Philosophical Thriller: Rodrigo Rey Rosa’s Chaos: A Fable in Review

Chaos might have the pace of a thriller, but it has the timely relevance and pointed insight of many a great novel.

Chaos: A Fable by Rodrigo Rey Rosa, translated from the Spanish by Jeffrey Gray, AmazonCrossing, 2019.

Imagine finding yourself in an unknown country, with no understanding of how you got there and the taste of dread in your mouth, and you’ll have a good sense of how it feels to read acclaimed Guatemalan writer Rodrigo Rey Rosa’s novella Chaos: A Fable. According to the publisher’s synopsis, Chaos sets out to be both a “provocative morality tale” and a “high-tech thriller,” and, indeed, it seems to land somewhere between the two: think John le Carré “espionoir” meets Franz Kafka’s The Trial.

Translated from the Spanish by Jeffrey Gray, Chaos is Rey Rosa’s nineteenth novel (the seventh to be translated into English). It follows Mexican writer Rubirosa as he reconnects with an old friend in Morocco and, by agreeing to a seemingly simple favor, finds himself drawn into an international plot to end human suffering by bringing about a technological apocalypse. Chaos indeed.

For a novel titled Chaos, it is perhaps unsurprising that I found the reading experience itself disorientating; so much so, in fact, that as soon as I read the last line, I had to flick back to page one and read it all again to make sure I hadn’t missed anything. (Fortunately, at only 197 pages, you can pretty much do so in one sitting.) Starting—mundanely enough—at a book fair in Tangier, the novella takes the reader on a breath-taking ride via the United States and Greece to Turkey. And I’m sure that, even on a second read, there were allusions and references that went far over my head.

Indeed, although the original Spanish edition was first published in 2016 by Alfaguara, the novella still feels urgently current. With one character having first-hand experience of a meningitis epidemic on the Greek island of Leros, it plunges head-first into the Syrian refugee crisis, while another character’s failure to be granted American citizenship for being “too Muslim,” despite being headhunted by a prestigious college, is a frighteningly close premonition of Donald Trump’s 2017 travel ban. Coupled with references to the terror attacks in Paris and Brussels, Rey Rosa creates an unsettling atmosphere of trepidation: catastrophe constantly feels as though it is on the horizon and happening to “other people”—that is until Rubirosa, and by extension the reader, can no longer resist its seemingly gravitational pull. Chaos might have the pace of a thriller, but it has the timely relevance and pointed insight of many a great novel.

The chaos in the novella isn’t purely thematic, either. The narration itself—though anchored in the close third-person perspective of Rubirosa—is tumultuous, carried at times by the recorded voice of Rubirosa’s friend Mohammed, the letters of Mohammed’s son Abdelkrim, and even Abdelkrim’s friend Xeno. Similarly, characters mentioned briefly in one context appear inconspicuously in another, creating the increasingly eerie sense that there is a bigger, more sinister plot going on in the background—which, of course, there is. While unarguably apt for the theme, however, so many twists and turns did at times feel overly confusing, and the payoff unfortunately wasn’t as satisfying as you might expect of your standard thriller. (But then, I suppose, life doesn’t work that way either.)

It is almost hard to believe that so much can be covered in so few pages, but Rey Rosa’s exacting prose cuts right to the quick: “What good would all the knowledge that mankind might accumulate by natural or digital means do,” two characters ask one another, “if it didn’t reduce human suffering at least slightly? And was the prolonging of human life justified in ethical terms when it seemed clear that mankind had entered a period of terminal disintegration and destruction?” The result leaves little in the way of padding and creates a killer pace that doesn’t let up. And, just as the tentacles of the plot tighten inescapably round Rubirosa, so the reader is unable to avoid such gut-punching questions of morality and ethics.

While on the surface, a technological apocalypse seems like a disaster to be averted, I found it hard not to be a little seduced by the characters’ cataclysmic logic; Rey Rosa certainly does a convincing job of portraying the—entirely man-made—mess that we find ourselves in today. Needless war, the amorality of arms dealing, the inhumane suffering of the displaced and the poor contrasting with the decadence of the art world: I’ll challenge you not to feel that drastic action is needed. At least, here, someone is claiming to have a solution—apocalyptic or not. 

The fact that Gray is able to simultaneously retain the power of Rey Rosa’s philosophical questioning in clear-cut prose and keep up a relentless pace and rhythm speaks volumes about the quality of his translation. Equally successful is his blending of different languages within a decidedly international context.

‘True knowledge isn’t in books. It’s here.’ I put my hand on my chest, over my heart. ‘Allah puts it there. Books are for those whose hearts are empty. Maybe their brains too. They’ve got to fill them up with something.’

‘Yes, you’re filling them up with smoke,’ the professor muttered in English very quietly, but I understood.

‘When this piece of carrion leaves,’ I said to John in Maghrebi, ‘we can talk.’

Ouakha,’ said John.

He called the djibli to light the fire in the fireplace. The professor stood up to say goodbye. The Mexican, completely mkiyif by now, did not react.

We are placed firmly in the position of each narrator, and therefore able to understand what he is able to, but language in the novella is shown to be rather a slippery fish. It’s not always clear to the characters themselves who can understand what, and this fact is exploited in both directions, adding to the pervading mood of intrigue and uncertainty. On the other hand, certain foreign words are retained—transliterated Arabic in this extract, though a smattering of French and the original Spanish also appears. Generally comprehensible through context or presumed knowledge, these foreign phrases build a powerful sense of place and internationality, reminding the reader that we are all implicated in the chaos of our times.

However, as might be expected for a “noir” novel, Chaos is decidedly male; the only women lie firmly on the sidelines as wives, partners, or victims. And, in traditional 007 style, the most memorable female character (who, in fact, only appears briefly at the end of the novella) is highly sexualized.

What did it matter who she really was or what her name was or where she came from? [. . .] He marched on, happily, from one place to the next, beside this perfect woman, who showed him off proudly to the world. What more could he want? He wanted her.

The smarting “perfect woman” in particular is a surprisingly lazy turn of phrase—especially given that the character who is describing her as such is supposed to be a writer himself. This perhaps highlights a downside of the sparsity of Rey Rosa’s prose and the fast-moving plot: it leaves all the characters—men included—standing a little two-dimensional. Indeed, just as the James Bond franchise is now known more for its films than its books, Chaos at times feels as though it was written more for the screen than the page. Though given that Rey Rosa has, in fact, written and directed a number of feature films—including an adaptation of one of his own books—it’s possible that this is not a coincidence.

It might be a slight volume, but Chaos: A Fable is not a light read. In characteristic Rey Rosa style, the novella raises difficult, very human questions and shines a light on contemporary issues that are often all too easy to shy away from. I for one certainly couldn’t help half-hoping that the technological apocalypse would prevail. As for real life though, has anyone got any better ideas?

Alice Horne is a copyeditor for Asymptote. She lives in London, UK, where she works as a freelance editor and (occasional) writer.


Read more from Spanish-language writers on the Asymptote blog: