Stylistically, Zabala's writing is a composite of multiple influences ... whether reminiscent of specific writers or particular genres, it is always maintaining an utterly modern tone. From book to book (and there are nine books of varying lengths divided into three parts that comprise the text of The Mad Patagonian) these influences arrived one right after another and, to me, looked like this:
- Roberto Bolano—which shouldn't surprise anyone who reads the fifty-two page introduction by the translator, Tomas Garcia Guerrero, as Bolano and Zabala exchanged written correspondence often and met up on at least two occasions. Bolano's influence is particularly strong for the first several hundred pages.
- Louis Ferdinand Céline kind of makes an appearance in Book Four with an Admiral Bragueton (Journey to the End of the Night)-like episode.
- Alvaro Mutis is the writer that Book Four reminds me of the most.
- Roberto Arlt—in the noirish-like Book Five, there are some almost eerie textual similarities to the author of The Seven Madmen and The Flamethrowers. Set in pre-revolutionary Cuba, I might add that, too.
- Rachel Kushner's Telex from Cuba would almost make the perfect companion piece though Kushner's book came out well after Zabala's death.
- Alain Robbe-Grillet—the last three books all have a kind of a nouveau roman edge very reminiscent of that French writer.
- Don Delillo
- Paul Auster
- Albert Camus
- Jorge Luis Borges
The third central figure of the novel, Travis Lauterbach, an on-again, off-again college teacher, is a main character in Parts One and Three. Keeping track of the character names helps if only because some of the more important ones are linked from book to book. I took notes as I read because when you're reading 1,210 pages and there are a lot of different characters, I've found it is handy to be able to look back and say, 'oh-okay—that's so-and-so from Book Two ...'. Keeping notes will significantly enhance this work for you; that is unless you already possess a prodigious or otherwise eidetic memory and have no need for notes.
On the plotting: the novel starts (kind of) in the present (or not that long ago) time in Part One; then, in Part Two, the novel ventures back to nineteenth century Spain, moving into the twentieth century, and in Book Five it's the late '50s, very early '60s of pre-Revolutionary Cuba, and then it's the '60s, '70s, early '80s-ish Florida. In Part Three we're pretty much back to the present time. Some characters cross over from era to era while some don't but the ones who do bridge the decades and the centuries are the keys to understanding how the novel's three parts intersect. In it's own way The Mad Patagonian reminds me a bit of Georges Perec's Life: A User's Manual in how Zabala accomplishes all the intersecting and interconnectedness that he does.
Which is to say that reading The Mad Patagonian was for me like capturing lightning in a bottle; it is an electric novel that's come thundering down to earth in all its eclectic, gargantuan glory, thanks to both its aforementioned translator, Tomas Garcia Guerrero, who unfortunately didn't live quite long enough to witness his translation spark the imaginations of its first ever English language audience, and to the unsurpassed passion of its publisher and editor, Peter Damian Bellis, owner of River Boat Books. I would want The Mad Patagonian with me for whatever desert island I might get shipwrecked on, for when I consider its range, its multidimensionality and multiplicity of voices, I find it easily comparable to my two favorite epics of Latin American fiction, Bolano's 2666 and Mario Vargas Llosa's Conversation in the Cathedral. It is a flat out masterpiece and I would encourage anyone at all interested in reading great literature to get him or herself a copy today.
About the Reviewer
Beyond being a lover of Latin American literature and of the Oulipo, Larry Riley (aka, lriley), in his spare time over the past several years translated the never-before-translated-into-English, Los lanzallamas ("The Flamethrowers") by Roberto Arlt. The Flamethrowers proceeds where Arlt's The Seven Madmen left off, completing what was always envisioned as a single novel in Arlt's mind's eye. Being that the New York Review of Books (NYRB) reissued The Seven Madmen not too long ago — on December 22, 2015, to be exact — wouldn't it make perfect sense for them to approach Larry Riley with a reasonable offer for his already completed translation of The Flamethrowers? Sure hope they do before another publisher does. . . .