The Vorrh & the Erstwhile.

The British author-painter B. Catling’s dark, surrealist novels The Vorrh and its sequel, The Erstwhile, reflect his background as an artist while also drawing on the traditions of magical realism from postcolonial literary lights like Gabriel García Márquez. Set in in a fictional German colony in central Africa between the two world wars, where the forest known as the Vorrh functions as a Gaia-like sentient entity, the novels explore an expansive tapestry of characters and settings that Catling manages to weave together in totally unexpected ways.

I read The Vorrh, the first book in the trilogy (with book three, The Cloven, due out next May), back in January of 2016, while I was out with a respiratory infection that nearly put me in the hospital, with fevers of 102-103 every day for almost a full week, so I never reviewed the book here and probably don’t remember it as well as I think I do … although if ever there was a novel to be read while feverish and slightly delusional, The Vorrh is it. Catling spends a lot of that book building his world, including the mythology of the forest, which can cause people to lose their memories after just a few hours inside its boundaries, and the real/unreal city of Essenwald located at its edge, where German authorities and businessmen live and attempt to exploit the area’s natural resources, a city relocated brick-by-brick from the homeland. The novel introduces many major characters who’ll appear again in The Erstwhile, including Ishmael, the cyclops-man of uncertain origin; Ghertrude and Cyrena, two sheltered women of Essenwald; and the Mutter family, who maintain a house with mysterious denizens in its basement. The first novel also introduces Williams, the explorer who seeks to traverse the Vorrh but loses much in the process, and Tsungali, the native who seeks to kill Williams for his own murky reasons. Little is clear, by design, including the ways in which these characters’ stories will meet, recombine, and separate over the course of the trilogy.

The Erstwhile starts to elucidate some of what’s happening in the Vorrh and what the Vorrh itself seems to be doing outside of the city, including the beings of the book’s title, fallen angels in semi-human form who have been forgotten by God and live bizarre, parallel existences around the forest, with several of them now residing in European hospitals where they’re studied by researchers. Sidrus, a secondary character in book one where he tries to protect Williams from Tsungali, takes on a larger role here as he seeks to avenge himself against his enemies, including Ishmael. William Blake, himself a painter and poet, appears briefly on its pages, as his painting Nebuchadnezzar adorns the book’s cover and, it turns out, is a painting of one of the Erstwhile. Ghertrude gives birth, only to find that the basement-dwelling Kin have other plans for the child. Ishmael finds himself called upon by the city’s business leaders to try to find the Limboia, native timber workers whose minds have been erased by years of working in the Vorrh, but who disappeared without a trace some years earlier, because Ishmael is the only man known to have spent significant time in the forest without losing his mind. We also meet the aged German theology professor Hector Schumann, who becomes a central character as he meets the various Erstwhile living in facilities in Germany and England, and whose connection to these beings and the Vorrh itself remains a mystery even at the end of book two.

Catling has woven himself quite a story through two-thirds of the series, one that I’m still not entirely convinced he can complete in satisfying fashion in the third book given how involved and strange the various threads have been so far. The first book could stand on its own because he’d created a new world that was credible and yet impossible, with richly drawn characters and evocative prose that gave depth and color to his otherworldly setting. Crafting a coherent story with this many characters across multiple locales is another matter, however, and The Erstwhile moves everything forward without much resolution – which may come in The Cloven, although the ending of The Erstwhile was a particularly unsatisfying given how the characters got to that point (including a needlessly graphic torture-murder). That specific event at the book’s conclusion needs further elucidation in book three, as does Schumann’s role in all of this, and where the child Rowena fits in, and what exactly the Vorrh is trying to achieve for itself. Catling has certainly set up a difficult task for the third book, but so much of these first two books compelled me to keep reading that I’m going to continue to see just how he manages to resolve all of these plots.

Next up: I just finished Barry Estabrook’s expose of the modern pork industry, Pig Tales, and have begun my friend Jay Jaffe’s upcoming The Cooperstown Casebook, due out July 25th.

Pedro Páramo.

Juan Rulfo’s Pedro Páramo is barely a novel at a scant 123 pages and under 40,000 words, but was apparently a major influence on post-colonial literature in Latin America, most famously as the book that inspired Gábriel García Márquez to write One Hundred Years of Solitude. Rulfo’s use of magical realism doesn’t seem all that groundbreaking today, but at the time it was published, it was.

Rulfo set the book apart from the beginning through its odd structure – seventy passages of varying lengths, some as short as a paragraph, all written as an interior monologue with very little descriptive prose. The novel includes three separate plot strands, loosely connected but woven together with frequent confusion as to which strand is the current one. Juan Preciado’s mother makes him promise to return to the town of his birth to find his father, Pedro Páramo, whom Juan’s mother abandoned when Juan was very young. On the way there, Juan has an unusual encounter with a strange man who tells him that Pedro PPáramo is his father as well, only to reveal that Páramo has been dead for many years. Juan finds the town, Comala, empty, yet full of ghosts and memories – yes, he sees dead people – and it turns out that the title character is the reason for the town’s decline and death, one that infects Juan as well, leading to an even more bizarre sequence of conversations he has and overhears from within his own grave. (Whether or not Juan is dead the entire novel is apparently a major subject of scholarly debate; I think he’s dead from the start, as the sequence that supposedly describes his death is unusually vague, but he doesn’t know he’s dead until that passage.) He learns that Páramo fathered many children with the women of the town, but became obsessed with the one he couldn’t have, Susana, who eventually returned to the town and married Pedro but never gave him her heart, after which he decided to starve the town to death.

Rulfo wrote the book after a visit to the town where he was born, one that was nearly depopulated as part of the great urbanization in Mexico in the early part of the last century. This shift also meant the destruction of local institutions in the rural towns that were the backbone of Mexican culture. The desolation and loneliness he experienced on that return visit formed the basis for the abandoned Comala of the novel – haunted by sounds and memories without a clear line between life and death (perhaps because everything is on the wrong side of that line). You can play all sorts of matching games between the main characters and the forces or events that shaped that period of Mexico’s history – Susana, for example, could stand in for that siren’s call of the city that ultimately wrecks the towns and people who heeded it – because Rulfo painted them with broad strokes and doesn’t provide a ton of detail in such a short work. He also gave his characters names with obvious metaphorical implications – Páramo is “barren,” Preciado is “precious,” Fulgor is “glow” – which is great fodder for academic interpretation, and I’m not sure it’s possible to read or enjoy this book without looking at that second level of meaning. The plot itself is so thin and unsatisfying that it can’t stand on its own and only rises to greatness when you consider Rulfo’s concern for his country rather than his characters.

Since Pedro Páramo needs analysis for the reader to fully grasp what Rulfo was trying to express, here are a few links I found useful in thinking about the book once I’d finished it:

Next up: Marilynne Robinson’s follow-up to one of my top 100 novels (her 1980 debut, Housekeeping), the Pulitzer Prize-winning Gilead.