Review of The Mad Patagonian by Javier Pedro Zabala

A flagship shelf-stopper from the stellar River Boat Books.

Is this book for you? At over half a million words, it’s likely to keep you busy for a while. Luckily, the beginning is rhythmic and fast-paced. The layered complexities and dense historical detail comes later, once you get to know some key players, are acclimatized to the atmosphere, and once you revel with these frolicsome rogues for a while. In terms of difficulty, it is about as challenging as Cloud Atlas, but more than twice as long, with similarly strung together novellas, all differing in form and content and characters. It also brings to mind The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll for this reason, but The Mad Patagonian, in the end, is its own chimerical self.

As detailed in the fabulous introduction, there are many affinities between this book and Bolaño’s work, and it is a safe bet that if you enjoyed 2666, you’ll find joy in this expansive new offering. Due to the shifting perspective and kaleidoscopic contexts inherent in the novel, I would call the introduction required reading, if not part of the novel – a tenth layer hidden in plain sight – and it may benefit your reading experience to peruse the articles on the publisher’s website after you have completed the last page, to better untangle the history of the book, its themes and integral motifs.

Rife with references to poetry, philosophy, theology, mysticism, pop culture, conspiracies, history, and much more, it does not often get bogged down by erudition or allusion. From the start, its capacity to engage the reader stems from its creative use of language and characters.

The novel explores, among a vast quantity of other themes, the pursuit of paradise, the possibility of salvation, redemption, and oblivion, and multigenerational connections, vendettas and familial gravitas and the inheritance of culture. Coherence and the malleability of history is one of its main preoccupations, leading to diverging interpretations and recursive speculation by the various narrators, protagonists and bit players.

Partaking of some elements of noir, it also experiments with barroom storytelling, police procedure, the epistolary form, diary entries, historical reportage, journalistic techniques, dream sequences, straight up surrealism and magical realism, hyperrealism (in terms of detail-oriented description), tropes of the bildungsroman, palimpsests and parallel perceptions of metaphysical reality, and a myriad of other belletristic incarnations.

Boiling it all down would never give you, the potential reader, an accurate portrait of this voluminous literary undertaking. But the key components, or driving forces of much of the chronicle are the following: impermanence, inner peace versus outer peace, the political nature of writing and the responsibility of the writer to embody the revolutionary spirit, the ‘fragile mirror of our misplaced aspirations,’ rebirth and renewal of the human spirit beneath the tyranny of history and cultural expectations, disappearance and the anonymity of the struggling artist, solitude versus the sacred ties of family, God’s creation and man’s relationship to Him, the question of whether He needs us or we need Him, a journey through the mythic realms of the past, existentialist crises and the idealist delusions of youth, the power of the imagination, the abyss of the self, the personal interpretations and quest for a satisfactory paradise, paranoia in government and relationships, the destructive and instinctual power of sexuality, religious atonement, dissolution and corruption, the transitory nature of art, the function of UFOs, inescapable uncertainty, despair and ephemeral beauty – but the more I seek to summarize, the more essential content falls by the wayside. A proper study of this book’s inner recesses would necessitate a professional thesis.

Taking place primarily in Florida, Cuba and Spain, it also includes jaunts to other exotic locales, as the outreaching tentacles of war and suffering between disparate factions and progeny converge symbolically while they diversify in personification. We are confronted with unreliable narrators and criminals, along with a varied cast of outcasts, each with their own burden of hang-ups, fears, ambitions, and lusts.

The influences, according to the Introduction, of Salinger, Henry Miller, Borges (including a cameo), Cortázar, Bolaño, de Sade, Vila-Matas, Kafka, Breton, Dante, Foucault, and Nietzsche can be found in the pages to follow. But the tone – what about that? It is reminiscent of nostalgic Hollywood stills, moments in archival film, sepia-tone landscapes peopled primarily by Latin American men and women, wandering a lush, urban apocalypse of cardboard sunsets, dragging behind them like disembodied spirits their multitudinous coping mechanisms, the evidence of their own authenticity, the internal maps of escape to Devilish liaisons, always surrounded by Consumerist empires, haunted by the voices of crushed cultures, desire-laden ghosts, hypocritical tyrants, and festering with metropolitan numbness, they are the boiled beach bums and beached angelic dolphins, epitomizing shame, exasperation, and humiliation in the face of murder, depravity, disenchantment and a strangely symbolic omnipresent man with a metal detector, while their looming innocence and lost opportunities, the radiance of their souls within their bodies, their self-defeating investigations of wrongdoings, allow them to brave the seas of their own mortality, crossing an “ocean of trouble” to “paint their newborn self across the sky.” Amid this crippling self-awareness and shattered faith is a tempest of doubt. Angels constantly dance on the point of a needle, and hallucinogenic, tilted reality reigns until the half-crazed rantings of our subconscious minds smack of prophecy and the ripples of our decisions are cast into the sullied sea of the future. The idea of cellular memory and reincarnation and the alternatives to the Catholic staples of belief are integrated into the legends of downtrodden representatives of the human race in this thorny masterpiece, effectively blurring the edges of its liminal space until the fictive corpus drifts into our cerebral firmament to subsume our simple complacency.

And yet. The chaos within us makes us human.

We must either accept the way the world is, or at least as it appears to be, and so we must buy into the propaganda that imprisons everyone else. Or we must embrace the world as we think it should be, what some would call paradise. But we must choose, and whatever we choose will be considered madness by those who would have made a different choice.

Life is a sort of post-traumatic stress induced by birth, and it only gets more harrowing as you age toward inescapable death. How we deal with this tragedy we call living is either our downfall or legacy.

I am wondering if I am coming down with some kind of strange Patagonian madness.

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