Javíer 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

Javíer Pedro Zabala, The Mad Patagonian, Trans. by Tomás García Guerrero, River Boat Books, 2018.


The Mad Patagonian is a multi-generational epic spanning three centuries and five continents in which members of the Escoraz family are looking to find true love (and some version of paradise) in a world that has been torn apart by the random even bestial violence of Fascism in all its forms. So what does Zabala’s novel have to do with Roberto Bolaño? According to Tomás García Guerrero, the translator, The Mad Patagonian provides a competing vision, a stark counterpoint to the darker vision of much of Bolaño’s work. Guerrero believes that the novel is an effort on the part of Zabala to engage his friend Bolaño in a metaliterary conversation about the true nature of the world. Guerrero also suggests that the subtextual interplay between Zabala’s vision and Bolaño’s is crucial to understanding the novel.

The nine interconnected novellas that make up The Mad Patagonian take the reader backwards through time and history, a journey which begins in that sunny paradise we call Florida and the familiar urban/suburban American landscape of both Jacksonville and Miami in the 1990s. From Florida we then travel to the historical melting pot of Logroño, Spain during the latter part of the nineteenth century (1870-1899), where the mythic stories of two pyschics, Escolástica and Isabel Escoraz Vda De Miranda, unfold. From Spain we then head to Santiago, Cuba, circa 1900-1907, a tumultuous period in Cuban history when forgotten poets lingered in the shadows before descending into oblivion, the determined followers of José Martí were still seeking liberty and equality for every Cuban citizen, and brujería magic was a force to be reckoned with.

Next we travel to a film nourish 1950s Havana, with swanky, exclusive nightclubs overflowing with the sounds of sultry danzón singers; a world in which corrupt government officials and remorseless gangsters who read Pirandello find themselves in a battle to the death with a mysterious group of German anarchists and ex-spies who believe they are working for a sinister, alien (as in outer space) race intent on subjugating the Earth; and then we find ourselves in a contemporary parallel universe America (with one Kafkaesque detour thru parts of France, Germany, and the city of Prague) where an aging Basque immigrant who fought Franco, a World War One tank commander, Latin-American revolutionaries, CIA operatives, FBI agents, ex-poets, ex-priests, atheists, an internationally acclaimed porn star, an expert on Nazi mysticism and the occult, a modern-day saint, a Hollywood movie director who was nominated for an Academy Award, and a hairdresser from Buenos Aires who once cut the hair of Jorge Borges in a hotel room in New York City, all take their turn on center stage, and the hope of finding paradise takes on profoundly spiritual dimensions.

Cuban writer Javier Pedro Zabala and Chilean writer Roberto Bolaño first crossed paths in Mexico City in the mid-seventies. Their very first meeting, recounted at some length in Zabala’s diary, occurred in April of 1975. The meeting did not take place in Librería Gandhi or any other bookstore. It did not take place in that mysterious Mexican hangout known as Café La Habana, although that venue would have been appropriate on many levels, certainly because it was the haunt of writers and artists for generations, but also because it is supposedly the spot where Fidel Castro and Che Guevara drew up their plans for overthrowing the Batista regime and taking control of Cuba. No, the first meeting between Zabala and Bolaño was not imbued with such a heavy-handed sense of history and timing. Instead, the two writers, both young men who had not yet made a dent in the literary world, met by accident in a greasy spoon of a café called El Abrevadero on Calle de Tacuba, a few blocks east of the Palace of Fine Arts. It is now a McDonald’s, but back then it was the kind of place where you could get a beer at any hour of the day or night. Bolaño was capping a thirty-six-hour stint of walking and writing by eating a large, overcooked breakfast before he went to bed. He was sitting alone, with his back to the window. ‘He was a brightly shining shadow sitting in a pool of dark sunlight,’ Zabala later wrote. Zabala was with a young woman, Blanca Barutti, a recent graduate of the Facultad de Medicina UNAM, who would later become Zabala’s wife. She was originally from Santiago, Cuba, from the wealthy Vista Alegre neighborhood, but her family had left when Castro came to power. She was extraordinarily beautiful and was often mistaken for a movie star. She also had a reputation for a razor sharp wit. Both qualities caught Bolaño’s attention.

In his diary, which Zabala kept with religious diligence, he recorded that he and Bolaño soon struck up an uneasy conversation, precipitated by the presence of Blanca.

'We spent half an hour sparring politely, an imaginary war between two young lions pacing back and forth in the same cage. Blanca was the prize. And then we forgot all about Blanca and talked about everything except the preposterous art of writing. Bolaño said Mexican politics was disheartening. Echeverría had only made things worse. Then he said Echeverría was why he had left Mexico in ’72 and spent some time with leftist guerillas in El Salvador. He said he had been a counter-revolutionary, a spy. He said he had then gone back to Chile to give his heart and soul to Allende’s noble struggle to build a socialist state, but then Pinochet seized control. Pinochet is worse than Echeverría, he said. Didn’t you know that Echeverría supported Allende? I asked him. How can you be against Echeverría and Pinochet both? But he seemed not to hear me. Of course I was only half serious. I mean who was I to comment on the labyrinthine complexities of Latin American politics? But I thought Bolaño was full of shit, to be frank. He sounded like a wannabe Trotskyist who knew nothing about the deprivations and personal sacrifice that go along with revolution. Besides, he was too skinny for even the most resolute revolutionary. He seemed more like a refugee. Then he said when he had gone back to Chile the police picked him up because of his odd-sounding accent and tossed him in jail. Everyone around him was smeared with blood. Everyone was suffering from contagious amnesia. He said he spent nine days in a rat infested swamp of a prison cell, waiting to be tortured like the other prisoners, before a guard he knew from high school recognized him, so they released him. It was at that point I knew he was a writer more than anything else, and I said so, and he laughed. He told me about a new poetry movement he had founded that would pick up the torch lit by Rimbaud. We ordered some beers. Then he said the oddest thing. He said he hoped one day to win the Casa de las Américas Award for a book of poetry. I think he said this to see if I was paying attention. Or maybe to irritate me. Or maybe he was back to flirting with Blanca and wanted to impress her. I looked at him over my glass of beer. What was the use of a literary award to a poet like Rimbaud, who abandoned poetry for a mercantile career in Africa? I asked him. He put his finger to his mouth to shush me, as if we were both collaborators on the verge of discovery, and then he started laughing and disappeared into his own beer, the morning light refracting through the dirty glass containing his amber colored ambrosia, producing a soft golden halo effect above his head.'
Zabala later told his daughter, Cecilia, that he and Bolaño got along well enough. They met now and then over the course of the summer of 1975 and talked about poetry and what it meant to be a writer and whether or not you could call yourself a writer if you didn’t write a single word. They talked about their disappointment with establishment writers like Octavio Paz and Juan Rulfo (though Zabala confesses at one point in his diary that their reasons were childish and more a reflection of their own as yet untested literary ambitions than anything else). They were both moved by the surrealistic impulses of Alfonso Reyes. They didn’t bother to discuss Carlos Fuentes, except Zabala said he had enjoyed La muerte de Artemio Cruz immensely. They agreed about Cuban writer Norberto Fuentes. They disagreed about Gabriel García Marquez. On the whole they liked Mario Vargas Llosa’s books. They could not praise enough the literary efforts of Miguel Ángel Asturias and Rómulo Gallegos and, of course, Borges. They tossed around the names of all sorts of eccentric poets. They joked about Carlos Pellicer, who looked like a butcher or a tenor in a barbershop quartet, according to Bolaño. They agreed it was easy to masturbate after reading the erotic poetry of Pierre Louÿs and next to impossible to masturbate after reading the sublime poetry of Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz. Zabala dismissed Luis Cernuda outright. He thought Cernuda would have been nothing at all if he hadn’t flung open the doors of his homosexuality for the whole outraged world to see. Bolaño disagreed. Bolaño asked if Zabala had read the Chilean poet Carlos de Rokha and Zabala said he hadn’t heard of him and Bolaño said he wasn’t surprised because even the Chileans he grew up with hadn’t heard of de Rokha. Zabala asked Bolaño if he had read the Mexican poet Sageuo Ruedas but Bolaño had not. Then Zabala asked if Bolaño had heard of the Peruvian activist and poet Eduardo de Jesús Montoyo, who ran in the same circle as the writer José Carlos Mariátegui before they had a falling out, but Bolaño said that except for Adán and Vallejo and Emilio Westphalen, and also Jorge Pimentel, the founder of Movimiento Hora Zero, who had discovered a way to evoke the natural beauty of everyday Peruvian life in his poetry, like in a ballad, and Tulio Moro and Juan Ramírez Ruis, who followed Pimentel down Quilca street, and then there was César Moro, whose real name was Alfredo Quíspez Asín but he thought he would have better success if he hid his true identity so he used the name of a character by the writer Ramón Gómez de la Serna, but aside from all that the only thing he really knew about Peru was they made pretty good Pisco Sours there, but not as good as in Chile. They both respected the lyrical beauty of Emilio Ballagas. They talked intense trash about all sorts of sycophants and university snobs, the vultures waiting in the wings. ‘Our opinions contained a great deal of adolescent posturing even though we were both in our twenties,’ Zabala later wrote, ‘but we had one hell of a time getting drunk.’-  Translator’s Introductory Remarks.

The Mad Patagonian is a very intelligent novel, enviably so, which will leave you wondering where reality ends and fiction begins. Indeed, it is precisely this question that leads the reader, at least this reader, into the book, into its layered complexity and variously fascinating and conflicted characters. The Mad Patagonian is a crazy, fun, profound, brilliant book.”- Pablo F. Medina

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. - Tom Murr

“The color of that strange light that morning was the color of burnt hair or skin (but not a surface burning, it burned much deeper than that, a burning away of everything down to the waxen core) and eyeballs dripping with mascara and Kabuki ink stains of rouge eating like a cancer into the flesh of soft, white cheeks as white as the underbelly of dead fish or ribbon eels, but it wasn’t just the color of the visible world, it was also the color of sounds and smells and passing thoughts; it was the color of the musty, mustardy smell of freshly plowed, rumpled earth; it was the color of the incurable seeping paranoia (insanity?) that accompanies chronic betrayal, that bohemia of a thirsty soul; it was the color of the sea salt smell of toilet soap and the convulsive withering noises of trampled insects with wings like cellophane beating frantically for a few seconds and then disintegrating as easily as if life were just a cruel trick invented by a deranged mechanic or a demented Syrian demigod, a brusque, godless demise; it was the color of the penetrating acrid, cleansing smell of midnight jazz, even though it was the middle of the morning; it was the color of dark, smoldering thighs wrapped in lace lingerie wound a tad too tight and the crystalline purity of love’s deceptions and the raw, overwhelming, incomprehensible sadness of inaction, a paralyzing, blinding flash: it was the color of disordered silence, yes, disordered silence is so accurate; it was the color of the geranium pots that had been placed on steps and in courtyards all over the city, dripping with dew or droplets from an overnight shower like so many tiny mirrors reflecting (refracting?) the trauma of earlier days (though to some I am sure those droplets looked like hippie strings of metallic beads crisscrossing the cosmos, each bead containing within its sphere a miniature replica of this bubble we call the Earth): it was the color of the traffic whizzing by on NW 36th Street; it was the color of those excitable birds that one could only hear from the steps of La Campana, what were they? warbling warblers? or mutinous martins? or a covey of covetous chickadees? or yellow-billed cuckoos? or furious swallows? or is it infuriated? or were they neurotic parrots or parakeets, those lucky birds that are the augurs of life and death? or a flock of chachalaca originally imported from Central America or Mexico or even Texas for hunting club purposes but then they escaped? ‘shut up ¡chachalaca!’ you might hear someone say while listening to those birds, and then others might say, as if in response, ‘boom Shaka-laka-laka! boom Shaka-laka-laka!’ and then they would laugh and prance about to their booming boom boxes and vanish into the glare at the end of the street and the sly sky would break into a harmonica solo, or perhaps those elusive feathered creatures were the physical manifestation of the birds that sleep in all good wines, as the poet says, but whatever genus and species (Setophaga coronate coronate, Dendroica coronate, Progne elgans, Poecile carolinensis, Coccyzus americanus, Stelgidopteryx serripennis, Tachycineta bicolor, Melopsittacus undulates, Amazon tucumana, Amazona collaria, Alipiopsitta xanthops, Ortalis ruficauda, Ortalis vetula) those invisible birds on that particular morning were roosting and chattering away across the street from La Campana like paranoid idiot savants or drunken game show hosts in the limelight of a few lime trees or a few transplanted Paraiso trees (also called Cape Lilac or Persian Lilac) with their purple gleaming blossoms like baubles for a queen and their poisonous even deadly yellow fruit that falls to the sidewalk without warning.
That is a fairly accurate description of what the color of the light was like.”

So that’s what the color of one morning was like according to one character/narrator in the novel The Mad Patagonian by Javier Pedro Zabala, a February morning in Miami in 1977, witnessed at around 10 a.m. after the ‘sun had already crashed through the dark portals of the petrified pre-Adamite sky.’
There is much to say about this particular passage. For one, it is one of the few particular places in the novel where the author (or author and translator) use alliteration, that enemy of translation. More importantly, the paragraph is quite representative of the author’s digressive habit and indicative of his enormous authority, or confidence. For this passage takes place on the day Oscar and Isidora are finally going to get married, two-thirds through the second longest chapter of the book, when a full novel’s worth of promise is about to break forth into inspired action (we think), on pages 878 and 879 of probably the longest novel we are ever going to read (depending on how you tally up Musil); that is to say: this is not the time for fucking poetry! Except it’s a lovely passage and it is not mere poetry, it is the book itself being itself and it contains within it all the book would like us to know one way or another, this beautifully synesthetic, lapidarian, scumbled, bestilled, trembling, precise, multifarious, sweet, vicious, promising, discouraging, argumentative, soothing, striving, effortless, philosophical, teleological, raucous, bucolic, scatological or peschaetological, illogical, realistic tour the stars and the mud, azure paints of empty swimming pools and the bloodied skies of eternal love.
I am intent on lambasting this particular passage for its floral irritants for a number of reasons. I mentioned that this chapter was a novel’s worth—in more ways than one. This is a paperback and it was here, finally, after months of hard usage, that the book yielded—where page 772 meets 773, where Book Six (I have been calling them chapters because as this is a book itself, it must be comprised of chapters—see comparisons to Bolaño below) The Glory Days of La Campana begins—the spine had to give at some point, as I often read even a seven-kilo book in one hand, the book folded back on itself, the spine had to give eventually, and it finally did, but…IT HELD! There is a permanent gap here so that the book naturally falls open to these pages, but no actual damage was done. See the publisher about his printer if you’re looking for one.
So I open the book to page 773 and begin paging through for what I marked while reading and come to:
‘…dazzling white wedding dresses that surely cost an eye from a face…’ a brutal metaphor; and then a particular favorite of mine ‘…she was capable of biting the ghosts of broken days.’ Page 812 a cigarette burn in the upper left corner (I guess it’s on page 811 as well, in the upper right corner) (which is interesting in that this accident elicits perhaps the most important tactic of the writing of this book: not very much is what it is, or if it is, that is only because we have decided between the many other things it may be: throughout the book we are offered such choices as (chosen randomly, by turning randomly to page 404) ‘…like a nymph from the forgotten pages of mythology or an alien queen from a spaceship…’ The effect of this is hypnotic at first, regardless of the author’s skills with language, but I’m sure it would rapidly become a bore if the language were not perpetually surprising, the metaphorical world as rich as the world it describes…and vice versa, come to think of it. I come to ‘Heliodoro Jabuco Hidalgo, a hero of Cuban baseball from the early nineteen hundreds’, that extraordinary name suggesting that perhaps the Glory of Latin American Literature is something innate to the language, that those bastards got a leg up on the rest of us, probably due to a particular tragic combination of historical horrors that were just Spanish and Portuguese enough, just Incan enough, that somehow their linguistic heritage became richer than ours (exhibit #19 Archimedes Caminero, former pitcher for the Pittsburgh Pirates, born Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic)—I think I could prove this if I were young enough to be embarking on a thesis, but I would also be inclined to point to the rare moments when our own wealth of linguistic poverty could be overcome, as in, for instance, the last three—relatively short!—chapters of The Mad Patagonian, in which Javier Pedro Zabala is writing more as a central continental European than a Latin American. And still further into this subnovel (Book 6): ‘All of which is to say that they were not stringent or resolute in their hypocrisy. I think my dead relatives just wanted to raise their voices to the tornadic winds that obliterate
all earthly desires and lay waste cities that have stood for a thousand years and send futuristic spaceships hurtling through the dark tunnel that we call the void, and when they (the occupants within those shiny, elliptical vehicles from the future) reach the other side, they find they have crash landed in the frozen snow-covered Andes of centuries ago, so they flee the scene like cannibals on the verge or starvation, or detectives in search of a high profile crime, or young, restless, relentless lovers who have suddenly and irrevocably gone blind, all in a mad dash to speak their minds before God claims the right of final judgment. This is why I think my dead relatives spoke as they did.’ And here the very words of a dead relative: ‘Yes, I can see all this in the mirror as well. But what of the deception that is unforgivable? Your beloved has lied to you through his extended silences and his mysterious disappearances. He is trying to whitewash his depravity with words, which only God has the power to do.’ And still no goddamn wedding. But, okay, I am patient, and the book is pleasing me, I can wait, and for a reader like me sometimes only one moment can make an entire universe worth the wait, or the life, or the deaths, or maybe not the deaths—we will see about that if the wedding takes place so the action can proceed and we can get out of this mid-section of the book and get to the central continental European chapters—but anyway, the moment that makes it all worthwhile for me comes on page 848 (848: a good year for Vikings and Saracens alike, if I am not wrong) after some fishermen have realized that they were overly brutal to an unlucky woman they found naked on the shore and they ask for forgiveness: ‘We are brainless, as you have surely guessed. Our heads are no bigger than the heads of falcons or ferrets.’ So finally, the morning of the wedding is nigh…but Zabala is not finished with me: ‘One cannot appreciate how utterly your life, with the diabolical cunning of the insanely jealous, can abandon you until it does so. And so it was with my grandmother. After my grandfather vanished, she became a pilgrim unto herself. Confounded by the chaste symmetries of the universe, she avoided the bright spaces that represent the unfolding of our lives and became a creature of plummeting darkness.’ That is a brilliant paragraph, poetic and philosophical, jettisoning the last clinging falsities of the readers’ bad habits before getting on with the wedding Zabala is not yet ready to present, for an event so important as a wedding gives birth to prematures before the wedding and fat ones after, which is to say a proper wedding, however improper, must have its strands twisted into a knot that cannot be cut with a chainsaw: for instance, maybe the mother of the bride has something to say to the groom-to-be before the wedding, before she approves, and in her state of high temper cares not who witnesses, and so there may be many witnesses and so many witnesses as happens in moments of heat and temper have such divergent views of a brief instance, we cannot truly grasp what happened without that we listen to the testimony of all the witnesses, be they coat-check girls or taxi drivers, delivery boys, bartenders, electricians, guests, or whatnot until we finally must come to agree that we can never know what was said or that we know precisely what we know was said but don’t know which precisely we know we know. One thing is sure, and that is that we must know that the mother ‘was trapped in the cephalic bubble of a thirsty purpose,’ which is particularly important here, in a review, because that is not a clause that Gabriel García Márquez would ever have written—Arlt maybe, or Onetti, but not García Márquez—see below near Bolaño. So that finally when the wedding comes off we are not only prepared for anything, we expect that whatever it is we get will not be what we expect. That’s what this book does to our minds…or what can do if we don’t mind, for it is also an optional trip, reading the book is like taking mushrooms with a ticket back to whatever particular reality we choose as part of the deal. There are no hangovers, that is to say, only different spaces, different ways of thinking, or, merely, an accumulation of different stories.
This finally delivers me from the trap of color of the sky on the day of the wedding of Oscar and Isidora, but lands me in that worst of places for me the reviewer: where the events of the book must be described, summarized, hinted at, judiciously set out, elided but for reason!
Not to make it hard on myself let me begin by saying that these thousands of pages of the most Iberian/Latin American of books begins with a short section featuring the protagonist Travis Lauterbach. Travis Lauterbach from Illinois. And he’s going to northern Florida, not Miami. So the action of the book’s first chapter, which is where the reader should leave off if a more or less conventional—if unresolved as yet—plot is what is desired. But that’s bullshit and I am sorry, because I already know that anyone who is interested in this book is not going to be put off by a degree of experimentation. The problem could be, though, that the first book is not experimental enough, not wild enough, too ordinary—though it is the only book I re-read once I finished the whole and I found it was quite perfect as it was for what the book needed it to be, and it was not the one sin that would shrink this book like a giant snail under a lemon shower if committed, it was not boring. And this book goes on for 1200 pages without ever being unsurprising.
So what does happen? Well, the cover is a mural and reading Zabala is like looking at an endless mural through a kaleidoscope, an imperfect image, but the best I can do, as at no point was I lost despite generations of stories of endless migration, zestful loving, the comic and the saintly, the comic saintly…and those who come across doors behind which they can ‘hear quite distinctly strange gurgling sounds, as if someone were drowning, or perhaps conducting arcane experiments to determine the electromagnetic capabilities of dolphins confined in saltwater tanks’, which is my way of saying allow me to fail in the simple task of describing the action, the guy who gets tossed into an empty swimming pool, the best female fucker in the world, the hilarious robotic gentleman in the closed tavern and the simple technique of eluding them, the other reason a fellow might need a word with a porn queen, what happens when the world of wealth and logic meets the world of truculent illogic, how many woman and men Oscar bedded, what drove Tika?, who sent the messages of doom over the ship’s radio, all that, all 1200 pages of that, is too much for me to explicate here. But I will say that things take a turn after about 1000 pages (p.979), that the collage chapter about Father Anton Kreutner of Metz, a tour de force of a kind, is as entertaining a chapter about competing philosophies of life and afterlife as one is likely to read, and that as much as I would guess that Zabala himself would be pleased to know that he pulled off that Chapter 7 all right—I did say tour de force, I myself prefer chapter 8 for the way the prose puts into play the ideas of the previous chapter. And while I find myself here at the end, let me say that, to be fair, Chapter 9, necessary as it is by laws of three, serves primarily as epilogue.
I have read but one other review of The Mad Patagonian, and as all reviews do, that review, quite favorable by the way, compared the author to other authors, particularly Bolaño of 2666 and Vargas Llosa of Conversation in the Cathedral. The book is nothing at all like Conversation in the Cathedral, which is a closed universe, nor anything like Bolaño’s 2666, being far more discursive even though Bolaño’s novel was really five novels. The Mad Patagonian, then, is borderless unlike Vargas Llosa’s masterpiece, and at the same time more contained than Bolaño’s false epic. But as the book must be discussed, at least to some degree, in terms of Spanish language literature, I suggest that it does bear comparison to the Garcia García Márquez of One Hundred Years of Solitude—though that is only perhaps the dominant voice in the book, or the one granted the most pages, for there are many, many voices, often distinct, often bleeding together. A dissertational read would be required to investigate whether or not that is a fault, though I assure you it is not, but on first read the author seems a worthy heir to James Joyce, writing each passage according to the dictates of the content.
The other comparison is to Borges, for the book’s wealth of intricate, labyrinthine arcania—it is brimming with such…to the point that the reader no longer cares in the least what is true and what is not. We do know that there were Merovingian Kings, but was Diego Penalosa governor of Cuba in 1746? There are dozens of such details, all of which are available in the sweep of the language, none of which require a pause—though during my second read, which may not occur this year, I intend to do a great deal more digging, as the book is an extremely learned text that wears its genius lightly.
In other words, The Mad Patagonian is very much like the very best of the writing it is heir to, yes, but it is also so many books in one, comparisons don’t bear much fruit.
Finally, there is a simple question that any pre-reader may fairly ask: So who is the Mad Patagonian? Well, by virtue of the Patagonian content, it is Mick, truly a mad Patagonian, who features in chapter one and less so in chapters two and three, returning to play a fairly large role in chapter 8, but not a definitive role. If he is the Mad Patagonian, the book is resting to heavily on his shoulders. That may leave our lovelorn Travis Lauterbach, yet another Anglo option. And the case may be made, but not without spoiling the book, except perhaps to come near to spoiling it by saying that some conventions of literature are indeed yielded to. Still, though the importance of the story of Travis Lauterbach is central to the philosophical core of the book, so is that of Mick, and as there is only one Mad Patagonian according to the title, unless it is meant as perhaps a condition, or a philosophical state. And I accept that either could be the case. I am certain, in fact, that I am a mad Patagonian. But to answer the question asked by our pre-reader and to get it over with so the book can be read, my answer is that Javier Pedro Zabala is the one, he is the mad Patagonian. - RickHarsch

I'll start by saying that I think it's unfortunate that Javier Pedro Zabala never had a chance to see his work published. The Mad Patagonian (apparently his one and only work) is a massive and extraordinary 1210 pages of great literature that spans over centuries, continents and cultures yet seemingly effortlessly manages to link them all together seamlessly. It's one of the rare works of literature that has multiple philosophical, political and narrative and historical dimensions that are all powerfully and equally matched.
Stylistically Zabala's writing is a composite of multiple influences... whether reminding of specific writers or particular genres but always maintaining an utterly modern tone. From book to book (and there are 9 books of varying lengths that make up the text of the Mad Patagonian) these influences come out one right after another. For me it looked like this:
1. Roberto Bolano--which shouldn't surprise anyone who reads the 52 page introduction as Bolano and Zabala corresponded in writing often and met up on at least two occasions. Bolano's influence is particularly strong for the first several hundred pages.
2. Louis Ferdinand Céline kind of makes an appearance in book 4 with an Admiral Bragueton (Journey to the end of the night) like episode but...
3. Alvaro Mutis is the writer that book 4 reminds me most of.
4. Roberto Arlt--there are some almost eerie textual similarities in the noir-ish like 5th book to the author of The Seven Madmen/Flamethrowers. Set in pre-revolutionary Cuba I might add that
5. Rachel Kushner's Telex from Cuba would almost make the perfect companion piece though Kushner's book came out well after Zabala's death.
6. Alain Robbe-Grillet--the last 3 books all have a kind of a nouveau roman edge very reminiscent of that French writer.
Others----> 7. Don Delillo 8. Paul Auster 9. Albert Camus 10. Jorge Luis Borges.
A bit on characterization that I hope will be helpful for anyone who reads the book:
There are two genealogies of the Escoraz family that go back to 19th century Spain at the beginning of the text--one for the family tree of Andres and Ana and the other the family tree of Arturo and Verona. These are very useful to check back on from time to time. There are a lot of characters in the 9 books and two of the three main characters Escolastica Escoraz Vda de Miranda (otherwise known by her nickname Tika) and Isidora Escoraz Calzada (who IMO is the most central of all figures--appearing in all parts of the book) will be found in these family trees--one to each. The third central figure is of the on again off again college teacher Travis Lauterbach who is a main character in parts 1 and 3. It also helps to keep track of names if only because some of the more important ones help to link from one book to another. I made notes as I went along because when you're reading 1210 pages and there are a lot of different characters it is handy to be able to look back and say 'oh-okay--that's.....blah, blah, blah'. IMO unless you have a really prodigious memory--keeping notes will really enhance this work for you.
On the plotting--the book starts kind of in present (or not that long ago) time in Part 1--then in Part 2 goes back to 19th century Spain--moving into the 20th century and in Book 5 it's like late 50's very early 60's pre-Revolutionary Cuba and then 60's-70's-early 80--ish Florida. In Part 3 we're pretty much back to present time. Some characters cross over and some don't but the ones who do are the keys to how the parts intersect. To me in it's own way the Mad Patagonian reminds me a bit of Perec's 'Life: A User's manual' in how Zabala accomplishes all the intersecting that he does.
Which is to say that reading the Mad Patagonian was for me like capturing lightning in a bottle. It is a book that I'd want on whatever desert island I would be shipwrecked on and to my mind easily comparable in range, multi-dimensionality and execution to my two favorite epics of Latin American fiction---Bolano's 2666 and Mario Vargas Llosa's Conversation in the Cathedral. IMO it is a flat out masterpiece and I would encourage anyone at all interested in reading great literature to go out and get him/herself a copy. 
Larry Riley

This novel was originally written in Spanish. Zabala died before it could be published. He left instructions to his daughter, Cecilia, that the manuscript be burned. She ignored his instructions and tried to get it published in Spanish. Shortly before it was due to be published by a Venezuelan publisher, the publisher went bankrupt. As a result it has only been published in English. I can find no reference to to the Spanish title but I am guessing that it was El Patagónico Loco.
Zabala left extensive diaries which the translator of this book, Tomás García Guerrero (now sadly deceased), consulted. In his extensive introduction to the book, García Guerrero comments that Zabala’s book is something of a riposte to the much darker outlook of Roberto Bolaño. Zabala met Bolaño twice, though they did also maintain a correspondence. The first time was in Mexico City, well before Bolaño had achieved any literary fame. Zabala commented I thought Bolaño was full of shit. They met some years later in Caracas, when they went out on a bender and got seriously drunk. There is no doubt that Zabala’s novel, while having its dark side, is much less dark than Bolaño’s work.
The 1200-page novel, which Zabala spent virtually all of his adult life writing, is divided into nine interconnected novellas. The first novella is set in Jacksonville, Florida. Travis Lauterbach, the narrator, has just got a job working at a posh prep school in Jacksonville. He becomes friends with the four other new teachers: Mick Haggerty, who claims to have travelled the US with Abbie Hoffman, and who is something of a free spirit/irresponsible (depending on your perspective); Ed Glaser, the bitter Vietnam vet whose wife has left him; Emily Lavigne, who will soon marry a banker, and Tommie Rodriguez, whom Travis will later fall in love with. The five meet every week at a Japanese restaurant, where they complain about their low pay. - The Modern Novel

Javíer Pedro Zabala was a product of the multicultural forces that have been shaping the Americas for over five-hundred years. His father, Miguel Octavio Cercas, was born in Matamoros, a border town in northeastern Mexico.  His mother, Anabelle Elizabeth Zabala, whose surname he ultimately kept, was from Miami, Florida.  Zabala was born in Miami in 1950 but moved to Mexico with his father in 1964.  In 1976, while living in Mexico City, he married Blanca Barutti, a recent graduate of the Facultad de Medicina UNAM.  Blanca was originally from Santiago, Cuba.  After a short honeymoon, the couple moved to Cuba and took up residence in a tiny cinder block house with a tin roof and a view of the Caribbean Sea in La Boca, Cuba, a small seaside village in Sancti Spíritus province.  He lived in La Boca for the last twenty-six years of his life.  He was unknown as a writer during his lifetime and died in June 2002 at the age of fifty-two of an aneurysm, two months after he had completed his novel, without fanfare, unnoticed by anyone save his daughter.