Untranslated: Our Dystopia-mediated Afterlife. On Jorge Carrión’s Los muertos — Germán Sierra

Although Jorge Carrión’s wonderful non-fiction book Librerías (“Bookshops”, 2017) is currently available in several languages including English (1), his novels, deserving at least as much attention, are, unfortunately, not translated in English to date. Carrión has become one of the outstanding figures of contemporary Spanish literature not just due to the originality and diversity of his books—essays, travel books, post-digital experiments and novels—but also through his work as a teacher, journalist, editor, and cultural activist. Since 2010, he has been publishing the fictional tetralogy Las huellas (“The Footprints”) on what I would call ‘memory-related poetic dystopias,’ starting with Los muertos (“The Dead”, Mondadori, 2010), and followed by Los huérfanos (“The Orphans”, Galaxia Gutenberg 2014), Los turistas (“The Tourists”, Galaxia Gutenberg, 2015), and a very enjoyable little steampunk prequel to Los muertos set in a fictional 19th-century New York City entitled Los difuntos (“The Deceased”, Aristas Martínez, 2015). Carrión’s new non-fiction book Barcelona. Libro de los pasajes (“Barcelona: Book of Passageways”, Galaxia Gutenberg, 2017) is the account of his strolls around the city, speaking with passers-by and the inhabitants of the passageways, and a tribute to Walter Benjamin’s The Arcades Project and Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities.

A confessed admirer of Winfried Georg Sebald and Ricardo Piglia, Carrión resorts to fictional, metafictional and non-fictional elements to perform acute narrative investigations about some of the most pervasive metaphors of the present socio-cultural condition. Carrión’s strong artistic ethics and his commitment to the development of novel literary languages would be reason enough to recommend his work: related to the experimental and playful Cervantesque tradition—much less popular in modern Spanish literature than it would be expected, but powerfully maintained by authors such as Juan Goytisolo, Julián Ríos, Ramón Buenaventura or Juan Francisco Ferré, all of them aesthetically acquainted to Carrión—his fictional work encompasses many contemporary artistic codes, including those from film, performance, photography, graphic novels, television and the internet. Los muertos remains one of the most interesting, powerful, and intriguing novels published in Spain in this century, not just because it elegantly combines different narrative styles but mainly because it gets a handle on the contemporary recurrence of one of the most influential metaphors ever: afterlife.

Many contemporary artworks are developed around the idea that we are already living a kind of afterlife. Of course, 21st-century’s afterlife is not the conventional, Christianity-inspired one—that God-structured post-mortality kingdom masterfully chanted in Dante’s Divine Comedy. Our current afterlife is actually a godless, weird, post-apocalyptic, disorienting, chaotic, speculative, dystopian realm, involving a general sensation of the existence of an occult universal trauma that should have happened somewhere in the past, but whose repression and denial seems to be a non-negotiable condition for survival.

The sensation that the world has already ended and we’re living in a technological simulation, an uncanny meta-world, or an alternative dimension is not a common topic in science-fiction works only—nowadays it’s being discussed by philosophers, tech-entrepreneurs and physicists.

The afterlife hyperstition seems to be haunting every cultural form, from popular TV series and videogames to literary fiction, speculative thinking and hard science.

Los muertos is a book on the afterlife—or even better, about colliding afterlives—the main question posed by the plot being how the afterlife of fictional characters would be. Of course, fictional characters are frequently recycled in new fictions, but when this happens they’re usually introduced as never dead: the originality of Carrión’s proposal in this book lies in presenting dead imaginary people in their unlikely condition of deceased. Actually Los muertos is, far beyond a dystopian thriller of death and memory, a novel about how death, memory and the search for identity could be re-presented as a survival strategy in a post-digital, multi-mediated society —something like Juan Rulfo’s Pedro Páramo being re-written for television by J.J. Abrams and then summarized again by César Aira. The dead are not actually dead but post-living, and their post-life has some noir touch and a few intriguing features not properly belonging to common life or death. Post-living people are nothing like zombies, ghosts, spirits or angels—they mostly behave like confused homeless amnesiacs. Post-living people, like Wednesday Addams famously said about homicidal maniacs, look just like everyone else.

In a recent article examining the new fictions of memory (2), I was trying to explain that memory is no longer just historical or biographical. Instead, it has become a ‘general property of the system’ and it requires to be constructed from ‘memories’ that do not belong in our self and are stored somewhere out of us. Most of Carrión’s fiction deals with that idea: in Los muertos, he creates an uncanny world in which all kind of dead characters (from literature, film, television, etc.) return to ‘unlife’. They arrive there with some ‘encoding problems,’ to the point that soon, neither the characters nor the reader is able to differentiate in which level of reality the narrative code is performing. Nonetheless, people in Los muertos might have lost their memories but they keep some ‘propensities’ (like those amnesiacs who lose their biographical memories while keeping ‘procedural memories’), which push them to persevere to the end in finding out where they came from—something they can only achieve by recurring to an enigmatic outlaw psychic, in order to get a reading of their past. While following them in their accidented navigation through this new world, some interesting questions might arise in the readers’ minds: is there still a difference between experienced memories and memories of the spectacle? Have we all become fictional characters in a post-mediatic afterlife?

All memories are, of course, inventions, but they are nonetheless a threat to the afterlife’s status quo in a way that very much resembles the fears, anxiety and irrational violence elicited in Europe and the US around the recent refugee flows. Because although in unlife, not all the dead are equal. The main conflict unleashes around the ‘new ones’—those suddenly appearing from out of the blue, disoriented and wanting to be integrated in afterlife’s society, risking the established hierarchy of the ‘old ones’. Besides, there’s a demographic problem: not expected to die again, the constant arrival of ‘new ones’ soon becomes a Malthusian nightmare leading to a meta-apocalyptic finale. How to dispose of people who are already dead?

Gutiérrez está inmerso en una mole sólida hasta los tobillos. Lo meten en una furgoneta. Lo llevan al puerto. Lo embarcan en un yate que pronto se adentra en la bahía. Lo tiran por la borda. Cae, pesadamente. El agua difumina sus contornos. Cae, sigue cayendo. Hay peces. Se pierde la luz en la memoria del aire. Aterriza, con brusquedad líquida, en pie, sobre la arena del fondo. Se levanta una nube de polvo acuático que tarda algunos segundos en disgregarse. Tiene los ojos abiertos, respira, de vez en cuando alguna burbuja escapa de sus labios. Puede mover los brazos, el torso, la cadera: pero los pies están atrapados por el bloque de cemento. Se da cuenta de que no está solo. A su lado hay un hombre de unos sesenta años, el cuerpo arrugadísimo, los ojos muy abiertos, la mirada asustada. Como un pez cuya cola hubiera sido adherida al fondo de la pecera. Y otro. Y una mujer. Y otra. Diez, veinte, cincuenta. Un centenar de cadáveres en vida rodean a Gutiérrez en su nueva prisión: su mundo nuevo. Un centenar de ojos de pez se giran para mirarle, desorbitados por un pánico constante. (p. 109)

Gutiérrez is up to his ankles in a concrete block. They put him in a van. They take him to the harbor. They put him on a yacht that soon goes deeper into the bay. They throw him overboard. He sinks heavily. The water blurs the outline of his body. He goes down and down. There are fish. The light fades into the air’s memory. He lands on his feet on the sandy bottom with a liquid thud. A cloud of watery particles rises up that takes a few seconds to disperse. His eyes are open, he breathes, and from time to time a bubble escapes from his lips. He can move his arms, torso and hips, but his feet are trapped in the concrete block. He realizes he’s not alone. Next to him is a man around sixty with a very wrinkled body, eyes wide open in terror. Like a fish stuck by the tail to the bottom of a fish tank. And another. And a woman. And another woman. Ten, twenty, fifty. A hundred living corpses surround Gutierrez in his new prison, his new world. A hundred fish eyes turn to watch him, their eyes popping out in permanent panic. (3)

Because, after all, there’s no future in afterlife. The dead can’t die again, so they must be massively ‘erased’ by means of a ‘conspiratory’ mysterious epidemic. Afterlife becomes an avatar of the post-contemporary condition, when:

We are not just living in a new time or accelerated time, but time itself — the direction of time — has changed. We no longer have a linear time, in the sense of the past being followed by the present and then the future. It’s rather the other way around: the future happens before the present, time arrives from the future. If people have the impression that time is out of joint, or that time doesn’t make sense anymore, or it isn’t as it used to be, then the reason is, I think, that they have — or we all have — problems getting used to living in such a speculative time or within a speculative temporality. (4)

Los muertos, however, is not so easy to summarize. The book is structured in a very particular way, divided in two long sections (Parts One and Two) and two short ones (“Reactions” and “Appendix”). Although the general style of the novel might owe to Kafka, Sebald, Ballard, Anna Kavan, Juan José Saer, Juan Goytisolo, Ricardo Piglia, César Aira, and others, between parts one and two it suddenly mutates to show evidence of a more visual media approach: the original story is shown to be the narrative of a popular TV series (in a clear reference to the phenomenon of Lost and the great number of speculations and fanfictions derived from it, and somehow anticipating others such as The Leftovers, Les Revenants or Black Mirror), and the viewpoint switches to a journalistic description of the public reaction to the interruption of its broadcasting. This abrupt re-framing of the story has an extraordinary ‘realistic’ effect, like a movie director turning the camera to the film crew. Now it’s not about ‘them’, but about ‘us’. All of a sudden, afterlife is not a place anymore, it has become a platform.

In the current state of reality, memory and the pursuit of identity seem to be only available with the help of superimposed media/software platforms. The role of fictional platforms as tools for recovering lost memories is also a recurrent topic in Carrión’s work: in his book Crónica de viaje (“Journey Chronicle”, Aristas Martínez, 2014) he produces a collage from a series of fake Google search screenshots in order to investigate his past—the story of his own family and his ancestors’ migration from Andalusia to Catalonia.

So when we move to the second part of the story, we are aware of the fact that we are reading a description of Los muertos season three. Somehow, the screen has managed to get into the book, creating a complex palimpsest and staging the obsessive quest for identity by both the living and the dead. Furthermore, in a final narrative and stylistic switch, the appendix, written in a parodically archaic scholarly style and surreptitiously signalling many of the novel’s sources, presents the book itself as a myth—a definitely Cervantesque twist—as a never written, impossible project about an imaginary TV show that includes dead characters taken from other fictional sources:

Sin embargo—nobleza obliga—, este ensayo sobre la teleserie ha sido escrito con palabras y ha descrito las imágenes y su intención ética y estética mediante figuras del lenguaje. En esta tensión entre la palabra y la imagen quizá radique el enigma del arte. Nosotros hemos intentado acercarnos a una traducción que solo puede ser puro deseo. (p. 163)

However— noblesse oblige—this essay about the TV series has been written with words and it has described the images and their ethical and aesthetical purposes by using figures of language. The enigma of art might lie in this tension between words and images. We have tried to approach a translation which can only be a pure wish. (5)

One of the most interesting features of Los muertos is the way it manages to create an extraordinary fictional framework closely resembling what is going on today, in a dystopia-mediated spectacular society made up from a collection of fake news, pop-fiction mythologies, pseudoscience and the overall critical attempt to grasp the spectacular reality produced by the un-graspability of the networks. As Alexander Galloway wrote:

After Hermes and Iris, instead of a return to hermeneutics (the critical narrative) or a return to phenomenology (the iridescent arc), there is a third mode that combines and annihilates the other two. For after Hermes and Iris there is another divine form of pure mediation, the distributed network, which finds incarnation in the incontinent body of what the Greeks called first the Erinyes and later the Eumenides, and the Romans called the Furies. So instead of a problem or a poem, today we must confront a system. A third divinity must join the group: not a man, not a woman, but a pack of animals. (6)

We’re not confronting—and embracing—a monolithic system, but a multiplicity that also includes each of us. Regarding networks, Benjamin Bratton states that we need a model that does not put technology ‘inside’ a society, but to see a technological totality as the armature of the social itself (7). Similarly, we need fictional frameworks that might allow us to re-present the intermingled fictional discourses shaping the social itself, opening questions such as the performative reality of ‘fake news’ vs. ‘real fictions’ vs. ‘institutional criticism’ in a world in which memory and the search of identity have been weaponized to serve different—and often dangerous—political purposes. Unless we accept that our memories are not ours and our identities are part of the spectacle, we would be fighting irrelevant meme-wars and feeding the wrong spectacular war-machines. Los muertos reminds us that the search for identity is too often a walk through a mined field.

Our history is not a given story—no matter how emotionally or politically relevant it might feel— but an ongoing process of de-manipulation and creative destruction within a spectacular landscape intensely shaped by attention-trapping narratives that are being increasingly appropriated by platforms whose functioning principles need to be critically addressed.

At the end of the novel, Nadia, the last remaining character and only visible survivor of the disapparition epidemic, is sitting on the floor, with her head buried between her knees and a gun in her hand, waiting… Everybody has vanished, questions have not been answered, and she may be starting to realize that they will never be. She might be considering that

anything that escapes the searchlight of the specular economy, even whilst providing the conditions of its actualization, has immense subversive potential at its disposal simply by flipping that which is imputed to it as lack into a self-sufficient, autonomous, and positive productive force: the weaponization of imperceptibility and replication. (8)

She might be starting to think about incubating a new, more Dionysian approach to unlife.

Some of us are feeling the same way now, with a book in our hands, waiting…

(1) Carrión, J. Bookshops, (translated by Peter Bush), Maclehose Press, 2016.

(2) Sierra, G. Postdigital fiction: Exit and Memory. In: “A Comparative History of the Literatures in the Iberian Peninsula-Vol 2” Ed. by César Domínguez, Anxo Abuín and Ellen Sapega. John Benjamins, 2016, pp. 498-506.

(3) From “The Cemetery at Sea”, a chapter from the second part of “The Dead” translated by a workshop in the Translated! Festival organised by Monash University (Melbourne, February 2011), comprising Kieran Tapsell, Adriana Rozada, Jarrah Strunin, Kay Rozynski, Hannah Lofgren, Ana Cano, Joel Calizaya, and Imogen Williams, with the participation of Jorge Carrión and directed by Peter Bush, published in The Quarterly Conversation, 24, June 2011. http://quarterlyconversation.com/from-los-muertos-by-jorge-carrion

(4) Avanesian, A., and Makik, S. The Time Complex. Post-Contemporary. Name Press, 2016, p.7

(5) Translation by Germán Sierra.

(6) Galloway, A, Thacker, E and Wark, M. Excommunication. Three Inquiries in Media and Mediation. The University of Chicago Press, 2014. p.63.

(7) Bratton, B. The Stack, On Software and Sovereignity, MIT Press, 2015, p. Xviii

(8) Ireland, A, Black Circuit: Code for the Numbers to Come. E-flux journal #80, 2017

Jorge Carrión was born in Tarragona in 1976, but he has lived in Mataró and Barcelona most of the time. He has a PhD in Humanities from the Pompeu Fabra University, Barcelona, and manages the Master in Creative Writing of the same institution. He has lived in Buenos Aires, Rosario and Chicago. He uses to publish in several journals and magazines such as El País, La Vanguardia or Letras Libres. He is the author of a tetralogy of fiction (that includes Los muertos, Los huérfanos, Los turistas and Los difuntos) and is also the author of various non-fiction books, such as Australia. Un viaje, Teleshakespeare, Librerías and Barcelona. Libro de los pasajes . He was the curator of the exhibition “Las variaciones Sebald”, in the Contemporary Culture Center of Barcelona (CCCB). Twitter: @jorgecarrion21

Germán Sierra is a neuroscientist and fiction writer from Spain. He has published five novels—El Espacio Aparentemente Perdido, La Felicidad no da el Dinero, Efectos Secundarios, Intente usar otras palabras, and Standards—and a book of short stories, Alto Voltaje. His essays and stories have appeared in Guernica, Numéro Cinq, Asymptote, The Quarterly Conversation, Queen Mob’s Teahouse, and in more than twenty collective books. Twitter: @german_sierra

This work was supported by Grant FFI2015-63746-P (2016-2019) financed by the Spanish Ministerio de Economía y Competitividad and co-financed by the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF) 2014-2020.