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1926: Luis Cardoza y Aragón


This week I'm thinking about Luis Cardoza y Aragón's Maelstrom: Films telescopiados, a 1926 anti-novel, or prose poem, or Surrealist document published in Paris. Cardoza y Aragón was born in Guatemala, and like many Latin American sons of privilege spent time in France (where he hung out with his compatriot, Nobel laureate and high modernist Miguel Ángel Asturias), absorbing the newest and most reckless elements of the cultural avant-garde: the book has references to numerous still-famous figures in Twenties painting, music, and literature, along with a delirious fantasia on the new world coming into being in the wake of war and the crumbling of the old moralism.


Here are two paragraphs from a now-deleted Goodreads review I wrote when I first read it:

Everything I love about art of the 1920s — telegraphic comic-strip surrealism, a restless drive for new and surprising imagery, an unembarrassed embrace of popular culture whether that means jazz, comic strips, movies, or vaudeville, and (less easily identifiable) a haunting fragility that shivers at the memory of having passed beneath the shadow of one great war and the madness flinging headlong towards another — is present in this book. Insofar as it has a narrative, it is the history of a poet named Keemby (the English phonetic spelling of how a Spanish speaker would pronounce the name Quimby), his adventures in Pompierlandia (a reference to the academic artists of French tradition), his love affair with a landscape, his ruminations on God, art, and poetry, his decision not to commit suicide, and, in the first sentence of the book, his murder by cinema shadow. Magic realism nothing, there’s nothing realistic anywhere in the book (save perhaps the emotional content, scorned by the text), but there is plenty of magic, which is just another word for imagination.

It’s extremely funny, as well as being wistful and stirring and erotic and fantastic and occasionally cryptic, but probably my favorite thing about it is Cardoza y Aragón’s commitment to uncovering new and startling imagery, which derives from French Symbolism (and Italian Futurism, and Dada, and nascent Surrealism), but particularly from the specifically Spanish literary form invented by the avant-garde Madrid stylist Ramón Gómez de la Serna (who wrote the prologue to this book), the greguería, which is a brief sentence that transforms an everyday object by applying some other method of understanding the world to it, and often involves visual puns; I often think of Ramón’s greguerías as verbal cartoons. (Quino, for example, would draw them very well.) So Cardoza y Aragón writes of evening as the day pulling its hat down over its eyes, or of the horizon where the sea meets the sky as a sixty-nine of the elements; not only every page but practically every sentence contains one of these striking images, and the result is a very rich, heady text dense in verbal felicity and bubbling humor.

It's an essential document of early Latin American modernism, two decades before Borges and four before Gabriel García Márquez. But it was only ever published the one time, and has never been reprinted; I've only encountered one person (a doctoral candidate) who's even written about it in English. Cardoza y Aragón would survive to become a grand old man of Latin American letters, but an ardent leftist, he lived much of his life in exile, and his early work has, like so many of various right-wing Guatemalan regimes' enemies over the years, been disappeared.

Two years ago, I requested a copy from Interlibrary Loan, not really believing one would show up. But it did, and I scanned its pages and spent a happy week translating it into English. I don't think much of the translation now (I think it fails to approximate Cardoza y Aragón's jubilant tone, even when he's describing death and suicide), but doing the work of translation, going line by line and word by word over the text, was a useful way of absorbing a book at a time when I was still nervous about my capacity to just go ahead and read long-form Spanish texts like I would English, without a dictionary at my elbow to help me out.

I'm not going to reproduce my full translation here — for one thing, because Cardoza y Aragón was astonishingly long-lived, surviving into the 1990s, it's still under copyright — but I did want to post the introduction by Ramón Gómez de la Serna, the godfather of the Spanish avant-garde, because I think it gives some of the flavor of the book and why I'm so fascinated by it.


Everything that exists to skin the world, turn it over, and show it swollen in order to awaken a true idea of it, seems to me very good.

In Cardoza y Aragón we see life revolved, in criss-crossed lines, without the moral torture of straight lines which must be abolished.

Imagination is bored with only one image. So many streetcars pass!

Nature must be fumigated with new images.

This book is a one-way ticket to travel on the piled-up roller coasters.

It bears repeating that works of art are what remain established, not aesthetics. If there is any genetic law persevering in art, rather than ushering it in from the past it is better to recreate it, in the hope of meeting it again.

Under no pretext is there a need to allow into art the tendentious note of the pedagogues. All learning must be done in the shadow of crimes.

It is clear that art continually defines itself in each new thing that appears. Either it is a link in that endless definition or it is nothing. Cardoza y Aragón adds one link more.

Art is not one thing, art is what continues to be.

More than anything this book of Cardoza’s clarifies new art — there has never been anything besides new art, even in remotest antiquity — and in the great crossword square that is literature he solves his row of black spaces.

His Keemby is a harum-scarum sort, who fled from the house of his father after depriving him of his strongbox.

Keemby was an inveterate billiard-gamer, an adolescent god who dedicates himself to moving the orbs in his charge, those marble orbs with destinies as fixed as those of the heavens, and therefore, that carom against three banks that twice grazes the ball which should have been hit squarely has its preexistence written in the sidereal books.

Keemby has cosmic microbes in his brain, which chop up and combine his nervous cells in kaleidoscopic varieties. 

Keemby, encountering the enigma of the 20th century, a century, as he says, of two unknown quantities, renounces Algebra, strips off its binding and divides its pages in the afternoon, to see how the broken numbers ride the winds.

Within Keemby there is another volcano. All of Hispanic America is generally volcanic terrain. Keemby should be recorded on the map of imagination, pyramidal and with a crater on top.

Keemby is an expert shooter of the fairway stalls who smokes for free the cigars, cigarettes and sweets which are the prizes for target shooting.

The heroines of the stalls — few women are so heroic — who turn their profiles level with the rifle after having given the ammunition to the shooter, admire him. (They have feather-dusters pinned to the tips of their nipples.)

That vision of the moon dancing above the lightning rods of the Eiffel Tower “like an egg on a water-spout” is an image by a fairground sharp-shooter who has seen that magic dance of the egg over the spout.

How many writers, after works in six volumes, have not found a single image like these which span the radius of a penny! Cardoza y Aragón is copious in them. They appear when he asks “Why do they not put the subway in the catacombs?”; when he sees in Noah’s Ark “the first circus in the world,” when he says that “the shadow of blacks is blacker than the shadow of whites, so much that sometimes it is tangible as a fog”; when he says “I was the Saint Sebastian martyred by the embroidered arrows of your stockings,” etc., etc.

This inconvenient jazz-bander who ascends the staircase of the woman torn to the sternum like a true staircase, in order to reach the little cherimoyas of her breasts, is fortunate in images.

His images swoop like the butterflies which are tethered to the table like pawns and begin to spin in vertiginous whirls.

Through the window of the book, opened to the uncertain night of life, enter the vanquished images, with their death rattle.

On occasion, in place of the image, blackness enters ex abrupto.

The luminous lamp also tempts black vermin.

I have only one repair to make at last to this beautiful book. New art must be saved from suspicion; and for that reason, in the adventure with Landscape I would have feminized the name and said Landscapess. As Landscape is masculine Cardoza y Aragón is obligated to an equivocal symbolism, although he has images as fortunate as the cries of Landscape before the Kodak and that violation of Landscape by a Negro who turns out to be the cinema.

But Landscape or Landscapess, this is a spendthrift book, festooned with new neckties, in which I see Cardoza smile like the heroic captain of the earthquake, like its epicenter.

Ramón Gómez de la Serna

Blame some of your difficulty parsing those sentences on my translation, certainly; but blame some of it on Ramón, too, whose prose technique in the Twenties was deliberately composed of bizarre images which just scrape the edge of meaninglessness, managing to be both very modernist and very precious at once. But as for the "egg dancing on a water spout" image, that's an actual thing.

I will note that I think he is wrong about the "character" (it's very hard to describe Maelstrom as having characters or a plot: its sequencing is that of dreams rather than fiction) Cardoza y Aragón calls "Paisaje," which is a landscape as well as a person (Grant Morrison's Danny the Street is a faint echo of this invention), and which Ramón says should be "Paisaja" because, I guess, implications of homosexuality are too much of a distraction from the avant-garde project. From a twenty-first century perspective, of course the assault on normative gender and sexuality was and is central to the avant-garde; as is the Europeanized mind's fear of and fascination with Blackness, also represented in Ramón's and Cardoza y Aragón's words above. Racist, yes, and homophobic and sexist as well — the Dalí painting in words which is the woman with a stepladder for a torso is entirely typical of the Surrealists' treatment of women as aesthetics rather than people.

It's a problematic text, which is another way of saying it's a text: my fascination with the Spanish- and Portuguese-language avant-gardes of the era has little or nothing to do with their correspondence with twenty-first century sensibilities, but is part of my more general interest in recovering, or uncovering, Iberian and Iberoamerican culture which has been neglected in English-language canons of taste and knowledge since oh, 1588 or so.

But I am thinking about Maelstrom specifically because I've been thinking for a while about putting together a study on Guatemalan modernist literature of the 1920s, which would encompass this as well as three other novels (one also originally published in Paris) by Decadent poet and journalist Enrique Gómez Carrillo, neo-Romantic satirist Rafael Arévalo Martínez, and criollo Naturalist Carlos Wyld Ospina, representing four different strategies with which Guatemalan writers confronted modernity in the years before Miguel Ángel Asturias embraced a quasi-mystical indigenism as the bravest and truest way forward. But I have much more reading to do before I get there.

Jonathan BogartModernismos