It’s probably fair to say that Javier Pedro Zabala is the greatest Latin American writer you’ve never heard of, and his magnum opus The Mad Patagonian is the greatest novel in Spanish of the 21st century that you’ve never read.
Zabala was born in the US in 1950, but lived most of his life in Cuba. Apart from two life-marking meetings with Roberto Bolano in 1975 and 1989 in Mexico City and Caracas respectively, Zabala seems to have passed under the radar as a writer. Largely unpublished during his life, he seems to have spent his time doing odd jobs and writing in his diary, and working on his huge novel. Written between 1983 and 2002, Zabala died two months after its completion. His daughter, ignoring her father’s last wish to have all his writings destroyed, passed on the manuscript to a publisher in Caracas, which soon after went out of business, leaving the novel unpublished. After many vicissitudes, the novel will finally be brought out in English in 2018 by Riverboat Books.
The facts of Zabala’s life and the creation and publication of his only novel read like the typical fantasy of those marginal types who spend years secretly slaving away on a book that they keep in the bottom drawer and which is only published after their death, finally vindicating all their years of unregarded effort and neglect with worldwide fame and recognition of genius, the familiar story arc of a Pessoa, a Kafka, an Emily Dickinson. What’s unusual in this case, though, is that the work in question had to be published in a translation in order for it to reach the light of day. It remains unpublished in Spanish and is presented to us in a miraculous translation by Tomas Garcia Guerrero.
The novel consists of nine interlocking novellas which together tell the story of two interrelated families over several generations, how they left the Old World and came to the New, chiefly to Cuba, and then to Miami. Each family has a clairvoyant sister, and this device allows the narrative to be aware of what is happening to both families. This device is obviously a nod to the multi-generational magical realism of One Hundred Years of Solitude, but the novel is more than a magical realistic romp through the history of Cuba, although magical realism does get a look in as being part of that history.
The nine novellas are related to each other in various ways: they grow out of each other, with a peripheral character in one becoming a central character in another; or the same event is viewed from different perspectives; or there might only be a tenuous relation that becomes clear when you have read another novella. This method allows for tales within tales, digressions within digressions and a great deal of sophisticated structural irony in which insignificant events appear later as much more significant, and vice versa. There is a great deal of anachronistic jumping around. Reality is always under threat of being replaced by just another version of reality, dreams, or yet another narrative, puppet show, slide show, family history, anecdote or memory, a letter, a postcard or a pornographic movie. Each novella is told in a different style, with nods (at least in this English translation) to Hemingway, Carver and other practitioners of the I’m-not-writing school of writing, Joyce, Borges, Bolano, film noir, an actual movie script, Andre Breton and the Surrealists, and a whole host of references to poets and philosophers, both in English and in Spanish.
The novel is fiercely erudite and thick with ideas discussed by the characters, or by the narrative voice, about history versus the fictionalization of history (Zabala seems to have lived his life through his diary, writing events as they should have happened, rather than as they did), the search for happiness, the eternal fight against Fascism, the Church, international crime, conspiracy theories, Communism, UFOs, Latin American politics and Latin American literature, The Struggle. Ultimately, these ideas crystalise into an epic enquiry into the nature of reality, and about the uses and inadequacies of language itself in creating, transcribing and fixing that reality. Zabala is acutely aware of the limitations of language, as aware as no other writer of his generation, except perhaps David Foster Wallace. He knows that language describes what is not as much as it describes what is: gun delineates a specific object as much as it rules out the possibility that the object is not something else, like nun or gum. Zabala knows that when a writer writes something as apparently innocuous as a description of the night, he is also drawing a line through other possibilities: Outside the moon has set. can also just as well refuse to be: Outside the moon is glowing in the night sky. or even Outside it is twilight and the birds have stopped calling to each other. Zabala gives us all three descriptions, as if asking us to choose, or to understand them as a radically telescoped sequence, or to consider their possibilities as palimpsest. Either way, he is drawing attention to the very process of writing.
The prose itself acts as a vehicle for that enquiry, ranging from rapturously inspired word painting to the most coldly clinical, specs laden passages. At times, Zabala’s experiments threaten to topple over, but he always manages to pull it off by the sheer audacity of the undertaking. In one of the last novellas, it appears as if Zabala has simply taken advantage of his computer’s highlight-copy-and-paste functions to reproduce whole paragraphs and reassemble them in different orders. The repetitions, and juxtapositions of large chunks of text not only summons up a musical analogy, but on further reflection also seems to be making something quite concrete out of language, like bits of coloured glass arranged into a mosaic, or collage. The language has become so foregrounded through repetition that it becomes quite physical, which is something that one usually forgets in reading, as the eye flows across the page devouring meaning.
At almost 1250 pages, the book is a daunting read. However Zabala’s imagination is a fount of fecundity; a multitudinous world envelopes the reader, crowded with vivid characters and events, a great deal of salt, genuine feeling, irony and humour, and a kind of unstoppable energy. Mahler said of the symphony that it should embrace the world, and the really great novels of the 20th/21st centuries: Gravity’s Rainbow, Infinite Jest, Underworld, 2666, seem to have also embraced this view. Zabala’s novel should rightfully take its place alongside them.