Recounting: Antagony Book I – Luis Goytisolo (translated by Brendan Riley)


The Catalan “Ulysses”?

In recent months I have come across a plethora of references to James Joyce’s novel, with comparisons to numerous world literature works, must be the circles I mix in on social media! As frequent visitors here would know, I have recently reviewed part of Oğuz Atay’s “Tutunamayanlar” (“The Disconnecte d”), referred to as the Turkish “Ulysses” and today I look at Luis Goytisolo’s “Antagony”, more precisely “Recounting: Book 1”.

Here’s a few snippets of other reviewer’s thoughts, one taken from the publisher’s foreign rights page, the other from a site I visit often to explore world literature.

In whatever way, like Joyce’s Ulysses or Proust’s In search of lost time, like many others—or few others—you shouldn’t die without having read it (Antonio Martínez Asensio, blog Tiempo de silencio,

In Spain, it is considered as one of the great works of 20th century literature, compared both to A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and À la recherche du temps perdu (In Search of Lost Time; Remembrance of Things Past). The comparison are certainly valid. Like the Joyce it is a Bildungsroman while, like the Proust, it is a long exploration of the artistic development of a young man. From the site “The Modern Novel” (although a great review it should come with a spoiler warning)

And then we have Mario Vargas Llosa (thanks to The Untranslated for this snippet ):

Besides being an ambitious and complex book, difficult to read due to the protoplasmic configuration of the narrative matter, it is also an experiment intended to renew the content and the form of the traditional novel, following the example of those paradigms which revolutionalised the genre of the novel or at least tried to do so — above all Proust and Joyce, but, also James, Broch and Pavese –, without renouncing a certain moral and civic commitment to historical reality which, although very diluted, is always present, sometimes on the front stage, sometimes as the novel’s backdrop.

Structurally this book does have a Proustian bent, following the life of Raúl Ferrer Gamide, a middle class Catalan, from childhood through army service, law studies, romantic interludes but more importantly his desire to be a writer. All against the political backdrop of Barcelona. I won’t be putting any spoilers in my thoughts here, rest assured if you decide to tackle this massive book I’ll allow you to discover the narrative yourself.

However, it is not the plot that is the main attraction here, it is the novel’s structure, grand sweeping exploration of Catalan society after the Spanish Civil War and the political luminosity that drags you along, through 648 pages.

A difficult book to read, we have ten page paragraphs, generally consisting of a single sentence, dialogue that forms part of the main text, so it is a challenge to understand who is speaking, a cast of hundreds, all with nicknames, some with code names and then broad philosophical debates, including political manifestos.

For example there are three page explanations as to why a door was locked at 3pm precisely, another three pages observing the eating of a ham sandwich, but it is the microscopic examination of Barcelona and the middle class that brings the richness to this novel.

A wonderful example of the craft is the beginning of Chapter IV, where the paragraph opens with “Coming down to Las Ramblas…”, an area of Barcelona, and ends with “their fitful procession heading up Las Ramblas.” In between there are descriptions of all the alleys, the crowds, the flowers, “confusing alleys and side streets with their little dives which stank of hashish, alleys where, as it grew dark, the shining lights isolated the ground floor businesses, the red doorways, the worn, narrow pavement, the filthy paving stones, high-heeled shoes, bulging hips, necklines, long manes of hair, painted eyes, a succession of bars, of turf marked off and intensified by cigarette smoke.”

Each of the players circle in and out of focus, and as we move through Raúl’s maturation from childhood to schooling, to army service, to his involvement with the socialist/communist party, his distribution of clandestine pamphlets, his legal work and dreams of being a writer, we learn more and more about Catalan society.

Classic references to things such as the “caganer”, the defecating figurine in Catalan nativity scenes, blend with discussions on Catalan poetry, literature, its demise and subsequent rise, and further discussions on Spanish speaking Catalonians, this is a detailed expose of cultural life.

In one section we have many pages describing the Sagrada Familia, Raúl simply walking in there to hide from the police, when suddenly the text lapses into descriptive explanations of the iconic Church:

And to the right, the Portico of Faith, enraptured altarpiece centred on the presentation of Jesus in the temple, with an outline of images now solemn and impassive, now violent, like the one of John the Baptist preaching in the desert, foretelling the coming of the Messiah, all that upon an embroidered background of wretchedness and suffering, of an interwoven framework of thorns and flowers, buds, corollas, thalamus, sepals, petals. Stigmata, honeybees drawn to pollen, and superimposed on the bramble-crag crenellations, the lantern, a three-peaked oil lamp, eternal triangle, base of Immaculate Conception, dogmatic effigy rising in ecstasy, like an ejaculatory prayer from within a large cascade of sprigs and grape clusters, all those details one can spot carefully from any one of the points of the belfry towers, as you climb the airy spiral staircases, from the doorways, from the enclosed balconies sinuously integrated on the projections of architraves and cornices of the frontispiece, balconies with bulbous wrought iron railings, small contoured galleries, catwalks, small steps, intestinal cavities, twisted corridors of irregular relief, passages conjoined in a coming and going from the belfries to the façade, four intercommunicating bell towers, harmonically erect. Which, if near their bases appear rather strangely compounded with the parameters of the porticoes, as the separate, each acquiring its own shape, they becomes curving parabolic cones, the two outer pairs equal in height, the two center towers taller.

The more you read of this complex work, the more you realise it is an homage to Barcelona.

Richly packed with snippets of historical data, with references to cultural icons and other books, there are also brilliantly referenced cultural scraps, for example when one character’s father suspiciously dies and the subsequent legal action over his business interests hots up, there is a reference to Goya’s “Trágala, perro”, “depicting some raving monks with a giant syringe about to forcibly administer an enema to a trembling man in the presence of his veiled wife.”




Suddenly an obscure etching has made itself into my sphere, and now my consciousness.

We also have a number of references to Marcel Proust, one of my favourite sections talking about a literary endeavour:

…we have a good example of that in Manolo Maragas, with his remembrances and reflections, with the magnified profiles of his memory, when he talks about Alicia and Sunche, when he talks about Magdalena’s grandmother as if she were the Duchess of Guermantes and as if Grandpa Augusto were the duke, and Doña America were Madame Verduin, and that crazy Tito Coll a sort of Charlus, while he, Manolo Moragas, the narrative I, an apathetic Marcel, too sceptical to take the trouble to write anything, the only reason for him not already having withdrawn into his cork-lined cell, becomes a chronicler of Barcelonan society, the literary transcription of whose avatars, for any reader not directly implicated in that world, would awaken the same interest, probably, as the prose of one of those stylists in the Sunday edition of a provincial newspaper who’ve achieved a certain notoriety by the agreeable character of the collaborations, stylists who philosophize like a sheep chewing its cud before the ruins of the Parthenon, not in service of the validity of the ideas developed, but rather, to please his readers’ palates, of the originality of the focus and the graceful exposition, as well as this stylist’s prose, the interest of the specific problems of that world, of the characters capable of inhabiting it, grazing and watering among the ruins of the culture, with the grace and subtlety and elegance of a bull’s head that, like Narcissus, gazes at itself in a puddle.

In a few lines, the depth of characters take on a new meaning, readers of Proust suddenly having another layer to the already complex players. But we are not restricted to Proust, the is a whole section questioning scholars and them not giving enough time to Dante’s Canto 34 in Inferno. Through drunken debates, scholarly discussions, a whole playing field of the author’s views can be spread on this massive canvas.

I must admit, there were many political sections where I tired of the proletariat debate, the roles of the bourgeois, the eternal struggle of the worker, however these political rants were more than adequately balanced with crystal clear observations of daily life, of the existentialist struggle. A Menippean satire? Possibly. A Catalan “Ulysses”, less likely, for a start it isn’t a single day…

A massively complex but thoroughly engaging work, unfortunately we have to wait until August 2018 for Book II to be released in English, and by that time it may mean a re-reading of “Recounting” is required, a novel that would reveal so much more upon every re-read, and so little time!!!

I am hoping to get to a few other world literature “Ulysses” over the coming months, I may tire of that journey but a few books I do have set aside are:

“Leg Over Leg” by Ahmad Faris al-Shidyaq (all four volumes)

“Three Trapped Tigers” by Guillermo Cabrera Infante

“Adam Buenosayres: A Critical Edition” by Leopoldo Marechal

“All About H. Hatterr” by G.V. Desani

“Berlin Alexanderplatz” by Alfred Döblin

And of course I need to post my thoughts on the remaining section of Oğuz Atay’s “The Disconnecte d”

I am sure there are many many more books that fall into the “Ulysses” category, hopefully I get to discover their riches over the coming years.


amulet – Roberto Bolaño (translated by Chris Andrews)


Every time I read and review a book that has been around for a number of years, I am confronted with a dilemma, is my view adding anything worthwhile to the plethora of other reviews that happen to be in the public domain? Will my views sway anybody into a purchase or an avoidance? Am I just posting here to say “I read this book too”?

I personally own all of Bolaño’s novels, short story collections and poetry collections, so why I decided to pick up “amulet” is now a blur. I have some vague recollection of glancing at Wikipedia and thinking it was an early work so I’d start with it. Having a look at Wikipedia now I notice it makes no mention of “Monsieur Pain” on the main Bolaño page, so a bit of work needs to be done on that page.

“amulet” is not an early work, it was published soon after “The Savage Detectives” and contains a number of links to that work (more on them later).

A first person narration by Auxilia Lacouture, she could say she is “the mother of Mexican poetry”;

By day I busied myself at the university; by night I led a bohemian life, and slept, and gradually scattered my few belongings, leaving them in the houses and apartments of friends: my clothes, my books, my magazines, my photos. I, Remedios Varo, I, Leonora Carrington, I, Eunice Odio, I, Lilian Serpas (ah, poor Lilian Serpas, I still have to tell you about her). And my friends, of course, would eventually get tired of me and ask me to leave. I would try and make light of it and leave. I would hang my head and leave. I would give them a kiss on the cheek and say thanks and leave.

Auxilio Lacouture is locked in the bathroom of the university in 1968 whilst it is raided by the military and the police, an historical moment in Mexican history, known as “Mexico 68” and leading up to the Olympic Games in Mexico City, brought on by ideological and political clashes. The narration takes place from the bathroom as Auxillo talks of the past, the future and a little of the present.

I don’t know why I remember that afternoon. That afternoon of 1971 or 1972. And the strangest thing is that I remember it prospectively, from 1968. From my watchtower, my bloody subway carriage, from my gigantic rainy day. From the women’s bathroom on the fourth floor of the Faculty of Philosophy and Literature, the timeship from which I can observe the entire life and times of Auxilio Lacouture, such as they are.

Besides Bolaño’s style, which of course I adore, why else would I own every book he wrote (those translated into English that is), this novel has a number of interesting connections to other works. Besides the common recurring Bolaño alter ego Arturo Belano, about half way through the book we come across Ernesto San Epifanio, who had earlier appeared in “The Savage Detectives” . Of course Auxilio also appeared in “The Savage Detectives” in Part II Chapter four, a full 10 page single paragraph that is almost replicated word for word as the opening to “amulet”. The short novella a little more polished in my opinion. Back to Ernesto;

Then we walked down the Avenida Guerrero; they weren’t stepping so lightly any more, and I wasn’t feeling too enthusiastic either. Guerro, at that time of the night, is more like a cemetery than an avenue, not a cemetery in 1974 or in 1968, or in 1975, but a cemetery in the year 2666, a forgotten cemetery under the eyelid of a corpse or an unborn child, bathed in the dispassionate fluids of an eye that tried so hard to forget one particular thing that it ended up forgetting everything else.

After a long drunken night, Ernesto and Arturo “why still hadn’t turned twenty-one” travel “down that turbulent river that was and is the Avenida Guerro”, crossing the metaphorical River Styx into hell, “into the kingdom of the King of the Rent Boys”, where Arturo is going to negotiate the release of Ernesto’s “body and soul”.

Another interesting reference is, of course, (apparently Bolaño’s only reference) to 2666.

As Auxilio, locked in the bathroom, moves from time and place to time and place it is as though a dreamlike fog has descended upon her tale. Surrealist painters emerge, obscure poets, mothers of painters, promiscuous characters move in and out of the spotlight. The references to real characters are vast, unfortunately not a lot of their work is available in English.

To complete the surrealist picture, Auxilio is taken on an operating table to attend the birth of History. A reference to the permanent social change that occurred as a result of the student sacrifice and protest.

Another interesting work from one of my favourite writers, the references coming thick and fast, giving me reading lists to keep me going well beyond the grave, the mythological links, and the links to other works of his own, all part of the melting pot that is Roberto Bolaño.

A Brief History of Portable Literature – Enrique Vila-Matas (translated by Anne McLean and Thomas Bunstead)

As regular readers of this blog, and especially my followers on Twitter, would know, I have an obsession with Enrique Vila-Matas, so when his latest book was released I was all ready to attack a newly translated work of his. This work was released in 1985 in Spanish so it has taken a long time to be translated into English. Unfortunately the book turned up at the start of August, which is Women In Translation Month, so my obsession had to wait another month, then in September other more pressing books made it to the top of the “to be read” pile, so it was with great joy that I picked this slim work up on the weekend and settled down to another dose of the enigmatic Vila-Matas.

This work was written fifteen years before Bartleby & Co, however it was translated into English and released eleven years after that work. And the similarities are numerous, whilst “Bartleby & Co.” explored the “literature of the No”, this work looks at “portable literature”.
What is “portable literature”? As a reader you travel into the world of “portable literature” via the Shandies, from Laurence Sterne’s “The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy”, via “non-existent literature, seeing as none of the Shandies knew what it consisted of (though paradoxically this was what made it possible). It was a literature to whose rhythm the members of the secret society danced, conspiring for the sake of – and on the basis of – nothing.”
Yes this is a book that explored the history of a non-existent literature. Another of Enrique Vila-Matas’ red herrings. Our book shows an utter disdain for what is considered important, even portable literature’s history isn’t.
As per a number of Vila-Matas’ other works, this one contains mysteries, are we reading his book? Or are we reading an imaginary book written by somebody else?
“I’ve managed to find out that Tristan Tzara has begun writing a brief history of portable literature: a kind of literature that, by his reckoning, is characterized by having no system to impose, only an art of living. In a sense, it’s more life than literature. For Tzara, his book contains the only literary construction possible; it is a transcription made by someone unconvinced by the authenticity of History and the metaphorical historicity of the Novel. Employing greater originality than most novels, the book will offer sketches of the Shandy customs and life. Tzara’s aim is to cultivate the imaginary portrait (a form of literary fantasia concealing a reflection in its capriciousness), to endeavour in the imaginary portrait’s ornamentation.”
This is supposedly taken from a postcard written by Aleister Crowley, the famed occultists, novelist, ceremonial magician, poet, painter and mountaineer. However it reads as though it is a precursor to the work we are actually reading, which is a set of “sketches of the Shandies customs and life”.
This is a very slim book, weighing in at only eighty-six pages (including the “essential bibliography”), but “to miniaturize is to make portable, and for a vagrant and an exile, that is the best way of owning things.”
Larbaud was also a traveler of words: “I fixate on winding clocks to make sure they tell the right time, putting things where they belong, polishing those things that have gotten tarnished, bringing to light things relegated to the shadows, mending and cleaning old toys from forgotten civilizations in people’s lofts…” It was in one such lift that Larbaud decided on the phrase that came to be used to swear in new members to the secret society, a definition from Tristram Shandy: “Gravity: a mysterious carriage of the body to cover the defects of the mind.”
As per a number of other books by Vila-Matas, there are innumerable references to other writers, other books, even F. Scott Fitgerald makes an appearance, with a story containing drugs that leads to the creation of an insignificant quote from “The Great Gatsby”.  Salvador Dali, Jorge Luis Borges, Laurence Sterne, Paul Klee and a plethora of others appear.  Yet another work that can lead you down many a rabbit burrow.
We have the recurrence of the number twenty-seven and other McGuffins (see my review of “The Illogic Of Kassel” to understand what that means).
This book reads like an early work, the ideas and concepts are all there, the whole just seems to be missing, whereas “Bartleby & Co.” explored “literature of the No” through footnotes on an imagined text, the narrative style of this book is a little broken at times and seems out of place. The tricks that Vila-Matas performs are all here, Shandies, misleading plot lines, footnotes, but at times it felt a little rambling, with no core.

However as a work that is exploring the insignificant, it is possibly perfect in doing so, given it is actually an insignificant work. Similar to Milan Kundera’s latest work “The Festival of Insignificance” this book also explores the minute, the not required, the insignificant. Personally I feel this one explores such in a better manner, but then of course I would, an unabashed Enrique Vila-Matas fan. So much so that I may have a few lazy $$$ as a bet on him to pick up this year’s Nobel Prize in Literature at the 60/1 – award is going to be announced this Thursday!!!
Source – personal copy.

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Bartleby & Co – Enrique Vila-Matas (translated by Johnathan Dunne)

As regular visitors to this blog would know, I’ve recently developed a bit of an Enrique Vila-Matas fetish, although I’d read and enjoyed the 2013 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize shortlisted “Dublinesque” (translated by Rosalind Harvey and Anne McLean),  my “obsession” came about with the recent reading of “The Illogic Of Kassel” (translated by Anne McLean and Anna Milsom). This experience of being physically involved with a book led to a flurry of reading of shorter pieces (his introduction to Sergio Pitol’s “The Art Of Flight” – I’ll review this book art some later stage – his introduction to the Dalkey Archive collection “Best European Fiction 2015, his contribution to their 2011 edition, and the selection of his work included in “A Thousand Forests in One Acorn” anthology of Spanish literature published by Open Letter Books). There was method in this madness, I was awaiting the missing English translations of his longer works from my collection and I was awaiting their arrival by post. First cab off the rank was the 2005 novel “Bartleby & Co.”
It is 1999 and our first person narrator is writing a book of footnotes commenting on an invisible text. Yes the world of Enrique Vila-Matas can be a strange world to enter.
Literature, as much as we delight in denying it, allows us to recall from oblivion all that which the contemporary eye, more immoral every day, endeavours to pass over with absolute indifference.
Bartleby’s are “beings inhabited by a profound denial of the world”, named after a clerk in the story “Bartleby the Scrivener: A Story Of Wall-street”” by Herman Melville.
So the modern spectacle of all these people paralysed before the absolute dimensions required by all creation has a long history. But, paradoxically, those who shun the pen constitute literature as well. As Marcel Bénabou writes in Why I Have Not Written Any Of My Books, “Above all, dear reader, do not believe that the books I have not written are pure nothingness. On the contrary (let it be clear once and for all), they are held in suspension in universal literature.”
Our story is an exploration for and the noting of writers who have given up their craft, they are Bartleby’s, they constitute the “literature of the No”. With a plethora of writers referenced, quotes for innumerable books, the search from Walser to Tolstoy via Beckett and Salinger (throw in another few hundred names and you’d not even touch the tip of the iceberg), you know that our author is a very well read man.  A work that by searching for the deconstruction of literature is actually contributing to it, as per a number of Vila-Matas works, the conundrum is always there.
What I most admire about him is that he was a first-rate trickster.
It may be a quote from this book, but it captures what I also admire about Vila-Matas, the tricks, the way that he makes you, the reader, complicit in his ramblings, the literal involvement that you have whilst reading makes his books not just a novel, not just fiction, but more a work of art. The questioning of what labyrinth you are now trapped in is palpable. With this novel I had some misguided belief that taking notes of the various writers mentioned would allow me to see into the crystal ball, after 15 pages I gave up, I was distracting myself having to stop every paragraph and take notes, I’ve committed to a re-read with a notebook, plenty of ink and silence erequired.
To comment on this work using a linear narrative description is just about impossible, I could speak of our scribbler and his search for nothing, his journeys, his seclusion but it wouldn’t amount to a lot and would give you zero understanding of the book. Our hunchback writer, Marcelo, has suffered writer’s block for the last twenty-five years, since having his story on the impossibility of love being published. Marcelo takes extended leave from his employment at a publishing house to commence his book of footnotes on the “labyrinth of the No”.
We then have eighty-six footnotes of writers who have stopped writing, some for more obvious reasons (suicide is mentioned but dismissed as an avenue to stop writing) through to some very strange ones indeed. A work which could be seen as part essay, part research, part fiction it is a delight to be involved in the revelation that is Vila-Matas:
These footnotes cannot have an essence, neither can literature, because the essence of any text consists precisely in evading any essential classification, any assertion that establishes or claims it.

Where do I go after that?

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