CategoryFernandez Mallo Agustin

An individual without centre: Nocilla Lab by Agustín Fernández Mallo

Agustín Fernández Mallo is a physicist who, in his Nocilla Trilogy, has been writing the universe as understood by contemporary science into novel form. Nocilla Dream and Nocilla Experience are structured as networks of themes, images and ideas, without a traditional anchor-point around which to revolve. Now here’s the third part of the trilogy, Nocilla Lab, which takes what Dream and Experience did with the world at large and applies it to notions of individual identity – in this novel, it’s the protagonist who is without centre.

First off, let me say that this is a brilliant translation by Thomas Bunstead: Nocilla Lab is divided into four sections, each written in a distinct style, yet with subtle interplay between them. The first part is (bar a few quoted passages) written as a single sentence over seventy pages. In this section, the narrator (Fernández Mallo himself, or a version of him) describes visiting Sardinia with his girlfriend, to work on what he refers to mysteriously as their “Project” (which they later abandon). The narration here is propulsive and disorienting all at once, looping back on itself and weaving together past and future. But there’s also a certain rawness to it, a sense that these are thoughts coming straight from the narrator’s mind.

This section also summarises what I think of as Nocilla Lab‘s key theme, the fundamental similarity of things and people:

…one travels to different countries and sees there very different things flora- and fauna-wise, customs- and appearances-wise, all the things that distinguish races and cultures, and yet, sooner or later, one comes to the undeniable conclusion or formulation of what might even be a law, namely that everything, looked at in sufficient detail, is identical to its counterpart on the far side of the world: zoom in and the leaf of a scrub plant in Sardinia is the same as that of an Alaskan pine tree, the skin pores of a Sudanese person are identical to those of an Inuit, and there really is nothing between a Buddha figure in Bangkok and a statuette of Christ in Despeñaperos, Jaén, and so it is with everything…

One of the ways this theme plays out in Nocilla Lab is by undermining the idea of the protagonist as an individual with a coherent identity. The novel’s second part takes place in recognisably the same situation as its first, with (one is given to assume) the same characters. But the prose is more conventionally novelistic, which makes this section feel different – more distant, more settled. The narrator and his girlfriend come across an old prison which has been turned into an eco-hotel (albeit mainly so the proprietor can keep himself to himself, rather than with the intention of having many guests). What initially may seem quirky turns darker when the hotel owner claims to be named Agustín Fernández Mallo, and working on a Project similar to the narrator’s.

Up to now, the events of Nocilla Lab could pretty much have passed for real life, but this… this is the sort of thing that happens in a novel, so it’s only fitting that it’s related in prose that reads like a novel. But this turn of events also raises the question: who is the narrator? Can we trust him to be the same individual in the second part as he was in the first? This question becomes even more pointed in the novel’s third section, a typed manuscript, because here the narrator has assumed the hotelier’s identity and apparently let go of his own previous one. There’s continuity of narrative between the novel’s parts, but the sense of a single ‘I’ behind it dissolves.

The form taken by each of Nocilla Lab‘s sections also moves us progressively further away from the narrator. By the fourth part, we’re firmly on the outside looking in, at a comic strip. The protagonist here looks like Fernández Mallo, though when asked who he is, he replies, “Not sure.” This individual travels to an oil rig where he meets the writer Enrique Vila-Matas, who tells a story. Two men hear similar noises: one is being kept awake by his watch, the other a prisoner about to be set free. The same thing means something very different depending on the context – rather like the narrator, who changes with the scene, until he disappears within versions of himself.

Elsewhere

I must mention MacKenzie Warren’s excellent review of Nocilla Lab at Splice, which helped clarify some of my thinking here.

Book details

Nocilla Lab (2009) by Agustín Fernández Mallo, tr. Thomas Bunstead (2018), Fitzcarraldo Editions, 192 pages, paperback (source: personal copy).

​Nocilla Experience –Agustín Fernández Mallo: a snapshot review

This is the follow-up to Nocilla Dream, which I reviewed on the blog previously. Nocilla Experience is a thematic rather than a direct sequel (would it ever have been direct?). The format is broadly the same: short chapters mixing vignettes of characters (some connected) with apparent non-fiction (that may be adapted or even invented). 

As before, the effect is of a novel — a reality — without an anchor. A set of pieces that float freely, now coming together, now drifting apart. The key difference, to my mind, is that Nocilla Experience is more concerned with ideas and where they come from. So, for example, we’ll meet characters with grand ideas — about art or the nature of the world, say — but the book’s overall structure will suggest that each is one idea among many, of no greater significance than the rest. The overriding image is that of a radio playing to nobody, in an empty palace devoted to a particular board game. Individual ideas, the book seems to suggest, are ultimately no more substantial than that palace.

I won’t sit here and pretend that I grasped everything in Nocilla Experience. But it’s not about grasping everything — it never is. Sometimes I need to read a novel that requires me to reach up. Sometimes I need to see that the form and horizons of fiction are limitless.

A version of this review was originally published as a thread on Twitter. 

Book details 

Nocilla Experience (2008) by Agustín Fernández Mallo, tr. Thomas Bunstead (2016), Fitzcarraldo Editions, 200 pages, paperback. 

My favourite books read in 2016

This time last year, I wrote that I wanted to understand more deeply why I respond to some books as I do. I think I’m on the way there, and certainly when I look at the books that have stood out most to me in the reading year, I can see a continuity. They belong together in ways that reflect what, how and why I read.

So, here’s the selection: these are the books that I count as my strongest reading experiences of 2016, roughly in ascending order. The links will take you to my reviews.

12. Nocilla Dream (2006) by Agustín Fernández Mallo
Translated from the Spanish by Thomas Bunstead, 2015

A novel that feels like a statement of how fiction should relate to the wider world in the 21st century. Nocilla Dream is an assemblage of adapted quotations and character vignettes, with recurring images and locations… but it won’t fit together into a stable whole, however much you try. Like the globalised world it depicts, Fernández Mallo’s novel has no centre; reading it was an experience  of glimpsing a deeper meaning through the haze, only for that to recede shortly after.

11. The Queue (2013) by Basma Abdel Aziz
Translated from the Arabic by Elisabeth Jaquette. 2016

In a Middle Eastern city, the flow of life has been disrupted by a bureaucracy that forces people to queue for days on end in order to obtain authorisation for the smallest things. This is a novel that works through quietness and precision: its measured tone persuades one to accept the reality of this situation; then, the chilling implications unfold. A similar process occurs with the city’s inhabitants, as all the queueing changes the way they think and behave, until there’s no easy way for them to imagine something else.

10. Never Any End to Paris (2003) by Enrique Vila-Matas
Translated from the Spanish by Anne McLean, 2011

This was a book that seemed superficially light: a fictionalised account of the author’s time in Paris in the 1970s, where he sought to live like Hemingway. But as I carried on reading, the novel circled around issues of reality and imagination – how the place in the mind can endure longer and loom larger than the real one. That led me to confront the basic questions of what it is to read fiction: ultimately, nothing in Vila-Matas’ book is solid, but the reading of it persists regardless.

9. Tainaron: Mail from Another City (1985) by Leena Krohn
Translated from the Finnish by Hildi Hawkins, 2004

I didn’t get around to reviewing this one, and I really must. Like The Queue, Tainaron is precisely balanced on a knife-edge between reality and unreality. It’s told a series of letters sent home from someone living in a city of giant insects – a city that might be more a state of mind than an actual place. For me, this is on a par with Viriconium in terms of dismantling the certainties of story, and the disorientation that follows in the reading.

8. The Weight of Things (1978) by Marianne Fritz
Translated from the German by Adrian Nathan West, 2015

The Weight of Things is the short opening slice of a much larger, untranslated (and possibly untranslatable) fictional project – and the shadow of two world wars looms over its apparently small tale of a couple visiting the husband’s ex-wife in her asylum. Broken chronology destroys the sense that there can be progression beyond the fictional present; and there’s one moment cuts though the reading as much as in any book I’ve experienced. At the time, I described reading Fritz’s book as like waking from a beautiful nightmare, and I still feel the same.

7. Tram 83 (2014) by Fiston Mwanza Mujila
Translated from the French by Roland Glasser, 2015

Here’s a book where it really is all about the language: the rhythm, the pulse, the interplay of voices. Lucien travels to the newly seceded ‘City-State’, intending to concentrate on his writing – but he gets caught up in other matters. The city has its own soundtrack of voices, bewildering and exhilarating to Lucien and the reader alike. The protagonist tries to bring his own language to the city, but all he can do is merge into its web; likewise, the best way I found to read Tram 83 was to lose myself in its words.

6. Good Morning, Midnight (1939) by Jean Rhys

This is the second novel on my list set amid the streets of Paris, but shows writing transformed by place in a different way. The Paris of Rhys’s protagonist is so quietly anonymous that the present day fades in comparison to the memories that continue to haunt her. This was my first time reading Rhys; I found her novel so piercing that I must read more.

5. Like a Mule Bringing Ice Cream to the Sun (2016) by Sarah Ladipo Manyika

I love this book for the way that Manyika slides between viewpoints to explore the gap between an individual’s self-perception and the person by others. Retired literature professor Morayo breaks her hip and has to move temporarily into a nursing home – and suddenly she is a vulnerable old woman to people who don’t know her. Reading the novel, and being able to see all sides, allows the gap to be bridged. That Morayo is one of the most delightful protagonists I’ve encountered all year is a welcome bonus.

4. Martin John (2015) by Anakana Schofield

Schofield’s novel takes readers inside the mind of a flasher – not so much in a way that tries to explain him as one that challenges the reader to engage with his character. While most novels are organised to create meaning for the reader, Martin John is arranged to create meaning for its protagonist, constructed around his loops and preoccupations. This is what makes it such a strong, disorienting experience: there is no map of this novel’s singular landscape.

3. Mend the Living (2014) by Maylis de Kerangal
Translated from the French by Jessica Moore, 2016

At one level, Mend the Living is a novel about a heart transplant. At another level, it’s an all-pervading cloud of language which explores the different meanings of this event, and the human body itself, as life effectively passes from one individual to another. At times, reading de Kernagal’s book was like having several extra senses with which to perceive what was being narrated.

2. Mrs Dalloway (1925) by Virginia Woolf

2016 was when I finally introduced myself to Woolf’s work, and not before time. I read five of her books, and liked some more than others; but the first one I read is still the most vivid. Mrs Dalloway showed me a different way to read, as I found a novel in which events take place at the level of thought and consciousness, as much as in geographical space. There’s such power in being brought so close to the characters’ viewpoints and flowing between them. And the ending, which brings the horror of war crashing directly into Clarissa Dalloway’s polite society, is one of my year’s finest reading moments.

1. Human Acts (2014) by Han Kang
Translated from the Korean by Deborah Smith, 2016

I thought about it for a long time, but there was no escaping the conclusion that a Han Kang book would top my list for the second year in a row. Like The Vegetarian, Human Acts is a novel of the body, but this time as the level at which to process conflict (or try to do so). Though there’s violence and bloodshed on a large scale in Han’s depiction of the Gwagju Uprising, it is the small human movements that I found most vivid. That contrast helped to create the strongest experience ofall the books I read this year.

I’d like to write another post that explores what this list could tell me about how and why I read. For now, though, I’ll leave you with my previous lists of favourites: 201520142013; 201220112010; and 2009.

 

A world without centre: Nocilla Dream

Nocilla DreamThe author bio tells me that Agustín Fernández Mallo’s ‘Nocilla Trilogy’ (of which 2006’s Nocilla Drream is the first volume) was instrumental in bringing about an aesthetic shift in contemporary Spanish writing. Now we get to read Nocilla Dream in English, courtesy of translator Thomas Bunstead and Fitzcarraldo Editions; and you can see why this novel must have shaken things up. Nocilla Dream has a teeming cast of characters, with hints at a web of hidden connections – and that’s where the similarity with a conventional plot-driven novel ends.

Each of Nocilla Dream’s 113 chapters consists of a single paragraph, from a few pages down to a few lines. Some are extracts from other books; some come from New York Times articles; others are snapshots from the lives of various characters. Amongst others, we’ll read about Falconetti, an ex-soldier who left San Francisco with the idea of circumnavigating the globe from west to east; Pat Garrett, who wanders around carrying a suitcase of found photographs; and a community of surfers in south-east China, with its roots in a group of North American expatriates. Many of the novel’s events revolve around U.S. Route 50, with one recurring image being a poplar tree from whose branches people have hung shoes. Trees in general are a common metaphor throughout the novel, particularly in terms of the idea that branching networks underpin reality.

I’m going to quote an extended passage which illustrates various aspects of Fernández Mallo’s approach. Here is Chii-Teen, a Chinese character, looking through some old newspaper cuttings:

On the reverse of one of the cuttings, he’s come across a picture of an elderly painter, clearly from the West, distinguished looking, with slicked-back hair and moustache, apparently at work in his studio. What he cannot understand is that the room the painter is standing in is full of paint pots with great daubs of paint on them, that the floor has daubs of paint across it too, that there are lots of different brushes resting in white spirit, that the painter is wearing a paint-spattered smock, but that, without soiling it in any way, he’s working on a blank, spotless canvas, and he’s using a cutter to make vertical slashes, nothing more, vertical slashes. Chii-Teen suddenly becomes very excited, considering the possibility of a body without a mind, the possibility that the studio, the smock, and all the dense mass of painting materials could be a body that has been separated from the pure mind, Cartesian, fleshless, I,e. the blank canvas to which the painter is applying the cutter to.

This passage establishes a hierarchy of realities: the character in the fictional present looking at a two-dimensional image of the past (and, in turn, the reader apprehending fictional reality on the page). It illustrates a shift in context, as the slashes in the canvas, which clearly would have been meaningful to the artist making them, become unknowable to Chii-Teen. And there’s a fleeting sense of hidden order.

The thing is that, for every glimpse of a deeper meaning to reality in Nocilla Dream, there’s a suggestion that what we sense is illusion. The connections in the novel are those of globalisation: not necessarily visible from the ground, but neither indicative of a meaningful structure. Reading Nocilla Dream is the experience of a novel – like the world it depicts – without a centre: slot the pieces together as you will, but what you end up with is no more stable than one of those fragments.

Elsewhere

Read more views of Nocilla Dream at 1streading’s Blog, Workshy Fop, and minor literaure[s].

Book details (Foyles affiliate link)

Nocilla Dream (2006) by Agustín Fernández Mallo, tr. Thomas Bunstead (2015), Fitzcarraldo Editions paperback

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