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Ventura Ametller: Summa kaòtica (Summa Kaotica)

Ventura Ametller was a veterinarian in the medieval Catalonian town of Pals, which appears as Poel in this book. He wrote poetry, essays and prose fiction, much of which is still unpublished, though this book was published in Catalan in 1986 and, thanks to Douglas Suttle and Fum d’Estampa, has now made it into English.

The title could perhaps be translated as total chaos but that would be wrong, even though it might be more or less an accurate description of the book. Summa is a Latin word, more or less akin to our summing-up and means something like a compendium. Kaotica has a Greek root so, mixing the two languages, we get Chaotic Compendium which is also a good description of the book.

Amettler was a Catalan and like most good Catalans he was opposed to Franco and his evil deeds and this book will cover that issue. It is also one of those books where a small place – Poel/Pals – represents the world or, at least the Catalan/Spanish world of the era, i.e. the Second Spanish Republic, founded in 1931, and its aftermath, which, of course encompassed the Spanish Civil War. At one point it is suggested that Poel is the capital of Catalonia.

As well as the small town representing the world trope, we have another common trope, the found manuscript one, namely The Typescript of the Great Petter White O’Sullivan, Antihistorian, aka Pere Blanc Suc D’Olives, a crude translation of the English. He is also known as the madman of the village, of the country, of the whole entire universe!. He will, of course, make his own appearance in the story.

We start with the birth of a boy , delivered by Peppus who is both the local witch and local midwife. She names him variously Protomorphus, Anamorphus, and Metamorphus, changing as he gets older. The priest finally comes up with Benaventurat Bonaventura Benjamin, Protomorphus-Anaformus, Metamorphus, Empiricus, Antiphormus. (Bonaventura is Amettler’s real first name). Whatever his name is we can see him as being symbolic of the birth of the Second Spanish Republic and given the sharing of the name, perhaps, to a certain degree, representing Amettler himself.

We meet a host of characters in the town but one of the first we meet is Nemesius. The name comes, of course, from the Greek Nemesis, the goddess who personifies retribution for the sin of hubris. Nemesius does not behave well, falls ill and, when he recovers, his brain was to be militarised and muddled for all eternity. He is clearly Francoism, or, more specifically, Franco himself, though, as Poel is the world, he is is from Poel and not from Galicia as the real Franco was. Later in the book, when Franco has won, we get a more interesting etymology: According to Etymological Theory, NEMO means NOBODY, DEMENS means MAD and MEMO, in Lingua Tertii Imperii, means IDIOT. So, between Memesius, Demesius and Nemesius, aren’t we well governed!’ explained Xaliri the etymologist.

There are a lot of interesting names in this book. Many people/places have multiple names. In many cases, we can clearly see who/what they are. I have already mentioned that Pals is called Poel and Franco Nemesius. Bacanardia is Catalonia, which is also called the Vacant Empire. Nearby Fontanilles (seven km from Pals) is called Jobville. Hitler is Kniebolus or Kniebolus-Hinkel. Spain is Snyaphia, Russia is Asinur, Italy is Bufilandia and Germany Rauxesland. The UK is the the United Kingdom of the Druts. You will notice that drut is turd backwards which clearly shows Amettler’s prescience, given the state of the the UK’s rivers and coastline at the moment, though it would appear that drut in Catalan can mean dirt. (The word drut is used in both the English and Catalan text.) We even get a famous Civil War battle renamed with the Battle of the Ebro being called the Battle of Riber. (The Battle of the Riber is lost and it’s over. We’ll be invaded any time now, which is, of course, what happened post-Ebro).

There are numerous characters, some no doubt based on real people and some entirely fictitious. I was surprised to find Erik Jan Hanussen play a role in this books as I have recently read and reviewed a book about him.

Some of the place names are fictitious and/or invented as we have seen but some of the local ones are real. You can find some of them with brief descriptions here or in Adria Pujol Cruells’ Guia Sentimental de l’Empordanet, available relatively cheaply in ebook format from a well-known online retailer.

If I had to sum up the story it would be how Anamorphus (the name he most commonly appears under in this book despite having several other names) is born, grows up and has a picaresque journey through Pals/Poel and environs and how he and the Catalans survive the horrors of Franco, his supporters and his thugs and keep their culture going. It is, of course, much more complicated than that.

Our hero is born into the family of Patriarca Marxant. His mother wanted a daughter but Hereu, his father is happy with a boy. (There is also a brother.) The angels and devils fight over him, and the battle will last a lifetime! But through water will we be victorious! He grows up remarkably quickly and is soon off on his adventures where he will encounter witches and wizards, all sorts of magic and even find gold, though we know it is sweetcorn. However, he will cause chaos and be caught up in it. He will meet up with a host of colourful and often improbably named characters. He will get lost or, seemingly lost, though he is not as worried as his family is. Of course, he will have lots of adventures as any good picaresque hero must.

While we are following his colourful and often chaotic adventures in and around Poel and Jobville (The huge funnel-shaped city of Jobville is a vicious parody of a communist dictatorship. It is ruled by the hypocritical elite called the Honourable Blind, which is headed by the supreme leader Utopus-Taupus ), the war is starting. We do not get many details of the war but we do get a lot more about the aftermath of the war, as the Francoists aim to totally suppress the use of Catalan. It is banned in church services (Not one more word in this pig language in any church throughout the Sacred Empire. You understand me?) and in schools. This era the author calls the Era Of The Great Comedy.

Suppression is rife and the walls are daubed with slogans such as If you are baptised, speak Christian and Jews, witches and heretics out!. There is a new class of inquisitors, censors, executors, torturers and all the invasive mystic-military personnel. Of course, Catalan struggles to survive and we learn of some of their efforts. Our hero finally has to go to (Spanish-speaking, sexually segregated) school. Meanwhile World War II has started (called the Second Bestial War in this book).

This is a wonderfully enjoyable book: chaotic, totally original, full of humour and, indeed, with lots of sex and violence, highly imaginative, entirely partisan, with no qualms about who and what it insults and, above all a tribute to Catalan, its survival under the horrors of the Franco regime and additional proof, if proof was needed, that Catalan literature can be considered one of the foremost European literatures.

First published in 1986 by Editorial Laia,
First published in English in 2023 by Fum d’Estampa
Translated by Douglas Suttle