[Dalkey Archive Press; 2023]

Tr. from Catalan by Adrian Nathan West

Every now and again, a novel ends up being so rich, so continuous with the classics of western literature while staying attuned to present conditions, so challenging to the standard wisdoms of how contemporary fiction ought to work, so booming in its resonance after reading and re-reading, that to write a review also amounts to articulating a certain reorientation toward one’s literary upbringing. The Garden of Seven Twilights by Miquel de Palol, published in 1989, and translated from the Catalan by Adrian Nathan West, is such a novel.

I realize that by kicking off a review in this manner, I’ve already indulged in the hyperbolic commentary that often attends a certain type of maximalist, “postmodern” mega-novel, the kind of book that exercises one’s wrists with its physical bulk and one’s mind with its sprawling, panoramic narrative, encyclopedic referentiality, and overwhelming aesthetic ambitions. The postwar wave of mega-novels began in the United States, at the height of that country’s capital concentration, from writers like William Gaddis, Thomas Pynchon, John Barth, and Joseph McElroy. Another generation of writers outside the States began producing encyclopedic novels: Georges Perec, Salman Rushdie, Elfriede Jelinek, and Palol himself. Wherever this form is taken up, novelists tend to incorporate economic history as well as pre-modern folklore and mythology of the particular country, as in the works of Latin American “boom” novelists like Gabriel García Márquez.

The Garden of Seven Twilights, a Catalan novel, represents this canon’s skepticism toward the encyclopedic project. The elaborate, episodic structures of novels like Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow (1973), David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest (1996), and Roberto Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives (1998) and 2666 (2004) cast doubt on the whole aspiration of encyclopedic novels to enclose the increasingly voluminous data produced by the systems undergirding modern capitalism. The Garden, while just as dark and deranged as those novels, and just as haunted by the failures of the New Left revolution in the mid-twentieth century, has one difference. Palol holds space for belief in something like absolute truth in a high philosophical sense, a totality of interlinked ideas and objects that may reveal a cosmic order. The key is the right arrangement, like the trees in a garden, or the constellations in the night sky.

And, while Palol’s book shares the prolixity and braininess of other mega-novels, it is not interested in difficult, modernist prose. As a series of nested tales, The Garden is a text of almost pure chatter. If the central characters are not telling stories to each other, they’re providing running commentary on the narratives to each other. The tales and tellers of Palol’s novel compose a meticulous alignment of points and lines, a rigorous intellectual structure resembling the mysterious sculpture in the center of the titular Garden. On reaching the last of its 888 pages, one doesn’t feel like they have read an accomplished mega-novel so much as a new geometrical theorem.

After training as an architect in Barcelona, Miquel de Palol wrote poetry in Catalan that comfortably inhabits traditional forms (there is a long passage in this novel on the composition of a sestina). The Garden, published in 1989 as El Jardí dels Set Crepuscles, was Palol’s much-lauded debut. Since then, Palol has written many immense and complex narrative works. Adrian Nathan West has pulled off a herculean effort to bring Palol’s first novel to English readers, and while it makes the masses of Palol’s untranslated work all the more tantalizing, there is still plenty of food for thought with this sole volume.

The Garden of Seven Twilights opens with a framing text, in the guise of a scholarly introduction “To the Non-Specialist Reader,” written in the far future. We learn that in this future world, several global nuclear wars have taken place in a computer-gamified form, adjudicated by futuristic defense systems, known as “Wars of Entertainment.” The introduction is accompanied by a fictitious “Bibliography” that presents, in concentrated form, the encyclopedic range of themes and subjects to follow: labyrinths, calendars, cybernetics, graphs and communication, geometry and mathematics, Utopia, social progress, “oneiric topology,” and, of course, gardening and astronomy.

The main text is a first-person narrative that begins in the “First War of Entertainment,” circa 2025, in which Barcelona has been leveled by a nuclear fireball. The protagonist escapes the ruined city to join other super-rich Barcelonans in a lavish retreat in the northern mountains. The retreat is fortified like a Brutalist building on the outside and full of art nouveau wonderment on the inside. This fantastic structure is known by the scholar in the frame text as the Mountain Palace, or the Palau De La Muntanya in Catalan—suspiciously similar to Miquel de Palol i Muntanyola, the author’s full name. Over eight hundred pages, these characters wait out the apocalyptic war in the comforts of this mansion, pampered by the staff, served exotic food, and having sex with each other. There are five men, including the narrator, and four women staying in the Palace at the novel’s beginning, all of them well-heeled and highly educated. Of the women, the narrator spends the most time with Gertrudis, who gives a tour of the Palace and its garden, and Emilia, whose unnamed family is close to the narrator’s.

This maximalist novel does a good deal of table-setting about the Palace and the deeply symbolic layout of the titular Garden of Twilight. The retreat is full of artistic treasures from world history, like the “mosaics of fine tesserae in the Byzantine style” on the vaulted ceilings of the libraries that depict scenes from Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey. I confess to feeling a certain disquiet from the blunt contrast between the unfolding nuclear catastrophe and the immersive, eclectic opulence enjoyed by our central characters. Even the narrator admits “fatigue” at the “excess of luxury and refinement.” These bankers and intellectuals, many of whom belong to a shady and portentous organization known as the “Institute,” are just as entitled to a bunker as the military officers and politicians presumably prosecuting this “War of Entertainment.” But their sanctuary protects not only the conditions for their “intellectual” work, but also the social division of labor, which under capitalism has developed to such lengths that an insurmountable gulf separates the workers from the thinkers.

As they await news from the war-torn world, these Barcelonans assemble in the Palace’s “Avalon” room and tell a series of stories. The first, told by the “famed economist” Andreas Rodin, relates the fate of the respectable Mir Bank and its three vice presidents. Rodin’s narrative however bumps into a man named Patrici Ficinus, who has his own story to tell, which naturally opens up a new tale in the book. And so the webbing of plot grows, through stories containing more stories in a nested and branching chain of fifty-two stories told by thirty-eight narrators, including financial aristocrats, gangsters, policemen, special state operatives, revolutionaries, dream travelers, cults and cabals, sex freaks, theater students, and people crossing every continent on Earth. At the center of it all, like in a Victorian mystery novel, is “an immeasurably valuable jewel” that may be held by Alexis Cros, one of the disgraced vice presidents of Mir Bank.

The obvious precedent for this novel’s immaculate structure is Boccaccio’s Decameron, a 1383 work in which ten rich youths, one of whom is also named Emilia, wait out the Black Death in a lavish villa with courtyards and a full wine cellar. Another key influence is The 120 Days of Sodom by the Marquis de Sade. The debauchery of that 1785 novel takes place in its own Temple on a Mountain, the medieval chateau owned by the libertine banker Durcet. This novel, too, contains a semicircular “Avalon”-type room: an amphitheater as well as a sound-proofed boudoir, an altar to perversity. If Boccaccio’s stories took up the pupae of commercial relations and modern sexual love, The Garden of Seven Twilights presents a more decadent moment in the history of the west: a sadistic epoch where everything is a game, from sexuality to nuclear war. Palol’s numerous erotic scenes offer, rather than titillation, the impression of humans coming to resemble machines. Readers who enjoy this transgressive aspect of postmodern fiction will be glad to know that one of Palol’s scenes, viewed on tape by the narrator, might exceed a similar one in Gravity’s Rainbow by Pynchon, in terms of both length and lewdness.

But the novel’s main preoccupation is the Jewel, which becomes more than a mere MacGuffin to be heisted. It may not even be a literal jewel but something like the ultimate financial asset; as Gertrudis informs the narrator on the third day, “there’s no loan for which it won’t serve as collateral.” Could the Jewel be held by one of the Palace’s high-rolling refugees? If so, then there is an incentive for these storytellers to speak to each other in code through their tales, or to pretend to be looking for it, or pretend to know where it is. This Jewel is a coveted treasure, yet it is apparently omnipresent. It’s the lever for markets and means of production, of political and military might. Knowledge of the Jewel is guarded by the enigmatic Institute, headed by an agent known only by the Greek letter Ω. The Jewel may even have the power to influence the laws of physics. In short, the Jewel, in the way it drives the cast and events of The Garden, is like finance capital since the turn of the last century. Not only industry and banking, but ships, technology, media, and international commerce bow to it in allegiance.

Palol’s novel is a pastiche of global capitalism at the tail end of the Cold War: the retreat of international Communist and socialist movements, the rise of multinational corporations, and new networks of economic interdependence. The mathematician Víctor Ferret, a Palace guest and strong suspect for Ω’s true identity, captures this predicament: “Horizontality has replaced verticality, the real kingdoms are multinationals . . . and it’s given rise to novel forms of aristocracy divided into three main blocks: owners of information, planners, and disseminators.” Ferret is resigned to a world of rich states shaking down “debtor” states through endless cycles of imperialist wars. Meanwhile, history and culture are flattened by these social relations onto a single plane, so that civilization can store “Freud and the Vatican, Marx, Sophocles, and Coca-Cola advertising, Einstein and the Vedas all in the same drawer.” All of these reflections on our immense and dissatisfying social world and more are concentrated, with crystalline perfection, in the image of the Jewel.

Some characters in The Garden ponder a different way to organize society, a way out from this cul-de-sac of war games. Randolph Carter chalks up the world order of “robbers governing imbeciles” to the necessity of work. The diplomat Artur Oliver believes in a future where all have equal material access to society’s wealth, just as they are “equal before the law.” The operatives of the Institute take great interest in these perspectives, all the while anticipating someone or something arriving at the Palace. While reading The Garden, every new story threatens to both pull us toward the mystery at the heart of this fictive edifice and thrust us back to the periphery with another digression. The flow of content is so relentless that one sympathizes with Maurici Klein when he muses, in a story within a story within a story within a story within a story within a story within a story within a story, that “there are no protagonists: everyone plays a bit part.”

However, Palol’s novel doesn’t invite despair at the overwhelming volume of information confronting us, or at capitalism’s ability to slake whatever new desires we can think of while its accumulation continues apace. Unlike the other mega-novels mentioned above, The Garden of Seven Twilights earnestly suggests that the right correspondences amongst the hurly-burly of agents, codes, and symbols, can be drawn, that this order is precisely what the ancient practice of astronomy and the art of gardening were meant to do. Correspondences lead to a vision of a different society, where culture and labor have a different sort of relationship.

Palol’s novel is worth recommending for that reason, despite its faults, like its blatantly impossible narrative structure (even the scholar in the frame text wonders how this narrator could have recorded all these stories and events), or how Gertrudis and Emilia are not so well realized beyond the “eternal feminine” archetype. Garden is a shamelessly plot-driven novel, a procedurally generated plethora of supermarket fiction procedures. Palol’s massive canvas may lack pigment, but its lines are bold and straight, pointing toward a future that may be hell on earth or a new Eden, depending on the choices our society makes now. To find fault in this would be like bemoaning the lack of color in the drawings of Raphael.

Alex Lanz lives and writes in Brooklyn. His stories, essays, and criticism have appeared in Passages North, Asymptote, and other places. He blogs on Substack at Silent Friends.

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