October 2008

Elizabeth Bachner

fiction

A History of the World for Rebels and Somnambulists by Jesus del Campo

So, you’re in search of a new, manly cult novel. You need something humorous, irreverent and profound. You’ve outgrown Matt Ruff’s The Fool on the Hill. The collected works of Tom Robbins are feeling a little long-in-the-tooth -- even Still Life with Woodpecker. You’ve reread Desolation Angels too many times, as well as all of the other works of Jack Kerouac, Henry Miller, George Orwell, Turgenev, Dostoevsky, Gogol and Bulgakov. And you’ve incorporated all of Kerouac’s suggested techniques and beliefs for writing modern prose into your own life, with the exception of #19 (“Accept loss forever”) and #14 (“Like Proust be an old teahead of time”). You’re trying Don Delillo again, and, okay, but -- you just need something fresh.

Enter the Spanish philologist Jesus del Campo and his slim, crazy, funny, History of the World for Rebels and Somnambulists, which is exactly what it says it is. It’s a roughly -- very roughly -- chronological account of world history, marked by the bravado and befuddlement of presidents, biblical figures, scientists, poets, magicians and God alike.

“On the first day God created light,” it begins, “and he saw that he missed darkness. So he bought himself some black-framed Ray-Ban Wayfarer sunglasses and went out into the street, where he came across humans who, not having yet been officially created, were covering their bodies with paramilitary rags, not realizing they were already dressed. He saw them drinking cold beer out of plastic cups and feeling each other’s ribs and whispering about the fearfulness of life under the neon signs for Nokia and Kawasaki and General Electric and Holiday Inn. And God went home feeling dejected, wondering what to create next.”

You can probably imagine some of the things God dreams up. (Hint: the book ends with a man on a TV talk show discussing how he was attacked and sodomized by a penguin.) If del Campo’s history is sometimes too chaotic, too reality TV-obsessed and too carnivalesque, he makes up for it with his soothing answers to a number of age-old questions. In “Spain’s Pain,” we learn why Spain is called Spain. In “Tuscan Confidences,” we (finally) learn what Leonardo said to make Mona Lisa smile like that. We learn the secrets of war (“It’s all very well talking about the strategic intelligence of Egmont and Coligny and a hundred other captains of one religion or another,” says a crow pecking at the face of a dead man, “but at the hour of truth each man has to fight for his own skin, and ends up buried under a chaotic avalanche of oblivion. There’s no cure for human folly, that’s for sure.”), but not the secrets of peace, which is only fitting. We learn why writers dress in black these days (“to hide the burden of their horribly ordinary features, and say that they feel persecuted by their characters, and other things like that”), and the true story of Bob Dylan’s shadow, and the fact that the emperor knows he’s naked. In my favorite piece, “Some Words of Warning,” a disquieting version of the story of the Pied Piper, we learn the limits of freedom.

There’s a great scene in “With No Left Hand” when Miguel de Cervantes confronts an editor, who (leading with, “Look, Miguel, it’s nothing personal”) calls him a “dead weight” and demands that he cut 300 pages out of his novel and get shy little Dulcinea topless before page fifty. “I don’t like the world much either,” says the editor, “But at least I try to enjoy what’s left of it while it lasts. When China becomes a global superpower we’ll cover our heads in ash and go begging forgiveness at the American embassy, and look for hamburger dealers under manhole covers, and watch with Christian resignation as the high altar at the Almudena cathedral is turned into a stand selling spring rolls… Do what I say, come back and see me, and then we’ll see whether we can squeeze anything out of the town councils of the villages you mention in the book. Hey, why are you looking at me like that? Do I look like some kind of a monster?” Miguel smiles. “No,” he says, “No. You look like a windmill.”

A History of the World for Rebels and Somnambulists is not a work of fiction or history -- it’s a work of philology, actually, at a moment when rare, good philologists are more essential than they might first appear. Why are you looking for a new, manly cult novel, after all? It’s not really because you want to challenge yourself, to slink around smoking Gauloises and being a sexy literary badass. It’s because you need to be secretly comforted, so that you can survive. “Please, I want to go home,” Eve says to God, “…I suppose I’m allowed to make mistakes, aren’t I?” “Yes,” God answers, “yes, you are. For now.”

A History of the World for Rebels and Somnambulists by Jesus del Campo
Telegram Books
ISBN: 1846590493
140 Pages