Fake News, Fake Mad Patagonian

Is it a fake?

A couple of days ago, I posted a review of a book called The Mad Patagonian by an unknown Cuban author called Javier Pedro Zabala. The book was 1200+ pages long and while it certainly was not a bad book, it was not a great book. I did, however, enjoy reading it. For various reasons that I shall mention shortly, I had my doubts about the authenticity of the book but assumed that if someone had gone to the effort of writing a 1200+ novel, it must be the real thing. When I posted a link to my review on Twitter, my friend at the Untranslated blog suggested the whole thing was a hoax.

Following his comments and my doubts, I decided to delve further into the issue. Others, for example a Goodreads reviewer called Lascosas, were also sceptical.

My doubts about the novel were for two reasons. I had tried to find out more about Javier Pedro Zabala and, apart from references by the publisher and from others who had, like me, read the translation, there was nothing, nothing whatsoever. This was suspicious, particularly as he wrote in Spanish and there was not a single word in Spanish about him. I could not even find the original Spanish title of the book and made an informed guess at El Patagónico Loco. Of course, I could find no reference to that either. Yes, I am aware that the book had not been published in Spanish but it was still odd to find no reference at all.

The book was translated by Tomás García Guerrero. You will not be surprised to know that I found nothing about him. This is particularly odd. Having been a translator, I am well aware that translators can be solitary creatures, hiding away. However, this is far less the case with freelance literary translators. Often they are academics, so there is something about that on the web. Secondly, their previous translations are mentioned. Thirdly, they often have a blog/webpage/Twitter account/Facebook account for the very simply reason they wish to promote themselves and their work. But there was nothing whatsoever about García Guerrero, except, of course, in relation to this novel. Conveniently, he has died so I cannot contact him.

I pursued my researches. There is nothing about Zabala’s daughter, Cecilia, who was instrumental in getting the book published and nothing about his late wife.

Zabala, according to the extensive biography at the beginning of the book, was born in Miami in 1950. Or, rather, he wasn’t. No-one of that name was born in Miami or Dade County in 1950 or, indeed, any other year.

According to the publisher, Zabala was interested in lost poets and a monograph on three lost poets by him has been produced by the publisher. You will not be surprised to know that none of these poets exist. Raúl Francisco Manrique is the first one mentioned and you can see him in a photo with Neruda and Lorca, if you scroll down the linked page. You can see the same photo here where you will see that the poet in front that they suggest is Raúl Francisco Manrique is, in fact, the Argentinian poet Raúl González Tuñón.

Yes, it is all fake news. I did contact the publishers – River Boat – about the issue but, perhaps not surprisingly, they have not responded. Most other principals seem to have died. Zabala, his wife and the translator are all dead (if fictitious people can be said to die). The original, proposed Venezuelan publisher went bankrupt but I can find no evidence that it ever existed. Zabala’s daughter, if she existed, which she probably did not, is not to be found.

So what was the point? Why write a 1200+ novel, an extensive biography (with several photos) and a book about non-existent poets and not claim credit it? An elaborate practical joke? Because it was felt that a novel by an obscure Latin America novelist would sell better than one by, presumably, a US novelist? It seems that the author had a good knowledge of Cuba (its religion, history and politics) as well as of the geography of Miami and Mexico City though, presumably much of this info could be obtained from books or on-line. Perhaps the real author was Cuban-American.

There are precedents for this. B Traven may be the best known, unless, of course, you count Homer and other classical authors. Traven wrote several well-received books but his identity was not known though it is now believed he was Ret Marut, an anarchist actor. There have been others.

Though not a translation a book on my site, Cow Country by Adrian Jones Pearson, was said to be by Thomas Pynchon, writing anonymously. It is now believed to have been by A J Perry. You will note that the imagined and real author share the same initials. In the novel I last read, Sam Coll‘s The Abode of Fancy, the author and main character also share initials. Accordingly, I am wondering if the real author of The Mad Patagonian had the initials JPZ, which could make him/her Hispanic, Eastern European or German. Whoever s/he is s/he has spent a lot of time and energy writing a huge book, a detailed bio and a book about three lost poets for what? A practical joke?

Latest news: in this video, at 1:25, it is clearly stated that the author is Peter Damian Bellis, publisher of River Boat Books.

This Post Has 15 Comments

  1. Lascosas

    Lascosas here.

    Glad I’m not the only one reaching this conclusion. I found it telling that both the publisher and his primary author ripped into me on this.

    And I’m also not certain why this book is shrouded in secrecy. As far as I can tell, it is still only available directly from the publisher.

    1. tmn

      Yes only available from the publisher and no ebook, either.

  2. jeff collins

    I felt the same from early in the book that it wasn’t right. All the info comes from either the publisher , Larry Riley and Rick Harsch . Comments and posts about each others with seems very connected. 3 or 4 of us had this conversation on twitter early in the summer and I’ve been hoping someone else would delve a little deeper. Did you like book much anyway but a lot of work gone into producing it.

    1. tmn

      I certainly quite enjoyed the book and, as you say, it was a lot work. I am still not sure of the point unless it was an elaborate practical joke.

  3. ed

    i didn’t finish it—the hoaxiness really put me off —but i’m curious if you ever sensed that the plot was commenting on its own hoaxiness? or does the novel play it straight the whole way?

    1. tmn

      I may have been naive but I did not think that plot was commenting on its hoaxiness. It struck me as somewhat post-modernist novel and no more.

  4. sbplama

    If its a practical joke, who is the joke on exactly? A lot of effort for a REALLY inside joke, it seems. Or is the joke, discussions like this? That would be easier to see if the book was an amazing piece of work, in which case the mystery would have me rushing to order it. All very strange

    1. tmn

      I agree, it is a lot of effort for a joke but it would not be the first time this has happened. Some people have mentioned Pessoa and there are others. It is certainly an interesting piece of work but I would not call it amazing.

  5. Simon at Tredynas Days

    Very strange. As you say, why go to such trouble? Fake works as postmodern joke (Wm Boyd, Borges?)

  6. Gotu

    Peter Bellis is the author (and publisher at River Boat).

    1. tmn

      But is he Javier Pedro Zabala?

      1. gotu


        1. gotu

          He talked about it quite a lot when he was writing it, but I don’t know why the ruse with the pseudonym and other misdirections.

  7. Cam Boring

    This book was written by some 57 year old white man who can barely walk trust me he was my substitute yesterday.

    1. nic

      yup. abington right? his name is Peter Bellis.

Leave a Reply