Yesterday I wrote a post on Javier Pedro Zabala’s The Mad Patagonian in which I felt that the novel was not entirely what it purported to be, i.e. a translation from Zabala’s Spanish original. I showed, or tried to show, that there were no such people as Zabala, his wife and his translator and that it seemed likely (as others had also suggested before I did) that the book may have been written in English and not translated from the Spanish. I had, as I mentioned in my blog post, previously written to the publishers with my suspicions and I subsequently sent them a link to my blog post. They have now responded at considerable length and asked to me to repost their reply in full which I am happy to do and which you will find below.
As well as commenting on Zabala’s existence and whether the book was or was not a translation, they also comment on what they see as my misreading of the book as well as explaining why they consider the book to be a masterpiece. I did enjoy the book and thought it was a pretty good book but I do not consider it a masterpiece. There is no reason why different readers should not have different views on what is good and what is not and, indeed, I always welcome opinions different from my own, as there are many ways of reading and enjoying a book, and my taste is unlikely to be yours.
I shall respond to the publishers but I do not think it will be helpful to get into further discussions here or on Twitter. Obviously, if anyone else wishes to comment on this blog, I shall be happy to post those comments and, I am sure, that others will have their views on Mr Zabala’s existence and story.
If, as stated in the letter, my post has caused distress to Mr Zabala and his family, I would like to sincerely apologise. Clearly, that was never my intention.
My firm belief is that it is the book that matters and that the life of the author far less so. However, when the identity of the author and other aspects of the author’s life have a profound effect on the book, I feel that I cannot ignore these. I feel that what I wrote was justified, given the information provided by the publisher, the fictitious translator and in the book itself. Clearly, others also had their doubts. As I said above, I shall not comment further. The rest of this post is the response from the publisher.
In responding to your letters, we ask that you print our response on your blog in its entirety.
We have debated whether or not to respond to your two letters at all. Some of us on staff thought it wasn’t our job to weigh in on your speculations. But a few of us decided it was worth rewarding the amount of time you have invested in exploring aspects of The Mad Patagonian and Zabala that lay outside the book. That said, we also had to wait until we spoke with Mr. Zabala. Our goal as publisher is to both protect Mr. Zabala, and defend him. You are correct in assuming that Mr. Zabala spent many years in Cuba. He is also a flesh and blood person, very much alive, who chose to hide his identity from the public at large. To do this, he changed his name and created a somewhat fictionalized account of his life. We cannot say specifically what is true and what is not true about the life he presents thru the fictitious translator, Mr. Guerrero, the real issue is why he felt the need for this subterfuge. The answer is twofold.
First, and most importantly, Mr. Zabala (and even though this is not his real name, this is the name he wishes us to use) felt that his life and the lives of some of his family still living in Cuba would be in danger if people knew he had written this book. He did not say any more than this, but given the uncertainties and political realities of living in Cuba, who were we to say he was wrong. We met Mr. Zabala in 2012; he had left Cuba in 2002 (the year he chose for his death in his short author bio) and had lived in both Florida and Mexico. He had a great command of the English language and was in fact writing the book in English. He decided to pretend that the novel had been written in Spanish to add a further layer between the book and who he is.
Secondly, and this is a literary reason, Mr. Zabala was a critic of the French critic Roland Barthes, who believed that readers must liberate the work, the text, from the creator (the writer) in order to free themselves from the tyrannical biases that connected the writer to the text. So Zabala consciously gave up his own identity as author and created an Ur-author, giving this Ur-author the semblance of life and all manner of experiences, and connecting those experiences to the novel. Mr. Zabala felt this was a direct refutation of Barthes’ position. All of the events noted in the diary entries in the introduction have parallel event counterparts in the novel; all of the ideas expressed in the introduction are taken up in the novel as well.
We cannot tell you anymore than that. Mr. Zabala feels now somewhat exposed with this small revelation, so we shall go no further. We will certainly not reveal his name.
So much for protecting Mr. Zabala. Now we wish to speak in his defense from a purely literary perspective. We believe that The Mad Patagonian is one of the great masterpieces of the last 100 years, and what follows is some of our collective thinking.
To begin with, if you are going to comment on a book, you should be clear in presenting what happens. Your summary, however, contains a few inaccuracies.
Of Book Two you write: “Xavier was born in what was then the Austro-Hungarian Empire and is now Slovakia. (As in many of the stories we are into unreliable narrator territory here and it is not entirely clear if this is true. Indeed, Xavier himself questions it.)” Actually it is fairly clear by the time we get to Soledad’s story that the Xavier in the café is her brother. It is clarified with no doubt whatsoever in Book Eight when Tommie and Soledad meet.
Of Book Four you write: “Tiká is kidnapped by her Uncle Andrés and a man claiming to be William Grenfell, rightful heir to some mines in Cuba.” The kidnapping never takes place. It is foiled by Tiká, who then with the help of a family friend, don Alfonso, who disposes of Grenfell and gets Andres and Tiká passage on the Conde Wifredo. You also mention nothing of the connection between Ramón Martín Cordero, the Captain of the Conde Wifredo, and don Alfonso; you mention nothing of the importance of The Third note.
Of Book Seven you write: “the next chapter is Emilio’s diary. . . . His diary, as well as discussing his theory about crickets being the prognosticators of death and following the stories of the priest, Anton Kreutner, from Metz to Miami, where he gives up the priesthood for love.” Emilio did not have a theory about crickets, that is part of a story of Anton Kreutner presented by the narrator of Book eight, who is a graduate student hired by the Catholic Church. Also, Anton Kreutner did not give up the priesthood for love; in fact the reason why he gave up the priesthood is central to the meaning of the novel and will be discussed below.
Of Book Nine you write: “We end up in Prague where we follow a lecture on the Nazi obsession with occult and learn about a possible alien (as in extraterrestrial) race in our midst.” The book does not suggest there is an alien race in our midst. Moreover, your short summary misses entirely the point of Book Nine, which is a revelation about the true nature of what happened in Books Five and Six, and also brings us directly back to the beginning of the novel (Book One).
Here is our acquisitions editor’s reactions upon his initial reading The Mad Patagonian
Editorial Reading Notes upon first reading (May 1 – June 6, 2015)
There’s no doubt in my mind that The Mad Patagonian by Javier Pedro Zabala is one of the greatest books of the last one-hundred years. It is what I would call a literary masterpiece. It certainly ranks right up there with 2666 by Roberto Bolaño and Conversations in the Cathedral by Mario Vargas Llosa.
I think in the same vein as 2666 and Conversation in the Cathedral, The Mad Patagonian is an attempt to write what is a most impossible target, a “novela total” (a total novel, in other words, a novel that contains inside it the whole world, an inexhaustive reality). In Mario Vargas Llosa’s Conversation in the Cathedral, he goes all over Peru to give greater reality to multiple threads. Bolaño does the same thing in 2666 by going all over the world. Llosa’s book is more interconnected than global. Bolaño’s book is more global than interconnected, at least the connections are only partially interwoven and not as dense as in Llosa’s book. The Mad Patagonian attempts to be both global in the manner of Bolaño and densely interconnected in the manner of Llosa.
But how does one review a book that is 1210 pages long plus a 52-page introduction. (And believe me, the introduction is well worth reading prior to entering Zabala’s world as it gives you a true understanding of Zabala the man, which is a useful anchor for appreciating his book.) There is so much going on in this book that it is literally like trying to assess War and Peace.
The book moves forward like a series of interlocking spirals – Book 4 connects back to Book 3 only through Isidora (who is only present in Book 3 like a ghost, and who appears only as an impression in Book 4 and also a narrator) – Books 4 and 5 together mostly point forward to Books 6, 7 – Book 6 points forward to Book 7 and back to Books 2 and 3. Book 7 then connects to Books 8,9 but also looks back to Book 1 and 5 and tangentially to Book 2. Books 8, 9 loop back to Books 1,2, and 3 and 5. Book 9 also loops back to Books 5, 6. In many respects I think of Books 4 (story of Isidora’s family), 5 (story of Oscar, who later marries Isidora), and 6 (Isidora’s life in Miami) as Idisora’s story, which then intersects with the stories in Part One and Part Three. So I thought I would simply share with you my thoughts as I was reading The Mad Patagonian, and then maybe draw some conclusions at the end.
Books One and Two
Zabala’s book is a literary masterpiece at least so far–something belonging to the highest levels of literary writing. I really like the care taken with the actual book as well. It’s nicely done. I’ve some written notes on the characters in Chapter 1 and will do the same throughout the book. To me this is a book that I don’t want to read too fast and I want to be able to reference back to previous chapters if necessary. It’s something I do now and again. I think the first time I did that was with Pinget’s Inquisitory. Pinget created this labyrinth of characters, places–even the main house had so many rooms with so many objects.
Finished the third book just a few minutes ago–which is also concludes the first part. Still a long way to go but it is a great book–might begin the fourth book tonight.
The 4th book reminds me a bit of Alvaro Mutis with talk of copper mines and seafaring. I am also reminded of Louis Ferdinand Céline in Book 4 too. Escolastica’s (Tika) and Andres’ being dumped on a lifeboat along with several other undesirables to find their way to shore recalls Bardamu’s adventures on the Admiral Bragueton in Journey to the End of the Night. The whole scene is about group paranoia and the need to find a scapegoat(s). The one thing I wondered about until the end of the chapter is why Tika went to Cuba when originally the plan was just to kidnap and ransom her back to her father. That was all explained in the nurse’s notes of Tika’s final words at the end. So Book 4 very much has the Mutis feel to me, and a little bit of Céline’s. Bolano is always kind of present too. The book is crazy good—shifting back in forth between places and times. It keeps you guessing and thinking and checking back on certain characters so I’m not reading really fast. The linkages between Book #4 though and the first three books are harder to see; that’s where the family history chart at the beginning came in handy. I don’t remember a lot about Cortazar’s Hopscotch–it’s been a long long time since I’ve read that but Zabala seems to borrow a little of Cortizar’s ideas on structure in structuring The Mad Patagonian. I am also reminded of Perec’s Life: A user’s Manual or even Pinget’s The inquisitory. They are cousins or distant cousins but all those books are very much about the linkages between people and/or things.
I’ve gone over the half way mark which means I’m at the end of the story of Giuseppe Federico DiCarla and his dagger of mercy. DiCarla is being interviewed by the mafia chieftain Carracciolo. The Mad Patagonian is a wonderful book and book 5 is one of the best parts so far. I’m really liking it. There is also a great deal in Book Five of The Mad Patagonian (but elsewhere in that book as well) that seems an echo of The Seven Madmen. Here are just three examples:
In The Seven madmen, when Erdosain leaves Hipolita, he notes that “the pavement looked so wet it looked as if all the blocks were recently smelted lead.”
In Mad Patagonian, as Luis is trying to escape from two German anarchists, a group of college students run by on the cobblestone streets, Luis notes that after they passed, “their young voices were draining away like molten lead across the cobblestone, dripping into the sewers.”
Erdosain imagines inventing a ray gun.
In Mad Patagonian, again as Luis is trying to escape the German anarchists (and Luis is carrying a suitcase filled with money), there is this passage: “Perhaps they were watching the suitcase, which was strangely visible in the darkness, as if it were glowing from within, as if it contained a fully operational miniature nuclear reactor or a laser-driven electromagnetic plasma gun capable of vaporizing a city block in seconds…”
As noted above, “So the Astrologer, held within clock time, could feel this other accelerated time speed endlessly through his brain like a cinema film that has slipped and spools out its images, in a blurred, exhausting way that exasperated him…”
In The Mad Patagonian, Luis finds himself interrogating a German film-maker, a propagandist who films important men in compromising sexual situations to extort money to fund the anarchists. During the course of the interview, a film is running…”Across from the aperture there was a small table with a vintage movie projector clicking away mindlessly, the wheel turning without regret, projecting a silent movie onto the wall. It was like watching ghosts suspended in the hollow darkness of the abyss, Luis thought, surreal figures dancing with carefree, liquid abandon, their world disintegrating around the edges, a flickering, entertaining show of light and shadow collapsing inward upon itself, and then oblivion.
Finally, at one point in Book Five, the two German anarchists mentioned above are following Luis. Here is how Zabala describes the sequence:
“Then without any warning at all (which is to say without taking one last long drag of their cigarettes and flicking the stubs to the pavement with anxious disgust, or shouting with indignant reproach and flashing their long-barreled rifles or Kongsberg Colt pistols in the air in dramatic fashion as they raced across the street, narrowly avoiding the oncoming traffic, as if guided by fate) the two shadows filled in behind Luis. They were perhaps thirty yards away, a distance they maintained with calm but rigid vigilance, neither gaining nor losing ground, no matter how slowly or quickly Luis walked.
“On two occasions Luis stopped and turned around to look at them, partly to test their resolve, but also to make a show of his own cavalier indifference, a pose certainly, but only Luis knew this for a fact, and the two shadowy figures also stopped, but they turned towards each other, looking away from Luis as if they didn’t care whether he existed or not, still smoking their cigarettes, chatting amiably in German, probably about Juan Manuel Fangio, the great Argentine automobile racer, who had won the German Grand Prix in August of that year, the climax of a distinguished career, and what a disappointing finish for Barth (who would win a few championships for Porsche in the years to come, but nothing like Fangio), good old Barth, the only German to finish in the top twelve, or perhaps they were talking about the lack of good German food in Havana, particularly Labskaus (a plate of mashed potatoes, beets, and corned beef, served with a fried egg, pickles, and pickled herring), which they sorely missed, or the diminishing prestige of owning a Jules Jürgensen watch, or how long before they could go home.”
Again, the way this sequence unfolds reminded me of Roberto Arlt and the scene in The Seven Madmen of the two men that followed Haffner. The main difference is Haffner is too distracted by his own rumination that he doesn’t realize they’re there until it’s too late. Luis is always alert. I think there is another similarity in these scenes in how both Zabala uses Havana and Arlt uses Buenos Aires as backdrops. There is real noir-ish vibe going on in the last 140 pages of Book Five.
I’ve finally finished book 6–which puts me precisely on page 1174. The book seems to get better and better. This particular book can’t help reminding me of Arlt’s chapter in the Flamethrowers The Lawyer and the Astrologer in which the Astrologer lays out early 20th century United States predatorial Latin American foreign policy. In any case that’s ballooned out quite a bit since Arlt’s time. Fiction often tells truths that history or historical record seems reluctant to do.
But Book Six is also the story of Isidora. When Isidora first appears in book 3, she is a kind of spy for the Velazquez brothers. Her story evolves pretty much in this last book though and there are a number of twists and turns and things aren’t always what they seem to be–I had to briefly go back and reread the end of Book 3 (the shootout at La Mamacita’s) to freshen up my memory. Book 6 seems a central book I think to the whole as the disparate parts are all coming together now and in that sense she may be the key figure to understanding the entire book. She reaches back to the characters that came before her, and Isidora most certainly reaches into Book 7 (the Book is titled The Diary of Emilio Escoraz Calzada, and Isidora is described from the perspective of the priest who gave the diary to Elena Montano. When the priest meets Isidora, he describes her as a “strange, radiant being, luminous from a luminous traversing.”)
Isidora is the lynchpin structurally, thematically, and even in terms of the character development of the other characters. Isidora is for lack of a better word, a Saint, and her ability to accept the pain of her life and still find joy is what the other characters have to come to terms with, have to find for themselves. I think the acceptance that the characters find in Books 7, 8 and 9 are an echo of the acceptance Isidora found, but she is the foundation, even for those characters with whom she has no contact.
(Also, Books 8 and 9 mirror Books 1 and 2, so the stories begun in Books 1 and 2 are concluded in Books 8 and 9, and Isidora is not physically present, though again, I do not think you can read the end without feeling the lesson learned by Isidora as somehow central to the lessons learned by the characters in Books 8 and 9. Then again, there are moments when I feel that every part of the Book seems to speak to every other part.)
I really liked Isidora’s perseverance in the face of one tragedy after another and how she comes to accept things and to find some joy in her life. I like her connectedness to her past.
There are some echoes of Delillo or Auster and the last chapter of Book Seven is all Robbe-Grillet. It also seems to me that a great deal of Book Seven is Zabala talking directly to Camus, specifically in terms of Camus’ novel The Plague. The opening of Camus’ The Plague, an introductory section three pages long, begins as follows:
“The unusual events described in this chronicle occurred in 194- at Oran. Everyone agreed that considering their somewhat extraordinary character, they were out of place there. For its ordinariness is what strikes one first about the town….
“The town itself, let us admit, is ugly. . . .
In The Mad Patagonian, the introductory section to Book Seven is also three pages long. The second paragraph begins as follows:
Naturally we were all left wondering. While everyone admitted that a crisis of faith could strike anyone at any moment, we all agreed to a man that Father Anton was a most unlikely candidate. None of us could quite believe our ears when we first heard the news.
(second page, paragraph nine):
And to help us with our work, we would hire a university student to take on the role of chronicler, . . .
At the end of the introduction in The Plague:
“But perhaps the time has come to drop preliminaries and cautionary remarks and to launch into the narrative proper.”
At the end of the introduction in Book Seven of The Mad Patagonian:
“But enough of these dull, dry preliminaries. We shall now pass the baton to our capable (but not too capable, as has already been mentioned) chronicler.”
When the chronicler in Mad Pat begins talking about Father Kreutner, he says: “Let us admit the fact that the good German priest was ordinary. But how does one define ordinary? Do we mean how one behaves compared to everyone else? Do we mean what one thinks or what one says (and the contradictions that often exist between the two) relative to the population at large? Do we mean how someone looks, their physical appearance? Are they somewhere in between the two extremes of the uncommonly beautiful and the uncommonly ugly? Father Anton was, on the whole, closer to the uncommonly ugly end of the spectrum. In this respect he was uncommon.”
The chronicler goes on to discuss some common aspects of father Kreutner as well.
In addition to these stylistic and structural similarities, the whole story of the plague of crickets in Mad Pat, complete with a reflective analysis of the history of the plague, especially in Algiers and France, seems consciously aimed at Camus. Albeit the picture of the plague is decidedly more comic in Mad Pat, but there is a serious aspect as well that emerges much later in Mad Pat.
Consider this: in Camus’ The plague, the character Father Paneloux declares in his first sermon that the plague is part of God’s divine plan. He officially maintains this position even during the second sermon, after he has witnessed the horror of the plague up close. And yet even in spite of the possibility that Paneloux no longer believes in a God who could condone such evil on the innocents, Camus never is definitive about what is going on with Paneloux’s beliefs, which can also be read as a condemnation of official religion.
In Mad Patagonian, Zabala is much more straight forward. Father Kreutner is the Paneloux figure, and when he is confronted with great evil, he cannot accept a God or a religion that would condone such evil and so he quits the priesthood after 48 years.
The fact that Camus wrote The Plague as a reaction to what he saw as the fascist plague that was consuming the world puts he and Zabala on the same side of the fence, for Zabala is also attacking fascism. But Zabala seems to be taking Camus to task for being circumspect in how one should approach the problem of fascism. Perhaps the difference lies in the fact that Camus, an avowed atheist and humanist, leaves no room for a spiritual solution (even if he does not openly condemn Paneloux), whereas Zabala, who believes that a spiritual solution is the only answer (in spite of the fact that he ironically is condemning the church), but he defines humanity’s spiritual aspects in terms of the human imagination and the power of the imagination to lift us out of despair. For all of Camus’ humanist perspective, he not as optimistic.
The title of Book Eight, “A cry against the twilight,” is taken from the poem “Domination of Black” by Wallace Stevens. As in Wallace Stevens’ poem, the images of Book eight fold back upon themselves; reality is a fractal reality (something which Wallace Stevens wanted to create through words in the same way that Picasso created a fractal reality in his Cubist paintings – indeed, in his poetic work titled The Man with a Blue Guitar, Stevens consciously set out to create a fractal reality ala Picasso – that was his professed goal). The fact that Zabala gives the title the Old Guitarist (with its explicit nod to both Picasso and Stevens) to the movie made by the character Juliano Marquez, and that he uses the lines from Stevens poem The Man with the Blue Guitar for the dialogue of the character Rafael in the movie, indicates that these connections to Stevens, Picasso, fractal reality and even Robbe-Grillet were foremost in his mind. Thus, the repetition of images, phrases, and even actions in Book Eight of The Mad Patagonian is a conscious reflection and commentary on reality itself. (Also, this focus on a fractal reality is most certainly why Zabala applied the narrative techniques of Robbe-Grillet to Book Eight.
So when I read the title of this section, I started thinking about Wallace Stevens. But then I started thinking about the Dylan Thomas poem about raging against the dying of the light–which he wrote for his father who was battling cancer at the time. But I also thought about Yeats and his slouching towards Bethlehem poem and then I thought about Céline again–particularly his Conversations with Professor Y–one of his least known works–a kind of novel about his own creative process. His explanation of his three dots ….how he weaves lines together…like his own metro rail system…done just that way to create a rhythm. He also remarks in that book about how skewed language is in describing any objective reality. He illustrates that by telling Professor Y to stick a straight stick into a pool of water and see what happens which to the eye the stick because of the refraction of the light and the interference of the water is no longer straight.
It seems almost like Zabala has drawn not just from Robbe-Grillet but made kind of composite of other nouveau roman associated writers such as Butor, Sarraute, Simon and Pinget but Robbe-Grillet seems the closest and in his own way merged it with certain of the Latin Boom writers as well–and there’s again a little bit of Albert Camus as well.
Initially, Book Nine came across more as a dream that Travis was having and in the realm of dreams reality and other states of reality mix and merge and make their own kind of sense or some degree between sense and no sense. The book ends on a hopeful note though–the thought that Travis might go back to find his lost love. It’s an open-ended ending which is to say that a reader can take it further into a post reading period in his/her own dreams. Upon further reflection, I felt that Book 9, since it takes place in Prague, also reminded me in a way of the way Ricardo Piglia’s Artificial Respiration ended–which was a lot about the Argentine dirty war but at the end it kind of links with Wittgenstein but also is about Kafka meeting up with Hitler (in Vienna I think–but maybe it was Prague) right before FK dies and Adolf is doing his painting business. In The Mad Patagonian, it is definitely Prague (at least Vodíčkova Street and the Charles Bridge are in Prague) and I felt a sense of Kafka in the background. And it is perhaps not Wittgenstein but Heidegger and Heidegger’s distinction between the notion of Being (Sein) and being (Seiende), which was first raised as a concept in the translator’s commentary on Zabala’s account of his two-day bender with Bolano.
I myself am going to read The Mad Patagonian at least one more time. Zabala seems to have absorbed a great many different fictional styles and genres into this work but yet the way he writes they all interlock together pretty damn seamlessly, which is one of the reasons it ranks right up there with 2666 and Conversations in the Cathedral. And he’s come as close as any writer I’ve ever read at creating the impossible “novela total.” And I’ve said nothing about the beauty of the language (which is another reason why this book is a masterpiece). So let me close with a passage from the book that illustrates the tremendous beauty of the language. This particular example is from Book Five, Luis being chased, but just so you know, there are examples like this on every page:
“The men in dark fedoras with their long-barreled rifles or their Kongsberg Colt pistols chase Luis through the darkly gleaming streets of Havana:
“The webbed darkness of Berkeley’s God, this chaos of the soul, was riddled with the streaking meteorites of festival rockets, though who was lighting them and from where it was impossible to say. Music filled every corner of every street, every nook and cranny. Thousands of musicians had descended upon the city, as they always did during times of celebration, many having arrived by bus from as far away as Oriente province. But this particular celebration was unlike any other festival that anyone ever remembered or would remember. It was an anomaly, never to be repeated. It was like Carnival and Christmas mixed together. On the feast day itself, the faithful would be forced to sit in silence inside the Cathedral while they prayed to the wooden statue of Saint Christopher for his blessing. But the days and nights leading up to that Saturday of their repressed, penitent fears would be filled with a more raucous, rumbling kind of energy.
“That first night set the tone for everything that followed. The clang of a siren or two went by. The happiness swelled. A woman screamed. But it was not clear if it was a scream of terror or a scream of passion. Elongated shadows appeared, like the shadows of alien creatures that had taken refuge on the earth. Then another festival rocket went up into the air and these strange shadows evaporated or were forgotten and when they returned in the light of a passing car or some other source of illumination it was clear they were only tree branches swaying in a gentle breeze. The happiness spread like a disease. So did the laughter. And the church bells ringing. Thousands of unseen men and women were singing songs of happy-go-lucky joy or drunken, melancholic love or blasphemous frivolity. Each song a vision of happiness unto itself. Happiness any way you sliced it. Amnesic voices emanating from distant radios (as if from distant stars); or sex-starved voices emanating from dozens of third-rate movie houses that littered the landscape like limping (clubfooted) degenerate uncles, the willing, willful, festival-going throng mesmerized by the flashing pockmarked light of crumbling movie house marquees, each marquee with an incalculable number of missing bulbs that would never be replaced, or ruptured bulbs still implanted in their sockets with jagged edges that might cause injury, each marquee flashing incessantly, as long as there was darkness to flash against, or absorb, the marquees more darkness than light really, symbols of eternal night; or implacable, unforgiving voices (happy in their eternal, dogmatic pain) emanating from those forgotten churches on that godforsaken strip south of Zanja with their slowly disintegrating stone walls that still reverberated with recriminations from centuries ago; or lingering, lecherous, satisfied voices emanating from the interior darkness of posh nightclubs with their hollow happy men, and women’s eyes dripping rouge; all of these happy, effervescent voices (and many more besides) mixing together in the stratosphere, as close to heaven as was physically possible, the currents of the upper winds swirling the voices about, mixing them together so you could barely tell one from another, and then the voices somehow separating, reforming, reshaping the world in ways that only the infinite logic of music can express, a billion permutations. ‘
The title of Book Nine comes from Borges poem Clouds (I), so perhaps the key to understanding what Zabala is aiming at her perhaps lies in this tiny poem.
There is nothing that is not essentially
a cloud. Cathedrals reared of massive stone
and biblical stained glass time will throw down
are clouds. And so too is the Odyssey,
which changes like the ocean: something different
each time we open it. Your aging face
is now a different face in the looking glass,
and each day is a nebulous labyrinth.
We are the ones who drift away. The host
of evening clouds dispersing in the west
is our very image. Without pause
or rest the rose changes into another rose.
You are the cloud, the sea, you are oblivion,
And you are also all that you have lost.
This is not the best of translations, but the essence is there. Borges poem, like much of his writing, is about the breaking of the self into many selves; it is about the multiplicity of the world, the infinity of dimensions, but it is also about the longing for a release from a world where one is constantly reminded of oneself. (Almost Buddhist in sentiment.)
In Book Five of The Mad Patagonian, when Jacqueline is murdered (page 732), the line describing what we hear is as follows: “the gentle thud of a woman in a lace négligée now free of memory.” The phrase free of memory is a Borges line he uses to describe a dead body in his poem “Remorse for Any Death.”
So the title of Book Nine could be a reminder that if we wish to get rid of the illusions of all that exists between us (who we are or think we are) and all that truly is (an echo of Cervantes here as well), if we wish to escape the constant, ever changing agony of doing war (like Odyssey) against ourselves, then we must embrace the cloud aspect of ourselves. For only then can we find the peace that eludes, as the character Herminio in Book Five says, only then will we realize that if we are also all that we have lost, then we have truly lost nothing, only our illusions stand in the way of our understanding this. I think the title of Book Nine is referring to something like this.
In support of this idea, I offer this final last analysis. The Professor’s name is Elek Borža, which is close enough to sounding like Borges that you feel perhaps he is an alter-ego for Borges himself. Then in discussing the nature of the bearded man’s malady, the Professor says: “ When you looked into the mirror of your own desires you saw a madman wandering along one dark corridor after another, an endless wandering.’” The mirror and the labyrinth of corridors are two of Borges most important symbols – here they are used to define the sickness which ahs kept the bearded man from himself.
The bearded man recognizes the nature of his Borges-like sickness in the lines: “After that he went from place to place, seeking out others like himself, other madmen who were trapped in the infinity of
space that exists between two opposing mirrors.”
This being trapped in a world of mirrors is the Borges dilemma, and in Book Nine, the bearded man has finally found a way to escape.
Also, I think this entire scene is played out entirely in the mind of the bearded man, but there are a number of hints that it is really taking place in an insane asylum.
The first is when the bearded man notices the student wearing a t-shirt with an image of a bearded man and for a moment he has the “strangest sensation that he is looking at himself, that an unscrupulous artist has somehow taken his likeness and printed it on the t-shirt.” Upon closer examination he realizes the image is not of him, he is different from the bearded man on the t-shirt. Then a few moments later the bearded man reads the quote on the t-shirt. “The quote says ‘The imagination is the only thing able to keep up with the process of transmutation.’ Who the hell is Miroslav Petříček, the bearded man wonders as the student whirls away to the next table.” But we are left wondering what kind of self-examination process is going on here.
The second clue is when the Professor is making his way back from the café and he stops at the boisterous table and says “It’s a madhouse in there.”
The third clue is when the Professor says to the bearded man: “‘Come along, my young friend, we have much to discuss’ and now it is the bearded man’s turn to nod.”
The fourth clue is “The librarian looks up as if she knew all along that sooner or later the Professor would be joining them.”
And the fifth clue is when the bearded man himself notes that : “After that he found himself in the care of the good Professor and the librarian. After that he had lost track of the passing years.”
Also, all of the dialogue on the part of the bearded man is indirectly presented except for two lines. The first is when he and the librarian are entering the lecture and he says to the janitor: “‘We’re not late, are we?’ the bearded man says.” But the janitor does not seem to hear him. The second line is when he intrudes into the conversation between Amrick, Ottmar and Johannes, and he says: “‘But how can he honestly answer your question except to say that he is what he is?’ says the fourth voice.” That question could just as well be directed towards the suffering bearded man on the road to final recovery.
Further indication that the scene is taking place only in the bearded man’s mind is the way the conversation that Amrick, Ottmar and Johannes is characterized in the lines immediately following the bearded man’s intrusion. Here are the lines: “Amrik, Ottmar and Johannes look up in unison to see who
might be so presumptuous as to intrude upon their unintentionally public conversation, a conversation which seems, nevertheless, to be pointing towards something beyond itself (a sign, a symbol, the fragmentary consciousness of a dream perhaps).” It is worth noting that the concept of “intentionality” (which is implicit in the notion of this conversation being unintentionally public though pointing towards some other referent) was described in the 19th century as a “characteristic of all acts of consciousness that are thus “psychical” or “mental” phenomena, by which they may be set apart from “physical” or “natural” phenomena.” [This aspect needs much more analysis than I have had the time to conduct.]
These clues plus the nature of the relationship between the bearded man and the Professor as revealed through their conversation suggest to me that the whole scene, while played out through the imagination of the bearded man, is really taking place in an insane asylum.
Zabala and Bolaño
You mention on several occasions that Bolaño is a better writer of a higher caliber than Zabala. But you do not offer any textual support for this assertion. We are of a different opinion and will offer textual support for our view. The Mad Patagonian has far more structural interconnectedness as noted above than does, for example 2666, which relies on Book Four, The Part About the Murders to make up for a somewhat facile Book Three.
Zabala also has greater prosodic gifts in terms of his prose. Bolaño writes in a singular, often times flat style. Not only does Zabala employ a wider range of prose techniques than Bolaño (naturalism in Book One, surrealism in Boos Two, absurdism in Book Three, mythic in Book Four, symbolic in Book Five, historical in Book Seven, Nouveau Roman in Book eight, and existential in Book Nine; but his use of figurative language is superior. Here are various examples of Zabala’s use of figurative language:
p. 365 “They loaded Grenfell’s body with delicate intention, folding the top half over the bottom half, as if he were a dilapidated marionette or a victim of the plague.”
p. 371-372 “Then they neared their destination and his tone changed abruptly, as if he and Andres were long lost friends or members of a secret society who were destined to become mortal enemies.”
p. 381 “. . . so they dismissed the naturalist’s theory as easily and efficiently as one dismisses a falling star or the whooshing whiz-bang of a speeding bullet that lodges itself with irreversible authority in the brain of a retreating enemy.”
p. 397 “But whenever Andres uttered this mantra of the hopeless, the words flashed brightly in the air like spinning coins washed in the sunlight of heroism and nostalgia, or like a flock of startled birds taking wing at the sound of distant cannons, before inevitably giving way to the darkness of an uncertain future.”
p. 399 “It was then that Nicario, in a moment of inspiration that could have been mistaken for complete exhaustion, or perhaps a sudden bout of indigestion brought on by too much Brazilian coffee consumed after midnight, or perhaps the involuntary paroxysms that accompany a subterfuge nearing completion, suggested that my great-grandfather try writing letters to his absent love and perhaps the wind would carry his words to her ears and she would then know it was safe to come out of hiding.”
p. 433 “Tiká did not know what to say so she said nothing. She pulled away and ran up the gangplank, her fiery red braid trailing behind, fluttering furiously in the air like a burning rope that must be cut out of necessity, or a long-standing faith discarded on a whim, and disappeared into the swirling mass of humanity crowding the upper deck.”
p. 450 “. . . she saw three men standing motionless in the glare of the lanterns, looking in her direction, their eyes fixed like dead stars or hibernating thoughts, their faces beaming with comical expressions of paranoia and autoerotic cunning.”
p. 454 “. . . and Luis Muñoz Rivera, whom I have seen once or twice on the streets of San Juan in the days since I first arrived, as one sees the fleeing shadow of a startled bird, or the black smoke from a rapidly spreading fire surging up towards heaven, . . .”
p. 488 “Then we lay down in the dark and she began whispering softly, her lips grazing my cheek, her words all but unintelligible to my wondering ears for she spoke in the language of flowers or fish, or perhaps she was singing a lullaby her mother had once sung, or perhaps she was sighing one last sigh of eternal regret.”
The Meaning of The Mad Patagonian
Latin-American literature, whether of Cuban origin or elsewhere, often seems to reflect what has been called the contemporary immigrant imagination. African-American literature reflects the contemporary rewriting of what you might call the American colonial experience. But what is to come after? When will American literature be simply that, American literature? When will we have a postethnic literature and what is the continuity between that and what went before?
Mad Pat is the antithesis of the Cuban immigrant experience. The author, Javier Zabala, is born of an American mother and a Mexican father; but he is not a Mexican-American. And while he does feel he is an exile everywhere he goes (a nod to the authorial experience of many American immigrant writers), that specific persona does not define him, nor does it define the characters in his book; his experience in many ways, especially by going to Cuban, is the exact opposite of the conventional immigrant experience, and so what gives shape to the experiences of the characters is a
The narrative form of The Mad Patagonian, the ideological underpinnings of the text, serves to challenge the conventional expression of literature that is marked and marketed as ethnic. The book is a move away from the artistic techniques used to shine a spotlight on the relevance of cultural differences (which should not be misconstrued as an attempt to make these differences less relevant; it should be understood by this that the importance of these differences is not the primary value by which the book is to be judged) and is an attempt to redefine what is merely representational in an intertextual or paratextual context by focusing on individual authorship and the power of the human imagination to transcend the political economics and critical hegemony that drive the current literary establishment.
The crux of the divide seems to be the question of which should be given greater value in determining literary merit: the authenticity of the author in relation to the text; or the imaginative power of the text in relation to the reader?
The Mad Patagonian embraces the latter, and in so doing seeks to undermine, even abolish, the hegemonic structural effects that are and continue to be perpetuated so long as we embrace the ‘representativeness’ of literature as the penultimate value. No wonder writing memoirs has become all the rage.
Experiencing The Mad Patagonian versus Understanding It
One must be careful not to abandon the actual experience of the novel (any novel really, but this one in particular) in an attempt to find meaning. Meaning is a red herring because it is constantly shifting. Experience on the other hand moves you on a deeper more emotional, even spiritual level in ways that you cannot articulate; but experience changes you, changes the way your perceive. That is what we want from the best of our fiction; but we lose sight of that fact often because we also want to understand, and so we bend our efforts in that direction and minimize the profound nature of the experience.
That is the philosophical well-spring of the novel.
In terms of story, The Mad Patagonian is the literal expression of the very first quote that precedes the novel. “You have wakened not out of sleep, but into a prior dream, and that dream lies within another, and so on, to infinity, which is the number of the grains of sand. The path that you are to take is endless, and you will die before you have truly awakened.”
There are no epiphanies at the end of the novel; if you search for one, you will find that whatever meaning you assign simply slides off the page.
I am sure that that is by design. (The introduction, by the way, provides a lens of a sort into Zabala’s life, or at least the life of the somewhat fictionalized Zabala as presented here, which in turn gives us a way, I think. to appreciate the experience of his novel.)
In the introduction, the translator writes:
“The journeys that Zabala’s characters are taking in search of a real paradise are also for Zabala symbolic representations of the journeys we all are in the process of taking. What his characters must learn, we also must learn. The choices they are faced with mirror our own. So one can read The Mad Patagonian as a critique of human evil, but also, more importantly, as a testament to the enduring strength and beauty of the human spirit as humanity itself is consumed by the eternal struggle to reach the shores of paradise. Moreover, Zabala is quite clear in his assertion that not only are we responsible for whether or not we eventually reach these shores (Dante’s notion of responsibility), but that ultimately paradise would not exist except that we as creative agents are mysteriously and unconsciously involved in its creation. Unfortunately, Zabala’s explanation of how we are mysteriously and unconsciously involved in creating paradise is not so clear. God may be the ultimate source of the creative power of the universe, a belief that Zabala can never quite bring himself to reject, and we may be the unconscious translators of that power into something real, something visible, so we can think of ourselves as co-creators, but Zabala only alludes to the mechanics of this process in cryptic terms. Indeed, one gets the impression from reading both Zabala’s diary and his novel that for him God both exists and does not exist, so the question of whether or not paradise actually exists is part of an ongoing debate that can only be determined on a case-by-case basis. Zabala gets tangled up in the labyrinth of his own metaphysical thinking.”
Again, I think this is by design. Again, the translator explains why:
“In short, Zabala seems to be saying that what we understand as reality is not reality, what we think of as our identity is perhaps something else. Everything is up for grabs. Of course many writers have tackled such themes. Understanding the nature of reality and identity have become the cornerstone themes of the post-modern era. What distinguishes Zabala from most other post-modern writers, however, is that he seems to embrace the joy of not knowing (as opposed to wallowing in the swamp of confusion and despair) because he is seeking spiritual enlightenment rather than intellectual certainty, which he viewed as something of a red herring. Zabala makes the search for identity and the search to understand reality the same search, but in the end he abandons both because, as he writes in his diary in an entry dated 14 April 2001: ‘to search to the exclusion of all else for something that changes before our very eyes is a waste of breath and prevents us from experiencing the incalculable joy and ephemeral beauty of life.’”
So how do the lives of the various characters end up? SPOILER ALERT They all learn various lessons, but the common thread between Isidora, Tika, Andres, Father Kreutner, Tommie, and Travis, is that they all come to terms with the lives they had led; they find a sense of peace that allows them (and us, as the reader) to go through the next door of the labyrinth. It is a far different notion of paradise that the characters in the beginning of the novel were searching for.
The novel comes about as close to any novel at getting at this paradoxical truth. At the same time, for those searching for “meaning” there are plenty of dead-end pathways that will get them tangled up in a labyrinth of competing ideas, opposed philosophies.
The last thing I will say about the book is this. The Mad Patagonian uses the language of post-modern writers (everything from surrealism to existentialism), because those who no longer believe in God also use this language to express their ideas; but I think the use of this post-modern language is in fact a ruse; it is a disguise; for by using this language, Zabala bring this audience of atheists and agnostics and intellectuals closer to having to confront the possibility that God exists. All of the characters, Travis most pointedly at the end, are going through what is called the long dark night of the soul. They all come through this dark night in the end. But the dark night of the soul is that experience where the world seems the bleakest, where even the most spiritual and religious doubt that God exists (Mother Theresa felt this way for the last 50 years of her life; Christ also felt this way on the cross); The point is that you can’t get to really belief unless you pass through this dark night. So every reader who experiences the novel will experience the long dark night of the soul. For those who already believe in God, this will test their faith, and some will doubt their belief after the finish the book. But for those who do not believe in God (the vast majority of the readers); they will finish the book and begin to wonder if maybe they should believe in God. That is perhaps the purpose of the book, which you may consider the meaning of the book if you like.
The Search for Paradise in The Mad Patagonian
It seems to me that all of the characters (or many of the characters) are searching for a paradise they internally define as some past moment which represents that point in time when they had all of their choices before them, that moment which was perfect both in its conception and its hope. A few come easily to mind. For Travis and Tommie it is that moment at the party, the tentative kiss. For Xavier it is the moment when is attending the festival with his father. For Soledad it is that moment when she first claims independence. For Isidora it is the moment she is married. For her mother it is that moment in her youth when she as searching the skis of Cuba for the doves of the poet Lola Rodríguez de Tío. For Tiká it is that moment when the white bird in her dream vanished when she could have asked her father the meaning of the bird’s disappearance and did not. For Father Anton it is, I think, the moment when he baptized Eléna Montaño. For Andres it was that moment when he had the third note still in his hand. For Verona it was that moment before she realized she did not love her husband in the way she should. For Arturo it was that moment before he married Verona. For don Alfonso it was that moment before Arturo married Verona. For Nerea it was that moment when they invented The Lady by the Sea. For Luis it was that same moment. For Oscar it was that moment when Nerea first called him by the name of Julio Mella. For Julio Mella it was that moment when he was with Tina Modotti. For Federico it was that moment before Ignazio left.
Subtextual references in Mad Pat
Naturally in a novel f this length, there are many subtextual and intertextual references, so I will focus on one that links the novel from beginning to end. Most readers will miss this, as it is a reference to the German writer Georg Buchner, but it is quite significant in terms of what it implies about Zabala’s take on the nature of suffering and good and evil, which is one of the main themes of the novel.
on the first page of The Mad Patagonian, the old man says “life is a lingering fever,” a line lifted from a play by German writer Georg Buchner. So I began reading Buchner. In particular I read a short piece of prose titled Lenz, about a German writer who descended into madness (late 1700’s early 1800’s).
From that piece I learned that Buchner had a historical interest in the Pietists, whose theology was framed by a belief in mysticism. Buchner himself is sort of a half mystic. From that same piece I learned that Buchner deplored the reductivism of his age, which had infected every aspect of culture form literature to science (Buchner was also a noted scientist), and which turned individuals into mere robots, puppets (Buchner’s words). This is why Buchner was against Descartes.
In this same piece, Buchner makes reference to Stilling, known as Jung-Stilling, a Pietist theologian who among other things was a mesmerist.
Connections to Mad Pat:
1. George Buchner’s quote: “Life is a lingering fever” appears on the first page.
2. In the middle of Book Five during the account of Federico’s life in Sicily, Federico recounts an evening spent in a café filled with people celebrating a wedding. This evening is crucial for Federico for it represents the evening when he murders his best friend for betrayal. (This betrayal was preceded by his best friend and a girl leaving Sicily in the company of a group of puppeteers.) The murder also seals Federico’s fate as far as his own descent into madness. During this evening, people are talking about Jung-Stilling, the mesmerist (Federico has never heard of this man but everyone else knows him). Later on, two men in black jackets sit at his table: they are Quietists (the Quietists and the Pietists were quite similar and shared both many of the same tenets and some of the same prelates operated in both spheres – both are shaped by a strong belief in mysticism and the power of dreams).
3. Throughout the Mad Patagonian, we encounter puppets, robots, automatons of all varieties; these are closely associated with men in black jackets (who also appear throughout the book); the two Quietists who appeared at Federico’s table are such men.
4. In Book Six, Isidora contemplates Descartes view of the intelligence of parrots, an intelligence derived from the devil. The events in Book Six lead Isidora to revise her estimate of this view.
5. In Book Seven, Father Anton Kreutner delivers a sermon in which he identifies the beginning of true evil entering the world as that moment when a group of Pietist theologians abandoned Christ.
These are just the few examples of Buchner’s influence that leap out at me; upon closer study I suspect there would be a great deal to say. I have no idea what Zabala is trying to suggest by these connections (both broad and subtle). But it is clear that he knew Buchner and the ideas that gave shape to Buchner’s own views very well.
The Staff at River Boat Books