[Deep Vellum; 2023]

Tr. from the Spanish by Heather Cleary

Historical fiction, religiosity, and a commitment to literary humor form a triad in Luis Felipe Fabre’s terse novel with its threesome of questing characters: a bailiff and his Beckettian assistants, Diego and Ferrán. Over the course of 176 pages, they retrieve and escort the body of the poet Saint John of the Cross from Úbeda to Segovia in late sixteenth-century Spain. In Recital of the Dark Verses, Fabre is concerned with “objects, signs, and words” that have long ago come unbound, unhinged, “released from their stays.” His novel venerates the playfulness and elasticity of these same objects, signs, and words. Implicitly and explicitly, Fabre reveals that a text is itself a journey and that history is an invented brocade. Memories are inseparable from fiction and everything in this prose novel is made up, in part, of poetic verses from Golden Age Spain. Recital is intertextual and vignettic, with the actual preserved words (we suppose) of Saint John of the Cross as part of the stew. The bailiff’s assistants serve as a pair of Sanchos and the bailiff as the unaware Quixote.

As he skewers religious pomposities and the rapacity of human nature, Fabre enters the ranks of James Joyce, Vladimir Nabokov, Joseph Heller, and Philip Roth as well as a Mexican and South American lineage that includes Juan Rulfo, Sandra Cisneros, Ricardo Piglia, and Manuel Puig. Like these twentieth-century writers, Fabre punctures sanctimony and self-righteousness with a blend of humor and poetry. A Gen X’er born and based in Mexico City, he has published multiple volumes of poetry and essays alongside curating art exhibitions and editing anthologies.

Recital of the Dark Verses is not a historical fiction opus with the sprawl of Umberto Eco or Olga Tokarczuk, though the novel—translated by Heather Cleary and published in the US by Dallas imprint Deep Vellum—recalls their witty and intellectually rigorous incarnations of the genre. In her translator’s note, Cleary deems this novel “the story of a heist, a road novel, a coming-of-age tale, and a raunchy slapstick comedy.” Readers will meet horny nuns, dismembered corpses, and young Spaniards exploring their burgeoning queer sexualities, alongside all sorts of defilings and humiliations interspersed with the quarreling assistants’ fart jokes and grumblings about their putative leader, a nameless bailiff of the royal court serving as the lead point of their triangle.

Recital of the Dark Verses is also stuffed with intertextual gags. Fabre opens with a dreamy prologue that conflates characters and mind states in a cornute kenoma, a space-place full of wandering spirits and sans-quotation-marks dialogue. The story proper is instantiated with long-sprawl italicized sentences that both venerate and lampoon the chapter headings of highbrow historical fiction texts like Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, informing the reader about what is to come in each segment. I can imagine Fabre’s whimsy appealing to famous Cormac adapters the Coen brothers. The sentiment here is the abandonment of sentimentality.

Voltaire’s Candide is another unmissable influence. On their first access to Saint John’s corpse, the trifecta is granted merely a finger (one that bleeds when detached, though Fray Juan has been dead for a year) to be returned to one Doña Ana de Peñalosa, the sister of a nobleman, a justice named Don Luis. The bailiff has undertaken this journey to curry political favor, but Diego and Ferrán just want to get paid, and coming back with only the finger they hope for at least “a little something for the rigors of the journey.” Game to delve into severed sanctified body parts, Fabre displays the unapologetic verve of the best satirists. The ludic takedown of theodicy mixed with the deployment of elaborate wordplay in often ultraviolent scenarios is where it is most redolent of Voltaire’s intentionally blasphemous religious content and scandalous political exposés.

The bleeding finger (depicted on the book cover, a perfectly comic-bookish yet minimalist black-white-red array of detached and blood-dripping limbs) satisfies Don Luis, but it’s not enough for Doña Ana, who is “intelligent and prudent,” but spoiled. The three are thus sent back to Úbeda where they worry they’ll be taken for grave robbers. When met with their demands for the whole body, Fray Fernando, the subprior of Úbeda, cogitates and comes upon a solution: cut the body in half. The negotiations of which body parts stay in Úbeda and which the threesome take with them to Segovia is a comic high point, an opportunity for Fabre to riff on the lacunae of historical recaps, as this is all “based on a true story”:

Not half the body but a leg was met by a not a leg nor a hand but an arm, but not that arm for its missing finger… Nor could the saint’s biographers agree: Jerónimo de San Jose claims that one of his legs was severed to remain as consolation at the monastery in Úbeda, while José de Velasco notes, “The monks did sever one arm to keep with them a token of whom they so loved.”

. . . being numerous the accounts by fortunate pilgrims who claim to have seen in the monastery of San Miguel at Úbeda Fray Juan’s arm safekept in a striking case of silver, we shall say it was an arm.

As the subprior and the bailiff bicker over clauses, the text mocks Saint John’s height—this is a refreshingly bawdy scene. Fabre blends serious (but not self-serious) social and religious commentary with punny nameplay humor and mutilated bodies to make a point about how fundamentalism itself arises from relatively picayune squabblings. A meta-novel then, Fabre’s, one that manages to satirize and lament a core human fallibility.

The novel burrows deeper when Ferrán discovers—as they trek home to Don and Doña and his colleagues worry about being pursued by the irate townsfolk of Úbeda or harassed by agents of the Inquisition, who could accuse them of being heretics, Moors, Lutherans, or Judaizers—that Saint John’s text is an obscene one. This saint was also a poet, one who had some sex and documented it. Diego interprets the dead saint’s words as innocent, God-enlightened, holy, but Ferrán’s close reading sees in the saint’s hosannas to “wondrous nights” pleasures of the flesh. “Oh night, I know not / who is what nor who is who / with whom, or not, nor who Is who in whom!” Ferrán’s interpretation goes:

Oh, yes. The poem entire is naught but a holy rogering: it begins with amorous yearnings—and oh what yearning, what burning, what fever precedes that bit of fondling, oh such fondling, and then the friar earns his sausage oh, oh, oh. I’m coming, the Coming, I came. Then the final verses round it all out with yawns and snuggles and post-coital caresses. A rogering, quite Aristotelian in its rising action, climax, and resolution, though dissolution might be a more fitting term for these couplets.

“Sodomy!” Diego exclaims.

As the back half of the text proceeds, we learn that Diego is a closeted queer character who experiences a love-hate relationship with Ferrán, a domineering and homophobic machista (by our present-day lingua). An entanglement with an intersex-statue-come-to-life prompts Ferrán to excoriate Diego’s femininity, calling him a slew of bigoted insults for crying.

Fabre may spell out his themes in too didactic a manner at times, but there are bravura cinematic set pieces like a stop near Malagón where the trio is interrogated by a female innkeeper and her six daughters, all who possess acute senses of smell and ask what’s in the trunk carrying the saint’s body parts. The women guess perfumes and Ferrán tries to put them off by claiming that inside are not perfumes but unguents. Echoes of Chaucer recur and Ferrán also manages to sate the innkeeper and her spawn with the tale of Thetis and Peleus from Greek antiquity. Literature as a series of echoes, this is not a new point to make, and the notion that books are made of other books has some tread worn off the tire, but in a text so rife with puns on dismembering and remembering, most readers will find themselves legitimately guffawing often enough to keep their ingestion of the novel on track.

While this novel realizes gender, identity, and power boil down to performance, the remains of centuries-old literature transmuted into something inspiring makes it new. And amidst the intertexts, layered deconstructions, and wordplay, much like with Helen DeWitt and Thomas Pynchon, to mention two touchstones other than Voltaire, Cormac McCarthy and the Coen brothers, things get quite dark. The trio is captured by the townsfolk of Úbeda then tortured and cauterized, called “despicable, devil-sent pilferers . . . Saintstealers! Cloisterthieves! Lutherans!” They are tied to trees and freed by a boy only because, after they’ve gotten the torturing out of their systems, the townsfolk realize that the thieves have themselves been thieved, that the three men whose flesh they burn no longer have the saint’s corpse. Depicted here is what Fabre calls a case of “Narcissus encounters Narcissus,” a critique which feels aimed at the present world as much as the one nearly half a millennia ago. “Ferrán turned and set to pissing beneath the indifferent sky.” A better metaphor for what we’re all doing here in our time on earth would be hard to craft, and this might very well be the novel’s mission statement, as Ferrán’s urination echoes an orgasm. “A moment’s relief. A tepid stream. A joyful foaming quick to burst and evanesce.” These characters may be quarreling buffoons in a Beckettorium or they may just be us. The great brief and darkly comic artworks usually attempt to proffer a moment’s relief from the suffering that is existence, the tepid stream of day-to-day interactions, with Fabre’s acidulous prose in this volume espousing that our grasp on reality is barely a grasp.

The three men manage to recover the body, there are tranquil days, trials survived, and austerity materializes for a chapter-long respite. Contentment, not happiness, that’s the goal, the trio concur, what Voltaire summed up as the “tend to your own garden” worldview. But fearless days (spent pondering their next journey—The Indies! Ferrán suggests) and restful nights make for boring literature, and on the flat and easy road through Castile towards Madrid, the overnarrator steps in.

“And with the pleasant whisper of a breeze in the peaceful night and the sonorous solitude of the countryside” may bring simplicity and ease to our much-abused travellers, “But what serves the journey does not necessarily serve its narration, for though each journey is a lesson in letting go, and though a restful night free of remarkable events might well prove beneficial for the spirit, the reader will by the third description of such a night be yawning, and if not by the fourth then certainly by the fifth will have abandoned the book with many pages and verses and much road still ahead.” Flatness fatigues, and this governing awareness of the form and function of texts puts Fabre’s book in a self-liminalizing category—the multiply aware work of literature that susses the limits of its own self-awareness.

Near novel’s end, we arrive at the notion of a mirror in which nothing is reflected. The mirror is as interpretable as God, or at least the notion that God appears to, or is an invention of, “the confused,” those like Diego, searching for their place in a world that rejects who they are. Art is satisfying, but it does “nothing,” as Auden famously observed. Religion, by contrast, art’s antipode, promises an answer, an “everything.” Books are described in one particularly sharp observation as “paper pets,” companions.

The nuns reconstitute the body. Diego has an epiphany that he loves and desires his travel companion/tormentor/compadre Ferrán, and Recital of the Dark Verses wraps its last chapter with: “this commentary declares its meagerness and insufficiency and, defeated, ends or is interrupted or remains here stammering.” The party of three we’ve spent our story with is to be dismembered, like the saint’s body. They reach Segovia—as Saint John of the Cross did in life; he spread his sect of Carmelites to multiple cities and was prior of Segovia until he criticized the vicar general and was sent to an isolated monastery in Andalusia, where he fell ill before being moved to the monastery in Úbeda where he died in 1591—a month’s journey condensed into a twenty-first century Canterburic tale, an alembic, a species trying to salvage itself by its preservation of relics via the tabernacular technology of the book.

As Cleary notes in her prologue, this is a compelling work of fiction in deep dialogue with centuries-old verse, a conceit difficult to translate into English as the entire book is “a commentary on the poems of San Juan de la Cruz that centers and celebrates their rich imagery, the philosophical dimensions of their language, and their intrinsic queerness.” Cleary calls it “lithe, tactile, and transgressive,” and also had to translate the three most pertinent Saint John of the Cross poems that inform the text.

This lineage, this inheritance, is lost, or at least diminished, when we in the literary community become the squabblers, far too fixated on the ephemeral politics of the moment. This is not to pose in some traditionalist’s stance on reading the text in a new-critical vacuum, but to assay how in vessels such as Fabre’s novel, arising from indie publishers and small presses, I find hope that reviews and assessments may shine light on overlooked and under-reviewed works of uncompromised art that manage to get into print. In its condensing historical scope, Recital of the Dark Verses elides the vicissitudes of the present while engaging earnestly, but without sentimentality or an overdose of sincerity, with the past. Fabre’s book furnishes not a hastily blurted online “take,” but a finely constructed work of anguished comedy.

Sean Hooks was born and raised in New Jersey. He holds a BA from Drew University, an MFA from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and an MA from Loyola Marymount University. Presently, he resides in Dallas. He has published fiction, essays, reviews, articles, and interviews in various venues. His website is www.seanhooks.com.

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