When I first read Elizabeth Bryer’s translation of Aleksandra Lun’s debut novel, The Palimpsests, back in January, I didn’t like it very much. I didn’t know what to say about it, so I didn’t write anything. After a few months, having left for and returned home from Russia after the onset of the global pandemic, I saw this thin volume sitting on my bookshelf and decided to give it another shot. The second time around was a completely different experience, and I find myself with a much kinder attitude towards the book. Although it remains in some ways unsatisfying, The Palimpsests—described by translator Elizabeth Bryer as an “erudite, madcap romp of a book” (97)—is a compact and ambitious project that weaves together literary allusions, cameos and jokes together with a thought-provoking commentary on the politics of exophony.
The setup of The Palimpsests is convoluted to the point of comic absurdity, a quality that permeates throughout the book. Our hero, Czesław Pręśnicki, is a failed writer from Poland who has moved to Antarctica, written and published a book in Antarctic, and been forced into exile after the native Antarctic writers chase him out of the country, furious at him for writing in their mother tongue. The novel finds Pręśnicki in a Belgian asylum, where he is subjected to “Bartlebian therapy,” an effort to strip away exophonic tendencies and put authors back into the neatly ordered boxes of their “native” languages. Each chapter includes a series of repetitions and echoes—a “bolero effect” in Bryer’s words (97)— in which our Pręśnicki wakes up from some sort of dream (usually a fantasy about having sex with a veterinarian) and goes to the doctor’s study, where we learn something about his past in Antarctica and his current situation. In this interval, some famous exophonic writer or another (Vladimir Nabokov, Joseph Conrad, Samuel Beckett, and many more) makes a cameo, after which Pręśnicki is given a sedative and returned to his room to scribble away on a Dutch newspaper, working on his second novel in Antarctic as he agonizes over forgetting the language and pines for the love of his life, Earnest Hemingway.
The Palimpsests is fundamentally self-reflexive, self-referential, and autobiographical. Born in Poland, educated in Spain, and now writing in Spanish from Belgium, Aleksandra Lun shares with Pręśnicki not only a tangled web of languages and places, but the specific locations—Poland and Belgium—themselves. While Lun is clearly and plainly reflected in Pręśnicki, this reflection is imprecise. By swapping gender and sexuality, locking Pręśnicki up in an asylum, and imagining an Antarctic language for Pręśnicki to write in, Lun creates a distorted reflection, one that is stretched and augmented to absurdity. In fact, this is true of the novel as a whole. Throughout The Palimpsests, strange events happen with no explanation, literary figures from vastly different eras exist in tandem with each other, and reality generally exists at a fever pitch, permeated by a sense of almost-manic absurdity.
At their best, these elements come together to create something that is at once funny and profound, bizarre and—especially for anyone who studies foreign languages—surprisingly relatable:
The doctor made a note in her notebook and I took nervous sips at the water again and added that she should be happy I wrote in Antarctic and not Polish. Slavic languages, with the freedom proffered by their declensions, presented an added difficulty for the writer faced with a blank page, for if an Antarctic writer was met with innumerable possibilities, then a Polish writer came up against infinity. If I wrote in my mother tongue I would grow even more anxious when faced with a blank page … The doctor made a note in her notebook and said if I couldn’t stop writing in a foreign language perhaps I could stop writing, and my nerves betrayed me a little. I ran over to the bookshelf lined with diagnostic manuals and pulled it over, and at that moment in the corridor there was a sharp sound and the office door swung open, revealing a bald man who had boxing gloves on both fists.
‘Mr. Nabokov,’ the doctor regarded him with her impassive eyes, ‘return to your room or I’ll call the aides.’
Vladimir Nabokov approached the table and gave the timber surface a punch.
‘So foreigners, eh?’ He regarded the psychiatrist with fury. ‘Foreign to what, to literature?’ (22- 23)
The depth of the passage is fantastic. First of all, it’s funny in exactly that strange, manic, absurd way. It also struck me as truly relatable. Writing in my mother tongue is, truly, an anxiety-producing experience. After being in Russia and having no choice but to write in Russian on a daily basis, I was surprised by how much easier it was to overcome the anxiety. There’s something deeply freeing in the feeling that you aren’t—and can’t be expected to be—in full control of the nuances and connotations of your writing. It makes the act of beginning to write much less intimidating. Moreover, the passage is wonderfully clever. Nabokov-the-boxer is a funny image indeed, but it’s made even better by the fact that it’s far from pure imagination. Nabokov was a boxing enthusiast, even expounding on its virtues in a 1925 paper, “Breitensträter-Paolino.” Perhaps even more fitting is the detail that the paper was written in Russian but delivered in Berlin to a group of émigrés—at the beginning of the author’s own exophonic journey.
This well-researched cleverness is everywhere in The Palimpsests. The slim novel is jam-packed with references and cameos, each as meticulously thought through and cleverly constructed as the last. Unfortunately, this cleverness can, in tandem with the repetitions of phrases and actions (especially the refrain that Belgium hasn’t had a government for the past year), become tedious. When I first read the book, I was really frustrated by what felt like overwriting, like things were trying so hard to be clever that they rendered themselves unfunny. In a word, pretentious. This reaction of mine was something I knew I had to wrestle with and understand if I was going to see what the book had to offer. Two things helped me: First, it was helpful to remind myself that Pręśnicki is the narrator, and he is supposed to be pretentious.
In fact, his pretension is one of the central refrains of the book. Pręśnicki explains the premise of his second novel to each famous writer he meets, and each author tells him in one way or another that his idea is too pretentious. To that end, we are reading something written by Pręśnicki, and the cramped, neurotic style is appropriately in-character. Second, and more importantly, it helped to focus on The Palimpsests’ timely commentary on the politics of language. As any linguist will tell you, the process of defining a language is inherently exclusionary. It is to delineate correct from incorrect, pure language from impure dialect, core from periphery. To tie a language to a state is central to projects of nationalism and, by extension, so is the effort to tie an author to a language. From the large states like the United States or Russia who push their language across whole continents, to the small states like Ukraine who use language laws to construct and defend their own fragile national identity, the world has a storied history of trying to control language.
Lun confronts this issue head-on. By twisting and amplifying reality to comic extremes, The Palimpsests manages to lay bare the real absurdity of cultural nativism—the expanding desire to step back from globalism, to untangle the world from itself, to return cultures to individual and oppositional boxes. Lun underscores the extent to which we are products of cultural intersections, messy and multilayered. She revels in the palimpsest that is humanity’s creative landscape, and lambasts the forces of the world that insist, as does the novel’s psychiatrist, that “you have to belong to a culture. All writers belong to one” (25).
The Palimpsests, then, is an incredibly interesting book. It is poignant, concise, and exactly the sort of text that ought to be translated into English, perhaps the most stubbornly isolationist language of them all. It is also stunningly clever and technically florid, driving at what Bryer calls the “metafictional point: look at the linguistic and literary heights that a non-native writer, Lun, can achieve” (102). Despite all this, I was not enchanted by the book in the way that Bryer seems to have been. Too many jokes fell flat, too many repetitions felt more like a broken record than Philip Glass, and I wanted so often for more plot, more character development, more of a novel. Of course, it’s entirely possible that I just don’t get it. I may very well be like that curmudgeonly emperor who famously complained that Mozart’s new music had “too many notes.” Although I leave this book lacking total satisfaction, I can’t wait to read what Lun writes next.
Lun, Aleksandra, The Palimpsests. Translated by Elizabeth Bryer. Godine Publisher, Verba Mundi, 2019
Patrick Powers studies Russian/East European Studies and Comparative Literature at Oberlin College, and will graduate in 2021. He lives in La Grande, Oregon, translates from Russian and Spanish, and is a member of the Soupbone Collective.