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Carlos Rojas: El sueño de Sarajevo [The Dream of Sarajevo]

This is the third in Rojas’ loosely connected Sandro Vasari trilogy and the best. It has been highly acclaimed in Spain and, though a fairly difficult book, it is certainly a highly original and first-class novel. It is not, of course, available in English and, as far as I can tell, in any other language. As with the other two books in the trilogy, it expects a knowledge of Spanish history (and politics) but also, in this book, a knowledge of European history, literature and philosophy.

The book is set in a mental asylum called The Dream of Reason, located in the foothills of the Pyrenees. All of the patients bar one have been voluntarily admitted. There are very few patients and most of them are dead, i.e. it is their ghosts that are there. Some of them are fictitious characters and some are historical characters. The novel is divided into what is called four books plus an epilogue. The first three books have chapters devoted to individual patients, while the last book is devoted to two of the individual staff members. The book starts and ends with a quote (in English) from James JoyceHistory, Stephen said, is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake. Though the book goes backwards and forwards through history (from the sixteenth century to 1998, i.e. sixteen years after the book was published), many of the characters bump into one another, not least because some of them are quasi-immortal.

The first book is called The Book of Night and has three chapters on fictitious characters. Brother Antonio Azorín is
praying by the body of Jorge Cirarda. He is sad about Cirarda’s death but not too sad as Cirarda has already died three times. The first chapter is about Cirarda. We first see him talking to Alfonso XIII, the last king of Spain before Franco. Alfonso has been watching a Charlie Chaplin film. Cirarda suddenly seems to be suspended in the air while Alfonso sees on the screen a young man who takes out a gun and shoots first a man and then a woman in a carriage. He has just had a premonition of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand. Cirarda spontaneously recites some lines of poetry:

Largas cadenas que surten de los lutos,
de lo que nunca existe,
atan el aire como una vena, como un grito, como un reloj que se para
cuando se estrangula algún cuello descuidado.

He will later pass these lines to his friend Vicente Aleixandre, who will use them in his poem Destrucción o el amor [Destruction or Love] and also go on to win the Nobel Prize. This event also causes him to invent surrealism ten years before the French do. His next premonition occurs while he is suspended in the air over a tree, when he foresees the assassination of Tsar Nicholas and his family (including Anastasia). Then, when he hears about Goded’s uprising, he dies, though he recovers and foresees the horrors of the Spanish Civil War. He later flees to a monastery to escape these horrors. While praying in the monastery, he has a reverse epiphany, stops believing in God, stops being gay and starts liking women. He returns to Barcelona, where he sets up a surgery (he is a doctor by profession). One of his patients is the Countess Aurelia Miralpeix, a widow. She has been recommended to Cirarda because some verses – the same verses he wrote and gave to Vicente Aleixandre – keep appearing on her back. Cirarda marries her and they have a daughter, Eulalie (born on the day of the Pearl Harbour attack). Eulalie, in turn, has a daughter by an Italian poet (whom she does not marry) and this child, Giovanna, becomes an actress but is killed in a car crash while on the way to see Sandro Vasari, Rojas’ alter ego, whom we have met in the two previous books of the trilogy, about a film adaptation of ‘his’ work El Ingenioso Hidalgo y Poeta Federico García Lorca asciende a los infiernos (The Ingenious Gentleman and Poet Federico Garcia Lorca Ascends to Hell). Cirarda and his wife do not age and only in 1998 (sixteen years after this novel was published), after the suicide of the Pope, does he start to fear death, which is when he goes to the asylum, where he dies.

The other stories are as complex and as imaginative as this one. The second one in this part is about Brother Antonio Azorín, a priest at the time of Philip II. He has an affair (with a woman) and joins the Spanish Armada as a priest. His ship is sunk but he is saved by a unicorn and ends up, naked, on a beach at La Coruña. Philip II tells him him to find the true face of Reason. He fails to do so so but does meet Descartes, Proust and Curzio Malaparte in his travels. This search for reason, something Rojas maintains is sorely lacking in Spain, will be a key theme of this novel. The third person in this section is Dr. Reixach. He knew Cirarda in his early days, both being gay at that time, though Cirarda keeps away from him when he becomes heterosexual. Reixach studies under Robert Proust, brother of the author, and knows Ruiz Picasso, father of the painter. He will discuss literature with Marcel Proust.

The second section starts off with Descartes, the French philosopher, who is also in the asylum. The witty opening line of this section reads Descartes knew that he was dead but he existed because he was still thinking. Descartes, like Brother Antonio Azorín, is looking for reason but cannot find it. We learn about his death in Sweden and how he taught Queen Christina. He has discussions with the demon of reason, Jean-Louis Pepin Tracas, about such subjects as World War I and we even learn about Pepin Tracas’ brother, Blaise, who moves to London, buys a house by the Thames and becomes a member of the Labour Party. The other two people in his section are a married couple, Fernando Saint-Cyprien and his wife, Maria Amalia. Saint-Cyprien plays the role of Richard III in Shakespeare’s play while Maria Amalia thinks that she is the reincarnation of Anne Neville, Richard’s wife. Maria Amalia is the only non-voluntary patient, having been sent to the asylum by her parents.

The next section covers Fernando VII, whom we have already met in El valle de los caídos (The Valley of the Fallen). We also meet Proust, whom we have seen in earlier sections and who seems to spend a lot of time with Dr. Reixach. There is a long story about how it is Dr. Reixach who goes to Paris to find Proust’s ghost and take him to the asylum. Finally, in this section, we meet Ulysse Personne, which means, in French, Ulysses Nobody and clearly recalls Ulysses/Odysseus in the Odyssey telling the Cyclops Polyphemus that his name is Nobody. Ulysse Personne claims that he has lost his memory but, under hypnosis, he turns out to be able to speak Occitan, giving Rojas opportunity to discuss earlier thirteenth century poetry. Ulysse Personne is first identified with Arnaut Daniel but then reveals himself to be, first of all, a jongleur, then a Flemish carpenter who worked with Hieronymus Bosch, then a Spanish priest in the time of Philip II and then Citizen Dubois during the French revolution. In the final section, the doctor, Dr Juan Antonio Torre de la Estigia, does not know who he is, either, but has, unknown to everyone, including his wife, written a book about a doctor being burned alive by the Inquisition in the reign of Philip IV. His wife, Laura Silverman, was, in a previous life, Laura Hayman, one of the possible inspirations for Odette de Crécy in Proust’s à la recherche du temps perdu (In Search of Lost Time; Remembrance of Things Past). Finally, the last to arrive and first to leave is María Fortuny de Santa Clotilde who is told by an angel that she will never go to heaven, as she is descended from a long line of executioners, something she was completely unaware of. The epilogue – called Fire – has the characters asking the author (Sandro Vasari) how the book will end. It will end with the Joyce quote mentioned above.

This summary does not begin to do justice to the book. Rojas castigates Spain and Spanish history, religion, man’s search for order and reason in the world and politics and politicians (including monarchs). He discusses literature, philosophy, religion, history, memory and mental health, amongst many other things. Characters easily jump from century to century, bump into one another, move off, wonder about their lives, wonder about one another, and wonder what life is all about. Rojas is certainly not giving any answers but he is raising questions. It is unfortunate that this book has not been translated into any other language, as it really is a wonderful, complex, highly intelligent, compelling work. Had it been written in English or French, I have no doubt that it would be far better known.

Publishing history

First published in 1982 by Destino
No English translation