The Geography of Rebels Trilogy by Maria Gabriela Llansol (tr. Audrey Young). Deep Vellum Publishing. $15.95, 352pp.
Imagine if Don Mclean’s song American Pie was written about Christian mysticism instead of rock-n-roll. That’s my elevator pitch/description of the Portuguese writer, Maria Gabriela Llansol’s, English language debut: The Geography of Rebels Trilogy. Originally published as three separate books—The Book of Communities, The Remaining Life, and In the House of July and August—it has been painstakingly translated by Audrey Young and released by the Texas indie publisher Deep Vellum in a single volume.
Anyone coming to Llansol with any kind of “normal” expectations at all will likely be disappointed. Plot, logical structure, continuity, a sense of linear time and/or space— you won’t find any of that here. At least not in any form that is readily apparent. Instead, Llansol immerses her readers in a shared hallucinatory vision, seemingly fueled by religious hysteria and open to multiple interpretations.
The key into Llansol is provided by Benjamin Moser in an extremely helpful afterword, which I recommend reading before delving into The Geography of Rebels. In it Moser explains that, while in exile with her husband in Belgium, Llansol “discovered an institution peculiar to the Low Countries: the beguinage, medieval hostels that offered a refuge to spiritually inclined laypeople.” These hostels were built for women who did not wish or intend to take holy orders, but wanted to live a life of religious contemplation and celibacy. They still exist today. And it was after visiting one such beguinage in Bruges that Llansol “suddenly understood that ‘several levels of reality were deepening their roots, coexisting without any intervention of time.’”
This small insight into the author’s history helps to explain the real-life, historical figures she chose to populate the pages of her books——a veritable who’s who of medieval Christian mystics throughout the ages. Saint John of the Cross was a 16th-century Spanish Carmelite priest and mystic, still revered in Spain for his poetry. One poem in particular stands out—his Spiritual Canticle, in which he coined the phrase “the dark night of the soul.” Ana de Peñalosa was his patron, with whom he corresponded. (Llansol lifts whole quotes directly from the letters John wrote Ana de Peñalosa throughout The Book of Communities). Thomas Müntzer, a German theologian alive at the turn of the 15th century was imprisoned and tortured, as was John, for his faith. In the pages of Llansol’s book all three talk and interact like old friends (despite Müntzer walking around with his severed head in his hands, having died seventeen years prior to John’s birth).
The list goes on: Henry Suso was a German Dominican Friar whose life also spanned the 13th and 14th centuries. Meister Eckhart (c. 1260-1328) was a member of the Dominican order and another German theologian and mystic. Suso defended Eckhart against accusations of heresy after the latter’s death. Hadewijch was an early 13th-century poet, another Christian mystic and the rare female who has a stake in Christianity. She is from the Netherlands. Peñalosa and John spend time with them, too. Suso, we are told, is a fish. Everyone, it’s reasonably safe to assume, has heard of Nietzsche. He shows up as well.
Catholic mysticism stretches back to the earliest days of Christianity. And, despite eight years of Catholic school, I’m definitely not qualified to explain even the basics. What I can say is that meditation, vows of silence, chants, fasting, cloisters, monk’s cells, self-flagellation, visions, and stigmata all fall within the tradition of Christian mysticism. The general goal is to prepare one’s body and mind to receive God.
When Ana de Penalosa returned to her body, she found Eckhart in the garden. She recognized him by the profusion of greenery in the place where he was sitting.
—You have passed beyond the silence of dusk——she said. She let herself fall backward, meditating.
The publisher could easily have allowed The Geography of Rebels Trilogy to devolve into a labyrinth of footnotes, adding at least another hundred pages to the finished book. Fortunately, there is Wikipedia. And while all this information is helpful when reading Llansol, it’s probably not absolutely necessary. This isn’t a book about religion. In fact, it is far less overtly religious than C.S. Lewis’ Narnia series or Philip Pullman’s The Golden Compass. Religion and religious ideas are just so much reference material from which Llansol pulls creative inspiration.
And accepting that this is someone else’s vision or dream with no tether to the logical world allows the reader the freedom to enjoy the unique character of Llansol’s prose. Her style is comparable to the German writer Wolfgang Hilbig, whose sentences gurgle and babble and slip through the consciousness like running water. Even the way the text is laid out on the page is unusual. Sometimes her words are arranged in newspaper-like columns, allowing ideas to run parallel to each other. Sentences break off in strange ways—a blank space will appear where a word seemingly should be. At other times the lines of text form the abstract patterns of an Emily Dickinson poem (whose work Llansol admired and translated). In the third book, In the House of July and August, she uses Roman numerals to divide her writing into sections that are reminiscent of the stations of the cross. She wields sentences like blunt objects, frequently following the rat-a-tat rhythm of subject-verb-object. Allusions abound. Religious iconography and running water are recurring themes.
There is magic in how Llansol puts words together—and more of the poet in her than the prose writer. The excerpt below is fairly indicative of what you will find. Note the line “the room’s lamp was extinguished, the daylight disappeared,” which appears first in parenthesis. She repeats the same phrase, this time without the parentheses, at the end of the passage. It is a surprisingly effective trick. The words reverberate in the mind like an echo, or deja-vu, or even a whisper across time.
He leaned against the wall, retreating. In an instant, he crossed the place of Fontiveros, where the houses are lime white that ; at the same instant, in the garden of Penuela, he remained in prayer all night and, in the morning, they saw him rise up from the earth the top of the table was rectangular yellow, the predominant color of the air in Fontiveros and, when it was made into water, it became, in the second layer, a mirror; a wind like that from the river passed by, a wave rose up, a candle was lit within it (the room’s lamp was extinguished, the daylight disappeared): in the candlelight, our faces and handwritings intertwine; they lay in shadow, our severed left hands of Ana de Peñalosa, and they replace the duplicate pages: the second layer broken, they both appeared in a fetal position, mouths dirty with the milk of words; raised in the air, the candle went out, the room’s lamp was extinguished, the daylight disappeared.
Llansol is a writer’s writer, unrestrained and reckless in her use of language. And wholly uninterested in catering to the general reading public. Which brings us to what many would say is the major challenge in Llansol’s work. The trilogy has more in common with a medieval Book of Hours than modern fiction. So much so, that it’s hard to fathom that The Book of Communities was published in Portuguese in 1979—the same year as Toni Morrison’s Sula and Cormac McCarthy’s Child of God. I’ve heard more than one reader confess to putting The Geography of Rebels Trilogy aside after only a few pages. Such densely symbolic prose relies on a shared symbology, a universal agreement on the meanings we attribute to certain objects and facts. Llansol’s symbolism is so deeply rooted in Christianity—and a lesser-known aspect of Christianity, at that—as to be impenetrable to the lay reader. It is premised on our possessing an assumed knowledge which, in reality, is incredibly specialized. And so esoteric that it requires the time and attention most people only give to a doctoral thesis.
And, still, the more I think (and write) about Maria Gabriela Llansol, the more intrigued I am by her work. There is a phosphorescent brilliance here. And for those who can stay the course, rewards to be had. I was once told the story, probably apocryphal, about a conversation between James Joyce and Carl Jung (neither of whom, somewhat surprisingly given the presence if Nietzsche, appear in Llansol’s work). Joyce believed, or wanted to believe, that his daughter’s mental illness was just a form of creativity comparable to his own. Jung explained to him that it’s one thing to dive to the bottom of the well to gather stones and bring them back up to the surface. It is an entirely other thing to drown down there. There’s something of that, too, to be found in The Geography of Rebels. How much, though, is hard to say.
Tara Cheesman-Olmsted is a freelance book critic, National Book Critics Circle member & 2018 Best Translated Book Award fiction judge. Her reviews can be found at The Rumpus, Book Riot, Los Angeles Review of Books, and Quarterly Conversation. Since 2009 she’s written the blog Reader At Large (formerly BookSexy Review).
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