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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Palimpsests

Aleksandra Lun

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To purchase The Palimpsests

Title: The Palimpsests
Author: Aleksandra Lun
Genre: Novel
Written: 2015 (Eng. 2019)
Length: 105 pages
Original in: Spanish
Availability: The Palimpsests - US
Los palimpsestos - US
The Palimpsests - UK
The Palimpsests - Canada
Les Palimpsestes - France
Los palimpsestos - España
  • Spanish title: Los palimpsestos
  • Translated and with an Translator's Note by Elizabeth Bryer

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Our Assessment:

A- : neatly done and good fun

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
L'Express B+ 9/8/2018 Jérôme Dupuis
Le Figaro . 29/3/2018 Théophile de Proyart
Libération . 20/4/2018 Mathieu Lindon
El País . 11/1/2016 Francisco Solano

  From the Reviews:
  • "Sur ce pitch un peu kitsch, Aleksandra Kun déroule un récit hilarant. (...) Un roman fou, fou, fou." - Jérôme Dupuis, L'Express

  • "La résonance de tous ces dialogues avec le personnage principal sonne juste et rend l'intrigue bien construite et équilibrée. Cependant, si l'on pouvait glisser une simple remarque sur cet ouvrage, elle porterait sur le nombre redondant d'observations et de citations d'écrivains. La finesse et la plume de l'auteur pourraient à l'évidence faire ce travail à elles toutes seules." - Théophile de Proyart, Le Figaro

  • "Palimpsestes [...] raconte d’une certaine manière le combat entre la langue maternelle et les langues étrangères, cette guerre de chiffonniers ou, plutôt, de chiens et de chats." - Mathieu Lindon, Libération

  • "Esta suerte de diario tiene la forma de una pesadilla, pero anclada en el territorio del humor, donde las jerarquías y las imposiciones se nutren de su caricatura, para que podamos ver cómo se desmoronan. Y a esto asiste el lector en una narración aparentemente nerviosa, muy bien conducida y llena de rechifla, acaso irreverente con la desesperación, pero por ello mismo tan gratamente liberadora como las risas que suscita." - Francisco Solano, El País

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:

       The Palimpsests opens with the narrator's promising-sounding introduction:

     My name is Czesław Przęśnicki, I'm a miserable Eastern-European immigrant and a failed writer, I haven't engaged in sexual relations for some time, and I've been committed to an asylum in Belgium, a country that has had no form of government for the past year.
       Born in Poland and old enough to have experienced Communist rule, as well as the upheaval following the collapse of the system, his ambition was to become a veterinarian; instead, he followed his lover Ernest Hemingway when Hemingway was offered a post teaching boxing at the unlikely: "University of Vinson, the capital of Antarctica", and remained there after Ernest offed himself, continuing his studies of Antarctic language and literature. Eventually he wrote a novel in Antarctic -- "Wampir, a critical and commercial failure" ("publication status: remaindered"). Part of the problem, or at least an issue, was that he wrote the novel in Antarctic, which the local writers did not take to kindly, haranguing and assaulting him -- repeatedly, as even after he left the continent his path continued to cross theirs.
       Przęśnicki wound up in Liège, "in the care of a psychiatrist specialized in Bartlebian therapy". The name of the treatment comes from the novella by Melville ("whom I met after Hemingway's suicide" ...), Bartleby, the Scrivener; it was developed by a Doctor Pasavento (as in Enrique Vila-Matas' eponymous novel ...) to treat those with: "foreign-writer syndrome" -- authors who dared write in a language not their own. Przęśnicki is not a model patient, however: as hard as his psychiatrist tries to get Antarctic out of his system, he can't help himself and continue to work on a second novel in his adopted language. It's working title is Kaskader, and as he repeatedly explains, it is:
     About a Polish stunt double who leaps into the void during film-action shootings by day and writes a novel in an astronomical observatory by night
       He furtively pens the work on old pages of De Standaard (a Flemish newspaper, in the French-speaking part of Belgium) -- suggesting one variation of the palimpsest of the title.
       Aside from his Polish roommate -- a priest with his own issues -- Przęśnicki encounters quite the gallery of writers at the asylum who took to writing in languages other than their own, from Nabokov to Beckett to Joseph Conrad, Karen Blixen, and Jerzy Kosiński. They pass quickly through, but are treated as though quite real; they are themselves -- making their positions on the other-language question clear, with words or sentiments they actually expressed (including direct quotes) -- though of course time- and place-wise this is an impossibility (for one thing, they're all dead). But Przęśnicki's world allows for this overlap of past and present; in recounting the stations of his life he also claims (generally fleeting) acquaintance with other famous but long-dead men, he never managing to grow close to them because of their premature deaths (Witkiewicz, Bruno Schulz, and Walter Benjamin, for example).
       The parade of famous exophonic writers allows Lun to cover the subject from a variety of angles, with Przęśnicki as an extreme example -- extreme because, of course, the language he writes in is a non-existent one: Antarctica has no natives, much less native speakers or language of its own (also: no capital, or university). Przęśnicki's is the ultimate abandonment of the mother tongue, into a language no one speaks (or, equally significantly, reads) -- indeed, what amounts to a non-language.
       (At this point it probably also bears mentioning author Lun is herself Polish, but that she wrote this novel in Spanish. (For what it's worth, she apparently also lives in Belgium -- though apparently is not at this time institutionalized ...). So The Palimpsests itself is yet another exercise in the kind of writing that Bartlebian therapy would seek to cure .....)
       The psychiatric-institution setting perhaps more readily allows for the fantasy Lun wants to spin out, but, as almost always when it is used in fiction, feels a bit of an easy fall-back/excuse; so too is having Przęśnicki frequently recount his dreams. Beyond and despite that, however, The Palimpsests is a quite beautifully woven novel: the subject-matter (of 'foreign' writing) and how Lun tackles it, including calling on well-known exemplars and presenting their justifications and explanations, is both interesting and fun, but it's also all formally very well served up. In particular, Lun uses repetition extensively and effectively, in details -- from Przęśnicki's description of the book he is working on to the therapy he is undergoing -- to, in particular, slight variations, ranging from his encounters with the upset Antarctic authors to his roommate's concerns to his disappointment about his sex-life. The Palimpsests is full of echoes and reverberations, complete with sub-themes such as World War II; it is a novel full of leitmotifs, amplifying its polyphonic feel; it is a small novel, but comes across as elaborately symphonic.
       Elizabeth Bryer's Translator's Note helpfully goes over some of the language and choices involved in rendering the novel in another language, as well as offering more insight into Lun's handling of the subject-matter.
       The Palimpsests is a big small novel. It's almost musical arrangement, with the repetitions and small variations, make for a deceptively quick and easy read, but there are layers to unpack here. Form impressively serves content, and the novel works on several levels -- it is good fun simply in its (bizarre) story, but also an interesting exercise in considering exophonic writing.
       Well worthwhile.

- M.A.Orthofer, 20 April 2020

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The Palimpsests: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Aleksandra Lun was born in Poland in 1979.

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