Alberto Chimal: La torre y el jardín [The Tower and the Garden]
There have been a few novels that I have read during my life where, not only do I enjoy the novel and/or think that it is a great novel but where I realise that it is a totally original novel. Examples would include Ulyssses, Gravity’s Rainbow and Cien Años de Soledad (One Hundred Years Of Solitude), though there are others. There have not been too many recently, though one example would be César Aira‘s La guerra de los gimnasios [The War of the Gymnasia] (not yet translated into English. Now here is another Spanish-language novel, not yet translated into English, that falls into this category. This does not necessarily mean that is great or even that I particularly enjoyed it but there is no doubt that it is original. Manuel Barroso said it was the best work published by a Mexican author in 2012 and probably in the century. The Bolivian writer, Edmundo Paz Soldán, said that it es un prodigio de la imaginación, una fascinante experiencia de lectura que, si hay justicia, debería convertirse en uno de los primeros clásicos de la literatura latinoamericana de este siglo [is a prodigy of the imagination, a fascinating reading experience which, if there is any justice, will become one of the first classics of Latin-American literature of this century]. The author David Miklos said that it has no equal in our literature. Latin American critics have been full of praise for this work. As far as I am aware there are no plans to publish this work in English, though I hope I am wrong.
As I said, this is a thoroughly original work but it is not always an easy read. It is set in the (fictitious) town of Morosa, presumably based, at least in part, on Mexico City (Morosa can be the feminine of moroso meaning slow or sluggish but, as a noun, it means someone who does not pay their debts, a defaulter.) Most of the action takes place in the Brincadero, a building that is, from the outside, seven storeys high but, on the inside, is much bigger. Like the house in The House of Leaves or Dr Who’s Tardis (Chimal is a science fiction fan), the Brincadero is much larger inside. Indeed, the lemmings alone take up twelve floors. It also changes its appearance – rooms come and go, for example – and has the ability to repair itself when damaged. The Brincadero has one main function. It is a brothel but not a brothel in the conventional sense but a brothel where the rich from all over the world come and have sex with animals. By animals, this means from fleas and ants (certain ants can be used to titillate certain parts of the anatomy, for example) to tigers, via the lemmings mentioned above and a range of exotic and unusual animals. Fortunately, Chimal gives us little description of what the rich actually do with the animals, apart from the obvious, though we learn that the animals are dressed up and that both animals and human customers can and do get hurt and killed. Fortunately, there is a hospital on site. There is also an on-site taxidermist, so that clients can have their animals stuffed after they have disposed of them.
There are two stories running through the book which, about two-thirds of the way through, coincide. The first is a history of the building and brothel, not told in chronological order, telling us about the various key characters, the background and current developments. It also tells us about two key aspects – the secret society that operates in the building and the garden, which plays an important role. The brothel was founded by Constantino Arocena who arrived in Morosa in 1943, when it was still quite a small city. He set up a few small businesses and, with a bit of bribery, did well and got to know the best families and married into one of them. He then gradually set up his brothel, with the help of an architect, Don Cruz. Don Cruz hired Emilio García as his assistant and it is Emilio who ran the place for many years, till his daughter, Isabel, took over. Constantino never had children but he adopted a son, also called Constantino. Initially Young Constantino, as he was known (his father was, of course, Old Constantino) travelled and enjoyed himself but, as his father started aging, he had become more involved in the Brincadero and was now in some conflict with Isabel, who felt that she was in charge. This conflict about the management of the building, many anecdotes about the people involved as well as the clients and the very strange nature of the building form the core of this part of the story.
The other part of the story concerns Horacio Kustos and Francisco Molinar. At the beginning of the book, they appear to be trapped in two adjacent cells in the building. Kustos tries to make a hole in the wall for them two get out, which they finally manage to do. Kustos – lo han llamado explorador, periodista, viajero, naturalista, investigador. Los informes no sacan mucho en claro más allá [He has been called explorer, journalist, traveller, naturalist, investigator. Reports do not give much more detail than that.] – is employed by a mysterious organisation (he does not know who they are and has never seen them). He is sent by these employers to investigate strange places and people and report back, which he does. (We get several pages of his previous exploits.) Chimal has used him before in his stories. He knows a lot about this building but wants to know more. In particular, he wants to know about the garden and the secret society. Why Molinar is there is initially not clear. He seems to know little about the place. However, his reason for being there is explained later. Alternating with the main story, the two make their way through the building with a variety of strange phenomena such as flashing lights, lifts that change place and only respond to certain spoken phrases, voices coming out of the wall as well as strange encounters with animals, clients and staff.. They will eventually collide with the main story and join Isabel and Company, where they will learn about the garden but also about the mysterious scientific experiments being conducted in the building (of which we have had a glimpse at the very beginning of the book).
This summary only gives the bare outline of the book. The never-ending stream of strange events, strange and incongruous creatures (humans included), the compression of time but also of place, the mysterious building, the nebulous rich clients who do clearly unsavoury but unexplained things with the animals, the mysterious Zhenya – male, female, human, or not, we do not really know – the shadowy controlling powers and even the dark city of Morosa all add up to a totally original but disturbing picture which obviously owes much to science fiction and fantasy but is also a literary novel and a path for other literary novels. Just as Ulyssses, Gravity’s Rainbow and Cien Años de Soledad (One Hundred Years Of Solitude) weren’t/aren’t for everybody, nor is this novel. But there is no doubt that it is brilliantly original and it can surely only be a matter of time before it does appear in translation.
First published by Océano in 2012
No English translation