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Llorenç Villalonga: Andrea Víctrix (Andrea Víctrix)

When you read a dystopian novel set in the future, I think there are three possible reactions. The first, particularly with a book set in the author’s future but your past,e.g. Nineteen Eighty-Four, is to see what has actually come to pass or is very much like what has come to pass. The second is to see what might come to pass, even though it has not yet done so. The third, of course, is to consider the author’s forecast to be essentially wrong.

There are essentially two types of dystopian novel (yes, I know there are variations of these): the one where the future is grim and miserable, such as Nineteen Eighty-Four and the one where the future is not so grim but there are issues, such as loss of freedoms, as with Brave New World. This book is definitely in the latter category and, if we have any doubts, Huxley and Brave New World are referred to on several occasions.

The book starts with a couple of issues, one of which has come to pass and the other seems to, be at least partially, moving in that direction (though many will disagree with me). The first is the idea of the super-rich, the self-made kind, controlling the world. Jeff Bezos was born the year this book was first published. The second has not happened but there are steps towards it. Most of the people in this book, including the eponymous Andrea Victrix, are androgynous. With gender fluidity on the rise, I suppose this could happen. We will later see other tropes we might recognise in today’s world, such as excessive use of drugs and strong encouragements to buy consumer goods.

Our unnamed narrator was around sixty in 1965, when he had himself frozen. This was far from a perfect system and many of the others who were frozen in this way – Winston Churchill was one – did not survive. Anyway, our narrator has woken up in 2050. Not only is he preserved, he is now aged around thirty. Of course the world – in his case Palma de Mallorca – has changed. Indeed, it is no longer Palma de Mallorca but Turclub, short for Tourist Club.

He has some money but it is out of date. His house has long since gone, as have his family and friends. He is alone in this strange world. Someone offers him a ride. It is Andrea Victrix. Is Andrea male or female? He does not know and nor do we. This is his first culture shock. His second is that Andrea deliberately runs over some pedestrians and, surprisingly gets rewarded for this, not condemned – shades of Death Race 2000. When our narrator is critical, Andrea kicks him out of the car.

However, he needs to eat and decides to look for a job. He was a writer but there is not much demand for that. Indeed, writing novels is definitely frowned upon. However, he finds that if he has a jobless card, he can get free food. Here is one change that we could possibly foresee. Food is no longer solid but all liquid (as in 2001: A Space Odyssey released six years before this book).

Our narrator, though now able to eat, still feels he does not fit in, so he goes to see a psychiatrist. The psychiatrist, Dr Orlando, is an elderly man (apparently over one hundred and twenty years old) from the Viennese School. He tells our narrator that he feels old because he is old. He also tells him that half the population is mad and that the State, advised by big business, thinks for all of us. Dr Orlando and the people who go to him, including our narrator, will become one part of the opposition to the current order.

Another trend we see is self-medication. Doctors are a diminishing breed. While they do not seem to have an Internet and Dr Google, there are enough medicines freely available to cure most illnesses. The soma drug, straight from Huxley, cures all pains.

While there are a lot of changes discussed – the book is as much an essay on changes they have made as a novel – there are a few key ones. In one of the relatively rare witty episodes, one of either the president of the US or the president of Russia, while swatting a fly, inadvertently pressed the nuclear button. The other side retaliated and both countries were essentially destroyed. China seems to have disappeared though we do not learn how and the why seems to be the idea of getting them before they get us. Accordingly, Europe rules the world, though the government is controlled by big business and particularly the manufacturer of the drink Hola Hola, which is, essentially, merely coloured water. However to criticise it in any way is a crime and the man who exposed the fact that it was coloured water is executed.

People are androgynous because, as in Brave New World, there is no viviparous reproduction. Humans are created in a lab so virtually no-one has parents, siblings or children. Some do, though this is considered a crime.

There is a plot. Andrea tries to persuade our narrator that their way is right but our narrator, together with another woman, Lola, and a diabetic man, both of whom were frozen like our narrator, form a sort of opposition. There starts to be an economic crisis and it becomes compulsory to buy things – fridges,radios, etc., even if you already have one, so people soon get into debt. Despite this, our narrator and Andrea become very close, as Andrea tries to make our narrator see the light.

Above all, we learn of a host of changes, some of which seem possible and some less so. For example, nature seems to have gone. Did you have natural magnolias in your time? It must have been a real threat to the plastics industry. Big business rules. Both of these are certainly more likely than they were when this book was written. Population growth which can be controlled by how many people are manufactured is an issue but climate change does not seem to be, though they they do seem, towards the end of the novel, to start worrying about pollution caused by cars.

I have read quite a few dystopian novels. There are several on this site, not just Brave New World and Nineteen Eighty-Four but also novels such as Kallocain (Kallocain), Мы (We), Sinfin [Endless], Não verás país nenhum (And Still the Earth), The Handmaid’s Tale and many more, as well as quite a few science fiction ones such as The Postman and the works of J G Ballard and Philip K. Dick

Invariably, in these novels, they tell a story, showing what happened and, sometimes, why it happened and what happens next. Villalonga certainly tells a story. We follow the story of the narrator and of Andrea, their relationship and how things start going wrong in this Brave New World, and why they are going wrong. However, as mentioned above, Villalonga goes a step further, through the mouths of the narrator and Andrea, but also some of the minor characters, we get detailed arguments about the pros and cons of our world (i.e. Villalonga’s world of 1974) and this future world.

Villalonga is too good a writer to take a simplistic approach, i.e their world – bad, our world – good, though this is clearly his basic view. Andrea, for example, in three speeches she gives to the world near the end of the novel, justifies industrialisation and technology, from the wheel to Hola Hola. I doubt that many of us reading this review and/or reading the book, unless were are in full Greta Thunberg mode, would want to do away with the many of the benefits of industrialisation and technology we all enjoy. The basic argument seems to be the song of the nightingale versus industrialisation. I suspect most of us want to have our cake and eat it. We want to hear the nightingale (and, sadly, that is becoming increasingly difficult) but we also want the latest I-Phone. Villalonga’s point, at least in part, is that soon we will have to choose between the two. His future world has chosen technology over the nightingale.

Villalonga and his characters call on many authorities, from Teilhard de Chardin to Oswald Spengler, from Paul Valéry to G. K. Chesterton. Indeed, I can say that this is undoubtedly one of the most learned dystopian novels I have ever read. Do not let that put you off as Villalonga discusses all the issues in some detail but in a most interesting way. More than with most novels, you will find yourself arguing with the various characters and their points of view but, at times, reluctantly accepting that they have a point. However, because there is a story, you can skip over the arguments and simply enjoy a good story, well told.

This is another excellent novel from still relatively new publisher Fum d’Estampa. I had read quite a new Catalan novels before they were formed but I am clearly going to discover quite a few more interesting ones.

I had previously read and enjoyed Villalonga’s Bearn o la sala de las muñecas (Bearn or The Doll’s Room; The Doll’s Room). However, though that novel is considered his best, I much preferred this one. A superb story with a host of fascinating ideas – my idea of a good novel.

First published in 1974 by Destino
First published in English in 2021 by Fum d’Estampa Press
Translated by Louise Johnson