Reviewed by Jenny Buckland
Alejandro Jodorowsky’s latest novel Albina and the Dog-Men is a sensual, surreal romp through the magical landscapes of Peru and the author’s native Chile. Employing a motley cast of absurd, technicolor and often overtly symbolic characters, Jodorowsky administers an exuberant dose of allegorical organized chaos in order to reveal truths about the human experience. He offers up a fast-paced sequence of intense fantastical images, some grotesque, some beautiful, some uniquely bizarre, that follow after one another like beads on a psychedelic rosary to leave the reader reeling from over-stimulation, but with a sense that she must have experienced something truly profound.
Anyone who has encountered Jodorowsky’s films, or any other part of the rampant polymath’s creative output, will know that this formula of creative catharsis through shock and blatant allegory is par for the course. In 1962, alongside Fernando Arrabal and Roland Topor, Jodorowsky founded and enacted The Panic Movement, an 11-year experiment in performance art that saw them commit jarring and violent acts of horror in front of their audiences for hours on end, ritually sacrificing animals, treading the line between beauty and repulsiveness, and inducing general hysteria through the power and inescapability of the unexpected. They believed that by performing gratuitous and brutal acts that so emphatically broke the fourth wall (by hurling bits of dead animal viscera through it) they could purge performers and spectators of destructive energies, bringing them closer to internal harmony and true beauty. In Albina and the Dog-Men the fourth wall remains intact, but the unabashed crudeness and frequent horror of the narrative are akin to the theater of the Panic Movement, and indeed many of the characters approach peace and enlightenment only after facing countless atrocities and possible annihilation.
Another important building-block of Jodorowsky’s creative DNA is that of the Tarot. Incarnations of occultist Tarot card archetypes appear in his films and he is renowned as an expert Tarot reader. Jodorowsky’s obsession with this esoteric art pervades Albina and the Dog-Men. Each character is an unambiguous physical manifestation of their internal state, which is further reflected by their name: the embittered woman who feels she is “separated from others by hard shell” (6) takes the form of a hunched, bearded crab-lady called Crabby; the odious and morally corrupt policeman who lusts after the beautiful protagonist Albina is a man—and then a dog—with a grotesquely enlarged club foot who goes by the name of Drumfoot. Accordingly, significant personal developments made by the characters translate into external metamorphoses. So when Crabby finds love and eventually self-acceptance, she straightens her back, sheds her beard and becomes a beautiful woman, changing her name to Isabella to mirror her new form. Subtlety has never been part of Jodorowsky’s agenda, and the lack of it seems to be integral to his literary creations, too.
At its core, Albina and the Dog-Men is a journey narrative with elements of both the noble quest and picaresque sub-genres. Crabby, an ugly and tenacious outcast, rescues Albina, an amnesiac marmoreal giantess of other-worldly beauty, from a pack of canine monks, and in her finds the companionship and sense of purpose she has always lacked. Crabby teaches Albina basic life skills and the two set up an erotic dance show starring Albina, whose beauty leads men into a rapturous trance, and profit handsomely from her sensuality. Their happiness is cut short, however, when Albina starts taking frenzied bites out of the men-folk’s flesh, infecting them all with a virus that turns them, quite literally, into slavering dogs who want only to sexually possess her. Threatened with annihilation by Drumfoot, whose canine lust for Albina becomes murderous, the two take to the road in search of a hallowed cactus that will cure her of her affliction, encountering a whole host of bizarre characters on the way who determine the course of what becomes a mass pilgrimage of self-discovery.
As his travelers meander their way through various enchanting landscapes, traversing both “the real world and the magic world” (156), Jodorowsky explores the myriad universal themes that have challenged humanity from the very dawn of time: What does it mean to be alive? How do we come to terms with the looming but very necessary presence of death? How should we honor our roots and ancestry? What role can love play in our lives? What about sex and raw animal desire? What makes us human in the end? Although he never provides the answers (who can?), what Jodorowsky does suggest is that simple human affection in all its forms should be championed for its profoundly improving and (often literally) transformative powers. Through the wholesome “energy of love” and/or self-acceptance, his characters metamorphose into superior beings (128). For Jodorowsky, the journey to self-discovery is not one that can be completed alone.
MacAdam’s translation captures the delightful absurdity and playful profundity of Jodorowsky’s vision by adhering to language that is rich yet syntactically uncomplicated, lending a pragmatic sense of immediacy to the prose. Those passages of the novel where the characters focus on the process of self-discovery are the most linguistically simple, for example when Albina descends into train-of-thought reveries:
I don’t know where I’m going, but I do know with whom I’m going. I don’t know where I am, but I do know that I’m here. I don’t know what I am, but I do know how I feel. I don’t know what I’m worth, but I do know not to compare myself to anyone else. I don’t know what the world is, but I do know that it’s mine. I don’t know what I want, but I do know that what I want wants me. (27)
Indeed, in an interview at Asymptote, MacAdam says that it was not so much the language that challenged him, but the “shifts and swerves of the story itself.” These he delivers with verve and no small amount of relish. One gets the sense that translating this novel was a great source of enjoyment, which comes across in the pace and levity of the writing. MacAdam also divulges his strategy for dealing with Jodorowsky’s frequent and unusual metaphors, similes and turns of phrase, saying that he favored a literal translation because these constructions “are like magic formulas, and it’s not a good idea to tamper with magic.” As such, the novel is littered with inventive and often crude images straight from Jodorowsky’s mind, which are designed to challenge and delight readers’ senses and imaginations.
Here is a novel in which time can “[transform] into a snail” and the next minute be “a greyhound” (120); in which love can turn even unyielding granite walls into a “sensitive skin” (130); a novel populated by flocks of parrots who “change color like chameleons” (131) and hares “the size of horses” (185); a novel whose protagonist’s potent sexuality can “project [her admirers] into another dimension…alien to space and time” (48), reducing them to human dogs who wait to pounce on her with “brilliant drops dripping like pearls out of their penises” (107). The entire narrative bulges and heaves with excess, be it the sexual imagery, the relentless visual noise or the blatant symbolism. Jodorowsky has transposed his aesthetic of film-making—assailing the consumer with surreal image after surreal image—directly onto the page. He asks readers to suspend their disbelief and gorge themselves on his tried and tested brand of visceral surrealism; do this and Albina and the Dog-Men is both a mystical escapist experience and a real treat.
Jodorowsky, Alejandro. Albina and the Dog-Men. Translated by Alfred MacAdam. Brooklyn, NY: Restless Books, 2016.