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Salvador Elizondo: El hipogeo secreto (The Secret Crypt)
If I had to sum this work in a few words, I would saythat Salvador Elizondo has written a novel called The Secret Crypt about an author called Salvador Elizondo writing a novel called The Secret Crypt. It is not about the mechanics of his writing the novel but more about how the author interacts with his characters, the reader and the novel itself. As he starts with a quotation from Finnegans Wake, you can get an idea where this novel may be going.
We first meet a group of characters who belong to an organisation called Urkreis At this stage, who they are, where they are and what they are doing is unclear. Only one has a name – Perra. (Perra is the Spanish for bitch in the sense of female dog, not the misogynistic insult.) The others are called merely by letters such as E and X, though one is called Pseudo-T.
They are clearly involved in some way with writing a book and finding the name of the creator of said book, whom they now called Pantokrator. However, Urkreis seems to be somewhat disorganised. One of the characters – E – had invented an eternal and meaningless city. It was a city that could be read like a book. The author/narrator is not sure whether he is E but he will later criticise E’s creation. It is X who proposes Let’s tell ourselves stories about things we’ve never done. We now learn that all of these people are indeed characters in a book. We might be like a novel,’ he went on, ‘a cheap and unimportant novel; one of those novels which, not without malice, you read in certain bourgeois houses.
We learn of a woman who is reading a book. The book that the woman is reading says that we are those two men, X and the other. She makes a gesture but is the gesture an independent gesture or merely something described in the book? In addition, which of them is the author, for it is clear that the author is on equal footing with his characters and may not even be aware that he is the author.It gets more complicated when we learn that two men – X and E – are being described at the moment they are watching the woman reading the book about them but, at the same time, the book is only is being written at that very moment.
What is the book about? Internal subversion. The central character of the book is a writer who believes in the possibility of achieving internal subversion. He has a red notebook, which is called The Secret Crypt (which, they say, is the story of a dream and of a character that dreams it.) He only really has a general outline of where the book is going – about a writer writing a book. What’s important is what this book is about, the book the writer is writing there, near a woman reading a book with a red cover in which the writer is written in the act of writing this book.
E wants to build the city as he dreams it but is it a dream or is it real? Maybe you’re dreaming that you’re one of the characters in The Secret Crypt, which, they say, is the story of a dream and of a character that dreams it.
And what else is it about? Right now I am writing a novel about which I know nothing. I only guess at the general outline of the plot. It’s about a writer writing a book. It gets more complicated. The novel is about a writer who creates another writer, but one day realises that he is the dream of his own character, who dreamed of creating him. I could only escape that dream by dreaming of myself, of me, Salvador Elizondo, whom I’ve invented as a character in an improbable book called The Secret Crypt, which, to put it rather more vaguely, is about a man and a city that have never existed. We are in full mise en abyme/Chinese box territory here.
We continue with this idea – is the writer real? is he imagined? If so who is imaging him? And are the characters real or imagined? Is the woman reading the book real or a character or, perhaps both, and how can she be reading a book that is still very much in the process of being written and where even the author, whoever he may be, has not got a clear idea of the plot? I recognised that this other could be real, could be the true Salvador Elizondo—who is not I as I am but rather the pseudo-Salvador Elizondo.
It gets even more complicated. I know only that the man is writing a book called The Secret Crypt. It’s a book in which paradox has a prominent position. But I, Salvador Elizondo, maybe I, too, am an apocryphal character created by the gods of literature. My character, that pseudo-Salvador Elizondo, who is simultaneously writing a novel and living his human life, imagines at one point that he is being written by me. The characters start calling him The Imagined, while X, it turns out, may not be a character or may also be a character but is also an author. His novels have always been oriented toward the idea that it’s only possible to verify the existence of the world if it consists of nothing but a series of words.
The characters also seem able to influence the course of the book. Perra, or Mia La Perra, to give her her full name, chose her name and the author accepted her choice.
We do know – probably – that the apocryphal city is called Polt and, in addition to Perra, there is a female character called Zoe. She engages with the author, wanting to know what happens to the other characters. However, the problem for her and for the author is that the plot seems to be taking on a life of its own and going in a different direction from the one originally planned.
But how do we know the book exists? It’s possible that the book has never been written. However, X has an easy answer to that. If the book did not exist, the characters, who are there, would not exist. Of course, maybe they do not exist, even though they are there.
But does the author exist? And, is he – Salvador Elizondo, or whatever the guy’s name is – the same person as the author called Salvador Elizondo that appears in the book? Salvador Elizondo is a man who writes himself but doesn’t manage to create a clear picture of himself.
And the book keeps changing course, going first one way and then another. So it’s an adventure novel, a metaphysical novel, scriptural, and in the same genre as The Begum’s Fortune. Good versus evil; except good fights with the weapons of evil, and evil with the weapons of good, and in the end, I still don’t know who would win. And then the author starts deleting chapters…
As you can see this is quite a complicated novel, Indeed, I cannot imagine what Mexican readers in 1968 made of it. The author seems almost as imaginary as his characters. Is the author Salvador Elizondo the same as the character Salvador Elizondo and, indeed, is the character Salvador Elizondo the author, an author or even real or imaginary? X, for example has written novels. Is he simply a character who writes novels or something else? There are a host of questions that we might ask and the characters and the author do ask, to which there is not a clear answer. In short, it is a wonderful conundrum. If you like books with a clear-cut outcome, this may not be the book for you but if you like puzzles, unanswered questions, conundrums, Chinese boxes and mise en abyme, then you cannot help but enjoy Elizondo’s mystery.
First published by Joaquín Mortiz in 1968
First English translation in 2022
Translated by Joshua Pollock