El Misterio Nadal is weird, funny, thoroughly documented, and ‘gets’ Bolaño perfectly.
Chris Andrews, translator of Roberto Bolaño and César Aira
There is something eerily funny & funnily eerie about this book that is many masks hiding many faces or maybe many faces hiding many masks. People & languages exchange identities. A game of translations & inventions. Yes, Benjamin Péret existed & Samuel Beckett did excellent translations of his work. Yes, Roberto Bolaño seems to have existed too, but who knows who is who. Nadal is not a tennis player, but who am I to say that he doesn’t have some kind of a racket. Read on — & beneath the English there is Spanish & beneath the Spanish there is Portuguese — at times — and beneath the Portuguese, who knows? Nothing? If imagination is nothing, yes? Or are the others real, I mean who is hiding behind the translator/presenter’s moniker, A.B.? Who is knocking (“know-cking” I had first mistyped) on the door asking for candy, or — wait, it gets stranger— who is offering candy to whoever opens the door, I mean the book. ¿Quien sabe? I don’t, but here below read the info the publisher, the excellent Spuyten Duyvil Press, has offered as hors d’oeuvres — but what is a hors-d’oeuvre when there is only hors-texte and there is no oeuvre any more…
I had no idea, when I wrote the letter to Bolaño herein, in 2001, that Vladimir Nadal was such a mysterious case. And to think that I first met him at the Bar Marsella, in the Raval, on the early afternoon that Bolaño recounts in his introduction to this book. And that I apparently spoke to them both about the book of footnotes I was writing then, Bartleby and Co. I took Nadal, that day, as merely a Bolaño tagalong. How wrong I was. For I can see now that he was, above all, a consummate writer of the No—one of the finest examples of the case I was then building, in fact. Not that I have a sure memory of that first encounter with him in Barcelona. But I do remember well the magnificent cliff terrace of the Hotel Brighton, in Valparaíso, Chile. And of the thin, jaundiced man (an older Nadal, now) who nervously asked me questions about my interview with Marlon Brando many years back, among other things. Yes, I remember that meeting much better. As clearly, indeed, as I remember being with Bolaño in his prime and glory, the few and special times I was with the man. This rescue of his enigmatic compatriot is certainly among Bolaño’s strangest, most moving works. Whether it is true, or not. Whether he wrote it or not. I have not yet decided which.
Why is it that the mingling of fact and fabrication in our civic life fills us with vertigo and dread, while the same thing in a work of imaginative literature can be the source of mysterious exhilaration? Beats me. But suppose that Roberto Bolaño had written a sort of disheveled novel about an apocryphal writer called Vladimir Nadal, fellow-traveler of various late-twentieth-century avant-gardes. Then suppose that this same apocryphal writer had taken a deep dive into the real life and writings of the Surrealist Benjamin Péret, and had returned with a double-handful of Péret-centric material, some authentic, some not. Then stop supposing and read El Misterio Nadal, which is all that and more. Whoever “A.B.,” supposed translator of this dossier, might be, he has given us, in the mysterious Nadal, a figure worthy to join the company of Ern Malley, John Shade, Araki Yasusada, and other illustrious non-existents.
Author of The Cambridge Introduction to Postmodernism
Translator’s Presentation of the Edition, by A.B.
I never met Roberto Bolaño, or Isabel Quiroga, or Vladimir Nadal. The entire manuscript that follows, which I have largely translated from the Spanish (a good portion of which had, supposedly, been originally rendered from the French and Portuguese), has come to me by way of a torturous route. As I write this, even now, I still harbor a sense of the marvelous about it all.
The mystery of this book’s provenance is as yet unsolved. While I have been able, through interviews in Mexico, to discount two of the six or seven possible authorial involvements this eccentric novel dangles, mobile-like, before us, the other possibilities most definitely remain. Not least the possible central involvement of Roberto Bolaño—either as the original compiler and editor of the papers linked to Vladimir Nadal, or else as their concealed forger, whether in part or in whole.
As the translator of this work, I feel a measure of my responsibility has been to transmit the full spectrum of authorial indeterminacy that seems originally intended by whoever the author(s) might be, so I will not reveal the particular two authorships that certain facts allow me to now discount. This is a work where the reader appears meant to play detective, as it were. Some of you may well be able to discount other suspects, or to even discover the actual source of this book. May you have better luck than I.
Let me now proceed with an overview of the strange background facts to what you hold in your hands, so as to provide some bigger context for what the faithful reader will encounter and soon puzzle over—for there are more than a few peculiar riddles to be found herein.
In the fall of 2010, at a small conference on translation in Bilbao, Spain, I had met Jorge Mosconi, a Uruguayan scholar of Lusophone literature, who was, at the time, teaching as a visiting instructor at a small college in California. A group of about a dozen attendees had gathered in the evening at the hotel bar, and he and I were the last ones to leave, staying until 2 or 3 AM, in intense but pleasant talk, topics ranging from the Tupamaros during the 1970s, to Fernando Pessoa, to problems and theories of translation, to the books of Spanish novelists Enrique Vila-Matas and Javier Marías, to the great Brazilian poet and critic Mario de Andrade, and to other odds and ends.
It was that night, the connection lit by the topic of Vila-Matas, that I learned of “Isabel Quiroga,” the pseudonym (according to Mosconi) of a Chilean translator of Russian poetry and friend of Mosconi’s, whom Mosconi had met when both were exiled in Paris, in the late 70s. Later, they’d encountered each other a couple of times, in the early 2000s, at conferences in Latin America, and they’d stayed in touch, sporadically, over email. Mosconi shared with me an unusual detail about Quiroga, which the latter reveals in her Preface to these materials. The moving revelation might show us something, as well, about Roberto Bolaño’s spirit.
It was in early 2009 that Quiroga, out of the blue, and about two months before her death from pancreatic cancer, had mailed Mosconi a large package containing the materials that follow, including the Preface by herself and the Introduction by Bolaño. The accompanying letter from her requested that Mosconi finalize the editing of materials and find a way of arranging for the manuscript’s publication. Mosconi described the archive to me that night at the bar, and I was, to say the least, transfixed by the strangeness of it all, not least, of course, because of the close relation of the manuscript’s mystery to Roberto Bolaño, one of my literary heroes. Mosconi promised to share the “lost” work with me.
In our emails over the next year, I expressed to Mosconi my eagerness to see portions of the document, a bit impatient and annoyed that he was taking so long; he promised, in reply to repeated queries, to send it to me, as soon as he had it properly collated and Xeroxed. I, in turn, promised to consider it for possible translation into English as soon as I received it. Mosconi indicated that this meant I would be charged with the final editing of it all, as he was simply too bewildered by its labyrinthine nature to tackle a full editorial task. “It seems to me maybe a bit too baroque, too unlikely in all its layers, fascinating though it is on a number of levels,” he wrote. “I’m not sure I want to dive in, when there are no evident ways out. And I’ve got pressing stuff with my own work and family to think about right now. Not that you don’t, too. I’m just passing it on to you, a bit shamefully, though confident you can make the best of it. But if you don’t wish to deal with it and prepare it for some kind of publication, just let me know.”
Mosconi was killed in an automobile accident outside Piriapolis, Uruguay, in December of 2011. Around a month after learning of his death, I was able to make contact, by phone, with his widow, in Montevideo, in April, 2012. I told her of my friendship with Mosconi, of my discussions with him, about the purported Bolaño documents, and of Mosconi’s wish that I translate them into English. She was aware of the material—yes, her husband had often spoken of it—and agreed to track it down in his, as she put it, “still intact disaster of an office.” I sensed a distance or coolness in her references to him, but phones, of course, can mislead. I promised to forward some of the email correspondence between Mosconi and me for verification of our prior discussions. I meticulously listed for her the materials that Mosconi claimed were present:
1) Bolaño’s introduction and solicited email reminiscences from acquaintances of a “Vladimir Nadal,” 2) a xeroxed biographical sketch of the great Surrealist poet Benjamin Péret by the American anarchist and poet-scholar Franklin Rosemont, appended to a briefer commentary by Bolaño, 3) two typescripts partially recording police transcripts from the interrogation of Péret during his detention in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in late 1931, 4) a satirical “Soviet Infrarrealista” text by Nadal, 5) “translations” by Nadal from Péret’s poetry collection Le Gran Jeu, 6) an essay by Péret in Xeroxed form (in published English translation), 7) A handwritten letter, dated January 4th, 1954, by Sylvia Beach, proprietor of Shakespeare and Co. in Paris, and the first publisher of James Joyce’s Ulysses, 8) a sketch of Vladimir Nadal, date and artist unknown, though likely done after his return to Chile near the end of his life, 9) an original snapshot print of Bolaño and four other young people, in Mexico City, ca. 1976, in which Nadal may be present, and 10) Quiroga’s Editorial Preface.
I followed up with an email, detailing the list, and around six weeks later I received a box containing a Xerox copy of the manuscript. All the components discussed by Mosconi were there, save the poetry selections from Le Grand Jeu, which Ms. Mosconi, as she indicated in accompanying note, had not yet located. But two weeks later I did receive these— a Xerox, again, from old selectric text, and same font as most of the manuscript.
Shortly thereafter, Mosconi’s widow informed me over email that she had come upon a “five-page prose typescript, including notes,” titled, in handwriting, as “Péret—O Almirante negro,” and which I recognized as a document referred to by Quiroga in her Preface. I wrote to request that this be sent along, though at the time I had no clear idea to what it pertained. Research would reveal that these pages were no doubt a translation into Spanish from a holograph manuscript, in Portuguese and French, of the only four extant pages (the originals are apparently held in the Mario Pedrosa archives in Rio de Janeiro; it is unclear how Nadal would have accessed the surviving text) of Péret’s extensive study—otherwise destroyed by the Brazilian police in December, 1931—of La revolta da Chivata (the Revolt of the Lash), a heroic and spectacular Potemkin-like 1910 uprising within the Brazilian Navy, led by João Cândido Felisberto, an Afro-Brazilian sailor. Tragically, this excerpt was either never sent, or else lost in the mail. I re-inquired with Ms. Mosconi two or three times, but received no response. I learned some months later from her daughter that she had taken her life not long after my last communication with her.
I do not know if the “O Almirante negro” typescript had been originally part of the Nadal manuscript, or if the lost translation was done by Bolaño as a “side project,” where he somehow came into possession of the original Péret document (Bolaño in his introduction does not mention the text as present in the Nadal papers, though he does show knowledge of it in a footnote to the Péret interrogation document). It seems possible, as well, that Mosconi was prompted by this mention to track it down and translate it himself. Already, the reader may sense why Mosconi refers to this case as “labyrinthine,” while Quiroga, in her Preface, calls it “a maze, with a trap set at the end.”
In any event, to partially compensate for the major loss, I have added a later essay by Péret, translated into English by none other than Samuel Beckett, and originally published in 1934 in Nancy Cunard’s legendary Negro: An Anthology. Péret (writing years after his original manuscript had been destroyed) briefly summarizes the Revolta event in this essay, which also deals more generally with topics pertaining to his serious ethnographic studies in Brazil. In addition, the two other previously published essays included in the package I received are reprinted verbatim here. These appeared in the furtive and now defunct journal Radical America, in 1970. One is the previously mentioned introduction to the life and person of Péret, written by the great American anarchist and labor scholar Franklin Rosemont, with whom Bolaño reveals he had been in contact; the other is a translation of Péret’s polemical and (at least in France) infamous 1945 essay “The Dishonor of the Poets,” which he wrote in Mexico, and wherein he suggests that Stalinist-championed “Resistance” poetry in France bears affective affinities to ads for pharmaceutical companies.
Because the Radical America pieces are, to my knowledge, unavailable elsewhere in English, and because the journal issue in which they appear is extremely obscure [Radical America, ed. Paul Buhle, Vol. IV, No. 6, August, 1970], I have decided to include them. Someone, either Bolaño, Quiroga, or Mosconi, felt these pieces had some suggestive correspondence to this manuscript and chose to interleave them; and I agree, for the themes of cultural critique, poetic resistance, and anarcho-communist militancy that inform them certainly echo long-abiding concerns in the life and work of the French poet. And of Bolaño, too, for that matter, who loved not only the Surrealists, but was, like many of them, a close sympathizer of Trotskyist and anarchist tendencies. These three reproduced pieces, then, are the only documents in this book whose absolute authenticity is verified. Everything else remains under question.
Isabel Quiroga speculates in her “Editor’s Preface” on the authorial uncertainties that suffuse this text. She asks: Is Vladimir Nadal an actual figure, an old Infrarrealista acquaintance of Bolaño’s? Or is he, rather, a fictional character out of Bolaño’s imagination, in an unfinished work intriguingly tethered—in its topics and multi-voiced form—to the first two sections of his great novel the Savage Detectives, published less than three years before Bolaño purportedly found most of what follows? More specifically, she asks if Nadal’s possibly fictional persona may be linked in quasi-sequel fashion to the Chilean—and also classical-prosody-obsessed—“Juan García Madero” of the Savage Detectives.
We must add three other questions, it seems to me—ones that are just as reasonable to ask as the prior ones, given the apocryphal mists enveloping this book: 1) Might the pseudonymous Isabel Quiroga herself have actually invented Bolaño’s presence in all of this, so as to tether, in the spirit of homage, an enigmatic, apocryphal work to the metafictional-loving author’s massive (and still not exhausted) archive? The second question naturally follows, even if such a maze-like fictional architecture would be nothing but “baroque,” to use Mosconi’s own term, and almost insane if true: 2) Might all of this (with exception of the previously published Péret essays, which we know to be authentic) be the work of Mosconi, who—erasing any claim of his own authority—has invented not only Bolaño and Nadal, but the figure of Quiroga, as well? Or 3) Could there be yet another author, perhaps one hiding in plain sight within this book—one to whom Mosconi, indeed, was providing cover?
It is all quite beyond me, as Mosconi claimed it to be beyond him. And humbled by the singularity of it all, I know I really have no choice but to hide my own name, in deference to the mystery of these pages and to their power—and in deference to he, she, or they who brought them into being with no apparent wish for recompense save the noble pleasure of adding a measure of enchantment to the world. There is a very loud traveling carnival from Tarragona right outside my window. And the pseudonym I take as the translator of this apocryphal book is (could there be, truly, any other?) Arturo Belano.
Dear reader: I urge you to continue.