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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Things We've Seen

Agustín Fernández Mallo

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To purchase The Things We've Seen

Title: The Things We've Seen
Author: Agustín Fernández Mallo
Genre: Novel
Written: 2018 (Eng. 2021)
Length: 482 pages
Original in: Spanish
Availability: The Things We've Seen - US
Trilogia de la guerra - US
The Things We've Seen - UK
The Things We've Seen - Canada
Trilogia de la guerra - España
directly from: Fitzcarraldo Editions
  • Spanish title: Trilogia de la guerra
  • Translated by Thomas Bunstead

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Our Assessment:

B : intriguing if ultimately too far-reaching

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
ABC . 21/3/2018 J.M.Pozuelo Yvancos
El Cultural A+ 2/3/2018 Ascensión Rivas
Irish Times . 27/3/2021 Declan O'Driscoll
El País . 26/3/2018 Francisco Solano
Wall St. Journal . 18/6/2021 Sam Sacks

  From the Reviews:
  • "Trilogía de la guerra nace de internet, o mejor, de aplicar la idea de red a la tela de conexiones entre los vivos y los muertos, como si hubiese una forma de vida más allá de la Historia oficial, hecha de los restos de tantos naufragios de la razón y el instinto que han estado en el origen de los distintos apocalipsis de los que la novela se hace eco. La soberbia parte final, con el deambular de la pareja del protagonista por las playas de Normandía, es pieza mayor de escritor, que por cierto se reivindica como narrador. Muestra la madurez que su obra demandaba y que ha repartido por diferentes páginas de una novela a la que, no obstante, una poda de su parte central habría beneficiado." - José María Pozuelo Yvancos, ABC

  • "Trilogía de la guerra es en su contenido, estructura y estilo una novela fractal, es decir, un texto infinito que reproduce, en cada pequeña porción, un universo infinito a veces igual al que lo contiene, aunque más frecuentemente con variantes. (...) Ambiciosa, brillante e inteligente, Trilogía de la guerra es, sobre todo, un magnífico mosaico que trata de reflejar la desmesurada complejidad de nuestro tiempo y nuestro desamparo en él como individuos." - Ascensión Rivas, El Cultural

  • "Mallo's imagination never falters. To stay with him means loosening all limitations we might wish to impose on a text. The reward is an audacious adventure. (...) This is, indeed, a dream of a book." - Declan O'Driscoll, Irish Times

  • "Trilogía de la guerra resulta tan acaparadora que es imposible no admitir cierto barullo entre la ocurrencia (...) y la brillantez (.....) Con esa libertad y alguna prolijidad de talento especulativo (...) Fernández Mallo nos emplaza a revisar la estructura de la realidad, restituyéndola con otras metáforas, con un nuevo carácter germinativo, cuyo potencial resida en la combinación de ciencia y poesía, de rigor y anomalía, una alianza de incertidumbre capaz de crear el aliento que produce la apelación a los significados." - Francisco Solano, El País

  • "The free-associations make this a lengthy, extremely self-indulgent book that will at some point try even the most generous reader's patience, but the reward for perseverance is a unique work that captures an uncanny aspect of the lonely but bewilderingly overpopulated contemporary experience." - Sam Sacks, Wall Street Journal

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Like The Nocilla Trilogy (Nocilla Dream, etc.), The Things We've Seen is a trilogy; indeed, the original Spanish title is Trilogia de la guerra ('Trilogy of war'). Its three separate books seem, in fact, certainly at first glance, very distinct -- though, unsurprisingly, considerable overlap reveals itself, especially in the themes, not least that of war (though more as foundation and background than focus). Each part is also tied to a geographic locale, though the narrators -- a separate one for each book -- also range beyond it in their accounts.
       Book I is: 'San Simón Island (Fossil Fuels)' and is itself divided into three parts, with its narrator the one most closely resembling author Fernández Mallo. It begins in the fall of 2014, with him accepting an invitation to join a panel at a three-day 'Net-Thinking' symposium on the island of San Simón, which he initially thinks he's never heard of before. (In his Acknowledgements Fernández Mallo mentions that the novel: "was begun in 2013 on San Simón Island, and he did indeed participate in a Nethinking event there in the spring of that year.) The participants stay at a hotel on the island, but there are no other guests, or live audience for the discussions -- which are, however, streamed out live. Although there are decent facilities on the island, they haven't managed to sustain any real activity here, and they plan to even close the place down entirely over the winter.
       During the Spanish Civil War, San Simón served as prison camp, and this history haunts it and the narrator's visit. His fascination with the island is such that he decides to return to it later in the fall. Knowing the site will be entirely abandoned, he secretly sails back to it and installs himself there for an extended stay -- with his account of this ending abruptly:

The last thing I remember was tottering over to the bed. From that moment on, for almost a year, all trace of me is lost. A period I have no memory of whatsoever.
       The second section has him describing living in New York, in 2015 -- an account that concludes with the same fall into some oblivion, the closing two lines identical with those of the first part. The third part then describes a trip to Uruguay, a mission to bring some papers -- seven transcribed poems from Federico García Lorca's Poet in New York -- to the family of a friend who had died in New York.
       Past repeatedly overlaps with present throughout, beginning with the narrator taking photographs on San Simón of the same sites that are found in the photographs in a book, Aillados, that show it in around 1937. Similarly, he describes a trip to Turin, retracing the steps (and capturing them in photographs) that Nietzsche took in January 1889 before becoming incapacitated. (As he notes of the last decade of Nietzsche's life, it was: "A period Nietzsche would have no memory of whatsoever".) The dead here also take on more tangible form on occasion: García Lorca haunts Central Park -- "All night long he walks around the Reservoir" --, while a Salvador Dalí-figure has his own story to tell.
       The third book of The Things We've Seen, 'Normandy (Masters of the Night)' is even more explicitly a chronicle of retracing steps, the female narrator returning to Normandy four years after she had taken a trip there with a man who was apparently the narrator of the first book, who had simply disappeared. At one point, he had also set out working on something:
He was writing by hand, in something of a fury. When I asked what he was writing, he said it was a story that had just come to him, 'The story of the fourth astronaut,' he called it
       This describes the second book of The Things We've Seen, 'USA Mickey Mouse grew and grew and turned into a cow', which is narrated by Kurt Montana, the fourth astronaut on the Apollo 11 moon mission, redacted from all the official accounts:
I feature in none of the photos of the lunar expedition, the reason being that it was always me taking the photos.
       His account is a more sweeping sort of life-story -- though little of is devoted to the actual moon mission. He's writing in 2016, now working in a retirement home in Florida, his fortunes following the same arc as that of his father, a one-time lottery winner who briefly parlayed it into more before pretty much losing it all. His is a somewhat more traditional narrative than the other two sections, but also swerves into the surreal, notably with a sighting of then US president George Bush Sr. vomiting up "tiny scraps of an x-ray printout" that Kurt collects and then pieces together (and which ultimately reveal lengthy personal messages from the beyond).
       Kurt also served in Vietnam, war experiences that also haunt him and his narrative -- just as in the final part in Normandy the Second World War still casts a shadow over much the narrator explores. The dead, beyond those killed in war, figure prominently throughout, too -- and not just in memory, but also communicating, in various forms and the broadest sense of the term, with those still living.
       The narrator of the final part recalls how, four years earlier, the man she had been with had maintained:
'Reality is eminently disordered,' he said. 'We never perceive things in their correct order, which means that when we're talking or writing we don't keep to the correct temporal sequence either. Life is an nth degree plane crash, life is a great catastrophe, the definitive accident, and our attempts to recount it are shot through with that same disorderedness.'
       The three narratives in The Things We've Seen -- and the other voices woven into it -- reflect this. Beyond that, history itself is uncertain, impossible to fully grasp, even as the narrators try to latch onto pieces of it and find some hold and understanding there. As a message the narrator of the first part gets on his phone points out, in this and all regards: "It's a mistake to take the things we've seen as a given". So also, despite the close detail of so much they relate, there are also enormous blank spaces, lengthy memory-voids.
       There's also the issue of recorded -- written, photographed, etc. -- history, documentation as evidence: as Kurt's mother conveys to him: "Sure, people know you were there with Armstrong et al. but, in the final computation, that isn't going to cut it. If there's no record of it, you won't be remembered".
       The final narrator's voyage is, as she says, also an attempt: "to delineate the final contour of a life", but she also recognizes (walking on the Normandy coast ...) the fractal-like nature of the undertaking, with endless new patterns emerging the more one zooms in on any particular piece, with no conclusive final contour ever possible. And indeed The Things We've Seen is also like W.G.Sebald's The Rings of Saturn:
(W)hat'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
       The narratives do wend forward, as even as there can seem an aimlessness to much of the activity surprisingly much of it is, in some way or another, goal oriented: to go someplace specific, to see something or someone. There are also substantial digressions, in various forms, throughout. Fernández Mallo does weave often intriguing stories and episodes, historic as well as experienced, into the accounts, but even with the connections he does draw, The Things We've Seen remains somewhat unwieldy -- a heap of story, rather than a coherent whole.
       There is an emphasis on connection, beginning with how the first narrator sees the internet -- "the fact of it being, in a manner of speaking, one gigantic brain that drifts around the planet" -- , with an overlap of references across the three books of the novel, but Fernández Mallo opts for a loose and very baggy whole, rather than one that is tightly pulled together. As such, it certainly reflects life, which is rarely very neatly ordered, and experience, and especially memory, which is always tremendously uneven and has large gaps, while often the small and seemingly insignificant is recalled most clearly. This kind of presentation is also very much contemporary -- The Things We've Seen is very much of the present day -- but with the constant reminder of the history, and the dead, on which the present -- of the individual as well as the whole -- is built.
       Engaging in its parts, The Things We've Seen can seem too loose and far-flung as a whole, a set of narratives that ultimately lose themselves too much in their fractalness.

- M.A.Orthofer, 22 March 2021

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The Things We've Seen: Reviews: Other books by Agustín Fernández Mallo under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Spanish author Agustín Fernández Mallo was born in 1967.

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© 2021 the complete review

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