Trying to meet all your book preview and review needs.
to e-mail us:
support the site
The Garden of Seven Twilights
- Return to top of the page -
B+ : intriguing tangle of stories in service of a complex whole
See our review for fuller assessment.
From the Reviews:
- Return to top of the page -
The complete review's Review:
The Garden of Seven Twilights begins with an introduction addressed 'To the Non-Specialist Reader', written by a Miquel de Palol i Moholy-McCullydilly in a changed world, several centuries after the: "Nuclear Wars of the Contemporary Era, also known as the Four Wars of Entertainment" (which took place in 2025, 2059-2061, 2091, and 2113).
It introduces 'The Garden of Seven Twilights', a well-known and much-studied text of uncertain date, with the oldest conserved edition of it dating to 2460; the text then presented here is largely based on a 2840 edition.
(Amusingly -- and displaying the thoroughness of Palol's invention --, a 'General Bibliography for The Garden of Seven Twilights' is appended to this introduction, listing several dozen texts, the earliest of which is dated 2735 (and the latest, 2997).)
Betanci placed a book he'd brought to read during his stay onto the table. Gamut picked it up and read the title aloud.The novel itself is not identical to the one mentioned here -- it is set around the destruction of Barcelona -- and likely dates to the first of the Wars of Entertainment, very close to our own times, its opening line: "During the first atomic strike in its history, Barcelona became a hecatomb". The set-up is simple: through his mother's connections, the nameless young narrator is offered refuge in a place away from the unfolding catastrophe, deep in the countryside, up in the mountains, apparently set up by one Pierre Gimellion . His mother doesn't take advantage of the get-away spot, but the narrator goes, finding himself then in the lap of luxury at a ridiculously grand estate.
It's all a bit overwhelming, what with the fancy decor and the grand works of art by well-known masters, but the narrator settles in quickly and easily enough. He is also introduced to the Garden of Twilight, a plain atop a high promontory, which he ventures to repeatedly during the time of his stay.
Quite a few people are assembled at the estate, but there is still some coming and going. Oddly, there seems rather little concern for what is happening in the outside world: even as a terrible war is raging, leading to widespread destruction, there's not much mention or discussion of it. The narrator certainly seems to show little interest in what is going on in the outside world, focusing instead on what happens at this isolated locale, mingling with the others there -- and, above all, listening to their stories.
The Garden of Seven Twilights is a heptameron, those assembled at the retreat regaling each other with stories. Unlike many such story-cycle works, the stories in The Garden of Seven Twilights include or lead to stories-within-stories, a narrator recalling and repeating a story s/he heard -- and that not just at one but sometimes at multiple levels. These stories nested within stories go as deep as nine (!) levels. A tiered 'Tree of Tales' at the beginning of the book, identifying tale, teller, and narrative level, is a helpful guide and supplement to the table of contents. (Each tale is given a descriptive title -- e.g. 'The Story of the Vanished Letter'.)
This adds to the reading challenge, the narrative shifting back and forth among the narrative levels -- such as when someone listening to a story comments on part of the action. This is not as disruptive as it might sound, and it's all made easier to follow by the shifts being clearly marked: as an Editor's Note at the beginning explains, these shifts are marked in the margin in square brackets, e.g. "[1>2] indicates that we are passing from the main story to a story within the story", etc. (The shifts are usually but not necessarily a single step up or down: sometimes they leap several levels at once.)
Among the significant storylines in the stories that are recounted is that of the Mir Bank and those associated with it -- an institution that: "became synonymous with tragedy, misfortune, and mystery -- like King Tut's tomb ort the White Whale". The founder had no heirs of his own -- his son had disappeared in a shipwreck decades earlier -- and chose the wrong successors, but the candidate originally passed over, Alexis Cros, eventually comes to rescue it and take it over. Alexis' heir is his daughter Lluïsa -- who is wooed by Robert Colom, a man she initially wants to have nothing to do with but then marries. They have two children, but the kids are kidnapped and their fate a mystery. Both Colom and Lluïsa die young, Colom in a car crash (where, when the body is recovered, there is briefly a mystery about: "Where was Robert Colom's penis ?"), Lluïsa, at age forty-three, simply of the flu.
The Mir Bank is also connected to a remarkable jewel, which figures prominently in much of the book. Indeed, the novel is divided into three parts, and the last of these is titled: 'Jewel Recovered', as the mystery surrounding it -- it is much more than a simple gem -- becomes central to the story.
A great variety of stories are told here. Many of them are reminiscences of sorts, often about people that are known to those at the retreat, and so there are also connections between various tales, or episodes from different points in various people's lives. The larger tapestry, as it were, is, however, not neatly and evenly spun out: many of the stories are in one way or another peripheral, or seem simply like digressions. After an early focus on the Mir Bank, for example, the second part of the novel is titled 'Googol' and many of the tales there center around a fancy ship of that name. What looks like a luxury yacht is, in fact, "the most comprehensive spy ship that had ever been built", run by the Interdepartmental Institute and with an onboard computer that is a Cyborg -- a completely autonomous: "cybernetic organism [that] belongs to the ninth generation of extra-analogical auto-induction computers, possessing self-regenerating biochips integrated with organic molecules". (Although the novel seems to be set near to our time, it is clearly a more technologically advanced age -- with the flight from Paris to New York taking barely over an hour and a half, for example.)
Other stories range from one person's rise from a life on the streets as a young boy to experiences in a sanitarium to a pirate-tale. Among the most amusing is an extended one in which the teller recounts how he found himself stuck in a Groundhog Day-like time-loop, repeating the same day, over and over.
The narrator learns more about the various people who are at this retreat along with him, but many mysteries long remain. For one, many of the people figure with other identities -- while the real identity of an often-mentioned mystery figure, Ω, long remains one of the big, unanswered questions. ("Who was this enigmatic Ω, the person everyone spoke of, but no one knew anything about when asked ?" the narrator wonders early on.) The question of identity is particularly significant for the narrator, who is led to question his own parentage: even well into the novel he insists, "I know perfectly well who my parents are", and he dismisses it when he's first told: "Neither your mother nor your father are who you think they are", but bits and pieces he continues to pick up from the tales and the company clearly throw some doubt on what he's long been so sure of. Figuring out who everyone actually is, and the roles they play, is one of the major strands of the novel.
It also becomes increasingly clear that essentially everyone is playing one (or several) roles -- even those who aren't (as) aware of it. The narrator is strangely incurious as to what he's done to deserve a place in this safe and very comfortable retreat as the world around him is being levelled -- but, as one of the others there suggests to him, stating the obvious:
Don't you see ? We're implicated in this tale ! We're the ones being played with. Otherwise, what would be doing here ?It's suggested that the tales form: "intersecting lines -- a graph, to use a more appropriate mathematical term" -- and that much that has been recounted has been so by careful design:, to the extent that arguably: "the contradictions between the stories are not strategic but initiatory, and were agreed upon in advance by the narrators". And so also: "The Garden, Orion, the stories, our stay here, even the war ..." perhaps all serve a specific purpose.
Already early on, someone had suggested some of the games that might be going on with these tellings:
If the narrator conceals his position, and with it, part of the story, it's possible he is distorting the story or the ending in favor of another, future story this one might be part of. I mean, this story might be nothing more than an image in service of other interests.Palol and his fiction neatly play off the difference between the structure and planning generally found in novels and the uncertainties of reality:
The novel is a closed system (or at least that's what the authors want it to be, whether or not they admit it), and the rules of the game already provide a key. That never happens in reality, which is impossible to close, so vast and rich that no one can address it on the basis of limited knowledge.The Garden of Seven Twilights -- and the interactions at the retreat -- are also a closed system (even as Palol presents it in a way to make it (appear) more like 'reality'). It is a seven-day-affair, and it is set to come to a decisive culmination and close at the end of that time; as Gimellion points out as the end draws near:
"You must be aware, my dear friend, that our sejour is drawing to a close. Everyone present has taken refuge in the mountains, awaiting some sort of resolution. That resolution is now at hand," he said before pronouncing very slowly, "This evening, perhaps, the war will be over."It's a rare acknowledgement of the scope of what is going on out there, in the rest of the world -- and a reminder of the significance of events here, as casual as they may seem.
It is all rather dizzying, not least because Palol eschews simple structures and explanations. The stories, separately and in sum, are suggestive -- of the great significance and potential of the jewel, for example -- but filled with uncertainty -- no more often or obviously than in the most fundamental of questions, of personal identity.
The Garden of Seven Twilights is entertaining in its parts -- the stories (and their interruptions and digressions) are consistently enjoyable -- and intriguing in its aggregate, but it is a lot (and a lot to keep track of: the stories are fairly clear, but the many dozens of narrators and characters are hard to keep track of, not least also because quite a few have multiple identities/names). Then there's the narrator, who long remains an underdeveloped character -- admittedly part of the point, as neither he nor the reader should be certain of who he actually is, as it were, but also leaving him somewhat sidelined even as his position -- he's the one passing on all the stories, and his own thoughts and experiences to the reader -- is so central.
In many ways, the sprawl is actually quite controlled, and The Garden of Seven Twilights is less Decameron-like story collection and more tending-towards-a-whole -- but it's still a slippery heap of a novel. It makes for good reading, but is (intentionally) not quite as rounded as readers may have come to hope or expect.
- M.A.Orthofer, 9 April 2023
- Return to top of the page -
- Return to top of the page -
Catalan author Miquel de Palol was born in 1953.
- Return to top of the page -