Germán Sierra reviews Agustín Fernández Mallo’s Nocilla Dream

Translated from the Spanish by Thomas Bunstead (Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2015)

From 2003 to 2006, a small group of Spanish writers organized several meetings with the objective of shedding some light on the new directions contemporary and emergent Spanish literature was taking. During these meetings (hosted by Eloy Fernández Porta, Juan Francisco Ferré, Manuel Vilas, Javier Moreno, and myself), it became evident that something was changing in the stylistically conservative Spanish literary scene—a change that was gradually becoming apparent to a minority of readers and critics. This group of writers has come to be known as the ‘Nocilla Generation,’ after Agustín Fernández Mallo’s novel Nocilla Dream. Published in Spanish by the small, independent press Candaya in 2006 and now translated into English by Thomas Bunstead for Fitzcarraldo Editions, Nocilla Dream is often said to be the book that brought this new generation of Spanish writers to mainstream attention.

Leaving aside the arguable pertinence of using the term ‘generation’ in the context of contemporary literature, it is nevertheless important to point out that what Nocilla Dream uncovered was not just the presence of a very active and diverse new breed of fictioneers and essayists from Spain, but also the emergence of a new generation of readers. The unpredicted success of the book made clear that many readers, culturally raised in the online mediascape and accustomed to receiving stories in a networked and globalized way, had long been ready for a formal and thematic rethinking of the novel. Spanish readers, and later critics, welcomed Nocilla Dream as one of the literary works most representative of this new post-digital condition.

But Bunstead’s translation of Nocilla Dream is great news not just for those particularly  interested in contemporary Spanish literature. It is also simply a wonderful work of avant-gardist fiction—in the line of David Markson, Ben Marcus, Steve Tomasula, or, more recently, Evan Lavender-Smith—and the initial part of an ambitious literary endeavor: the Nocilla Trilogy, which comprises Nocilla Dream, Nocilla Experience, and Nocilla Lab. The trilogy is an attempt to develop a precise set of aesthetic principles and poetic strategies (such as fragmentation, the incorporation of concepts from scientific and critical theory, as well as pop culture) by an author who already has a solid, unique poetic output—recently collected as Ya nadie se llamará como yo. Poesía reunida 1998–2012 (2015). Fernández Mallo has theorized his aesthetic principles in an award-winning essay, Postpoesía (2009), and has experimented with numerous modes of artistic representation: film, music, graphic novel, and spoken word are all part of his extended ‘Nocilla project,’ a portion of which can be accessed online.

Nocilla Dream is a collection of 113 short texts that has been described as a long series of prose poems, a literary road movie, or a mosaic composed of many fragments that build up a coherent, contemporary narrative image. Diverse stories—a remake of Pat Garret and Billy the Kid, a dead man found in a truck from Mexico, a community of retired executives in China, the fictional history of micronations, Feynman in Los Alamos—and a varied assortment of characters—ex-boxers, Polish musicians, teenagers, Argentinian readers of Borges, Danish ‘internet-users,’ Las Vegas prostitutes, American surrealist painters in Madrid—appear intermingled in a web of evanescent virtual relations converging on U.S. Route 50 and a ‘tree of shoes’ in the Nevada desert.

The American poet Charles Bernstein writes about three types of fragmentation, or three aspects of any fragment—disjunction, ellipsis, and constellation. Fernández Mallo works on all three aspects, by means of what he calls ‘transversal readings.’ By this he means readings (and, indeed, subsequent writings, because Fernández Mallo follows Borges in his desire to blur the boundaries between reading and writing) that ingest and metabolize everything that surrounds him, from film to music, science, art, advertising, waste, news, mathematics, and, of course, literature. Nocilla Dream presents the contemporary world, not as having a hierarchical or linear structure, but as being a horizontal web that refracts large numbers of everyday objects, in which the relations between objects are more definitive and enlightening than the objects themselves. Yet this is not Democritean atomism, but more akin to self-organizing multiplicities such as Deleuze and Guattari’s rhizomatic structures or Nicholas Bourriaud’s disseminated radicant. The narrative elements in Nocilla Dream include corporeal, rhetorical, and theoretical entities that, like ‘objects’ for Bruno Latour and object-oriented ontologists, are diverse, specific and concrete in themselves, not reducible to pre-determined system operations:
Deserts, like the sick, are objects: though living, they are on the edge of everything, are undergoing a process of consumption, and are fundamentally gaunt.
In a book with so many characters, invented and imported from other fictions and from reality, the true protagonist is order—thus art. Cosmic order found and produced as the positive force that prevents the entropic collapse of the universe. A more local and humble literary ordering that presents instant, not consistent, relationships. Not just order emerging from chaos, but also as a consequence of the most eccentric human needs and desires (such as the novel's ‘The Museum of Found Objects,’ or ‘Kingdom of Airport Terminals’ ...). Arbitrary and capricious order—and its unavoidable consequence, decay—as in Borges’s catalog of animals ‘Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge’:
(a) belonging to the emperor, (b) embalmed, (c) tame, (d) sucking pigs, (e) sirens, (f) fabulous ones, (g) stray dogs, (h) included in the present classification, (i) frenzied, (j) innumerable, (k) drawn with a very fine camelhair brush, (l) et cetera, (m) having just broken the water pitcher, (n) that from a long way off look like flies.
But also order in organisms and organizations:
The words organization and organism aren’t actually very closely related. An organism is an entity, sea mineral, animal, vegetable or socio-cultural, which lives and develops independently, according to complex dictates that are internal to them, and almost always spontaneous; in all cases an organism can be considered a living being. An organization is a bureaucratic entity, sea mineral, animal, vegetable or socio-cultural, and it depends on external agents to dictate its development; never is an organisation a living being.
Regarding how the materials used to construct order are sourced, Agustín Fernández Mallo often remarks that we used to write from knowledge, but now we write from information. Without entering into a long epistemological discussion, the difference between ‘knowledge’ and ‘information’ does not refer to the nature of the content but to how content is accessed. ‘Knowledge’ denotes hierarchically organized, strongly socialized content, which is supposed to affect individual self-consciousness. ‘Information’ denotes non-hierarchically organized data that can be ‘mined’ from reality for a specific purpose, not necessarily reflecting or affecting the personality of the individuals who are using the information. However, this information is not ‘raw data.’ It is being continuously processed by the public into evanescent narratives, the most pervasive of which become mass-media mythologies that are then adopted as ‘identities’ by individuals and societies.

Besides, decay is not nostalgia, so objects and relationships are often intentionally lost, leaving subtle but meaningful traces of their former presence in the network that might be ‘poetically hacked.’ This is a world less concerned with ‘historical memory’ than with ‘media archaeology’ (evidenced by Fernández Mallo’s insertion of quotations about media and communication technologies), as well as in patterns of complexity drawn from a topological viewpoint:
Thus, once this microstate’s physical territory has been drawn on a map of the world, the result will be a vector covering all borders, a vector both wide and potentially infinitely long. A fractal. Thus its dimensionality shall not be that of a single line, 1, or that of a plane, 2, but that of a fraction, 3/2. In an apt correspondence, everything that occurs in this microstate is within another body of reality.
As Ian Bogost writes, ‘all things equally exist, but they do not exist equally.’ Fernández Mallo’s view of the contemporary world as an ‘actor-network’ may be likened to a series of boxed spaces (the Spanish edition includes a box chart of the ‘Nocilla Universe’ not reproduced in the English edition) in which a visitor from outer space would find everything ‘sampled’ according to a whimsical fictitious taxonomy in the style of Borges. Fernández Mallo writes:
Description: all materials, all objects, everything we see, are clots—catastrophes that took place on the neutral, two-dimensional, isotropic plane coterminous with The Beginning. These are the so-called 1st Order Catastrophes. When a foreign agent alters the equilibrium of one of these objects, it then breaks off in unpredictable directions, dragging along other objects—whether near or far—in a kind of domino effect. This we call 2nd Order Catastrophe. The desert, given its flatness and isotropic nature, is the least catastrophic place. Except when the silence is broken by a scarab beetle dragging a stone along, or when in some fold in the land a blade of grass emerges, or when a poplar finds water and grows.
Of Bernstein’s three types or aspects of fragmentation, ‘constellation’ probably characterises the most interesting features of Nocilla Dream. The world is presented here as an ‘ecology of the Anthropocene’ in which waste and randomly ordered natural and human-made objects spontaneously rearrange themselves to produce new levels of meaning. Fernández Mallo sees the world as a tinkerer taking advantage of any available stuff, and in our time waste is by far the most available material. As Brian Thill writes:
If one of humankind’s desires has been to put a stamp on the world, waste is the most compelling and universal way in which it has accomplished its mission. Every landscape is a trashscape. This not only transforms the world into one vast and unevenly distributed trash heap, it changes, in ways that might not been perceptible to us, our sense of self and humanity in the world. (Waste)
However, in Nocilla Dream, order emerges spontaneously from surreal trashscapes. Poetry, working as an unexpected catastrophe in a debris field, performs:
At the moment when the wind gusts in from the south, the wind that arrives from Arizona, soaring up and across the several sparsely populated deserts and the dozen-and-a-half settlements that over the years have been subject to an unstoppable exodus to the point that they’ve become little more than skele-towns, at this moment, this very moment, the hundreds of pairs of shoes hanging from the poplar are subjected to a pendular motion, but not all with the same frequency – the laces from which each pair hangs are of different lengths. From a certain distance it constitutes a chaotic dance indeed, one that, in spite of all, implies certain rules. Some of the shoes bang into each other and suddenly change speed or trajectory, finally ending up back at their attractor points, in balance.
The tree of shoes is more than a metaphor for a fragmented and non-linear narrative structure—it acts as a physical attractor towards which the novel tends to evolve. Like the shoes hanging from the tree, all the stories eventually end up at their attractor points, in balance. 

The first thing that comes to mind when considering the work of translating Nocilla Dream is the untranslatability of the title itself. ‘Nocilla’ is a Spanish trademark for a local version of Nutella, but the title also refers to an eighties tune by the Spanish punk band Siniestro Total. Although both ‘Nocilla’ and the Spanish music from the eighties might evoke some teenage nostalgia in Spaniards born during the sixties and seventies, the title should be understood not as nostalgic but as conceptualist—the way visual artworks are often titled, with no evident relationship to the body of the work. As for ‘dream,’ originally in English, this might be understood as a reference to the power of daydreaming in creating poetic spaces around everyday objects, as famously theorized by French philosopher Gaston Bachelard in The Poetics of Reverie.

Fernández Mallo often insists on the importance of representing complexity without complication—on writing which does not obfuscate, but rather reveals the poetic relationships among the elements in the world. One of his main poetic strategies is to translate universal codes (from science, mathematics, and visual art) into poetry or fiction, as though the world’s complexity might be ‘dream-catched’ into working hypotheses, theories, theorems, and formulas. The major challenge, therefore, for the translator of Nocilla Dream, must have been successfully to recreate the poetic experimentality of its language while maintaining the simplicity of the original text, a task Bunstead has succeeded in admirably.

This is an exciting moment for Spanish literature in English translation. Soon after Nocilla Dream, Javier Moreno’s Alma will be published by the New York–based Quantum Prose. However most of the best Spanish fictions and essays of the twenty-first century—such as those by Eloy Fernández Porta, Juan Francisco Ferré, Jorge Carrión, Vicente Luis Mora, and Robert Juan-Cantavella, to name but a few—remain unavailable in English. Let’s hope other publishers will soon follow the example of Fitzcarraldo Editions.

I want to thank Ellen Jones for her thoughtful editing of this review.