Initially, it’s difficult to decide what Los palimpsestos is about. On first reading, it appears to be a disjointed, madcap story narrated by a Polish inmate in a Belgian psychiatric hospital. Spouting misanthropy and a wealth of idées fixes, he is writing a book with a bizarre plot after having published an even more bizarre narrative in an inexistent language spoken in an inexistent country. The fact that he is being subjected to “linguistic reinsertion therapy” in a facility where “screams of pain in unrecognizable languages came out of the treatment room” signals the most obvious theme: the travails of an author writing in a language other than his own. That is, of course, the case of Los palimpsestos’ author herself, Aleksandra Lun, a Pole who wrote the book, her first, in Spanish after living in Spain 11 years.
An assortment of authors who also wrote in their “stepmother tongue” – Vladimir Nabokov, Samuel Beckett, Jerzy Kosinski, Joseph Conrad (né Korzeniowki), Karen Blixen, Emil Cioran, Eugene Ionesco – all make an appearance, and have something to say. A Pole, Witold Gombrowicz, who wrote articles in Spanish, would send all authors abroad, “far from their own language and their own verbal ornaments and filigrees, to see what would be left of them.” That theme is a springboard for insights into the broader issues of literary creation, including the motives of creators (among them, ambition, anxiety, arrogance and fear of death) and the nature of their readers (“innocent and generous beings who pay out of their own pockets to gift us several hours of their lives”).
But like the palimpsests of the title, additional themes lie beneath the surface, including the pervasiveness of human intolerance and xenophobia, and the need to organize experience in the face of the randomness of existence. Such themes have been addressed many times before, but not always with such economy and humor.
Throughout his story, the author also takes the opportunity to offer a series of biting comments about, for example, the nature of totalitarianism in Eastern Europe, where, she says, the real power were not party leaders but store clerks who could grant or deny essential goods to desperate customers, and the character of dogs, animals who, like mother tongues, could challenge oblivion, the abuse of power and even totalitarianism itself.
The book is short, barely 160 small pages, and written in simple language, which is fortunate, given the advisability of rereading it to make sense of the narrator’s (sometimes hilarious) ravings. When quoting it, this reviewer realized how easy it was to translate as well.