#RivetingReviews: Chad W. Post reviews THE THINGS WE’VE SEEN by Agustín Fernández Mallo

In Adam Thirlwell’s Miss Herbert (US: The Delighted States) he groups authors into two broad categories: those who use subtle, indirect techniques to represent the world; and those who foreground style and structure in their works, calling more attention to the construction of the novel than the ‘reality’ that it depicts. Agustín Fernández Mallo’s The Things We’ve Seen (his second novel in translation following The Nocilla Trilogy) falls squarely into that latter group, subverting expectations of plot and character to create something more like a 3-D artwork.

Functioning like a triptych, the novel is broken up into three distinct books, each with its own set of characters and concerns, tied together through the repetition of certain phrases, ideas, scenes, etc. For example, the first book is about a middle-aged author who is invited to participate in a conference on digital networks taking place on the mostly deserted island of San Simón in Galicia. During his time there, he wanders the island trying to reproduce the images found in the book Aillados (‘Isolated’) and taken during the Spanish Civil War when the island was a prisoner of war camp. In a Sebaldian way, these photographs – first featuring prisoners, then the emptiness of the island in the present day – ground the book, which, shortly thereafter starts to veer off into the strange and unreal. Our narrator sneaks back to the island post-conference for a solo retreat, then, after an unexplained gap (‘from that moment on, for almost a year, all trace of me is lost. A period I have no memory of whatsoever’), he reappears in New York City, converses with the ghosts of Dalí and García Lorca, spaces out for another year (prefaced by the exact same sentences quoted above) and then travels to Uruguay to return a copy of some handwritten poems of Lorca’s to the family of a friend who has passed away.

This story essentially ends there, although this writer is alluded to in the third book, in which a woman visits Normandy to relive a trip she had taken with a man who went to San Simón island and then vanished. Before vanishing, that man had been working on a story about the ‘fourth astronaut’ from the Apollo 11 moon mission, Kurt Montana, whose first-person account of his life story makes up the second book in this triptych. The most patently surreal and experimental of the three, this volume is most indebted to writers such as Enrique Vila-Matas and Paul Auster, complete with doppelgangers, a retelling of a Michael Chabon story and more ghosts.

The three books weave in and out of one another, but finding a grand, coherent plot is hardly the point. Instead, the structure of the triptych, the way in which it creates a neural network of associations and repeated phrases takes precedent, as seen in this quote:

‘What’s truly significant about Sebald’s book, the narration itself is fractal-like, I repeat, the narration itself is fractal-like. Sebald’s style, the way he presents the facts and the history alike, is also a fractal, because he doesn’t proceed in linear fashion like your usual itinerant storyteller, or your usual writer either, stringing exceptional moments and more or less sentimental memories together, rather he approaches history and his own walking tour in a fractal-like fashion, folding it together like a fractal.’

Anyone interested in the possibilities for the novel and its ability to explore the space between reality and fiction will find themselves sucked into this quite playful book, tracing connections and recontextualised motifs back and forth between the various parts, experiencing the book not as a linear narrative, but as an artwork to be explored and revisited.

Reviewed by Chad W. Post

The Things We’ve Seen

by Agustín Fernández Mallo

Translated by Thomas Bunstead 

Published by Fitzcarraldo Editions (2021)

Read The Spanish Riveter here or order your paper copy from here.

Buy books from The Spanish Riveter through the European Literature Network’s The Spanish Riveter bookshop.org page.

Chad W. Post is the publisher of Open Letter Books, a press at the University of Rochester. He is also the editorial director of Dalkey Archive Press, the author of The Three Percent Problem: Rants and Responses on Publishing, Translation, and the Future of Reading.

Category: April 2023 – The Spanish RiveterReviews


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