A Gargantuan Pulp Sphinx: On Miquel de Palol’s “The Garden of Seven Twilights”

By Ben HooymanApril 20, 2023

A Gargantuan Pulp Sphinx: On Miquel de Palol’s “The Garden of Seven Twilights”

The Garden of Seven Twilights by Miquel de Palol

THE RECENT publication of The Garden of Seven Twilights marks a real literary event: English-speaking audiences finally have the chance to experience one of contemporary Catalan literature’s most distinctive writers, Miquel de Palol. Though his name will likely be unfamiliar to many, he has long earned a name for himself at home. Almost all online English biographies of Palol focus on the same canon of events: he was born in Barcelona in 1953, moved to Valladolid and lived there until he was 17, returned to Barcelona to study architecture, became a poet, won awards, shifted into prose, released Garden of Seven Twilights, and set the whole Catalan literary establishment ablaze. Indeed, upon its publication in 1989, Garden of Seven Twilights was hailed as a masterpiece and showered with accolades—the Serra d’Or Critics prize, the National Prize for Catalan Literature, and many others. Critics blessed Palol with comparisons to Italo Calvino, Jorge Luis Borges, and Georges Perec, dubbing his work “the postmodern Decameron.” Garden especially earns this last epithet—it is a frame-narrative monolith, a monstrously pregnant matryoshka doll of nested stories, and a cerebral, ludic, and unapologetically pulpy affair.

Garden of Seven Twilights unfolds in the aftermath of a nuclear strike on Barcelona in the mid-2020s, marking the beginning of World War III and a series of nuclear conflicts in the 21st and 22nd centuries that come to be known as “the Four Wars of Entertainment.” The narrator’s mother arranges for her son to be evacuated from the Catalonian capital to a refuge in the mountains. Instead of a drab concrete bunker, the narrator finds himself in an elaborate complex of luscious gardens, priceless art galleries, and a baroque castle populated by a coterie of rich, influential, and exceedingly enigmatic people. The narrator begins to wonder why he should be privileged to dwell among such illustrious company. Akin to the storytellers of Boccaccio’s Decameron waiting out the Black Plague, the wealthy denizens of the complex find the worldwide nuclear holocaust a splendid opportunity to while away the hours in flights of fictional fancy. For seven days, Palol’s narrators gather in the Avalon, a sumptuous hall within the mansion, plumbing the depths of their memories to execute inhuman feats of nested storytelling unheard of since the rhetorical heroism of Scheherazade.

Garden of Seven Twilights will garner comparisons to the classic frame-narrative Wunderkammern—not only the aforementioned Decameron and One Thousand and One Nights, but also the voluminous ancient Indian Jātakas and Panchatantra, Jan Potocki’s obstruse Manuscript Found in Saragossa, and the carnivalesque and transgressive Canterbury Tales and 120 Days of Sodom. However, Palol is not interested in merely aping the grand formal feat of his predecessors in his novel. Instead, he opts to push the frame-narrative device beyond any reasonable limit. Palol also does away with the classics’ tendency to retain a significant degree of independence between individual tales. Garden of Seven Twilights is a grand unified conspiracy: it’s all interconnected, everything needs to be read together, and a moment of inattention might cause unfortunate readers to overlook a clue that would help them puzzle out its codified mysterium. Readers, then, are hardly encouraged to take lackadaisical jaunts into nested stories—a few today, a few more next week. Palol’s novel operates in the tension between the metaliterary monumentalism of his grand conspiratorial frame narrative and the multiplicity of micronarratives that make up the whole.

Mercifully, Garden of Seven Twilights includes a notation system to keep readers attuned to their relative location within the story-levels. When someone in the narrative frame begins to tell a story, there’s a useful note [1>2] in the margin to indicate the corresponding shift in the story-layer. When a character within that story begins to tell a story, you’ll see a [2>3] and so on. For simple up- and downshifts, the notation is straightforward and utilitarian, but it becomes a godsend when Palol flexes the experimental potential of his system. For example, midway through the novel one finds this approximate sequence in the span of a few pages: Camila, a character in the frame narrative, expresses confusion about something she’s heard about a Silvia in the seventh-level narrative [7>1], so the narrator, Kolinski, waits for others to offer their conjectures and picks up where he left off [1>7]. But then Rogelio, the narrator of the third story-layer, runs out of champagne and disrupts the whole chain by going to bed [7>3], waiting until the next morning to resume his story about one Victoria [3>7], who is eager to describe a scene from her childhood [7>8] in which she spends a day with her grandfather, who tells her a story of three friends [8>9] who stumble upon a book called The Garden of the Seven Twilights.

Anyone who has ever experienced that dread feeling of having countless half-read books strewn around the house will understand the anxiety of trying to juggle so many incomplete narrative threads. Will you remember all the machinations of each plot? Will you even remember the characters’ names? But it’s much worse than that in Palol’s anti-Edenic Garden. Imagine, reader, that all those half-read books concocted a conspiracy against you, and that they demanded to be understood all at once, together, or not at all. And, to further test your memory and meddle, they generated all kinds of joint symbols and synchronicities, and allowed characters to migrate between books, giving these intertextual pilgrims new names and convincing disguises, casting judgment on you if you do not manage see through their ruse. Though it is all but impossible to summarize a plot so labyrinthine, this is approximately how it feels to be captured in Palol’s gargantuan web of stories.

Garden of Seven Twilights formally begins with a preface titled “To the Non-Specialist Reader,” containing fictionalized historical speculation on the origins of the Garden manuscript. The text is written by Miquel de Palol I Maholy-McCullydilly, evidently a third-millennium incarnation of the author. Attempting to analyze the text at a thousand-year historical remove, Maholy-McCullydilly synthesizes his preface using a suite of academic articles about Garden bearing the same kind of idiotically baroque titles as the ivory-tower essays from our own era. How articles like “The Shadow of the Chromosomes in their Moral Relationship to the Third Person” (2939) or “Book-Garden and Garden-Book, from the Renaissance to the Post-nuclear Era” (2954) help him compose his work is anyone’s guess. Perhaps the dry, cerebral nature of the prologue is simply the result of an uneven application of Salazar’s 2869 classic, “Imitation, Distraction, and Discovery in the Prologuist’s Art.” When the aforementioned three friends discover their copy of Garden of Seven Twilights, lodged deep in the heart of the novel, they read this introductory text and cast their own judgment: “Forewords should be against the law.” Probably. In any case, despite his erudition, Maholy-McCullydilly creates the impression that nothing about Garden is certain—not the purpose of its embedded narratives, not the reliability of its stories, not even the precise moment of its creation.

The pseudo-academic prologue serves as an introduction to perhaps the novel’s central thematic preoccupation—the fundamental unreliability of narrative. Moving from one story to the next, readers will begin to notice that a seed of doubt has been preplanted in all accounts of all things. It is not simply the Garden manuscript that suffers from a hopelessly confused array of distortions and inaccuracies. Rather, Palol seems to suggest that these properties are fundamental to the nature of stories themselves. But what are the stakes? Is this just another pomo-era novel playing with the notion of textual interpretation as an ultimately unfinalizable enterprise? Or, worse, is it just an assertion of a tautology—that fiction is unreliable because it is woven of fictions? No, the concern extends beyond the domain of literary fiction. With the comprehensiveness of an encyclopedic novel, Palol tacitly asserts that nearly all fundamental dimensions of human life have a fallible narrative basis—history, politics, religion, mythology, memory, even one’s own experience. In fact, Garden of Seven Twilights implicitly challenges readers to find some aspect of human affairs that lies safely outside the domain of story. If there is a nomological order in reality, can any human being truly grasp it? Harrowed by narratological relativism, readers will likely join one of Garden’s many storytellers in becoming “overwhelmed by the eternal incompleteness of human actions [and] the impossibility of an all-seeing gaze.”

Fortunately, Garden explores the implications of narrative fallibility with a playful touch. In one gleefully sacrilegious scene, the guests of the Avalon are treated to an alternative account of Christ’s crucifixion involving a double that’s swapped in for the Messiah and left to die on the cross. According to this account, the double’s dying pleas—“get me down, you don’t know what you’re doing!” and “you motherfuckers, you left me hanging!”—were charitably altered in written accounts to the now-famous “forgive them for they know not what they do” and “my God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me.” In another scene, a narrator is about to intervene in what he thinks is an abusive grandchild’s haranguing of his grandfather, only to discover that he’s become an unwitting witness to a performance—a prelude to an elaborate sexual role play. The extreme transgressive irreverence in these scenes is indicative of Palol’s preferred method of keeping the action lively. But the underlying point remains: our historical and cultural inheritance may well be just as narratively unstable as that which unfolds before our eyes.

Palol appears to be drawn to the high-concept pulp of predecessors like Philip K. Dick. Garden of Seven Twilights is fascinated by the conspiratorial machinations of politics, finance, banking, and war; the moral stakes of near-future advances in technology; and a pessimism about the coming perils of a new millennium. Though to Palol’s credit, Garden of Seven Twilights seems to derive a self-aware pleasure in positioning itself ambivalently, even antagonistically, to the gravity of its central themes. The characters in the Avalon raise complaints about the contradictions between different narrators’ accounts of the same people and events. Like the reader, they grow frustrated when it appears that certain details are blatantly incompatible with prior assertions held on what seemed like good faith.

Is this Palol taunting his readers? Certainly. Even so, there is a kind of catharsis in finding one’s own thoughts echoed in the indignant and disbelieving protestations of Palol’s cast of characters. However, maddeningly, there is always another voice—if only in your own mind, but just as often in the text—that, with a wink, suggests that if you knew just a little more, if you rearranged the pieces of the puzzle in just the right way, everything would fall into place. This feeling acts as a kind of motivational propulsion system through the novel, though readers must be invested enough to let it carry them through the novel’s pages or they will abandon the tome quarter- or half-read. If one is inspired enough to take detailed notes, to draw diagrams and character trees, to sketch out even the most implausible hypotheses, all the better. The Dalkey Archive edition provides a jumpstart in this endeavor with a “Tree of Tales” that provides a day-by-day story map, along with detailed maps of Avalon and the rest of Garden’s frame-narrative hub world. Garden’s sprawling riddle is all but designed for good-natured enigmatologists who will find the idea of squaring up with Palol’s gargantuan sphinx a charming proposal, even if they’re all but guaranteed to be devoured by it.

What is the narrative frame’s plot? Painting in the broadest strokes, the story revolves around a successful elderly banker, Mir, who unwittingly selects a pair of backstabbing successors to his business affairs. They craft a scheme to wrest control of Mir Bank away from its founder but are resisted by the bank’s more rightful heirs. Among the bank’s holdings is—or, perhaps, was—an enigmatic “jewel” of untold worth that everyone in the novel is after. There is plenty of evidence to suggest that the jewel is not simply a hypervaluable stone—though for every individual pursuing it, there is a different opinion about what it actually will turn out to be. Another man, who goes by the name “Ω,” has an important but clandestine role in the Mir Bank power struggle and the pursuit of the jewel. He, too, is so great a mystery that it is impossible to determine if he is more man or myth. All the stories in Palol’s novel touch upon these themes, even if only in the most tangential manner.

Garden of Seven Twilights tantalizes with mystery after mystery. Why is so plain a narrator allowed among the opulent guests of the Avalon? How much do the guests really know about the Mir Bank feud, and how many are directly involved in it? Are the guests interested in stories for stories’ sake or are they using them as a kind of cypher to communicate clandestine messages to one another? Are the synchronicities all intentional, or, given the sheer volume of the nested narratives, is the repetition of certain storytelling motifs and forms simply inevitable? Who is Ω, and might he be one of the guests of the Avalon? And what, finally, is the nature of this jewel? Anyone with the obsessive, pattern-seeking mind of a John Nash is unlikely to find a book more suited to their temperament.

Though it can be diverting to puzzle out the central mystery, the novel’s most unimpeded pleasures come from the generous pulpy fiction of those stories that appear to be among Garden’s most peripheral. (Of course, they, too, contain hidden clues of their own.)

By all indications, publisher Dalkey Archive Press enjoys being in on the novel’s recondite gamesmanship and has sprinkled its own paratextual breadcrumbs around the package. Garden’s sole back-cover testimonial, left by late Catalan literary critic Isidor Cònsul, offers the proposition that the book itself might just be a manifestation of the jewel that so preoccupies the text. Is this more play or does it provide a real piece of the puzzle? Curiously, the novel has been given an editing pass by Damien Wraith, an erotica photographer from Venice whose improbable biographical blurb and 666-year lifespan leaves room for more paranoid speculation. Is he as much the phantom as his name suggests, or could this be another veiled appearance of the mysterious Ω? Adrian Nathan West, who is, I presume, a real man, deserves credit for successfully achieving the translator’s equivalent of cleaning the Augean stables—rendering Garden’s voluminous content into an unfussy, eminently readable idiom. Assuming West’s English is similar to the original Catalan, Palol’s prose lands just fine at the level of the sentence—though Flaubertian linguistic precision does not factor into his storytelling calculus. The novel is at its best at less granulated resolutions—on the level of the individual tale.

Dalkey has done a fine job bringing Palol’s novel to English-speaking audiences in an appealing physical tome. The press’s willingness to take risks on the publication of expansive, visionary, undeniably niche works like Garden is worthy of admiration in a market that surely rewards safer picks. Hopefully, it will do well enough to justify bringing the other doorstops in Palol’s catalog to English-speaking audiences. Difficult as it is to imagine, Palol’s ardent readers have told me that beyond his first novel lies an untranslated trove of masterworks more honed and, somehow, more ambitious than this.

As the first novel of Miquel de Palol’s career, The Garden of Seven Twilights is awash in the author’s chaotic genius. If the Arabian Nights needed dozens of authors and centuries of time to formalize its monument to storytelling, Garden of Seven Twilights made do with only a few years and Palol’s prodigious ingenuity. He has hewn a rough gem of postmodern experimentation out of pure imaginational bedrock, a work in equal parts unwieldy and extraordinary.


Ben Hooyman is a PhD candidate in the Department of Slavic Languages at Columbia University, where he is writing a dissertation on grotesque modernism in early-20th-century Russian literature. He is currently working on several translation projects, including a collection of short stories by Russian horror writer Yuri Mamleev.

LARB Contributor

Ben Hooyman is a PhD candidate in the Department of Slavic Languages at Columbia University, where he is writing a dissertation on grotesque modernism in early-20th-century Russian literature. He is currently working on several translation projects, including a collection of short stories by Russian horror writer Yuri Mamleev.


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