker. “Everyone despises high Palaeolithic realism. They say it’s an outdated art,” the caveman painter complains. Another highpoint is Bastida defending Julia in court with his invented dialogue. And then there’s the time travelling, when Juan Bastida visits the other historical JBs.

On a purely inventive level, La saga/fuga de J.B. is a marvel, a masterpiece. Just its many narrative disruptions and subversions make it one of the most original novels of the 20th century. On page 225, Bastida advises the reader to skip 15 pages and continue from 240, if he doesn’t wish to read Don Torcuato’s treatise about binocular vision evolution. But then he’d miss musings about high Palaeolithic realistic art. This however is not as good as when a Jacinto Barallobre murders his sister and Bastida revises and edits the text to change this event. The narrative is loose, deliberately lacks focus, it’s slow, but like in Moby Dick, we’re in the hands of an excellent narrator so everything’s alright. Also, the novel is written in long paragraphs. Torrente Ballester doesn’t use indented paragraphs if he can help it, and usually he prefers to break these long chunks of text with diagrams, tables, and poems. There’s a single paragraph from page 41 to 94. It may be the longest paragraph I’ve ever read.

Saramago was a great admirer of Torrente Ballester and this novel, and I can’t help noticing the similarities between this novel and some ideas sprinkled throughout Saramago’s oeuvre, like the Passarola from Baltasar and Blimunda and the strange starlings from The Stone Raft. At the same time, this novel is comparable in scope to Carlos Fuentes’ Terra Nostra, which also shares many ideas, namely the concept of cyclical time and the central idea that it takes many lives to make a person. This is illustrated when all the JBs coalesce into a single individual.

But the legend of JB is the least interesting part of the novel, especially because it runs into an anti-climatic finale. The novel is great in its individual scenes, when it’s not subordinated to anything but the pleasure of distilling ideas. Here’s a scene from the members of the Round Table discussing the obscurity of the poet Barrantes:

What could one say about him? Many things actually: that his Viaje subterráneo is similar to Une saison en enfer, of which it is contemporary; that his poem “Uno, dos, tres…” uses the metric and spirit of his Odas particulares coincide with the metric and spirit of the Six grandes odes; that he used the alexandrine like Rubén Darío; that his concept of love coincides with Machado’s: his social and political poems say things similar to what Celaya and Otero did; that in his Canciones al bosque muerto he prefigures La entrada a la Madera. Do you want more? An able critic, with all this, would make of him, not just a great poet, but a great precursor, and this would assure his glory. You know full well that poets nowadays aren’t read, but studied. What did he take and from where? What did he legate and to whom? What’s his place in the golden chain of poetry? Was he ahead of his time, was he in harmony with it, was he behind it? And let’s not mention those who ask, before the work of a poet, if it contributed or not to the revolution.

And this discussion about Cain and Abel is also high on my list of the novel’s best moments:

“Do you know where your sister is?” And Jacinto: “Am I my sister’s keeper?” Don Acisclo jumped, startled. “Did you kill her?” “But, man of God, you’re crazy! Why would I have killed her?” “You answered me like Cain to the Lord!” “But, unfortunately, neither are you the Lord nor am I Cain!” “Nevertheless, that’s what that reply always means!...” Barallobre interrupted him with a flowery gesture. “Don’t go on, I beg you. The meaning of a phrase doesn’t depend on the sum of the meanings of its words, but on endless coincidental circumstances whose enumeration is not the most opportune moment.” Don Acisclo, rather upset, jumped backwards: “What? You dare to relativize a text from the Bible?” “May God spare me from doing it in front of you! My defeat would be certain. Nevertheless, since you’ve mentioned it, that text can serve very well as a starting point, since it’s been in your mind and in mine, and, without wanting, both of us used it as a reference, or as the linguists say, a model. Let’s consider the situation: Cain has just killed his brother Abel, and the Lord asks for him. ‘Am I my brother’s keeper?’ replies the fratricide. But is that, exactly, what he means? Let’s examine it with care and free of prejudices. The Lord is omniscient, and Cain knows it. The Lord, however, asks. With such a reply, Cain intends to tell the Lord, more or less: ‘You know full well I’ve killed him, because I couldn’t stand it, because he was too perfect, because he was your favourite, because the wind didn’t darken the smoke column of his sacrifices, because his wife gave birth to children peacefully, and mine died, because his livestock multiplied and mine were destroyed by hunger and thirst…’ You understand me: no one, not even Cain, dares to tell the Lord things like this in his face: so he replies with an absurd question. Now, you come and ask me a question similar to the one God asked Cain, and I answer with the same words. There’s an initial difference: the Lord knew where Abel was and you don’t know where my sister is. The Lord’s question was tricky, and yours naïve. My answer, then, enters a system of distinct meanings, and, for my part, lends it some inconsistency (the sentence results from an involuntary association) and a bit of irony (the sentence is disproportionate to the occasion). However you receive it, not in its literal sense, not even in its real sense, but as a reference to the model, and you reason this more or less:

If Jacinto Barallobre replies to me with the same words Cain used, that means he did the same,

from which arises your second question. Well now: if Cain hadn’t interpreted with rectitude the reach of the Lord’s question, that is, if it were hypothetically possible for the Lord to ignore the murder, doesn’t it seem more logical to have answered: ‘What do I know? He’s around. I haven’t seen him for two or three days.” Or shrug his shoulders. Since I didn’t kill my sister I can use with complete innocence the same words Cain did, even without suspecting, of course, that you’d mix, as you did, the semantic and linguistic levels, which one must never do, under the risk of mixing things up and incurring in the pathetic confusion you’ve incurred in.”
I’m not sure if Saramago is right in saying that Torrente Ballester sits to the right of Cervantes, but La saga/fuga de J.B. is a novel like no other I’ve ever read, and its rewards far surpass the disappointments.


  1. I have never read Ballester but your plot synopsis makes it sound fantastic. It reminds me of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Umberto Eco and the little bit of Saramago that I have read.

    The author's suggestion that the reader skip 15 pages does sound wildly inventive!

    I tend to really like books like this!

    1. Brian, thanks for the kind words.

      In spite of his status in Spain as one of the best novelists of the 20th century, and in spite of having lectured at an American university, GTB only has one English translation: The King Amaz'd. It's a real shame.

      Yes, there is undoubtedly some GGM, or the whole Latin American magical realist tradition, in his work. I'm quite anxious to read more by him.

  2. You held my attention. I love what I read. It reminds me in part of Ben Okri's Famished Road and also of the writings of JM Coetzee, especially the naming bit. Creative minds aren't simple minds.

    1. Nana, thanks for reading.

      GTB is definitely not a simple mind. This novel is so meticulous, woven with so many threads, I was often amazed at how he managed to keep track of all the side-stories, the names, Castroforte's rambling history. It's a literary monument to creativity. I haven't read anything quite like it.

  3. It sounds as wild as Don Q alright. I did a quick search and found only one translated book--King Amaz'd. Margaret Jull Costa or someone needs to consider him. Those split personalities are almost like heteronyms.

    1. Rise, it is strange why he isn't better known in English. A writer of his statute and quality deserves better. I never read Cervantes' masterpiece, so I can't compare, but GTB left me in awe of his novelistic prowess. And, well, he's funny as hell.

  4. Sounds like crazy fun, Miguel, although I'm not sure whether to stress the "crazy" or the "fun" part. Loved the censor's comments and the Cain & Abel discussion at the end. Anyway, thanks for tackling an 800 page book in a foreign language for us!

    1. Richard, my pleasure! It was, as you say, crazy fun! And it's just the first volume of a loose trilogy. When I have the courage, the time and the money, I'll read Fragmentos de Apocalipsis.

  5. Congratulations on your review. Your comments are very accurate.
    To read La Saga Fuga de J. B. only with the help of the dictionaries without knowing spanish is absolutely an achievement.
    For me, La Saga Fuga de J.B. is a complicated novel to read even for a spaniard.
    And yes, Torrente Ballester is one of the masters. His three novels: Los Gozos y Las Sombras, Don Juan and La Saga Fuga de J.B. are three masterpieces which sit him in the Olympus of the spanish writers. I do not know if just to the right of Cervantes, but al least very close.

    1. Thank you.

      I'm currently reading Fragmentos de Apocalipsis. Although it's a shorter novel I'm finding it a lot harder than J.B. But it has good humor and lots of imagination, the qualities I liked so much in GTB.