By Adrian West
Miquel de Palol (Barcelona, 1953) is one of the signal voices of contemporary Catalan letters. An architect by trade, he began to publish poetry at nineteen, and averaged a book of verse per year before bringing out El jardí dels set crepuscles (The Garden of the Seven Twilights), the novel many consider to be his masterpiece, in 1989. The author claims he considers this first work of narrative fiction a continuation of themes pursued in his earlier poetry. Remarkably prolific, Palol has published some forty books, including works of short fiction, children’s stories, and essays, and is a frequent contributor to the Spanish and Catalan press.
Upon opening El jardí dels set crepuscles, the reader is reminded of Stanisław Lem’s Provocation and the paratextual short fictions of Borges. The preface, by “Miquel de Palol i Moholy-McCullydilly, resident librarian of the Nachmanides Institute,” entitled “To the Non-Specialist Reader,” sets the tone:
Before the Nuclear Wars of the Contemporary Era, also known as the Four Wars of Entertainment, there is ample documentation of the widespread belief that a conflict employing nuclear armaments, due to the equilibrium of forces and the nature of the defense systems in place, would lead inevitably to the complete and irreversible destruction of planetary life.
This prediction, the author states, was erroneous; security systems instead evolved to allow for what came to be known as “wars of entertainment: a game with rules that specify, in the manner of medieval jousting or casino gambling, the limits of investment, the dimensions of the field, and a maximum of permitted losses.”
From here, mention is made of The Garden of the Seven Twilights, a text composed by multiple authors concerned with the situation of war. There is debate over the dates of the respective chapters, and the foreword includes a series of footnotes to imaginary scholarly texts as well as a publication history and bibliography: the earliest source is from 2821, the most recent 2997, and the places of publication include cities both familiar and imaginary.
This conceit serves to contextualize a book that can be described, on the one hand, as a radically modernist irruption of traditional narrative, but on the other, as a return to the novel’s roots in the Boccaccian frame story (and it is worth remembering that the history of the Spanish novel begins with such followers of Boccaccio as Juan de Flores and Juan Ruiz): seven narrators flee a devastated Barcelona, taking refuge in The Palace of the Mountain, a fallout shelter located perhaps in the Pyrenees, perhaps in the Himalayas, where they meet in a garden to tell their own version of the same story over seven successive days. Their motivation is both to pass the time and to understand the origins of the war that has led them to escape there. The principle theme is the provenance of a mysterious jewel that confers great power on its possessor: its loss marked the beginning of the nuclear outbreak, and the storytellers hope that by recovering it, they can bring the pervasive violence to an end. Many critics have compared the novel to a set of Matryoshka dolls, with stories inside stories inside stories: there are lucid dreams, time-warps, a surrogate Jesus tricked into crucifixion after the son of God loses his nerve, a man condemned to live the same day over and over throughout eternity . . . It should be noted, though, that these postponements and wild-goose chases seem more a pretext for the extraordinary micro-narratives that make up the body of the novel rather than steps toward a proper dénouement.
It is not an easy book to summarize: there are some three-hundred characters embroiled in countless adventures stretching over 350,000-odd words arranged, according to a scheme outlined in the “editor’s note,” thus:
To the end of facilitating reading, cardinal numbers are used to indicate the degree of abstraction according to which the narrators are speaking. Thus 0/1 signals that the voice has moved from the main narrator to a different narrator inside the main narration, 1/2 that it has moved from a narrator inside the main narration to a narrator inside a narration inside the main narration, and so on.
Since its origins, the novel has vacillated between the poles of restraint and capaciousness, the formal discipline of Flaubert or Jane Austen and the catch-all approaches of Sterne or Pynchon. Palol is a rarity in the landscape of present-day Catalan letters for his unswerving devotion to the latter approach. His novel encompasses extended meditations on the machinations of modern finance, urban planning, the comparative advantages of democracy and dictatorship. El jardí dels set crepuscles was regaled with prizes in Catalonia upon its release, and remains Palol’s most best-selling novel. It has been translated into numerous languages, and reviewers in France and Italy have drawn parallels between Palol’s writing and the hyperfictions of Italo Calvino. The question is not whether his work should be translated, but whether there is an English-language publisher audacious enough to take the risk.
*All citations from Palol’s text have been translated by Adrian West
Published Sep 25, 2014 Copyright 2014 Adrian West