Signs Everywhere

Agustín Fernández Mallo is a radiation physicist who writes fiction about reality – or about his own pixelated, anti-realist perception of it. In the mid-1980s, when other students were getting legless at the post-dictatorship party of La Movida, he’d be writing all night with the TV on, guided, as he disarmingly recalls in Nocilla Lab, ‘by a ridiculous but not ineffective feeling of romantic superiority.’ He was on semi-automatic, filtering the world that reached him, pouring out fragments and fantasies distilled from TV, pop culture, science, history, the arts and just about everything else, not excluding literature. But he didn’t meet any writers until the age of forty, he’s claimed, evolving rather in his own mental Galapagos while working as a subatomic engineer. From this detachment he has castigated mainstream Spanish literature, especially poetry, for its failure to reflect global (post)modernity the way contemporary art has done – or even as well as the foreign authors on his altar, paradoxically retro figures from Borges to DeLillo.

Despite the striking novelty of his verbal installations, Mallo should not be accused of ‘originality’, a concept he quite properly rejects. ‘All Origin is a fallacy (in this I follow Nietzsche)’, he told 3:AM in 2017, justifying the right to appropriate. He is more of a beachcomber, though one who picks up less ‘low’ debris than you might expect from his assertion around the same time of the poetic equivalence of the Divine Comedy and a packet of Cheetos. The assimilation of Deleuze and Guattari, for instance, informs sly games with map and territory and allows him to call his storytelling ‘rhizomatic’, ramifying with a fluid spontaneity that relies on minimum research in favour of truth in the moment: many of the misquotes and almost-true facts derive from not looking up, apparently, though they come over as deeply artful. Who cares? For him, trained in systems both macro and micro, reality manifests in perpetual transformations of matter/culture throwing up capricious, quasi-mystical patterns; his fictions chart vast processes poking through on the intermediate, ‘human’ scale, with quantum uncertainty built in, free of psychological or sociological concerns. He considers himself ‘above all else, a poet.’ You don’t, in other words, read Mallo’s novels for the plot or the relatable characters.

The trilogy that so challenged the Spanish literary scene (Nocilla Dream, 2006, Nocilla Experience, 2007, Nocilla Lab, 2009 – Nocilla being Spanish for Nutella and referring to an iconic punk song) led to the instant media invention of a ‘Nocilla Generation’ that was furiously disavowed by the alleged members. What they shared was scorn for cultural supplements, loyalty to indie publishers and pugnacious introspection on select blogs. Then Mallo signed with the publishing giant Alfaguara, and his star rose. Another novel (Limbo, 2014), essays, and several books of poetry fill the interval between the Nocillas and Trilogía de la guerra (2018), now superbly translated by Thomas Bunstead into The Things We’ve Seen. If the Nocillas were disjointed and parataxic, expository of a method and a set of raw sources, this sequence of three books is closer to conventional narrative, in a neutral register allowing for deadpan dissonance, and narrated by three practically interchangeable voices; one of Mallo’s points is that we are interchangeable.

Book I is told by a Spanish artist invited, as Mallo was, to a livestreamed conference on the tiny islands of San Simón, site of a concentration camp during the Civil War. After a period of amnesia brought on by a strangely shaped biscuit, he reappears in New York, where he becomes obsessed with trash, the residues of life and time, and finally in Uruguay, following up a San Simón trail of two men and discovering that the one he’d thought was the prisoner was actually the jailer, there being no essential difference from far enough away. This book dwells on ideas of fossils, archaeology, the past – historical but especially organic. Early on, with grainy Sebaldian photos to prove it, the narrator tracks down the sites of old snaps of prisoners and retakes the now deserted scenes, causing him to meditate on ‘the disappearance of flesh’, something the evening meal does not distract him from: the menu ‘led me to reflect on the special nature of eating … a kind of ritual in which … we made something sacred disappear forever.’ (Or not: vomit will play a major signifying role.)

Not only the narrators proceed in chains of this-made-me-think-about. The people they meet talk the same way and notice the same sort of things at the same sort of length, and there is little dialogue: shades of Being John Malkovich, though the multiplication of flat, sententious POVs tests reader stamina to the limit. Still, with this device among others, Mallo’s structural rather than linguistic plasticity undercuts the linear nature of writing. Echoes, implosions and coincidences soon make us feel we are circulating in a single space-time of displacements and substitutions. Shapes, for example, repeat in different scales or contexts: the reservoir in Central Park has the outline of Iberia. The most bravura example of this form of paranoia – signs everywhere – is given to a Dalí avatar who establishes a connection between the Twin Towers, the twin girls in the corridor of The Shining, the two columns of the pause icon on a screen, and (the narrator’s later input) a line in one of Lorca’s New York poems. It stays with you.

Book II is concerned with the shiny idea of ‘future’. We’re in the mind of Kurt Montana, who grew up in the optimism of post-war America, enjoyed killing people in Vietnam, and after training as a pilot (cue aperçus about forms only perceivable from above) became an astronaut, despite having weak lungs. But he doesn’t appear in any of the Moon Landing photos, because he was the photographer. Always the loser, he is now an alcoholic working in a nursing home. As he rambles back and forth over his life, the future shrinks. Archaeological metaphors reappear, such as the bottomless layers of old carpet and lino lifted to clean a smelly apartment, which prompts a super-Mallo moment: ‘All that had happened was these things being moved to and concentrated in that single point … I fell asleep thinking of the universality of this flow of ideas and bodies.’ Subtitled with an inaccurate quote from ‘Life on Mars?’, this middle book is pretty funny, in a straight-faced way, because Kurt is such an absurd composite, and the writer’s audacity can thrill. At one point Kurt recalls a visit to his lottery-winning parents in Florida, to see their latest hopeful project – holiday timeshares. Nothing could dent their positivity, though the complex was falling apart faster than they could fix it. But just when I’d had enough standard satire on an American Dream always-already in ruins, Kurt describes chancing, decades later, on a Jeffrey Eugenides story  called ‘Timeshare’. ‘I could hardly believe what I was reading: nothing short of a blow-by-blow, word-for-word account of the time I spent in Florida that March, except one or two small circumstantial details’ which he goes on to parse at length, uncurious about the crazy main fact.

There are many such almost-repetitions, landmark nodes in a thickening net. In Book III, following an ex-girlfriend of Book I’s narrator (or of someone almost identical) as she retraces a Normandy hike they once did together, elements of the novel’s mythology can be spotted like beeping, unintelligible transmitters half-hidden in the litter of thoughts and things. They include golf balls in space, fires in Africa, ATMs, fainting, fractals, cookies in the shape of a pregnant dog, KFC, three-coloured pencils, and walking in others’ footsteps. Oddly, for an author who harps on the epistemology of the internet age, there is no social media. War itself, despite the Spanish title, is glancingly dealt with as an amoral mechanism, as much connector as disruptor. Avoiding the obvious, Mallo is after what he calls the ‘B-side of reality’: shadows and parallels, the errors and mutations that are most influential for occurring unseen.

One war-related image, hauntingly reworked – and surely the core of the book – links physical disintegration to a helplessly absorbed residue. For instance, the atomised matter of the Twin Towers: ‘It must be pretty strange knowing you’ve got particles of people’s spleens inside you, particles of pens and hair, of Turkish rugs and asbestos …’ Kurt is afraid he’s got a Vietcong man he killed inside him, after a flock of birds that were eating the body suddenly attack his head, Hitchcock-style. The Normandy beaches are full of ground-down bones, thinks the female narrator: ‘all those souls with phalluses surely still residing among the cockle shells, salt crystals and seaweed, sand too … later to be used in the construction of houses, bridges and motorways’; the stains appearing on cement are the extrusion of that human dust. At an exhibition in the Einstein Museum, she notices hunks of melted matter from Hiroshima, fused with the porcelain of a teacup, which already contains bone ash; this compound makes Hiroshima itself, whose people also took the disaster into their bodies, into ‘the great porcelain artefact of the West.’

At the end of Book II comes a version of this absorption of the other that is genuinely moving, because willed. In a side-story whose text has literally materialised on X-rays vomited by George Bush Sr (I simplify), we are in a future Spain turned desert, almost everyone evacuated by air, à la Ray Bradbury. A family survives on supermarket tins. The little boy, then the wife, disappear. Much later the man finds his son’s rubber ring. He puts the valve into his mouth and squeezes, ‘taking into himself all the remaining air, until not a single drop of what was his son’s breath remains.’

This entropic tendency toward the undifferentiated – first, high and low culture flattened and blended, then our very atoms – is not easy to embrace. After all, no less a philanthropist than Mark Zuckerberg recently crowed that ‘we are moving to a world in which we all become cells in a single organism.’ Perhaps we should set it in the context of something ordinarily existential that Mallo once said: ‘The only subject I really care about is loneliness.’

Read on: Owen Hatherley, ‘Post-Postmodernism?’, NLR 59.