Untranslated: XYZ by Clemente Palma — Mónica Belevan

“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

Clarke’s Third Law, Hazards of Prophecy: The Failure of Imagination, 1973

 

“Any technology distinguishable from magic is insufficiently advanced.”

Barry Gehm’s corollary to Clarke’s Third Law, Analog, 1991

I.

Clemente Palma (1872-1946) might be thought of as a Peruvian Cyril Connolly, a hostage of promise whose place in literary life—being the first and only lovechild of the towering man of letters that was Ricardo Palma—would have been secure even if he had not spread himself so thinly between teaching, political meddling and journalistic practice for cutting-edge journals such as Prisma (1905-08) and its spin-offs Variedades (1908-31) and La Crónica (1912-90).

It was as the director of Variedades that Palma became established as an annointer of kings, rather than a king himself, by playing a key role in the making of reputations like those of his half-sister, Angélica Palma, and Abraham Valdelomar. It was also in this role as literary powerbroker that he incurred the wrath of history by taking a fierce swipe at a sonnet by a then-unknown César Vallejo:

“Your verses are […] foul nonsense and until […] we tossed your tosh into the trash we know nothing about you other than the disgrace you visit on the collectivity of Trujillo, such that if your name were to be discovered the neighbourhood would make a noose and tie you like a sleeper to the railway of Malabrigo” (Variedades, 1917).

As a seasoned reader of the European Romantic and Symbolist lores, Palma would have been familiar with the tale of Peter Schlemihl, in which a man acquires wealth in exchange for his shadow. He would also have been likely to identify less with the schlemihl than with the shade and its need to sustain escape velocity in relation to the father’s star, from which he managed to detach himself considerably in both themes and style.

To force an example: it could help to think of Palma the Elder as the great Peruvian conceptista, and of the Younger as his culterano counterpart. Where the father, in his “tradiciones”, crafted local flavour as limeños came to know it, the son strained to come across as European-ly as possible through his stilted use of Spanish, peppering of other tongues and onslaught of exotic characters; all of which point to a convincing, if unsynthetised, command of influences he was not, however, fully able to metabolise, despite a diplomatic stint in Barcelona, official visits to Seville and Washington, and the Chilean exile he remarks on in the foreword to his only finished novel.

II.

Modern Peruvian literature has fervently embraced realism, indianism, naturalism, every manner of j’accuse, even fine examples of postmodernism at the height of the Latin American Boom. It has also, less famously, played host to a significant series of raros, among whom Palma deserves pride of place, though he is easy to miss (or dismiss) in retrospect (and in perspective). A first reading of XYZ. Novela grotesca (1934) will draw immediate comparisons to the Argentine Adolfo Bioy Casares’ superior—and ulterior—La invención de Morel (The Invention of Morel, 1940), which wasn’t just inspired by the film-making process, but remains as paradigmatic a “novel of film” as has ever been put into print.

But XYZ retains its interest not just because it was aligned with a tradition that fell well outside the scope of the Andean literary panorama of its time—confirming Palma as an early adopter, and adapter, of Modernist tropes in our regional prose—but because, despite its pitfalls, it was able to accomplish something all its own.

The narrator is William “Billy” Perkins, a former classmate—since cum intimate, and architect—of our lead, Rolland Poe, aka Dr. XYZ for his exceptional talent in algebra. Though Perkins is designed to be as reliably alter-egoic as any such sidekick-narrator can be, Palma’s attempts to convey his own bilingual (lack of) fluency poke through, and distract the reader by becoming desperately apparent. Palma thus writes of repports, instead of reports, as his characters plot over cherry, rather than sherry, and so forth, which allows for a disruption of disbelief that—actually—sets up the incidental groundwork for a metanarrative quite well. Whether consciously or unconsciously, the Voice of the Maker percolates through many levels here: we never lose track of Palma being at but a scale’s remove from his invention, who is in turn the maker of such other ones. It helps the novel’s crackpot gravitas to wield these indicators that the net of Indra has many a cast of (k)not.

III.

As the brightest member of his generation, Poe does not pursue a future in academia but in industry, amassing a fortune together with a reputation as a genius, and officiating as a sounding board to characters as eminent as Einstein and Madame Curie. A professed Lockean—who is also more than a little Berkeleyan—he is an idealist according to whom matter must impress itself on at least two of the three senses he deems “fundamental to external contact”: touch, sight or hearing (taste and smell being the preserve of oysters). Expending essence, he states that:

“…if we make metaphysics but a starting point for physics, [then] man’s action is rendered divine. God owes his infinite power to this: that he did not restrict himself to being metaphysical and proceeded to become experimental […]. And hitting upon that which he calls science, man has done nothing other than adopt the divine path”.

While spending time with silent film star Douglas Fairbanks in Los Angeles, Poe becomes interested in the talkies that would so convulse film history, and which he aims to perfect into touchies by developing:

“…a device for vision in relief […] based on a new principle for the rational but independent distribution of shadows…”

In “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius”, the (Other) Bioy claims mirrors and copulation are abominable because they increase the number of men. At the start of his endeavour, Poe stands heroically guilty of wanting to multiply not only men, but every form of extant and subsistent on a staggering scale. There is a sense in which his narrative arc serves as the stand-in for the auteur who comes to challenge Plato’s dichotomy of appearance vs. truth by submitting to the most Romantic of conclusions: that appearance is truth, and truth beauty. But this inference is both tame and incomplete. Poe’s tragedy is not that he invents live 3D-printing—it’s that he fails to progress beyond type-setting.

This is best shown by how he invests himself in replicating actresses, professional personae whose main difference as regards their own “originals” is coded in their lifecycle design. Like certain cloned animals, his doubles are not simply sterile: they are also prematurely obsolescent in ways even Poe—his life itself foreshortened by experiment—cannot transcend, whether through science, or magic, or love.

IV.

To investigate with unrestricted ease, Poe rents an island in the South Pacific which he and Perkins take to calling Rollandia. If, as one character puts it, “the world of cinema [is] the entire civilized world,” then here our modern Prometheus can do with his fire as he will, whilst deferring his inevitable comeuppance.

Having insinuated that the central foible in Poe’s procedure isn’t one of concept, but of type; the same should be said for Palma, whose interest in the question of “homiculture” can be traced to his student days. In his bachelor thesis, “El porvenir de las razas en el Perú” (The Future of the Races in Peru, 1879), Palma has native Peruvians—and native Americans, broadly—portrayed as residual races stunted by conquest; while the Spaniards, being lethargic (and what Nietzsche might have called névrose) only fared better in comparison. To the blacks and chinos who were brought into Peru as slaves or cheaper-than-cheap contract labourers he refers to as “savage” or racially “spent”. And though Palma recommended interracial mixing since it might help “lesser flavours” integrate into an improved criollo stew, he was not convinced that this would lead to the “homogeneousness” that, to his mind, “national soul” required.

Imaginably, Palma’s pseudo-scientific racialism held an element of Weiningerian self-contempt: he was part black (an issue that his father didn’t broadcast either, though he did address it in his writing with complexity and nuance). But for the younger Palma, race was fate in a manner all too similar to that which would afflict XYZ’s androgens: ontologically, and definitively.

This explains how Poe’s clear-cut Yankee undertaking can be wrecked by the indiscretion of a disgraced shutterbug of Spanish provenance, who eventually escapes Rollandia to spread evidence of the doubles’ existence while trying to eke out a living as—what else?—a Hollywood extra.

V.

Poe’s creative process is the literary highlight of the book. Though the recount of his duplicative efforts show him as a most prolix investigator, the operations he relates to Perkins in a series of epistles are themselves impracticable. The trace of dense, pseudo-scientific contouring fading into dimly-lit abracadabra grows increasingly apparent to the third-party reader (on a second take), whether it be through strategically played omissions, or in Poe’s terminal decision to take his secret with him to the grave.

The effects of being allowed into the technicalities of a completely esoteric process are, however, tantalizingly accomplished. We know that Poe’s ingredients for creation are albumin, which he extracts from eggs, and radium, the mystique of which increases as the narrative advances because, though the albumin serves as substitute clay, it’s the radium that breathes life into it. Radium also limits the lives of the creatures to a mere four months—the same time it took Palma to complete his novel—and contributes to Poe’s vanquishment through radioactive poisoning. The role that its life-giving/death-bestowing powers lend Poe, and his creatures, is that of a classical scapegoat, whether through the deliquescence of the beautiful androgens—who must be sacrificed so that other, improved versions of them can be ushered into being—or as Poe’s purifying vengeance for his humilliation at the hands of studio phantasts.

VI.

First came the homunculi, forged in the ancient alchemical style that results in little dogs, and little men, of little consequence. Then came the goddesses. Stamping the shape and voice of the original models on a cellular conglomerate, bathed in radioactive fluids that sieve and seep inside true-to-life, milimetrically-detailed bell jars, bringing them forth from the “albuminoid bosom of unbeing” to which they are soon to return, Poe distills the dust-to-dust equation into a pitch of (re)vitalization that will peak—and end—in literal, material liquefaction. Though named after male sex hormones, Rolland’s “androgens”, as he prefers to call them, are all female but one (this being the double of Rodolfo Valentino).

Being the perfect cross-sections of their source-codes at the time of inception, they “bring [with them] clear concepts and knowledge, within the psychic structure of [their] being, sedimented in the consciousness of the person that [they] reproduce, and whom [they] reflect like a mirror”. Their lives are too short for them to show signs of aging. And, at least in theory, they can be brought back, over and conceivably forever, in an eternal, recursive perverse.

The first androgen is that of Greta Garbo, a test-subject who inadvertently opts to be(come) one with (the) god. Though Poe takes a shine to her, he knows that he can love her only “on the island”: their relationship is but a circumstance of their conditions, and even as it’s ever on the threshold of becoming, it does not. She eventually dissolves, to be quickly followed by a brilliant quartet of Radium Girls comprised by (the likes of) Joan Crawford, Norma Shearer, Joan Bennett and Jeanette MacDonald, all of whom play out their brief interludes, to be restored with some deliberate remixes. Poe adds Garbo’s cellular leftovers to the recipe for miss MacDonald, and though his second and third batches of gynoids are not explicitly initiated into the mysteries of their creation—Poe had, after all, attempted to convey the truth about herself to Garbo, with limited success—he discovers that, drawn as they may be from what the novel calls “the Movie type”, his androgens are individuals, too.

And some individuals reflect more than others. While Poe is titillated when the Garbo replicant experiences a passing hint of existential dread, it’s the double of Jeanette MacDonald, with her transcendental vertigo and doe-eyed sense of creaturehood, that endears him past his tipping point.

Now, if the unit of history is time, then that of liminality is timing. Once a liminal state becomes protracted, the personae it produced are reabsorbed into their source—like Greta—or they proceed to extricate themselves from it to constitute a new community, as the androgens begin to do upon their second incarnation. It is at this point that they are overtaken by the studio raids.

VII.

When the pictures and the story of Rollandia reach the eyes and ears of MGM’s CEO, he—together with a hit squad including Lewis Stone, William Powell, George Bancroft, and Gary Cooper—succeeds in rapturing the doubles from their haven under the cover of filming (though not before a failed first attempt, the slaying of Valentino, the destruction of Poe’s lab-palace, and some changing the facts of the story to pave the way into a third act in which everything that once seemed solid melts into air).

The men don’t question the provenance of the doubles beyond the likelihood of them being freaks of probablity. The gynoids’ worth to them is based not on their being identical to the “originals”, as is the case with Poe, but on their being identical, and separate, from them. Their value—their beauty—is in their potential to be used in ways the likes of which Poe had already started to lose track of, insofar awareness of individuation is the death of type.

One is remiss to spoil the details of the ending—where Palma’s rhetoric is at its flickering best—other than to say its climax involves another mise-en-abyme where the originals and doubles meet spectacularly—onstage, and onscreen, at once—while the agonizing Poe reappears—like the Phantom of the Opera, but in a Theatre that’s been coopted as a Cinema—to see his creatures publically dissolve before he shoots himself through the heart. Los Angeles is shaken by the events for a full ten days, after which, life continues as before.

There is one last letter from Poe to Perkins which ends the novel on a dreary note. In it, Poe is shown to be quite human—a sick man, wrapping up business and settling scores, who takes his secret with him and leaves most of his possessions to an illegitimate son he had never before mentioned.

Nothing to see here. Move on.

VIII.

And so in closing, what does any of this have to do with type? “Film has created a special type of woman”, the studio head says:

“[…] without referring to this or that particular artist, we can say a girl we see among so many others […] is the Movie Type. It’s an impalpable something […] diluted in the silhouette and the physiognomy, that isn’t quite elegance or beauty, since it doesn’t cross our minds to qualify other, more beautiful or elegant ladies, the same way”.

But the “Movie Type” runs deeper: so much deeper it predates the movies. Isn’t Helen, the impossible woman hatched from an egg, whose kinetic beauty launched a thousand ships, the greatest eidolon in Western myth? Her beauty has been the object of a thousandfold representations, but how many of these engage her as a subject in the least?

And so we’re left with Helen as perhaps the most hermetic woman in mythology: a near un-character that—as Marlowe and Goethe both knew— was a wildcard for Beauty and could, as a result of this, be consecrated as a worthy patroness of shades.

And as with Palma’s replicate divas, the authenticity of (a single) Helen is secondary: Euripides wrote that the raptured queen remained in Egypt while sending a decoy to Troy, implying that the Iliad could have been waged over a double—or a hologram.

Then we have Poe, who is a typical exemplar of the pre-war polymath-magicians whose powers of representation could—and did—affect the very tissue of reality. These magus-scientist types flourished—in literature, in life—between the onset of the Industrial Revolution and the end of the American Civil War (with the many technological advances each entailed), and the great disillusionment of the First World War, which cast any positivist faith in the inexorable progress of humanity into question. Poe is thus an heir—indeed, a pig-tailed child—to Hoffmann’s Coppelius (1817), Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818), Verne’s Nemo (1870), Machen’s Raymond (1890), Wells’s Moreau (1896), Jarry’s Faustroll (1894/1911), Ewers’s ten Brinken (1911) and Roussel’s Canterel (1914). [Any resemblance to Villiers de L’Isle-Adam’s Edison in L’Ève future (1886) is, naturally, non-coincidental].

(Un)like Poe’s albumin and radium, the screen-siren and shut-in genius tend not to mix often, nor well. When Poe envisions “the industrial reproduction of mankind”, he knows that his technology could point towards the “end of sex”. There is hubris in his choice of subjects on the island, and when he challenges himself to face them on his own, he fails because he sees his creatures as representations of the “Movie Type” without regarding them foremostly as individuals who—though lacking in autonomy— can also overwhelm his powers of infusion and projection just by being themselves.

By the novel’s finale, the doubles have dissolved, but Poe—the great man of his time— has since become a shadow of himself: a little man, of little consequence, whose days are numbered to the hour.


Clemente Palma (Lima, 1872-1946) was the son of Ricardo Palma and his mistress. His Cuentos malévolos (Malevolent Tales, 1904 and 1912) and Historias malignas (Malignant Stories, 1924) were central to the introduction of symbolist tropes in Peruvian literature; the canon of which generally—though grudgingly—acknowledges him as the founding father of the national fantastic. Outside of XYZ, Palma was the abortive author of a score of lost and/or unfinished novels, the scraps of which point to his preference, and greater talent, for that most fiendish of genres: the story.

Mónica Belevan is a writer and a partner at design firm Diacrítica. She is the author of Díptico gnóstico (hueso húmero ediciones, 2017), a book of so-called stories, and has recently discovered that her grandparents were Palma’s next-door neighbours near the time of his death.

Image: Joan Crawford (nrfpt_42) colorized, Michail Kirkov, Creative Commons

All translations from XYZ are by the reviewer.

XYZ is published by Luis Vives Editorial.