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Javier Pedro Zabala: The Mad Patagonian

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.

Mick has a beach house (which, we later learn, he got free of charge and, very briefly, will pass on to Travis). He uses the beach house for partying, which very much involves sex and drugs. Travis has little success with the opposite sex. He has two dates which go nowhere. He takes one female student home. She kisses him and invites him in. He declines. It seems that she is obsessed with him. This will get him fired. At a final party at the beach house, Travis finds that he is in love with Tommie. It is not clear whether she feels the same way. Mick announces that he is leaving and gives Travis the beach house. Travis is fired the next day and joins Mick.

Next stop is Coral Gables, specifically the Patagonian Café in Little Havana, Miami. Its is owned by Xavier and Soledad Mendoza. They met during the Spanish Civil War. Xavier was born in what was then the Austro-Hungarian Empire and is now Slovakia. (As in many of the stories we are into unreliable narrator territory here and it is not entirely clear if this is true. Indeed, Xavier himself questions it.) They fled Spain (we learn why and not just for the politics) and ended up in Miami. Despite being over eighty, they still have mad passionate sex. Two teachers turn up at their café – we soon work out who they are. We follow Mick and Travis to a certain degree, as well as Xavier, but the main interest is Malachi, known as Broken Bicycle because, well, he rides a broken old bicycle.

Malachi has tried various jobs but ends up working for the Velazquez Brothers who have had various businesses but are currently making pornographic films. Malachi has introduced them to Gisela who works at the Patagonian Café. Gisela is an attractive woman with very large breasts so the Velazquez Brothers are able to use her in their films. She has agreed because she does not mind taking her clothes off and, as she says, enjoys fucking. She has made nine films for them, all highly successful, and now they are planning a massive, expensive blockbuster, using a prestigious Mexican director. However, Gisela has had enough. There is too much fucking for her taste and she is sore so she quits. The Velazquez Brothers are not amused and they hold Malachi responsible. The rest of the novella tells of their reaction, what Malachi does, the Mexican film director and how the teachers and Xavier are partially involved.

We next move to Spain where we meet Isidora Escoraz Calzada. Isidora has a great relationship with her great-grandparents, despite the fact they died well before she was born. She is a psychic, as other women in her family have been, and can see and talk to her ancestors. Indeed, as she later comments, she has a far better relationship with her great-grandmother than she does with her mother. Her only problem with them is that they all seemed to have doomed love affairs and she wants to prove that someone in her family can have a happy relationship. This will, of course, be part of the plot, though not till much later in the book.

She is particularly fascinated with Escolástica Vda de Miranda, the niece of her great-grandfather and we follow the story of Escolástica (known to her family as Tiká). Tiká is kidnapped by her Uncle Andrés and a man claiming to be William Grenfell, rightful heir to some mines in Cuba. With her insight, she sees through Grenfell but wants to be kidnapped, in other words she wants to go to Cuba, so she does. The journey is very much cursed by various natural and supernatural events but uncle and niece get there.

We have known from the beginning that Andrés is going to be shot while working as a barman and we gradually learn why. Tiká heads off to Puerto Rico where she will live her life as a man, Sebastian de Urquiza, meet three ex-poets and die in a convent, where she will reveal key plot details.

We are next back in Havana, in the 1940s-1950s, where we follow the Mafia and a young man called Oscar who works for them and who, of course, is in love – with Nerea, who is in love with Oscar’s boss, Luis. we follow the Lüning Affair, an earthquake and the vanishing dreams of Cuba. But things are not working out for the Mafia with the arrival of the Castro Communists, not to mention a strange gang of former German spies, so they leave the country.

We are next back in Miami and the various plot threads start joining up, with Oscar marrying Isidora Escoraz Calzada, tangling with the Velazquez Brothers and running La Campana, a night club we have seen earlier in the book. Inevitably, perhaps, the CIA is very much involved. The Velazquez Brothers, as we know and now know further, have a habit of killing people. More to the point we discover, as does Emilio, Isidora’s brother, that those killed by them tend to disappear not just physically but with all records of them obliterated.

Indeed, the next chapter is Emilio’s diary. By this time, we know that the Velazquez Brothers have disposed of him as well. His diary, as well as discussing his theory about crickets being the prognosticators of death and following the stories of the priest, Anton Kreutner, from Metz to Miami, where he gives up the priesthood for love and the (real) Hungarian painter Gyula Tornai, also gives brief bios of those who have been disappeared by the Velazquez Brothers.

The penultimate chapter takes us back to the Patagonian Café and brings back some of the characters we met earlier in the book, including Mick and the Mexican film director.

We end up in Prague where we follow a lecture on the Nazi obsession with occult and learn about a possible alien (as in extraterrestrial) race in our midst.

Firstly, as Zabala claimed this book is not Bolaño. It is not as dark and, in my view, not as good. This is not to underrate it. Very few writers can compare with Bolaño. However, it is very well written, very complex and keeps on going. Part of it is clearly about people following their dreams. Many of these dreams are about love (usually accompanied with passionate sex). There are more happy, loving relationships than one would normally find outside more conventional romance novels, though not all last. Isidora’s mother comments all love stories begin as fairy stories, enigmatic, mysterious, undecipherable, hopeful, a view of heaven, so to speak, but then in a heart-wrenching rush of utterly incomprehensible anguish, true love disintegrates and the two principal actors, the young lovers (or the middle-aged lovers or the elderly lovers) melt away as if they had never existed, as if they had been made of wax. This may well be a cynical view from her own perspective but does apply to some of the stories in this book but certainly not all. I might qualify her comment by saying that those that do break up were great while they lasted. I would also add that Zabala himself apparently had a happy marriage till his wife disappeared in Rwanda.

Not all the dreams are about love and sex. Some are simply about doing one’s own thing, about freedom from the normal societal and other constraints, symbolised by Mick at the beginning, just walking away from his job but also all his other commitments and setting off into the unknown, again as Zabala did, leaving Miami for a life in Cuba.

Secondly, the plot – not surprisingly for a 1200 page novel – is very complex, with a cast of thousands. The nine novellas that make up the novel do, to some degree, join up. Indeed, the plot starts off being relatively simple but then we get into the complexities of Isidora and her family, helped by the fact that she is in constant touch with her ancestors, and then the Cuban gangsters and finally the CIA get involved and it all goes to hell.

Thirdly, though Zabala was neither born nor bred in Cuba, he is a Cuban novelist, as he lived most of his adult life there and Cuba is as much the main character of this novel as any of the human characters. He covers Cuba in great detail, its history, primarily its twentieth century history, the changes that have happened in Cuba for various reasons (US influence being particularly important but certainly not the only influence) and its religion. We see the clash between Christianity and its traditional religions, often of African origin, particularly Santería. Christianity and Santería, however, are not mutually exclusive. Isidora’s mother, for example, is a firm believer in Catholicism and when it is time for Emilio’s first communion, her husband refuses to pay for the traditional expensive outfit, as he is opposed to Catholicism. The mother turns to the Ifá gods and gets the costume.

Fourthly, we have come to expect, particularly with the Boom writers and their use of Magic Realism, a certain amount of straying from the realist path where Latin American writers are concerned. The reality is that there are many highly competent Latin American authors who would not touch magic realism with a barge pole. Zabala’s approach is not so much to use magic realism, which he does not, but to use the supernatural, the otherworldly. We see this with Isidora’s access to her ancestors, with the Santería of her mother and elsewhere. In particular La Campana seems to live in a world of its own. It has an address but the address is not recorded anywhere and many people – police and CIA, for example – have great difficulty in finding it. Those who love it and enjoy what it has to offer have no difficulty in finding it. In other words, it seems to live in its own magical space.

I do not see this book gaining the reputation that other Latin American books have obtained. Part of the problem is distribution. It has not been published in Spanish and the English-language edition is not available in ebook format and is only obtainable in print format from a small US publisher and not from the usual sources (at least at the time of writing in 2018). I did very much enjoy it and can recommend it if, like me, you like long complex books which take you all over the place, with digressions and sub-stories galore, a cast of thousands and multiple plots which may or may not converge at the end. But I still prefer Bolaño.

It has been since suggested that this book is a fake, i.e. not a translation from Spanish, but written in English and pretending to be a translation. In other words Javier Pedro Zabala did not exist. See, for example, this article. I must say that, when reading it, this did cross my mind, not least because I could find nothing in Spanish about Zabala or the book. Lascosas, in the linked article, makes some valid points. There are other examples of this. For example, there are lots of Harry Potter books being sold in China, in Chinese, which are not translations of books written by J K Rowling but entirely made-up.

More on the book and author

Fake News, Fake Mad Patagonian (my blog post on the identity of Zabala and whether the book was a translation)
The Mad Patagonian (the publisher’s response to the above)

Publishing history

First published 2018 by River Boat Books
Spanish original not yet published