A novelist must know no end to his anxiety about publishing a new novel if his previous one was one of the greatest novels ever written. When Gonzalo Torrente Ballester published La Saga/Fuga de J.B., slamming the doors wide as he trotted merrily into Olympus, he also set the bar very high. Nothing quite like it had ever been written. All the familiarity with the craggy recesses of the 20th century novel wouldn’t prepare the reader for the travails of José Batista, hurled into a labyrinth of a story that brings to mind Franz Kafka’s fascination with the horror of infinity. At times it seemed just like a Kafka novel, the closest references I have for it, but unafraid of vastness – instead of an inaccessible castle or a murky criminal trial, an entire town becomes the puzzle that baffles the reader as it assault his senses with its century-spanning cyclical history, distinct in its eras thanks only to some variations (history had Bach been in charge of time instead of musical notes) which, in their increment, come to expose an elaborate “architecture of time,” to quote Alan Moore’s From Hell. That doesn’t sound too hard save that whole chunks of the town’s history may be pure confabulations as part of cultural guerrilla warfare to protect the town from a conspiracy that wants to assert its non-existence. The Castle and The Trial, faced with this attack on history and reality, do seem too small, too individual, not cosmic enough. But they are its forerunners in the way they use the concepts of eternity and repetition to subvert assumptions about being, for the great paradox here is how these mechanisms which encourage multiplication can act as symbols of the void, mechanisms used to hide the nothing at their centre. I try to think of other novels. Carlos Fuentes’ Terra Notra is another good choice, for its length and ambition, but it’s really a straightforward novel that intimidates more for its size than for its content, with an orderly timeline, neatly compartmentalized, really just a historical novel with more flourishes and magical realism than usual. The Magic Mountain and The Recognitions also seem adequate, in size at least, but there’s that clinging to a stertorous realism, a dry respectability to their contents, that makes them look like displaced artefacts of another century. Obviously Ulysses seems like a perfect choice, but it goes off in pursuit of its opposite themes: Milan Kundera once wrote, and I subscribe to his view wholeheartedly, that James Joyce’s novel is about the apprehension of the fleeting present. Everyone, from Borges to Kundera to Eco, agrees that Ulysses is the epitome of the realist novel, obsessed, regardless of the mystery of the mackintosh man, how many men Molly screwed and other uninteresting ambiguities, with creating the concrete reality of a single day in Dublin. Kundera makes another statement that I agree with: as Joyce is the culmination of the 19th century novel, Kafka is the father of the 20th century novel. Kundera and I disagree on why, though. Borges comes to the rescue to elucidate. In a prologue to Adolfo Bioy Casares’ The Invention of Morel, he wrote: “Everybody murmurs sadly that our century is not capable of weaving interesting plots; no one dares to check that if this century has some superiority over the previous ones, that’s the superiority of plots. [Robert Louis] Stevenson is more passionate, more diverse, more lucid, perhaps worthier of our absolute friendship than Chesterton; but the stories he controls are inferior. De Quincey, in nights of meticulous horror, plunged into the heart of labyrinths, but he didn’t mark his impression of unutterable and self-repeating infinities in fables comparable to those of Kafka.” More, not less, plot; hyper-active, not atrophied, imagination; a man who wakes up turned into an insect, not Leopold Bloom ambling about Dublin – those are the lynchpins of modern fiction. Bioy Casares’ novel is also about time, repetition and lies. It no doubt belongs to the lineage of La Saga/Fuga de J.B., along with Borges’ short-stories. Flann Obrien’s The Third Policeman also shares similarities, but it leaves off just when it was getting its rhythm. Gabriel García Márquez’ One Hundred Years of Solitude has the rhythm, but again the scope is smaller. José Saramago compared Torrente Ballester’s novel to Don Quixote, but I think he meant more in talent than objective. From what little I know of literature, there’s nothing quite like it. All those writers – Kafka, Borges, Bioy Casares, O’Brien, Torrente Ballester – weaved stories whose repetitive structures and glimpses into a hidden infinite order underpinned the illusory solidity of reality. Why do these three concepts, repetition, infinity and illusion, hang around together so often? My first assumption would be that it’s a legacy of Zeno’s paradoxes. But Borges comes to the rescue again. For him, the main quality of the novel of adventures was its formal rigour. To him, the realist, psychological novel was formless, vapid and imprecise because vacuity, imprecision and lack of verbal artifice were adopted as elements of verisimilitude. The novel of adventures, on the other hand, doesn’t wish to convince the reader it’s anything but verbal artifice. It’s then no surprise that so many modern novels have incorporated repetition into their plots full of adventures, since repetition is an immediately recognizable form that also demands close attention to the mechanics of language.
I bring up my very personal view of 20th century fiction only to explain why I find La Saga/Fuga de J.B. such a singular novel. And why I had huge expectations for the author’s next novel. As the first volume in a loose “fantastic trilogy,” La Saga/Fuga de J.B. was up for a remarkable start. In the first novel the town of Castroforte maintains its tenuous claim to existence, thanks to the strategies of a secret group called the Round Table working across centuries, against an outsider plan to erase it from all registers and consciences. Gonzalo Torrente Ballester was born in Galiza (I prefer this spelling in order not to be confused with the Galicia of Eastern Europe), a current autonomous region in the north of Spain with a turbulent history. Since as late as the 19th century it’s been trying to become a separate country. In 1936 a referendum voted for its status as an autonomous region, but the Spanish Civil War put a damper on that. During Franco’s regime, Galician language and culture were neglected and ostracized. Towards the end of Franco’s regime Galician nationalism saw a revival, and the region regained its autonomous status in 1981. I don’t know if this is where the author got the idea for his persecuted Castroforte, which official maps refuse to recognize. Perhaps, but it’s of very little consequence. In the end, it’s a fantasy place, much like its arch-enemy, the town of Villasanta de la Estrella. Just how much a fantasy place Villasanta de la Estrella is, constitutes the subject of the second volume in the trilogy, Fragmentos de Apocalipsis (1977). Well, if the author felt any anxiety about the follow-up to his masterpiece, he did not show it once. It's equally extraordinary!
What are those fragments of apocalypse? Perhaps a metaphor for the writer’s craft. As the author writes in the prologue to the second edition, unusually candid about the genesis of the book, this is a novel about writing novels:
Said in other words: this book is not a poetic creation, but the testimony of a hard and finally frustrating creative process; in which the contents are fictional (although some aren’t), but not the process. Fragmentos de Apocalipsis is not a realistic work, but the testimony of a reality.
He adds that he wanted to “present, not a finished and round novel, but the process of its invention.” In another part of the prologue he admits he’s writing about himself, that is, he’s the narrator in the novel. To make it simple, this novel is about a novelist who writes about writing a novel. The novel is simultaneously a novel and a “working diary.” He even interacts with his own characters (paying direct homage to Miguel de Unamuno’s Mist) and, in a nod to Cervantes, to whom he attributes the trick, he borrows characters from other people’s novels – in this case Moriarty, Sherlock Holmes’ great nemesis. He also does it better than Fuentes in Terra Nostra, which pointlessly includes a cameo of Javert and Jean Valjean. (Note: I’m very much of the opinion that Torrente Ballester and Fuentes should change places regarding their reputations and visibility as Spanish-language novelists.) To cap it off, the narrator maintains an ongoing literary discussion with Lénutchka, a 24-year-old Soviet literary critic and teacher at the University of Leningrad, who reads his drafts with “scrutinizing parsimony,” then gives opinions and makes suggestions.
The novel starts with the narrator complaining about a bizarre psychic ailment – parts of his conscience and memories have been replaced with those of Napoleon. When he visits a doctor about it, he’s informed that up to a point he’s Napoleon, a division in the brain separating both consciences. Then he complains about having heteronyms living in him, including one Alberto Caeiro (reference to Fernando Pessoa). Perhaps this represents the condition of the novelist, fated to having multitudes inside him. But it also sets the stage for a complex story about doubles, secret identities and paradoxes, themes scattered throughout the novel. It should be remembered that José Batista also suffered from imagining several personalities. The narrator notes that this ailment begins as he decides to write a novel that is at the same time a working diary, fact and fiction mixed, which reinforces the connection between his condition and the creative process. And with this intro, we jump into his working diary, dated May 22, as he’s correcting drafts of a new novel and imagining a setting for a story. He decides a good setting would be Villasanta de la Estrella, “one of my cities, of my four cities, two of them already told. One of the stories I never wrote took place in Villasanta.” So he doesn’t mind cannibalizing it for a new story about an anarchist placing a bomb in a church to assassinate a bishop. But he’s not content with inventing just a town. He comes up with citizens, conspiracies, groups, history, conjuring a whole “underground city” for the official town,
because the labyrinth from which Villasanta is born has dark paths that don’t appear in the blueprints, streets of ancient sarcophaguses, catacombs of anonymous dead, with secret exits to ecclesiastic cellars and houses of heretics and wizards; cubicles for the meetings of followers of extravagant cults brought by pilgrim poets, the secret synagogues of the Jews in times of persecution, the dungeons where they were placed once discovered and which served as hiding place to the republicans during the civil war. None of which would be suspicious to the eyes of the upper city, so harmonious and visited by tourists, if it weren’t for those alleys that end in a corner where river sailors urinate as they come, go and pass, and those streets that lead nowhere, and those labyrinthine houses of narrow and interminable corridors that return one to the starting point, and those fragments of old architecture that loom behind the back of a recent house, and that astonished angel face that shows up in the foundations of a house of prostitutes, and the arms, legs, torsos here and there, and what’s buried, and what’s been stolen, and the start of a walled in arcade in the palace of the Aires, and the end of a similar one, also walled in, in the convent of the Clarisses, and the impenetrable mystery of the monastery of the Benedictines, whose four unexplored cloisters contain a flora and a fauna ignored and probably fantastic, and all those types that only early-risers know, in whose faces it’s easily read that they live underneath the ground, from where they come out at night, and to where they return just after sun-rise: I like to gather them all, old men and women, crippled girls and sickly boys, in one enormous stone frieze, Romanic in appearance, like the one from the presbytery, collecting, leaving almost no room, the faces and the bodies of those who, sad and stupid, share the common defect of macrocephaly.
And he continues, creating Villasanta, populating it, inventing subplots for his characters, rejecting some, improving others: priests, anarchists, an expert on medieval manuscripts, a revolutionary writer who won’t write until the revolution is accomplished but who already has the titles for all his future works. And sometimes references to a mysterious ‘manuscript of the Apocalypse.’ The Apocalypse Manuscript contains a prophecy that the Viking king Olaf Olafson will return to reclaim Villasanta, because apparently in its past it was a Viking colony. There’s also an underground labyrinth that harbours the sepulchre of Esclaramunda Bendaña, a mythical saint. This labyrinth in turn leaves the narrative of Villasanta and intersects with the narrator’s own narrative.
Villasanta is just one of the novel’s threads, though, because the narrator is in fact merely pretending to be a novelist in order to hide his real identity, that of a secret agent:
I’m known in the world of secret agents as the “Master of the Bifurcating Paths,” due to my ability to create fake ones and disorientate my pursuers: since I’ve never been caught, in the files that every government in the world has on me, there’s a red-coloured question mark on the title page. My many operations are identified by their style, and when they send after me packs of the best agents, they know beforehand that they won’t discover me. My handling of the clues exceeds what’s necessary, it’s an amusement in itself, and in a press conference that the director of the Intelligent Service granted a few years ago, he recognised that my methods verged on virtuosity and that each one of my escapes was first of all a game where I seemed to enjoy myself.
If you’re wondering what he’s doing inside a novel, he explains that it’s a mechanism to evade a trap. The net is tightening around him. “The siege, however, that several have put on me is more threatening than on other occasions, and for that reason I’ve taken refuge in the inside of this novel, mere collection of words, like the worm hides in the ball created by itself.” That makes sense. Or does it? In fact he’s just an entertaining aside the narrator creates out of boredom, and because he felt like it, and because it was fun to do it, because as this novel shows, writing more often than not doesn’t follow a grand plan, it’s just a question of what the writer feels like doing. Or is it? What I think is that this novel makes a good point of how much effort it takes to create the illusion of effortlessness. Anyway, the Novelist is God: that’s a cliché now, but I can’t think of another writer who makes his point so unapologetically, freely and joyfully. He demonstrates his god-like powers when he takes Lénutchka to the Isle of Mazaricos, an island he invented for one of his fictions that he never completed. But he takes her there flying, because he can do that as a writer. It’s pure whimsy, childish even, but so honest the reader embraces it. And he takes her to meet the Ugly Dragon, a character from a novel he never completed, a kindly dragon with a beautiful voice for singing, whose greatest joy is singing for Lénutchka.
If all this sounds incoherent, it very much is, Lénutchka, upbraids him for it, because she’s a literary critic and she knows what real literature looks like. But their relationship is really a running commentary on the art of fiction, and she’s a character too so her upbraiding is the author’s own too. They start by exchanging letters, since she was interested in his work as novelist:
It was what we agreed on, and we spent some time with melancholy letters of autobiographical content: with her studies, her amusements and the story of her friends; with my works and purposes, also with my difficulties and hopes. And when I started thinking this novel, I told her: “A bunch of words in which I myself will be, made word too; with the cards on the tables, I mean, with the reiterated warning that this is a verbal fiction, and in no way a true or even truth-like story.” “If you put things like that, she said, what type of reality can your characters have?” “More or less that same as Emma Bovary if, at the same you read her story, you also read the letters by Flaubert where he says how he goes writing her.” “Are you that certain?” “I live in a world of words, they do and undo everything, on the condition that they’re public. There’s no other reality than the one the public word picks up, and what it excludes doesn’t exist. That’s why there is so much trouble with words, why they’re protected and persecuted, depending on what’s convenient. For that reason I’ve proposed myself to create with them a more lasting reality, that fiction I told you about, and in it only those die who are killed with words, and men and women love when love words are written.”
And with those words Lénutchka asks him to write her into the novel, to make her word like him, so that they can love each other too, at least in the novel.
And I haven’t even brought up Moriarty. At some point the narrator realizes he’s being thought of by someone else, another conscience has inserted itself in the novel, causing interferences. The narrator meets this man, who dates Lenn, a Russian friend of Lénutchka, and calls himself the Supreme, an all-powerful being. The Supreme is an unpleasant bully who enjoys himself tormenting the narrator with his condition of “ontological indigence,” claiming he’s just a figment of his imagination, and even kidnaps and hides poor Lénutchka in the underground labyrinth of Villasanta, the blackguard. And here are more mirrors and double images: the Supreme was the ruler of a country who abandoned his position and left things in place of a double in order to try out living a mediocre life, and then opted to become a writer. But the Supreme’s double, in charge, starts persecuting him. So he hides himself in a novel too, and the fake Supreme sends Doctor Moriarty after him. But wait. After the narrator rescues Lénutchka, she suggests inserting Moriarty in their book, since he’s the only person the Supreme fears. But wait! When the narrator conjures Moriarty, he in turn explains that the Supreme isn’t the Supreme either, he’s really a man called Chupachups, aka Shopandsuck, who is actually the Supreme’s double. And the double in turn has more doubles. And it all makes sense. Anyway, Moriarty enters the novel and goes after Chupachups.
Why several of the characters claim to be the narrator was part of an idea the narrator had (real or not is irrelevant) of introducing in each chapter a new character claiming to be the narrator/author. He abandons the idea though. But we must ask ourselves: was this a failed purpose? Or did he fail on purpose? Because the novel is about frustration, about the difficulty of writing, and Lénutchka is always evaluating his drafts. But at the same this frustration is false, for if anything this book shows, is how it’s one of the most liberated pieces of writing ever written. Few writers take their writing wherever they want, do with it whatever they want. Some are prisoners of vocabulary, syntax, common sense, good taste, expectations, or rules. Others subordinate writing to their will. Few writers had that willpower: Joyce, certainly; Vladimir Nabokov, at least in Ada or Ardor; Borges, Fernando Pessoa, José Saramago. At no point is the author not in control here, and all the chaos of the miscellaneous assortment of plotlines and abrupt stops is ordered chaos.
I also think I detect in the novel the whole gamut of the genres: the spy novel with the Master of Bifurcating Clues; the action thriller with Moriarty; the political novel with the bomb plot; the dystopia with the Supreme’s regime; the fantasy novel with the Ugly Dragon; romance, autobiography, the epistolary novel; even prophecy with the Apocalypse Manuscript. But this exhortation of the novelistic genre comes also with criticism. After the narrator has talked to one of his characters, Lénutchka chastises him for repeating the trick Miguel de Unamuno invented in Mist. When he declares that his novel is nothing but verbal artifice, Lénutchka, brought up with social realist theory, wonders if his characters can be realistic at all. Are modern novelists doomed to be mere plagiarists, or imitators as Torrente Ballester nicely puts it, of their predecessors? Are their characters inferior to the characters of the past? Are his characters here less real than Emma Bovary? That’s a good question. In essence they’re all just words put together. The difference is the level of verisimilitude of each character, of how complete each one feels. No character is ever real enough, complete enough. Some receive more focus in some aspects than others. I have no doubts that Tolstoy’s characters have a much more active inner life than just about any other characters I’ve ever read, that’s how it felt to me it when I read Natasha and Nikolai, they were as realistic as fictional characters could ever hope to be, pure consciousness poured into the page. That’s laudable insofar as one believes the purpose of a character is to have an active inner life. But Tolstoy was writing at the height of the psychological novel, so he had expectations to fulfil. The psychology in Torrente Ballester is almost non-existing, rudimentary really, there are lots of physical descriptions, many verbal duels, virtuosity at every turn, but hardly a look at what’s going on inside. I’d say that complexity is to the 20th century what psychology was to the 19th century. Nowadays novelists want to outdo each other in size, ambition, fragmentation of timelines, juggling of multiple plots, subversion of traditional ideas, and since the second half of the previous century at least there’s been a steady obsession with bringing science into the novel, all those writers infatuated with quantum physics and who like to build novels after the Fibonacci sequence and who go around calling their novels ‘holographic,’ whatever they think that means; it’s easy to see this development since Marcel Proust and James Joyce and continuing with William Gaddis, Carlos Fuentes, Thomas Pynchon, William H. Gass, Joseph McElroy – big, difficult, heterogeneous novels are the modern novel. Gonzalo Torrente Ballester contributed to the trend with La Saga/Fuga of J.B. Now Fragmentos of Apocalipsis, half its size but no less complex, is the same and more – it’s a poetics of the modern novel. Perhaps it’s not necessary, it hardly needs a defence at this stage since it’s so ingrained. But more importantly, it shows how there are no limits to what novels can be, if the novelist does not constrain himself with assumptions of what the novel should be. And that too is very modern.