Agustín Fernández Mallo - one of the most daring literary experiments of recent years, exploring the mysterious connections between the lives of marginal figures in a globalised society. Everything starts in the Nevada desert, where a solitary tree is covered in pairs of shoes. By a butterfly effect, a chain of events affects a host of bad B-movie characters littered across the globe
Agustín Fernández Mallo, Nocilla Experience, Trans. by Thomas Bunstead, Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2016.
Somewhere in Spain, Marc, an avid reader of the Philips Agricultural Guide, pegs mathematical formulas to clotheslines on the roof of an 8-storey building. In London, the artist Jodorkovski spends hours painting tiny vignettes on chewing gum stuck to the pavements. In Miami, Harold spends his days devouring every box of Corn Flakes with his ex-wife's birthday as its sell-by-date. Meanwhile, in Corcubion, Spain, Anton is working on an audacious theory about the shared properties of barnacles and hard disks. These are some of the narrative strands that make up this arborescently structured novel, the second instalment in the Nocilla Trilogy, hailed as one of the most daring experiments in Spanish literature of recent years. Featuring walk-on parts for Julio Cortazar during the writing of HOPSCOTCH and Martin Sheen in APOCALYPSE NOW, and full of references to indie cinema, collage, conceptual art, practical architecture, the history of computers and the decadence of the novel, NOCILLA EXPERIENCE picks up where NOCILLA DREAM left off, presenting us with a hidden and exhilarating cartography of contemporary experience.
The ongoing translation into English of Agustín Fernández Mallo’s Nocilla Project is giving new life to this trilogy of novels, which sent shock waves through the Spanish literary scene of the second half of the last decade. With the 2006 release of Nocilla Dream, Fernández Mallo, a physicist who at that point had only published a few small-circulation collections of poetry, injected an anesthetized literary panorama with a new and savage energy. The novel sold several thousand copies in just a few months, and in the process the book—and its companion volumes, Nocilla Experience (2008) and Nocilla Lab (2009)—unexpectedly came to occupy the center of aesthetic debates, inspiring an entire generation of authors.
If the trilogy broadened Spain’s literary horizons, it did so by extending the inquiries that its author had already been pursuing in the realm of poetry. Or, to use his phrase, post-poetry.
“Post-poetic poetry shows itself to be a ‘method without a method,’ not as a doctrine”: Fernández Mallo’s words, taken from an earlier volume, accurately define the logic of the Nocilla Project. Each novel follows its own structural and conceptual rules, but together they share a set of common reference points. If we think of each book as a pentagon, at each of its vertices we would find one of these references: experimental literature (exemplified by Borges and Cortázar); contemporary art (especially Robert Smithson); science and technology (particularly physics and information science); audiovisual culture (cinema and television); and the codes of the social sciences (urbanism, anthropology, consumer society). Several of these five domains intersect brilliantly in novels by Italo Calvino, Michel Houellebecq, and César Aira—to name just three authors who share characteristics with Fernández Mallo. However, it is uncommon to find all five of them together. Perhaps in Ballard? Maybe, but Fernández Mallo is a poet, and that fact pulses conspicuously throughout his narratives. In his books, elements of all five areas meld into a lyric rhythm that holds no respect for traditional categories but does, however, trust blindly in the essence of metaphor: stunning, unexpected connections.
Nocilla Dream alternates between quotations borrowed from all manner of sources and other short forms: micro-essays, micro-plots, flashes of narrative, and fragmentary stories articulated together as a rhizomatic structure. In the center of this fictional universe stands a real tree located in the middle of a desert in Nevada. Sneakers dangle from its branches, thrown there by travelers as desperate tributes, offerings of their nomadic crossings. Radiating outward from this hybrid of nature and sportswear, and spanning both incredible micro-nations and real countries, is a map of the world that several characters in Fernández Mallo’s novel construct through their singular narratives. In this, he shares with certain contemporary Spanish-language writers—Roberto Bolaño, for example, or Martín Caparrós—an obsession with narrating a globalized world.
Nocilla Experience also leaves something behind: the tradition of writers from Spain limiting themselves to their own territory. The novel integrates places like London, Saigon, and Russia into a cartography where its fictional beings move through the air, in planes, and, in cars, over infinite highways with the same liberty of Don Quixote and Sancho walking the dusty roads of the old country. If post-poetry can be found in elements like the árbol pop of Nocilla Dream, it appears in equally suggestive and unexpected passages in Nocilla Experience—in, for example, the book’s epilogue. Just when you have gotten used to reading quotations or reflections on music or information science or Rossellini’s Journey to Italy, right there among stories of the most extravagant men and women, all of it very contemporary, suddenly there begin to appear little capsules of Japanese wisdom: “The way of the samurai is found in death” is one. The effect is jarring. And that is because this method has no method. It is wildly random. It is exactly the contrary of the discipline of the warrior.
Though one of the characters in Nocilla Dream creates a personal monument to Borges in a Las Vegas hotel, and another in Nocilla Experience comes up with an alternative to Cortázar’s Hopscotch, it is rather Walter Benjamin who perhaps most inspires the general framework of these two novels. Seven decades after his death, Benjamin’s use of textual collage and montage in his unfinished Arcades Project and his brilliant One-Way Street (1928) still makes us think about channel surfing in new ways. Fernández Mallo’s novels, however, understand this act as a by-now classic reading strategy, something assumed by any reader. Indeed, by as early as the 1980s, channel surfing had become the norm. Fernández Mallo occupies something of a similar position in the Spanish literary sphere as David Foster Wallace in terms of their shared insistence on the naturalization of the screen as an interface for the reception of reality. But when, in 1993, Wallace reflected on the subject, he forgot to mention that when the writers of his and subsequent generations “spied” on reality via TV, they did so in a discontinuous manner. The term “channel surfing,” in fact, doesn’t appear in his essay. That’s why Fernández Mallo’s work more justly resembles Ballard’s The Atrocity Exhibition (1970), which employed an adapted version of William Burroughs’s cut-up technique. Fernández Mallo began work on his project during the twenty-five days he lay in a hotel in Thailand, motionless in a bed because of an accident. He could only surf channels whose programs were in a language he couldn’t understand and write on whatever paper he could find, from full sheets to the backs of receipts. Indeed, though it seems untrue, this project—which in the history of Spanish literature is one of the most fascinated by technology—was, in the beginning, written by hand.
Also key is Fernández Mallo’s choice of the term “project” to describe his trilogy. Nocilla Project is the label that spans the three books. The art critic and philosopher Boris Groys has considered the importance of this concept in today’s art and society—its open nature, its provisional disposition, its anti-monumental vocation. Fernández Mallo’s “method without a method” is opposed to closed poetics, recognizable style, literary literature. His entire oeuvre is one long investigation guided by intuition and continual searching. Art, for him, cannot be limited to known territories: it must be, instead, a constant inquiry into adjacent territories, infra-realities, voyages, archaeologies. With the tools of a scientist and the nose of a poet, he dissects the materials he finds anywhere and everywhere (libraries and garbage dumps, real cities and virtual realities, audiovisual archives and personal memories) to construct, from these fragments, thoughts, and classifications, collages that could only be the fruit of illogic, dreams, accidents. Fernández Mallo’s world might resonate with those of other writers of the past few decades, but his gaze—the poetic connections it discovers between, for example, mysticism and sparkling water—is without peer. - Jorge Carrión
Agustín Fernández Mallo, Nocilla Dream, Trans. by Thomas Bunstead, Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2015.
In the middle of the Nevada desert stands a solitary poplar tree, covered in hundreds of pairs of shoes. Further along U.S. Route 50, a lonely prostitute falls in love with a collector of found photographs. In Las Vegas, an Argentine man builds a peculiar monument to Jorge Luis Borges. On the run from the authorities, Kenny takes up permanent residence in the legal non-place of Singapore International Airport. These are some of the narrative strands that make up this arborescently structured novel, hailed as one of the most daring experiments in Spanish literature of recent years. Full of references to indie cinema, collage, conceptual art, practical architecture, the history of computers and the decadence of the novel, Nocilla Dream finds great beauty in emptiness and reveals something essential about contemporary experience.
Nocilla Dream is one of the most daring literary experiments of recent years, exploring the mysterious connections between the lives of marginal figures in a globalised society. Everything starts in the Nevada desert, where a solitary tree is covered in pairs of shoes. By a butterfly effect, a chain of events affects a host of bad B-movie characters littered across the globe. Brothel blondes in the Midwest dream of absconding eastwards; anti-crats live in newly formed micro-nations underground; an Argentine man living in a motel in Las Vegas builds a peculiar monument to Jorge Luis Borges - Full of references to indie cinema, collage, conceptual art, practical architecture, the history of computers and the decadence of the novel, the first instalment of the Nocilla Trilogy finds beauty in emptiness and kick-starts a regeneration in Spanish literature.
'It is well known to observers of Spanish fiction that for about the last five years most debates on our emerging authors have taken into account the so-called "Nocilla Generation," a journalistic label coined after the publication of Agustin Fernandez Mallo's Nocilla Dream (2007) and used to group some writers whose works experimented interestingly with elements from Anglo-Saxon (McCaffery's Avant-pop, David Foster Wallace, George Saunders ... ) and pop culture that were not very common or appreciated in Spain at that time.' - Antonio J. Rodriguez, The Quarterly Conversation 'Just as Marcel Duchamp would take a bicycle wheel to create an artwork that challenged the very notion of the museum and of the spectator, Fernandez Mallo takes everything he sees and reads and compresses it into his writing to make it go in unexpected directions. Like others before him, he is attempting to challenge the idea of narrative and of the reading experience, drawing on references,from Coppola to Einstein, Borges to Cortazar, Heraclites or even a mere newspaper article.' - Philippe Lancon 'A publishing phenomenon that gave rise to a new generation of writers ... has landed in Brazil and makes its author a possible successor to [Roberto] Bolano.' - O Estado de S. Paulo
‘An encyclopedia, a survey, a deranged anthropology. Nocilla Dream is just the cold-hearted poetics that might see America for what it really is. There is something deeply strange and finally unknowable to this book, in the very best way – a testament to the brilliance of Agustín Fernández Mallo.’— Ben Marcus
‘With this bitter-sweet, violently poetic dream, Agustín Fernández Mallo establishes himself as the most original and powerful author of his generation in Spain.’— Mathias Enard
‘Imagine an intellectual roadtrip flick with cameos by the likes of Thomas Bernhard, Jorge Luis Borges, and Chuang Tzu, projected in a desert nightscape against a multi-fabric’d patchwork – then think again. A melodious ode to the intentionally lost and the carelessly defeated, this one’ll keep you dreaming on your feet long after it’s consumed you.’— Travis Jeppesen
‘Composed of 113 fragments, some narrative, some lyrical, some descriptive and some purely meditative, Nocilla Dream also brings together a wide array of writings on science and technology. Characters emerge, disappear and reemerge later in the book, allowing us glimpses of the outlines of several different lives and stories, an experience somewhat akin to channel-hopping on TV.’ — Lluís Satorras
From 2003 to 2006, a small group of Spanish writers organized several meetings with the objective of shedding some light on the new directions contemporary and emergent Spanish literature was taking. During these meetings (hosted by Eloy Fernández Porta, Juan Francisco Ferré, Manuel Vilas, Javier Moreno, and myself), it became evident that something was changing in the stylistically conservative Spanish literary scene—a change that was gradually becoming apparent to a minority of readers and critics. This group of writers has come to be known as the ‘Nocilla Generation,’ after Agustín Fernández Mallo’s novel Nocilla Dream. Published in Spanish by the small, independent press Candaya in 2006 and now translated into English by Thomas Bunstead for Fitzcarraldo Editions, Nocilla Dream is often said to be the book that brought this new generation of Spanish writers to mainstream attention.
Leaving aside the arguable pertinence of using the term ‘generation’ in the context of contemporary literature, it is nevertheless important to point out that what Nocilla Dream uncovered was not just the presence of a very active and diverse new breed of fictioneers and essayists from Spain, but also the emergence of a new generation of readers. The unpredicted success of the book made clear that many readers, culturally raised in the online mediascape and accustomed to receiving stories in a networked and globalized way, had long been ready for a formal and thematic rethinking of the novel. Spanish readers, and later critics, welcomed Nocilla Dream as one of the literary works most representative of this new post-digital condition.
But Bunstead’s translation of Nocilla Dream is great news not just for those particularly interested in contemporary Spanish literature. It is also simply a wonderful work of avant-gardist fiction—in the line of David Markson, Ben Marcus, Steve Tomasula, or, more recently, Evan Lavender-Smith—and the initial part of an ambitious literary endeavor: the Nocilla Trilogy, which comprises Nocilla Dream, Nocilla Experience, and Nocilla Lab. The trilogy is an attempt to develop a precise set of aesthetic principles and poetic strategies (such as fragmentation, the incorporation of concepts from scientific and critical theory, as well as pop culture) by an author who already has a solid, unique poetic output—recently collected as Ya nadie se llamará como yo. Poesía reunida 1998–2012 (2015). Fernández Mallo has theorized his aesthetic principles in an award-winning essay, Postpoesía (2009), and has experimented with numerous modes of artistic representation: film, music, graphic novel, and spoken word are all part of his extended ‘Nocilla project,’ a portion of which can be accessed online.
Nocilla Dream is a collection of 113 short texts that has been described as a long series of prose poems, a literary road movie, or a mosaic composed of many fragments that build up a coherent, contemporary narrative image. Diverse stories—a remake of Pat Garret and Billy the Kid, a dead man found in a truck from Mexico, a community of retired executives in China, the fictional history of micronations, Feynman in Los Alamos—and a varied assortment of characters—ex-boxers, Polish musicians, teenagers, Argentinian readers of Borges, Danish ‘internet-users,’ Las Vegas prostitutes, American surrealist painters in Madrid—appear intermingled in a web of evanescent virtual relations converging on U.S. Route 50 and a ‘tree of shoes’ in the Nevada desert.
The American poet Charles Bernstein writes about three types of fragmentation, or three aspects of any fragment—disjunction, ellipsis, and constellation. Fernández Mallo works on all three aspects, by means of what he calls ‘transversal readings.’ By this he means readings (and, indeed, subsequent writings, because Fernández Mallo follows Borges in his desire to blur the boundaries between reading and writing) that ingest and metabolize everything that surrounds him, from film to music, science, art, advertising, waste, news, mathematics, and, of course, literature. Nocilla Dream presents the contemporary world, not as having a hierarchical or linear structure, but as being a horizontal web that refracts large numbers of everyday objects, in which the relations between objects are more definitive and enlightening than the objects themselves. Yet this is not Democritean atomism, but more akin to self-organizing multiplicities such as Deleuze and Guattari’s rhizomatic structures or Nicholas Bourriaud’s disseminated radicant. The narrative elements in Nocilla Dream include corporeal, rhetorical, and theoretical entities that, like ‘objects’ for Bruno Latour and object-oriented ontologists, are diverse, specific and concrete in themselves, not reducible to pre-determined system operations:
Deserts, like the sick, are objects: though living, they are on the edge of everything, are undergoing a process of consumption, and are fundamentally gaunt.
In a book with so many characters, invented and imported from other fictions and from reality, the true protagonist is order—thus art. Cosmic order found and produced as the positive force that prevents the entropic collapse of the universe. A more local and humble literary ordering that presents instant, not consistent, relationships. Not just order emerging from chaos, but also as a consequence of the most eccentric human needs and desires (such as the novel's ‘The Museum of Found Objects,’ or ‘Kingdom of Airport Terminals’ ...). Arbitrary and capricious order—and its unavoidable consequence, decay—as in Borges’s catalog of animals ‘Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge’:
(a) belonging to the emperor, (b) embalmed, (c) tame, (d) sucking pigs, (e) sirens, (f) fabulous ones, (g) stray dogs, (h) included in the present classification, (i) frenzied, (j) innumerable, (k) drawn with a very fine camelhair brush, (l) et cetera, (m) having just broken the water pitcher, (n) that from a long way off look like flies.
But also order in organisms and organizations:
The words organization and organism aren’t actually very closely related. An organism is an entity, sea mineral, animal, vegetable or socio-cultural, which lives and develops independently, according to complex dictates that are internal to them, and almost always spontaneous; in all cases an organism can be considered a living being. An organization is a bureaucratic entity, sea mineral, animal, vegetable or socio-cultural, and it depends on external agents to dictate its development; never is an organisation a living being.
Regarding how the materials used to construct order are sourced, Agustín Fernández Mallo often remarks that we used to write from knowledge, but now we write from information. Without entering into a long epistemological discussion, the difference between ‘knowledge’ and ‘information’ does not refer to the nature of the content but to how content is accessed. ‘Knowledge’ denotes hierarchically organized, strongly socialized content, which is supposed to affect individual self-consciousness. ‘Information’ denotes non-hierarchically organized data that can be ‘mined’ from reality for a specific purpose, not necessarily reflecting or affecting the personality of the individuals who are using the information. However, this information is not ‘raw data.’ It is being continuously processed by the public into evanescent narratives, the most pervasive of which become mass-media mythologies that are then adopted as ‘identities’ by individuals and societies.
Besides, decay is not nostalgia, so objects and relationships are often intentionally lost, leaving subtle but meaningful traces of their former presence in the network that might be ‘poetically hacked.’ This is a world less concerned with ‘historical memory’ than with ‘media archaeology’ (evidenced by Fernández Mallo’s insertion of quotations about media and communication technologies), as well as in patterns of complexity drawn from a topological viewpoint:
Thus, once this microstate’s physical territory has been drawn on a map of the world, the result will be a vector covering all borders, a vector both wide and potentially infinitely long. A fractal. Thus its dimensionality shall not be that of a single line, 1, or that of a plane, 2, but that of a fraction, 3/2. In an apt correspondence, everything that occurs in this microstate is within another body of reality.
As Ian Bogost writes, ‘all things equally exist, but they do not exist equally.’ Fernández Mallo’s view of the contemporary world as an ‘actor-network’ may be likened to a series of boxed spaces (the Spanish edition includes a box chart of the ‘Nocilla Universe’ not reproduced in the English edition) in which a visitor from outer space would find everything ‘sampled’ according to a whimsical fictitious taxonomy in the style of Borges. Fernández Mallo writes:
Description: all materials, all objects, everything we see, are clots—catastrophes that took place on the neutral, two-dimensional, isotropic plane coterminous with The Beginning. These are the so-called 1st Order Catastrophes. When a foreign agent alters the equilibrium of one of these objects, it then breaks off in unpredictable directions, dragging along other objects—whether near or far—in a kind of domino effect. This we call 2nd Order Catastrophe. The desert, given its flatness and isotropic nature, is the least catastrophic place. Except when the silence is broken by a scarab beetle dragging a stone along, or when in some fold in the land a blade of grass emerges, or when a poplar finds water and grows.
Of Bernstein’s three types or aspects of fragmentation, ‘constellation’ probably characterises the most interesting features of Nocilla Dream. The world is presented here as an ‘ecology of the Anthropocene’ in which waste and randomly ordered natural and human-made objects spontaneously rearrange themselves to produce new levels of meaning. Fernández Mallo sees the world as a tinkerer taking advantage of any available stuff, and in our time waste is by far the most available material. As Brian Thill writes:
If one of humankind’s desires has been to put a stamp on the world, waste is the most compelling and universal way in which it has accomplished its mission. Every landscape is a trashscape. This not only transforms the world into one vast and unevenly distributed trash heap, it changes, in ways that might not been perceptible to us, our sense of self and humanity in the world. (Waste)
However, in Nocilla Dream, order emerges spontaneously from surreal trashscapes. Poetry, working as an unexpected catastrophe in a debris field, performs:
At the moment when the wind gusts in from the south, the wind that arrives from Arizona, soaring up and across the several sparsely populated deserts and the dozen-and-a-half settlements that over the years have been subject to an unstoppable exodus to the point that they’ve become little more than skele-towns, at this moment, this very moment, the hundreds of pairs of shoes hanging from the poplar are subjected to a pendular motion, but not all with the same frequency – the laces from which each pair hangs are of different lengths. From a certain distance it constitutes a chaotic dance indeed, one that, in spite of all, implies certain rules. Some of the shoes bang into each other and suddenly change speed or trajectory, finally ending up back at their attractor points, in balance.
The tree of shoes is more than a metaphor for a fragmented and non-linear narrative structure—it acts as a physical attractor towards which the novel tends to evolve. Like the shoes hanging from the tree, all the stories eventually end up at their attractor points, in balance.
The first thing that comes to mind when considering the work of translating Nocilla Dream is the untranslatability of the title itself. ‘Nocilla’ is a Spanish trademark for a local version of Nutella, but the title also refers to an eighties tune by the Spanish punk band Siniestro Total. Although both ‘Nocilla’ and the Spanish music from the eighties might evoke some teenage nostalgia in Spaniards born during the sixties and seventies, the title should be understood not as nostalgic but as conceptualist—the way visual artworks are often titled, with no evident relationship to the body of the work. As for ‘dream,’ originally in English, this might be understood as a reference to the power of daydreaming in creating poetic spaces around everyday objects, as famously theorized by French philosopher Gaston Bachelard in The Poetics of Reverie.
Fernández Mallo often insists on the importance of representing complexity without complication—on writing which does not obfuscate, but rather reveals the poetic relationships among the elements in the world. One of his main poetic strategies is to translate universal codes (from science, mathematics, and visual art) into poetry or fiction, as though the world’s complexity might be ‘dream-catched’ into working hypotheses, theories, theorems, and formulas. The major challenge, therefore, for the translator of Nocilla Dream, must have been successfully to recreate the poetic experimentality of its language while maintaining the simplicity of the original text, a task Bunstead has succeeded in admirably.
This is an exciting moment for Spanish literature in English translation. Soon after Nocilla Dream, Javier Moreno’s Alma will be published by the New York–based Quantum Prose. However most of the best Spanish fictions and essays of the twenty-first century—such as those by Eloy Fernández Porta, Juan Francisco Ferré, Jorge Carrión, Vicente Luis Mora, and Robert Juan-Cantavella, to name but a few—remain unavailable in English. Let’s hope other publishers will soon follow the example of Fitzcarraldo Editions.
Agustín Fernández Mallo, was born in La Coruna in 1967. He is a qualified physicist and since 2000 has been collaborating with various cultural publications in order to highlight the connection between art and science. His Nocilla Trilogy brought about an important shift in contemporary Spanish writing and paved the way for the birth of a new generation of authors, known as the 'Nocilla Generation'. - German Sierra
Modernism’s last stand, according to the great art critic Robert Hughes, was a retreat to the American desert. This is the terrain Agustín Fernández Mallo explores in his debut novel, Nocilla Dream, set against the barren backdrop of the “loneliest highway in North America”. Bookended by two forlorn brothels, US Route 50 is the non-place – the nada in Nevada – where “precisely nothing” can be found, if you look hard enough.
The horizon, here, is an event; a vanishing point, reminiscent of one of the characters’ de Chirico-style paintings, rather than the magnet that fuels narrative drive. No longer manifest, destiny can only be glimpsed obliquely, as illustrated by the haunting, Fitzgeraldian image of “the last casino glimmering on the horizon in the rearview mirror”. This retrospective vision soon infects the reading process itself.
First published in Spain in 2006, Nocilla Dream is the opening gambit in a trilogy that spawned a generation of like-minded writers. It is composed of 113 brief chapters – one of them is less than two lines long – which appear like shards of a shattered globe, or fragments of an unfinishable whole. Jorge Rodolfo Fernández is obsessed with Borges’s tale of an empire where cartography becomes so sophisticated that a map as large as the territory it represents is produced. He comes to believe that he inhabits the ruins of this mythical map, which seems to hark back to a time when a work of art could coincide with life itself. In another vignette, a Mexican stowaway who suffocates in a truck trying to cross the border, leaves a “broken map” of himself on the black beans serving as his deathbed.
Linear narrative is ill-equipped to respond to globalisation, hence Mallo’s picaresque twist on the road trip trope. Objects and characters migrate from one chapter to another, prompting the reader to constantly flick backwards to check if the biscuit tin produced in a Danish factory had already appeared in a supermarket in Carson City.
Nocilla Dream is a world seen in a grain of Nevada sand. Its arborescent structure stems from a solitary poplar tree, decorated with hundreds of pairs of shoes, growing alongside US Route 50. By juxtaposing fiction with non-fiction – more than 20 chapters are lifted verbatim from extraneous works – the author has created a hybrid genre that mirrors our networked lives, allowing us to inhabit its interstitial spaces. A physician as well as an artist, Mallo can spot a mermaid’s tail in a neutron monitor; estrange theorems into pure poetry. - Andrew Gallix
Nocilla Dream has 113 chapters, and the first is one of quite a few that is, in its entirety, taken from someone else's writing. Fernández Mallo precedes that with two epigraphs, but the first chapter -- despite, like the epigraphs, being essentially entirely another's piece of writing -- is presented as a more integral part of the novel. It is a rather daring way to begin one's novel, the author's role from the get-go identified less as that of creative writer than as curator (of material and words).
Nocilla Dream's isn't a truly fragmentary work, but much of it -- both what Fernández Mallo writes, and what he takes from others (which includes not just wholesale (and attributed) chunks, but also shorter bits and pieces slipped into what passes for his own writing) -- is fragmented, what story there is not unfolding in particularly neat and simple style.
The second chapter opens the story proper, as it were, in desolate Nevada, specifically on U.S. Route 50, "the loneliest highway in North America", and the stretch between Ely and Carson City. This "260-mile stretch with a brothel at either end", is a locale the story returns to repeatedly -- and a lone poplar tree, about midway down the road, with an enormous number of shoes dangling from it, is a central motif. (In the Credits, Fernández Mallo acknowledges that he has adapted numerous articles from The New York Times in the novel, and specifically that the novel "began out of a reading" of an article about such a tree there.)
Nocilla Dream presents a variety of characters and stories, short chapters focused on one or another, moving on and then sometimes returning to them in later episodes. They include a Borges-obsessed man in Las Vegas, an Austrian journalist stationed in Peking (whose wife has an online relationship with Nevada-based Billy), and a man who has lived in the extraterritorial limbo-world of Singapore International Airport for four years. Among Fernández Mallo's many themes is that of place, and nationhood, as he repeatedly focuses on the phenomenon of 'micronations', entities outside the familiar international order, niche places of various sorts that have established themselves, in one way or another.
Full of found texts and found stories, the novel also uses -- though only textually -- the concept of found photographs, or the cutting out of photographs and saving them out of context. In putting together his novel Fernández Mallo, also takes something of an album-approach: there's a cohesiveness to much of it, including the integrating of the found pieces, but he doesn't go too much out of his way to fashion a traditional narrative out of it all, satisfied with the piecemeal feel, a very loose net of global interconnections.
There is also an underlying questioning of the creative process in modern times, and specifically of the novel-form, in this novel (which of course questions the novel-form by its very form and approach ...). A chapter describing how hotels deal with the extensive pilfering that goes on manages to end on the note: "The death of the novel", while both the epigraphs suggest doubts about writing and (the value of) reading; so also at one point he opens a chapter claiming: "Everyone knows that to write is to have died". Even the obsessive Borges-fan finds his belief in the master called into question -- a modern-day loss-of-god equivalent (that, however, he is able to channel into something creative -- even if not with complete success).
Slightly problematic is that in such a carefully constructed text one expects everything to be presented as it is on purpose, with thought and reason behind it -- yet there are some instances that, ultimately, can only be read as errors, somewhat undermining the rest of the text. So, for example, at one point characters are in 'Peking', at another in 'Beijing' -- a differentiation that one would expect to have some meaning, but doesn't (seem to) here.
There's also the claim:
Heraclitus said it, Einstein said it, the A-Team in Episode 237 said it, and many others besides
The American TV series The A-Team did run for five seasons, but that only added up to 98 episodes; if this is meant as hyperbole of sorts, it's a poor fit with the tone of the rest of the novel.
Meanwhile, a casual translation-slip -- the title of the Michael Landon TV series from the 1980s is translated literally back from the Spanish ('Autopista hacia el Cielo') as 'Freeway to the Sky', instead of the correct Highway to Heaven (in a chapter that gets Little House on the Prairie and Susan Sontag's Against Interpretation right) -- can also lead one to question other details in the text (and translation).
Nocilla Dream is a novel of disconnects as much as it is of connection. Fernández Mallo is not out to tie his stories together with the neatness of a David Mitchell; instead, there are lots of frayed threads that aren't even meant to necessarily lead beyond their examples -- along with some more consequentially seen-through narrative threads. Much of the writing here is very good -- but readers may sometimes wish the connections, including from the longer quote-pieces, were easier to see. (It should be noted that this is the first in a trilogy, and that Fernández Mallo may well have built a more cohesive structure across the three books; the other two volumes are, however, not yet available in English translation.)
An appealing if occasionally frustrating read. - M.A.Orthofer
AGUSTÍN FERNÁNDEZ MALLO: The film we saw recounts a tragedy that befell a group of five youngsters, and in particular Sally Hardesty and his brother Franklin, an invalid. It’s all the more tragic for the involvement of youth. They could have lived a great many years longer and never have imagined witnessing such demented sadism as that they were faced with on that day. What had promised to be an idyllic summer afternoon turned into a nightmare. The events of that afternoon led to the discovery of one of the strangest and most bizarre crimes in the history of the USA: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
The representation of the United States by European intellectuals is a genre. Perhaps novels, Kafka’s The Missing Man, Nabokov’s Lolita, etcetera, are most exemplary of this, but it depends on your position about the productivity of fiction as a functional analog of its quarry. Perhaps treatises, de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, Baudrillard’s America, etcetera, are most exemplary, but it depends on your position about the usefulness of reading descriptions of what you already know.
On Google Earth: explore the birthplace of Michael Landon in Forest Hills, Queens, explore Machu Pichu, explore the National September 11 Memorial and Museum, explore the moon, explore Middle Earth, explore the Tour de France, explore Oklahoma, explore the ocean floor.
Because there always is one, what is the particular ethical dilemma in translating a book ostensibly about the United States and written by a Spaniard, from its original Spanish into English? Is the issue with Nocilla Dream in translation that it singularly represents Spanish views on the United States? Or is it that an English-speaking publisher has selected Nocilla Dream from one of many Spanish perceptions about the United States? The latter question is perhaps not structurally relevant, but only for the perceptions of Nocilla Dream‘s readers in the United States, given that the publisher is in London. Does that then make Nocilla Dream the singular representation of the United States in contemporary Spanish literature as selected by the UK?
One must define the terms to know within from without. In the youth of generations prior to X, the term Earth gathered together a diverse panoply of civilizations and independent systems. The term universe was previously an all-encompassing end of scale, the totality of the known unknown, a vantage inherently within. However, contemporary particle physics and cosmology require either complete jettison of the term universe, or a more liberal shading of its aspects. The limits no longer hold. Dimensions are concurrent to our own four that we are not able to access due to their scale and their exclusivity to the quantities of energy humans have thus far evolved to harness. The potential involution of these dimensions within our own belie the long held and persisting perception that another universe would be like our own, just with different—or precisely the same—inhabitants. Ultimately these scenarios are as conceptually indescribable as the Z-axis to Flatlanders. It is not the white night sky and black stars of the Bizarro universe (as depicted on Super Friends). Similarly, the island of true vacuum that we’ve known, and know as our universe, is bound by a time that we can never reach, composing, from our vantage within, an infinitely boundless space, while the false vacuum beyond, ever inflating, ever giving rise to other pauses like our own, provides a vantage of enclosure, and never anything but an exclusive envelope.
FRANZ KAFKA: Rays of light streamed around the box, from all sides and also from above, the section of the box in the foreground was bathed in a white yet soft light, whereas deeper recesses, behind red velvet draped in folds of varying shades all along the perimeter of the box and held in check by cords, seemed like a dark red-shimmering void. So grandiose did everything look that one could scarcely imagine people in this box.
AGUSTÍN FERNÁNDEZ MALLO: First it was steel, then glass, then came other metals and alloys, and today it’s the more specialized types of glass. But each of these modern materials behaves totally differently and changes dimensions in response to thermal and mechanical actions in far more important ways than traditional materials. In a building comprising such heterogeneous elements these movements can be both varied and of great significance. Which means the relationship between (and union of) the various pieces is harder and harder to make work. Thirty years ago the answer to all these problems was silicon, synthetic sealants in general. All the joining elements would be sealed, even the jointing between structural elements. The immense confidence in sealants as a panacea led to their overuse in many areas: exterior sealants which, subject to ultraviolet rays, aged more quickly. After all these years of immense confidence in a product, people wished to make up for the deficiencies of the project as originally conceived, as silicone had had some high profile failures, and became a symbol of poor workmanship in construction. (Ignacio Paricio, High Construction) Or, ‘On the Novel’.
Ethical dilemmas are inescapable in translation. At one scale the potential elision inherent in translation is no greater than what occurs in the filter of professional publication in terms of what works will be representative of a culture. However, the armature of translation is one of far more extreme focus and therefore ventures into more precarious ethical positions because its elision is necessarily systematic and the linguistic mechanisms that manifest the works are necessarily subjective. It is easy to assume that just because every novel written in the United States is not published professionally, that still, what is published professionally as a whole is indeed representative of the United States at any given time. What could be seen as the normal premiation of commerce in publishing takes on insidious ethical baggage when applied as a selective representational tool used to define other cultures. Translation even in its most sensitive and deferrent, must be read with awareness of the impossibility of cross-cultural fidelity, with consciousness of its othering.
A civilization of intelligent organisms has evolved with sensory organs receptive to electromagnetic waves within the radio frequencies rather than the frequencies characterized as visible to humans. This civilization understands its world via this sense. It constructs its structures to facilitate this understanding. The structural forms address defraction and reflection of the wide range of wavelengths specifically beneficial to their daily life (those being between 300GHz and 3kHz rather than 430 and 770 THz (and of course the notion of daily, the manner in which the sun’s rays partition time would be a misnomer in a civilization whose perceptions operate on different orchestrations of the cosmos)). Through its scientific inquiries the civilization is aware of the spectrum of wavelengths we call visible. It has even developed devices that translate the spectrum into radio stimuli that it can appreciate. But the direct, native content of these waves, the manner in which these waves distinctly define the environment around them, is an unfathomable mystery. Their structures do not require windows and glass has not been invented for the purposes with which we are familiar.
Sired by one of the great actually American novels, Moby Dick, French writer Michel Butor published Mobile: Study for a Representation of the United States in 1962. This study constructs a mathematical field condition of fiction, observation, and quotation to cement the exemplar of the genre. It is a work of fact and fiction, a diffusion of myth with harsh reality, a sense of hope in distance. Based on his subsequent works, Niagara (whose title in French, 6 810 000 litres d’eau par seconde (étude stéréophonique), is vastly superior), and Letters from the Antipodes, it is clear that Butor’s enthusiasm for these heterogenous undeclared texts, “books” as Joe Milazzo describes them, was not United States specific. But its birth from his time in the United States is not accidental, and the tone of Mobile differs from the others in a special way. Mobile is a lonely book. It is a book that gets lost in its space and functions because of its textual partitioning. “pitch dark in / CORDOVA, ALABAMA, the deep south,” “The Europeans sliced up the Great Plains,” “Thirsty? Drink Coca-Cola!” “Seneca Hotel, 600 rooms. / The trains coming from Des Moines. / Sheraton Hotel, 500 rooms, / The trains leaving for Saint Louis.”
LAWRENCE VENUTI: A case in point is the translation of modern Japanese fiction into English. As Edward Fowler indicated, American publishers like Grove Press, Alfred Knopf, and New Directions, noted for their concern with literary as well as commercial ventures, issued many translations of Japanese novels and story collections during the 1950s and 1960s. Yet their choices were very selective, focusing on relatively few writers, mainly Tanizaki Jun’ichiro, Kawabata Yasunari, and Mishima Yukio. By the late 1980s a reviewer who is also a poet and translator could say that “for the average Western reader, [Kawabata’s novel] Snow Country is perhaps what we think of as typically ‘Japanese’: elusive, misty, inconclusive.” The same cultural image was assumed by another, more self-conscious reviewer, who, when confronted with an English version of a comic Japanese novel, wondered skeptically: “Could it be that the novel of delicacy, taciturnity, elusiveness, and languishing melancholy—traits we have come to think of as characteristically Japanese—is less characteristic than we thought?” American publishers, Fowler argued, established a canon of Japanese fiction in English that was not only unrepresentative, but based on a well-defined stereotype that has determined reader expectations for roughly forty years.
It is immediately apparent that the appropriated prologue from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre in Thomas Bunstead’s English translation of Mallo’s Nocilla Dream is not accurately transcribed from the movie. Who could forget the dulcet luxury of John Laroquette’s voice intoning the word “macabre”? Yet here we find the alternate—though equally memorable—phrase, “demented sadism.” Although the perspectival quality of all translation was born long ago in the rubble of Babel, the question remains: for a text that originally existed orally in English, that was translated and printed in Spanish, and then was translated back into English for publication in this book, why is the ultimate English text not faithful to the original prologue in the film? According to a conversation I had with Spanish writer Germán Sierra, Mallo appropriated from existing Spanish translations of the cited texts. Although with dialogue from a film, translation would either be in the form of subtitles or overdubbing, both of which would have been composed by the film’s distributor. Sierra further noted that with American films in Spanish, the language is more often “adapted” rather than “actually translated”. Although Tobe Hooper is not cited in the index following the text, he is credited in the body of the text. Certainly Bunstead would have checked the original English text and discussed the erroneous translation with Mallo. The ultimate resolution would have to be that Mallo asked him to preserve the discrepancy when translating the prologue back to English.
Bruce Willis and Michelle Pfeiffer sit in a sedan parked on a low trailer pulled behind a truck stopped at a traffic signal on Lincoln Boulevard in Los Angeles. In this moment they are between shots in the filming of The Story of Us, directed by Rob Reiner. Willis looks out the driver’s side window attempting to ignore a young man in a red Honda Civic coupe. Pfeiffer adjusts her make-up in the mirror on the verso side of the sun visor. In this moment they both long for sweet death. The film receives a rating of 28% on review aggregating website Rotten Tomatoes, indicating a generally negative reception.
Loneliness pervades the European representations of the United States. This loneliness, this emptiness is the heir of a projection onto the United States that began with Kafka and flowed through Nabokov. Strange though, that these qualities, what we understand as Kafkaesque or Nabokovian, were not specific to these writers’ works about the United States, but for me as a U.S. reader became most resonant in them.
The Missing Man was the first of Kafka’s unfinished novels, begun in 1912. The book was brought to publication by Max Brod in 1927 as Amerika. It is easy to imagine the mystery at the time surrounding the United States for a young man in Prague and how his projections of endless disorientation onto that mythology might have, in some cyclical way, come to characterize the United States to it’s own readers through translation. The specific collision of spatial extent and isolation comes in the final fragment of text, “Das Naturtheater von Oklahama,” that describes our loser of a hero, Karl, disembarking a train at the recruiting center for the great theater. Here he is told about his ultimate destination (of course we never reach it with him) that promises to hire any and all. He hears of its fabulous extent: “’Is the entire outfit really that big?’ Karl asked. ‘It’s the largest theater in the world,’ Fanny repeated. ‘Though I’ve never seen it myself, some of my coworkers who’ve already been to Oklahama say it’s almost limitless.’” Although akin to, and prefiguring, some works of Genet and Celine, even Beckett, irregardless of setting, here the doddering and drifting of the book’s occupants is not a condition of their spirit, but a condition brought about by the listlessness of the place. As much as Kafka’s losers possess a spirit of disillusionment, it is primarily because of the obstructionism of their context. “’But we’ve been waiting for an hour and have only heard those trumpets. There’s no poster, no announcer, no one who can give us any information.’” The sense is that they are adrift across a disorienting terrain, not across their lives, across space rather than through time. Although they frequently make idiotic decisions (who doesn’t?), there is the sense that but for what arises to halt them, they would continue in blissful flow until sweet death.
Juxtapose this with Nabokov, a precious loneliness of prose. Lolita is viewed most widely as Nabokov’s great representation of the United States, with its idyllic suburbs and long laconic highways, its motor lodges. Although it is exemplary, as much as any other of Nabokov’s mature works, of how fiction can reduce the human population to only those who appear at that moment on that page, it is Ada, or Ardor that has lastingly defined the greater ethos of the United States in the 21st, and with the same tonal disposition of isolation. The imagery and the delicacy of the prose remains to present its occupants with such fragility that they might break if breathed upon, thus they lie alone in space. Alone in the evening, Van indulges in a bit of “lucubratiuncula,” which Vivian Darkbloom (the greatest anagram in the history of literature) describes as “writing in the lamplight” in her notes. He inscribes, “Does the ravage and outrage of age deplored by poets tell the naturalist of Time anything about Time’s essence? Very little.” Ada, although representing time, must be read for the manifestation of time as space. From the gardens and terraces of Ardis Hall to the bizarre geopolitical structure of the vaguely familiar Demonia, Ada consistently utilizes the spaciousness of the U.S. landscape to decontextualize the odd positions from which we see one another, the impossibility of seeing one another without emotional bias, especially in our post-global present when there is no outside to look in from.
VLADIMIR NABOKOV: That night because of the bothersome blink of remote sheet lighting through the black hearts of his sleeping-arbor, Van had abandoned his two tulip trees and gone to bed in his room.
The narrative leitmotiv of Nocilla Dream is a poplar tree in the desert laden with hundreds of shoes hanging by their laces. This cannot not be a metaphor, although its positioning, its diffusion from various perspectives and presentations, strongly discourages its being read in that way. Each new person that approaches the tree who throws their shoes contributes indelibly to its composition, though not as an individual, and with the meaninglessness of their inherited impulse. It is a mark, but not their mark. The patina is of accretion, not of intention. All after the first will never be the first. All after the first, inherent in their doing so, is the fact they know not why they do so. Or, ‘On the novel’.
Translated American movie titles in Spain: The Story of Us→The Story of Us; The Shining→The Glow; American Hustle→The Great American Swindle; I♥Huckabees→Strange Coincidences; I’m Gonna Git You Sucka!→Overdose of Gold; Die Hard 2: Die Harder→The Jungle 2: Red Alert; Dead Ringers→Inseparables; The Pacifier→A Supertough Kangaroo; The Texas Chainsaw Massacre→The Texas Massacre*.
*Google translator provides the full translation including “Chainsaw” even though the word “motosierra” is missing from the Spanish title.
AGUSTÍN FERNÁNDEZ MALLO: When Michael Landon arrived at Fox’s studios, very late, he was tired; the house was cold, and a mess, and devoid of any character. A few hand-me-down pieces of furniture. The rubbish bin overflowing. Recording the fifth season of Freeway to the Sky had consumed his whole capacity for nomadism; the house now became the refuge that every traveler, sooner or later, needs. He poured himself a whiskey, no ice, picking a pornographic video from the shelves at random. As the tape began to go round he heated up a sandwich he’d brought from catering.
TOBE HOOPER: The film which you are about to see is an account of the tragedy which befell a group of five youths, in particular Sally Hardesty and her invalid brother, Franklin. It is all the more tragic in that they were young. But, had they lived very, very long lives, they could not have expected nor would they have wished to see as much of the mad and macabre as they were to see that day. For them an idyllic summer afternoon drive became a nightmare. The events of that day were to lead to the discovery of one of the most bizarre crimes in the annals of American history, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. - John Trefry
INT. A SUPERMARKET AISLE IN SEVILLE. DAY.
We face shelves stacked head to toe with uniformly red glass jars of Nocilla – a Spanish version of Nutella. The aisle is brightly lit from above. A couple, dressed very much like tourists, enter into view pushing a supermarket trolley…
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