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Agustín Fernández Mallo: Trilogía de la guerra (The Things We’ve Seen)
As you can see from the Spanish title, this book was written as a trilogy. However, the English translation has been published in a single volume.
Our initial hero/narrator is, like the author, a Galician writer. To make life simple I shall refer to him as Agustín, though the two doubtless differ to some degree. He receives an email, inviting him to a seminar, called Net-Thinking, where a group of artistic people would get together on an island and discuss various issues, with no physical audience but with the whole event live-streamed. He thinks the idea interesting and he is glad that the (very real) musician Julián Hernández (link in Spanish), whom he knows, will also be attending.
The event is to take place on the island of San Simón in the Vigo estuary. Initially, he does not know where it is but then remembers, he has a book on it, specifically a book of the film Aillados (the link is to a trailer of the film, in Galician; the book, also in Galician, is still readily available). The word Aillados is the Galician for isolated and isolation is a key theme of his book.
If you read the linked Wikipedia article, you will see that the island had many uses. This article, for example, shows that Francis Drake, the British heroic naval captain/pirate (depending on your point of view) caused problems here. The film Aillados was about the period when it was prison camp during the Spanish Civil War. Many men were sent here and many men died here. Conditions were harsh and the treatment was cruel. Like all good Spanish authors, Fernández Mallo is going to touch on the Civil War. It will come up several times in this book.
The conference turns out not be the main focus of Agustín’s stay there. Initially he participates only to a small degree. For example, when he arrives, everyone else is tweeting. He goes for a walk round he island. He does raise one interesting point during the seminar: when communities, animal or human, are isolated the larger creatures grow smaller and the smaller ones grow bigger. This had been observed on Flores Island near Java. Though the humans’ brains had shrunk, this did nothing to diminish their intellectual capacities; only their will had been affected. A point came when they began to neglect the most basic aspects of survival, coitus included. he goes on to make an interesting point: that sometimes occurs in certain networks, for example in private groups on Facebook, or on networks used exclusively by the military or financial corporations.
However, Agustín has two other concerns. He wanders round the island, fascinated by its history, particularly its role as a prison camp, and photographs scenes from the book, comparing them with what they look like now. The second concern is the staff. A Uruguayan waiter approaches him and tells him a sad tale. He and his wife came over from Uruguay to Spain to find work. She, though very pregnant, has started an affair with another staff member. Agustín tries to help him. He later notices another waitress, who has got scar marks on her wrists. This brings in another theme, people struggling outside their normal environment.
After the conference, he had planned to go back home (to Mallorca) but, instead comes back to the now deserted island. He is isolated as he cannot get any Internet connection or mobile signal. He had noticed, in the former camp hospital, an array of old computers. The electricity had been left on so he is able to switch them on. They contain a detailed account by an inmate, apparently found hidden in a wall, of the grim life there. In one of the many items that will have a connection later on, the writer will mention some Lorca poems.
One interesting idea is that in conditions of isolation, there’s a tendency for bodies and brains to meld together into a single consciousness, into a receptacle for identical reagents, and that, in reality, it is this great unification, to put it one way, which the repressive authority seeks to bring about: to annul all individuality, to make everyone speak as if with one and the same mouth. He will go later to take this idea with one of his witty revamped famous phrases. He takes Ginsberg’s opening lines of Howl – I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked, dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix and changes it to I saw the greatest minds of my generation destroyed by Facebook. Zuckerberg has a lot to answer for.
We next find him in New York in 2015, where he will meet Salvador Dali (who died in 1989). Both Dali and Rodolfo, a Uruguayan Agustín had met on his previous visit, meet Lorca (murdered in 1936) in Central Park. He will also meet a film maker who had met a New York baker, Antonio, who had been interned in San Simón and who gave her photos for her to use in a video display (where Agustín saw them.) He will live alone and often be alone, taking, for example, to wandering the streets late at night. For me, New York City was already the last medieval city of the Modern Era, like seeing Pompeii just before the volcano erupted.
As everything links up in this book, it is no surprise that there is a connection between Rodolfo and Antonio and therefore between Rodolfo and San Simón. This link is explored later in this section.
The second books is somewhat different. It is set in New York and we follow the story of Kurt Montana, who was the redacted fourth astronaut on the first Apollo Moon mission. It was Kurt, for example, who filmed Neil Armstrong on the surface of the Moon. Apart from his trip to the Moon, Kurt has not done very well. As his name tells us, he is from Montana. He went to MIT but then served in Vietnam. Since his life as an astronaut, he has drifted, not helped by the fact that his father won a million dollars on the lottery and managed to lose it all. He now lives in a retirement home in Miami, where he has to work handing out food to the residents and sharing a room with a man he and we only know as Semicolon. We follow his life as he drifts around, never sure of where he is going.
The final book concerns Agustín’s former girlfriend. They had been close, though, in recent times, it had not been entirely smooth. However, she was surprised when he went off to the conference on San Simón and then, as far as she was concerned, disappeared. She had no idea he returned to the island or went to New York. He had not answered his phone, which went to voice mail, and had not contacted her. One thing they had agreed: if he were to die, she would leave a message on his voicemail and say everything you need to say to me, but never could have otherwise..
At the start of the book, she is in Honfleur, in Normandy, retracing, on foot, some of the holidays they spent there. We are soon in full Sebald mode, as she engages with the landscape and history, which leads her onto other tangential matters of intellectual interest – it’s easy to imagine the possibility of, for example, a reading of Planck’s Black-body Radiation Theory in terms of the class struggle, and vice versa. Well… yes. In good Sebaldian fashion, she covers a host: of topics: Stefan Zweig, Einstein, Frida Kahlo, oncology, fractals, D-Day, Casablanca (the film), Hiroshima, tennis …
One of the many interesting things that make this book so fascinating is the little gems of knowledge he gives which may, sometimes be relevant to his main ideas and, in some cases may not be. Here are some examples. One tenth of the earth’s surface has been constantly on fire, through no fault of human beings, for more than two hundred years; a day on Venus lasts longer than a year on Venus; continuously eating hare meat over a long period of time will lead to starvation. That last one is relevant to the main theme as it was about Lady Franklin Bay Expedition, which involved men living in extreme isolation. One I particularly liked was Anglophone culture is the direct inheritor of that visceral, almost pathological rejection of lying, in direct opposition with Catholic countries, where, as is well known, lying is something utterly integral to the everyday, also providing the deep structure for all that’s considered civil and decent. Clearly he has not met many US or UK politicians for whom lying is second or even first nature.
Isolation is a key theme, as many of the characters seem to live in isolation. However, linked to that theme, is the idea that, isolated or not, we all connected. Kurt’s friend Frank cynically comments all human beings, no matter how far apart and unknown to one another they may be, are in fact joined by one war or another, the six degrees of separation that sociologist proved all those years ago, it would actually be cut to just four degrees if we took into account the wars that unite us all. However, as we saw at the beginning of the novel, we are now linked in various ways, particularly by the Internet. Whether this is a good thing or not is open to debate and it is certainly questioned in this book.
There are a host of other linkings between the stories in this novel: war (as the Spanish title tells us), as seen not only in the above quotation but also in interest in the Spanish Civil War, 9/11, Kurt’s service in Vietnam , D-Day and Skyler’s interest in war; twins, particularly the Twin Towers and 9/11 (and the twinness of the the two towers is examined, while Agustín has an obsession with his double); Lorca; pregnant dogs; people disappearing (several characters randomly disappear. Some but not all later reappear); Las Meninas; political leaders vomiting from a car (really!), Georges Lemaître (the physics expert) and even Brexit, to name just a few.
The other related theme is the idea of people fitting in and, linked to that, people struggling outside their habitual environment. For example, both Kurt and his mother are not happy away from Montana, his mother complaining of Florida, Kurt is not happy at MIT; Agustín struggles in New York as, indeed, does Rodolfo and the Uruguayan staff are clearly not happy on San Simón. Despite this most of the characters do move to other places for a variety of reasons.
If you like Sebaldian-type novels, this is a wonderful novel. It is full of interesting ideas. It does have a plot or, rather, several plots which intermingle. There are unexpected links, mysteries not fully explained, plot twists, colourful characters, historic and scientific explorations and, yes, as mentioned, famous politicians vomiting from cars. What more could you want?
First published in 2018 by Seix Barral
First published in English in 2021 by Fitzcarraldo
Translated by Thomas Bunstead