Miquel de Palol: El jardí dels set crepuscles (The Garden of Seven Twilights)
This is Miquel de Palol’s first novel and also the first (but by no means the last) of his novels to be translated into English Like some of his other works, it is long, complex and transports the reader into another world.
We start with what I shall call the found manuscript trope. A manuscript – author unknown – has been found, which contains the story we are about to read. The manuscript is obviously from the past of the person presenting the manuscript but it is from future of theauthor. We get a detailed introduction to the nature of the manuscript – source, variants, date, possible author(s) and so on as well as what was going on in the world at that time and subsequently. There had been nuclear wars, wittily known as the Four Wars of Entertainment. The world survived though key cities were destroyed. However the events we are focussing on in this book took place between 2018 and 2030, i.e our present but still thirty years in the future when the book was written. (Was de Palol predicting Putin’s nasty little war and his threat of using nuclear weapons?)
The book is clearly influenced to some degree by The Decameron. The Decameron took place over ten days (decameron is the Greek for ten days). The people are cut off from the rest of the world (by the plague in the case of Decameron) and they tell each other stories. Our characters tell each other stories over seven days and are cut off by war.
Cutting to the chase, Barcelona is under threat of a nuclear attack with the obvious resultant mass panic, not helped by Barcelona being difficult to evacuate. With the help of his well-connected mother, the narrator is able to escape and is taken on a dangerous journey, to what he calls a pleasure palace – a massive mansion – high in the Pyrenees, where other well-connected people are also staying for the duration. We learn about the palace and its wonderful gardens which seem to be kept warm by volcanic springs so that rare trees grow there.
The other inhabitants all seem to have one thing in common. They are all more or less somehow connected to the Barcelona banking and finance world and, in particular, they are involved with, have been involved with or are close to people involved with one particular bank, the Mir Bank. Mir (мир) is, of course the Russian for peace and the Russian for world. I am assuming that the second meaning is the one relevant here as it does business in other countries. However it is not the World Bank (Russian: Всемирный банк) though the World Bank does get mentioned more than once though as a key bank, which it is not, at least in the present day. We follow the complicated, murky and not always moral story of the Mir bank. However this book is about story-telling and most of those present have tales to tell.
We start with a story that might best be described as a banker’s King Lear. Yes, it is about the Mir Bank. We will follow on to a variety of other stories related to the bank, which show that while there were some (relatively) honest people involved, there were a few characters of dubious morality. In particular there were quite a few dirty deeds, some recounted by the guilty parties themselves. Interestingly, we get different perspectives of the same story. Most of the other participants seem to have some idea of what went on but are often keen to fill in the gaps.
While these stories are being told we are also observing the various guests, through the eyes of the narrator. People come and go. Some seem to actively dislike some of the others. The narrator wittily comments I seemed to have adopted something of the macabre attitude of the other guests, who were acting like vacationers on a yacht in the midst of nuclear war. Indeed, the participants assume they have a God-given right to be there and seem to be generally unconcerned about the fate of the ordinary people left in Barcelona.
The stories proceed apace and we temporarily move beyond the Mir Bank, though it continues to hover around in the background, and will return with a bang. We briefly enter geopolitics where we meet a character wittily called Keir Dullea (the name of the actor who played Dave Bowman in 2001: A Space Odyssey). He is not by any means the only character named after a relatively obscure real-life celebrity. Dullea is the captain of a boat involved in anti-terrorist activities and we get a few fun stories about their missions.
However, de Palol happily switches genres – a locked room mystery, super-intelligent human beings, drug dealers, US politics, a moral tale about the abuse of power, a ghost story, Greek myths, vampirism, theoretical physics and many more keep us joyously entertained.
The stories can perhaps be divided into three kinds: those that concern the Mir Bank, its owners and employees (though we are only concerned with the senior employees); those that do not seem relevant to the Mir Bank story but turn out to have some relevance, however tangential, and those that seemingly have no connection with the Mir Bank (very few). I stress the word seemingly. Quite a lot is not what it seems in this book.
One of the problems that we, as readers, and several of the characters, the narrator in particular, face is that many of the narrators are unreliable, either deliberately concealing or distorting information or, quite simple not really knowing what happened even though they might give the impression that they do know.
We gradually build up a picture of the history of the Mir Bank, though this picture changes frequently and a new story-teller adds his/her take on what happened and who did what to whom.
There are a few mysteries which we and the characters are eager to solve and about which we get considerable but contradictory information. Firstly, currently, i.e. when this novel takes place (over the seven days) Mir Bank seems to be controlled by a mysterious character known only as Ω, i.e the Greek letter omega, the last letter of the Greek alphabet. Who s/he is, nobody seems to know though many hazard a guess. It seems quite likely that s/he is present at this gathering but is keeping a low profile. There are a significant number of contenders for the role of Ω.
The other key mystery concerns a jewel which is or was owned by the Bank. The first mystery is who has it now? We learn in some detail its story, where it was, who died for it, who is looking for it and why. The second aspect of the jewel story is what is it? It may be a special jewel but it may well be something else. Whatever it is, it seems to have considerable powers as nations have been eager to get it and/or eager for it not to fall into the wrong hands and, once again, someone present at the gathering may have it or, at least know of its whereabouts.
There is another mystery. The narrator, whose first name we do not learn, may not be who he thinks he is, in particular as regards his parentage. This may also apply to other characters, not least regarding two children of a key player who are kidnapped.
To put it succinctly and brutally, neither we nor most (all?) the characters really know what is going on at any given moment.
But what about the eponymous garden? There is a Garden of Twilight which plays a significant role in that the garden and the trees in it are laid out in a way that is not random but has a significance which we gradually discover. However, this book and the manuscript it is based on are called The Garden of Seven Twilights. There is no other mention of a Garden of Seven Twilights in the book. except that one of the characters has a book with that as its title: What’s it about?”
“I just started it,” Betanci said. “It’s got a rather dubious introduction, and then it talks about the destruction of Constantinople during a nuclear war.” “I read it,” Alfeu said. “Editors, right? They just can’t resist letting us know how intelligent and knowledgeable they are.”
There are many stories, many of which, as mentioned, tell of the Mir Bank and the often dirty deeds going on there but there are others. I shall mention just one which I particularly enjoyed, a Groundhog Day-like tale of a character caught in a time loop. (As the book was published four years before the film de Palol was obviously not influenced by it and as the book was only available in Catalan at the time, I do not think Murray and Ramis borrowed from de Palol.) If you have seem the film, you will know that the character played by Murray wakes up on the same day every day, as happens in de Palol’s story. De Palol’s story is more gruesome as our character tries both murder and suicide to break the loop but still a fascinating tale.
De Palol is not just telling a story or stories but making many valid points about society and life. For example, he states Society forces the artist to sell himself, to slap a label on himself like something that comes in a jar, and the contents have to match the label. Only the great ones (I mean the real, true greats) can sidestep that. Presumably this is about his work as much as that of others.
This is not a science fiction novel, though set in the future but we do get futuristic references. The global war is one but we also get genetically engineered humans and superhumans, though they are not wholly successful. As it was published in 1989, there is no Internet though computers are used in some way to follow the course of the war, but only by a select few.We learn of some areas damaged by the war: France and England. Production has halted, infrastructure is a wreck: there’s no food, no water, no electricity, nothing works, and worse, there’s no real way to make anything work.
And a key to the book? The novel is a closed system (or at least that’s what the authors want it to be, whether or not they admit it), and the rules of the game already provide the key. That never happens in reality, which is open and so vast and rich that no one can address it on the basis of limited knowledge. Is this book a closed system or is it so vast and rich that no one can address it on the basis of limited knowledge?
I think I might incline towards the latter though I like another comment made: It’s not a matter of explaining, but of setting loose the monsters that howl in the dark corners.
First published in 1989 by Proa
First published in 2023 English by Dalkey Archive Press
Translated by Adrian Nathan West