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Fernando del Paso: Palinuro de México (Palinuro of Mexico)

This novel had a strange publishing history. It was submitted in manuscript to the Mexican publishers Editorial Novara, a publisher known for publishing the Spanish version of Spiderman and the like, where it won the prestigious Premio Novela Mexico, previously won by Jorge Ibargüengoitia and Juan Marsé. However the publishers considered it too big to publish but would not release the rights for a couple of years, when it was published in Spain.

This novel is like Ulysses, Adán Buenosayres, St. Petersburg and others great twentieth century novels, where the hero of the novel is really the city, in this case Mexico City. The human hero is Palinuro (based on Palinurus, Cyril Connolly’s pseudonym), a medical student, who has a strange and very mixed and eccentric family. Del Paso, who studied biology at university, makes great use of his medical knowledge, not just in sexual activities – though they are important – but examining it in all aspects, including – as this is Mexico – death. Palinuro and his cousin and lover Estefanía pursue their bawdy way through Mexico, not only geographically but also historically. Ending up during the Olympics of 1968, which were preceded by rioting by students and violent reprisals by the police, del Paso casts a critical look at Mexico and at its troubled history, both through the eyes of Palinuro and Estefanía but also the critical eye of the narrator.

Like other city novels, Palinuro is not just bawdy but it is highly witty, uses pastiches and literary references throughout, switches viewpoints so it is never entirely clear who is telling the story, displays an encyclopedic of knowledge of all sorts of subjects, not just medicine, jumps through time and even switches genres. Rabelais, Sterne and Joyce may be its forebears but this novel very much stands on its own as one of the great Latin American novels.

Publishing history

First published by Alfaguara in 1977 in Spanish
First published in English by Quartet 1989