Literary Alchemy : PALINURO IN MEXICO. By Fernando del Paso (Dalkey Archive: $14.95, paper, 557 pp.)

Charlotte Innes is a regular contributor to the Book Review

Imagine you have fallen asleep. You are in a surreal dream in which your kitchen pots have taken on a life of their own and your friends are preparing an autopsy in the living room. Actually, there is not one you in this dream, but many yous. Suddenly, you're all discussing every book you've ever read, in garrulous, manic, poetic detail. You're also having incredible sex, you're about to die--and you're laughing. Whew! you say, as you wake, heart thudding.

That's just a taste of what it's like to read "Palinuro in Mexico," an inspired, roller-coaster of a book about life and love in Mexico City by the renowned Mexican author Fernando del Paso. Dreamlike and fantastic, filled with sensuous, poetic language, a positively orgiastic love of life, bubbling humor and a special brand of literary alchemy, this pulsating novel still carries the same explosive punch of its first appearance in Spanish nearly 20 years ago.

Published in Spain in 1977 (while the author was working in England for the BBC), "Palinuro" has since been translated into several languages. It became a cult classic in France and won many prizes in Mexico and throughout Europe. Available in the U.S. for the first time from Dalkey Archive, a small press specializing in groundbreaking literary works, many of them foreign, this edition carries Elisabeth Plaister's sparkling translation from the 1985 version published in England.

What's impressive about "Palinuro" is that it transforms a potentially daunting literary experiment into something that's enormous fun to read. For Del Paso tries nothing less than to pin down the very essence of life, and he does this by examining all the evidence we have, from the physicality of the human body and the world around us to the more nebulous reaches of human thought.

Without being in the least dry or academic, Del Paso mixes a nurturant stew of allusive material that is part elegant literary concoction, part spicy farce. "Palinuro" is drenched in echoes of Virgil and Homer, as well as Mexican writers Octavio Paz and Carlos Fuentes and classics like Laurence Sterne's "Tristram Shandy," James Joyce's "Ulysses" and Lewis Carroll's "The Adventures of Alice in Wonderland."

Lewd satire in the style of Francois Rabelais switches back and forth with moral indignation over the more brutal aspects of Mexican politics in the 1960s. There are also mentions of numerous medical texts, famous and obscure, along with such quirky artifacts as advertising instruction manuals, culled from Del Paso's brief, youthful stints as a medical student and then as a publicity agent.

Set in Mexico City in the 1950s and 1960s, the novel focuses on Palinuro, a young medical student, his passionate affair with his first cousin, Estefania, and his exploits with fellow students--crude Molkas, sensitive Fabricio and his know-it-all cousin, Walter. All of them, it soon becomes clear, are really different aspects of the authorial voice--part of Del Paso's multi-pronged effort to cure us of any lingering complacency about the fixed nature of reality.

Storyless in the orthodox sense, though narrative-driven in the postmodern, search-for-meaning tradition, "Palinuro" actually moves along chapter by chapter, resting on a net of expansive tales and meditations, and reminiscences of Palinuro's childhood in the ancient family home with a colorful crew of relatives. (Most notable are his medicine-obsessed, Hungarian-born Uncle Esteban and his storytelling Grandfather Francisco, a politician down on his luck.) There are also drunken monologues in bars, student pranks, a hilarious side trip into the world of advertising, long sessions of lovemaking between Palinuro and Estefania in their apartment on Holy Sunday Square, and a chilling climax based on the notorious real-life massacre on Oct. 2, 1968, when Mexican troops shot and killed nearly 400 protesting students in Mexico City's Tlatelolco Square.

Yet all these stories slowly build to a profound purpose: Del Paso's attempt to snare reality through physical or intellectual means and the poignant discovery (after the author has examined life from every angle) that this may not be possible. It's a journey scores of other postmodern writers have taken with varying degrees of success. But, as any number of fine writers have pointed out down the ages, it's not what you say but how you say it.

What differentiates Del Paso is his refraction of life through his immense literary knowledge and more especially through his extensive medical knowledge. He's fascinated by the limitations of the body. What can we learn, he wonders, from this absurd collection of 206 bones "that rise one above the other to form the tallest of human towers!"--this "web in which the human soul is trapped."

Thus he presents the body in action (through eating, drinking, lovemaking, even flatulence) and the body invaded (by violence, murder, abortion, autopsy and necrophilia). His characters probe, slice, peer, question--he shows us the terrible cruelty wrought on animals in the name of human curiosity--only to be baffled by the body's neurological apparatus, ultimately as mysterious as the workings of the universe.

And therein lies the big question mark at the center of the book. As Palinuro's cousin Walter puts it: "Never has anybody found in that egg which you beheld, in that brain . . . never, Palinuro, has anybody ever discovered or even glimpsed the trace of a memory, the romantic imprint of an illusion . . . [or] the sensorial images of the world and of its things: of the round world and of the scent of flowers and beer . . . of the shape and color of houses and clouds and women and of the barbaric brilliance of the sun; never, ever, even in a thousand years." We may be able to name and quantify everything, Del Paso says, but we will never penetrate the essential mystery at the heart of our existence.

But, oh, what fun to try, he adds gleefully, wrenching every human experience this way and that, until objects have feelings and houses turn upside down. Thus the book's horrific climax is presented part seriously, as Palinuro lies bleeding on the steps of his apartment building, after his encounter with the military in Tlatelolco Square. Yet it's also part farce--a theatrical play featuring Harlequin and Columbine and all the other characters of the bawdy Italian commedia dell'arte.

Few other novels have so much color, so many metaphors, so much of the feel, smell, sight and sound of human experience, so much life. Even the author has said in interviews that "Palinuro" is a novel of "excess." In some ways that makes it the book for our age of information--the age of the Internet and its tidal wave of disconnected facts. And yet it's also a book for every age, the latest progeny in a long-established family of fact-gathering that ranges from encyclopedic modernists like James Joyce to "The Guinness Book of World Records" and Ripley's "Believe It or Not." (Del Paso satirizes them both in his novel, even as he offers his own profusion of nuggets: that weeping horses in New Orleans' funeral processions have had their eyes dabbed with onion, that certain Cubans drink milk with salt and on and on.)

Still, part of me says that meandering novels like this, featuring the age-old stereotype of male writer and his muse (Palinuro and Estefania), have had their day. Time for the female/ethnic/gay version, perhaps. Certainly, writers like Leslie Marmon Silko, Carole Maso and Ducornet are beginning to show us some marvelous mutations. But then I open "Palinuro" and read:

"The naive, tyrannical and solitary brain which works and loses sleep walking a tightrope across the abysm of madness, flinging itself into the well of dreams, performing immortal leaps from one thought to the next and all for love of itself and love of a bladder, a tear gland, and a pancreas . . . not knowing what they do or why, where, when, how they do it . . . without them being able to know each other, to thank each other for their mutual favors and services and celebrate their delirious, irrational, fantastic association . . . [in] the circle of life, the magic, insane, dark, magnificent and vicious circle of life!" And I'm hooked.

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