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Martín Caparrós: La Historia [History]

This book was first published in 1999 and rapidly became a cult novel, helped by the fact that it had a very small print run and soon went out of print and was very difficult to obtain. Caparrós claimed it was his best novel and those critics that had seen it shared this view, adding it to the list of great, long Latin American novels (it is over a thousand pages long) such as Salvador Benesdra‘s El traductor [The Translator], Leopoldo Marechal‘s Adán Buenosayres (Adam Buenosayres), Carlos FuentesTerra Nostra (Terra Nostra), Fernando del Paso‘s Palinuro de México (Palinuro of Mexico) and Noticias del Imperio (News from the Empire), Guillermo Cabrera Infante‘s Tres Tristes Tigres (Three Trapped Tigers) and others, though the one it stands most comparison with is a relatively short novel (compared to these, at least): Ignacio Padilla‘s Si volviesen sus majestades [If Their Majesties Were to Return]. The two novels invent an entirely imaginary country and, sadly, neither is available in English or, as far as I can determine, any other language than Spanish.

The basis for this novel is quite simply, a founding myth for Argentina, a country which lacks such a myth. Much of the book is narrated by Oscar but we start with a man who we learn at the end of the book is called Mario Corvalán-Ruzzi (you will notice that he has the same initials as the author, whose full, formal name is Martín Caparrós Rosenberg). He has found, in the (fictitious) Castle of Thoucqueaux, on the banks of the Creuse, a manuscript, in French, called L’Histoire de comment se sont perdus les règnes et possessions qui couvrirent jusqu’au temps [The [Hi]story of How the Kingdoms and Possessions Which Lasted Over Time Were Lost]. After considerable research, he learns that the book was first published in French in Strasbourg in 1768. It appears to be the translation of a book originally written in Spanish by José Luis de Miranda in 1650. He spends many years trying to track down the Spanish original but without success. Accordingly, he devotes his life to translating the book back into Spanish, replete with the notes and glosses of Alphonse de Thoucqueaux, the owner of the book, as well as his own copious notes and glosses, which quote numerous other authors, some real, some fictitious and often disagreeing with other experts. Indeed, the footnotes we get in this book are in most cases, longer than the actual text.

The book tells of a place called simply The City and The Lands. Many experts (primarily French) had tried to locate where this place was and had suggested many parts of the world. Finally, looking at Latin America, the Mayans and Aztecs were considered a possibility. However, it has now been identified as the homeland of the now extinct Calchaquí in northern Argentina.

The story is, as I said, narrated by Oscar, heir to the throne, whose father is about to die. It is Oscar who describes in this work the nature of his country: its culture and customs, its habits and technology, its people and its relations with neighbouring peoples. Indeed, he essentially tells the story of his twenty predecessors as Father. Father is their word for king, though, as Corvalán-Ruzzi points out, we cannot be sure whether the French word père, used in the French text, is a literal translation of their word for father, or something he has coined. The book is actually written down by Jushila (how Oscar pronounces José Luis [de Miranda]) as Fathers are not allowed to write about their lives, as everything they do is considered their writing. Oscar is somewhat worried about taking over from his father, not least because he has to invent his own time. Each Father has to create his own concept of time, which often means wiping out all time past (though even he cannot undead the dead). This is something he has to do the first day of his reign and which causes consternation not only to him but to everyone else, particularly his senior advisers.

The Father seems to be an absolute monarch but he has a council of five advisers, each of which has a deputy (a minor adviser, as they are called) and they seem to function something like a cabinet. The Father is the only one who has the right to choose his own death and the only one who is to be remembered. This is all part of the concept of choosing his time. However, though the Father seems to be in charge, we later learn that it is the advisers that essentially run the country, though this may not always have been the case.

Oscar, through Jushila, gives us a detailed description of the country and its customs, with Corvalán-Ruzzi commenting on them, in the light of more modern research. These commentaries often illustrate a certain controversy on specific issues. He also outlines the various actions of his twenty predecessors, praising some and criticising others. In short, we get a fair amount of detail of most of the Fathers, what they did, and what happened to them. The following is merely a sample of many of the topics raised.

The country seems to have an advanced technology. For example, they seem to have gas lighting. Later archaeologists have said that there is no evidence of this but Corvalán-Ruzzi said that the pipes were made of some kind of plastic and have since disintegrated. One of the key jobs, for example, is machinist, and machines are constantly being invented. Oddly enough, they are often invented for very specific tasks, to avoid copying them. For example, there is a calculator but it can only be used to measure the cost of a caravan on a specific journey and nothing else. Other machines have a similar limited function. Surprisingly enough, machine repairers (along with cigar makers and bird sellers) are one of the professions not allowed to have a child by a woman from the city. There are numerous other similar anomalies in their social mores.

Sex seems to be very important and sex is certainly not just conventional heterosexuality. Homosexuality is not only common but there is even a detailed guide as to what to do (we are not spared the details) and other types of sex such as group sex and bestiality seem to be common. To show the importance of mechanics in their live, the conventional vulgarities for the male and female genital organs are taken from machinery, namely piston and valve.

Their main art form seems to be biography (and war). Most of the biographers seem to be female and write the biographies while their subjects are still alive. The book invariably starts with a detailed description of the body parts of the subject. Again, we are given the details. Portrait painting is also common. As for music, they seem to have automata that play music in the streets. Though not an art form, riddles seem to be a key part of their customs.

Their biology seem to be somewhat wayward. They take the view that semen consists of lot of tiny little men (only men) with the strongest fighting his way to the ovaries. However, sometimes these homunculi can get weakened in the womb and, in this case, they turn out to be female. The whole issue has caused considerable controversy, with the details of the controversy spelled out for us.

Other issues include their complex number system; their use of five languages, each one used according to whom you are speaking to, which seems to be something like the honorific speech used in Japanese; their medicine (isolation and even killing the sick seems to be key); their limited trading with others; their civil war, in particular the rebellion of Juanca known as The Bastard; their way of dividing time periods; their language (of which we know little, except for a small excerpt from a dictionary); their names (they seem to have a very limited range of names though, as the names have been gallicised and then hispanicised, it is difficult to know how many there were and what they were); crime (which is seen not so much as an attack on a victim but a disruption to the social order and therefore punished accordingly); the fact that they generally go out without clothes but it is considered very important to always wear perfume; self-scarring (done whenever a significant event occurs in their life); their religion (they used to have goods but got rid of them when the first of Oscar’s ancestors, Albert, took over. There are many other issues that are discussed.

We also learn something about their origin. Albert and his men arrived and took over, quite probably fleeing a drought. We also learn something of their end. Jushila, who was a Spanish monk and captured when wandering in the area near the City, subsequently escapes and spends the rest of his life in a monastery, where he learns of the defeat and capture of The City by the Spanish.

This is not the first novel by any means to invent an entire world though obviously many of these are set on another planet or in an entirely imaginary place. As I mentioned above, it is Ignacio Padilla‘s Si volviesen sus majestades [If Their Majesties Were to Return] which this book can be best compared to, inventing a completely new world on our planet and in historical time. This book covers an entirely imaginary people but based on a very real and now extinct group and gives us not only a brilliant portrait of their world but is highly inventive, as many of their customs and behaviours seem to us totally strange, yet have a certain logic to them, even if this logic is not ours.

Caparrós presumably spent many years writing this. Not only is it over a thousand pages long, its complexity, from the stories of the twenty Fathers to the incredibly detailed footnotes, quoting both real and imaginary works, means he must have spent a very long time researching it before writing it. The big mystery is why it remained essentially unavailable for eighteen years and why Anagrama took so long to publish a version available to the general public. It would be nice to think that it will make it into English but I am not optimistic.

Publishing history

First published in Spanish by Grupo Editorial Norma in 1999
No English translation