The cover of Cristina Peri Rossi’s La nave de los locos features an image by the German/American artist Jan Balet. It’s a rather austere composition, of a small and apparently over-loaded rowing boat carrying three women, one middle-aged man, and a child, plus a younger man who has hold of the oars. Fortunately, perhaps, for all concerned, the surface of the water itself is smooth as glass, and two of the women are standing up in the tiny boat. But as a result, the arrangement strangely lacks almost all movement: the figures awkwardly stare out at the viewer as though from a formal portrait. Moreover, the composition is also practically devoid of colour: water and sky merge in a murky haze of grey, and all the adult figures are head-to-toe in black (the women, with long-sleeved and high-necked dresses plus extravagant featured hats), as though they were in mourning. The child, meanwhile, is dressed in white, but this only serves to accentuate her enormous dark eyes, which seem to be less organs of sight than black holes sunk deep into her face. As a whole, the picture’s ambience is macabre and disturbing. This is no happy family outing, but perhaps a snapshot of the Victorian bourgeoisie slowly crossing the Styx to some prim and proper Hades.
The choice of Balet’s painting for the book’s cover brings out some of the themes contained within: the notion of forced voyages, for instance, or of melancholy resignation and shared solitudes. But in fact the image to which the text itself obsessively returns is very different: it is the medieval “Tapesty of Creation” that can be found in the Museum of the Cathedral of Girona. And though almost a millennium of history has done its work to degrade the fabric and the threads that run though it, it is clear that the tapestry was originally a riot of colour: even now the reds and greens and burnished golds stand out. For this is an account of Genesis, not death: a celebration of God’s creation and of the diversity and order that coexist in the world he brought into being. A central panel depicts the Garden of Eden with all the beasts and birds that inhabited it. Around the edges are vignettes of the months and the seasons and the activities characteristics of the various phases of the agricultural year. What is more, and in contrast to the uncanny sense of disquiet and unease that Balet’s image imparts, in the Girona tapestry (as the book puts it) “everything is so disposed such that man should feel in perfect harmony, consubstantial, integrated into the universe, surrounded by creatures both fantastic and real” (20).
Descriptions of the tapestry run through the book and seem to offer some key to its structure and meaning. Book and image alike, for instance, offer less of a linear narrative (though there are moments or aspects of linearity, such as the creation story itself and the progression through the year) and more of a patchwork or mosaic of impressions and episodes. They suggest, moreover, that real fragmentation–in the tapestry’s case, the fact that much of the original is now missing–can find compensation in the mind of the active reader or viewer. As the book puts it of the medieval needlework, its “structure [is] so perfect and geometrical, so verifiable that even with almost half of it missing, it is possible to reconstruct the whole, if not on the cathedral wall then within a frame of the mind’s devising” (21). In similar vein, at a number of points Peri Rossi’s book challenges the reader to look for hidden points of order that might help give sense to what is otherwise a fragmentary and sometimes confusing narrative. For instance, the narrator invites “the reader to play a very entertaining game” of figuring out “the true name of the cities evoked” in the description of the principal character’s restless wanderings (37). Indeed, the character himself goes by the name of “X,” as though hinting towards some kind of mystery that the reader might also ultimately solve: X marks the spot of the buried treasure that would be the “perfect harmony” and “perfectly intelligible discourse” (20, 21) that the book claims the tapestry promises the committed viewer.
And yet, despite the fact that the idea (or dream) of harmony runs as a leitmotif throughout the book’s disparate parts, in practice there is very little of it to be seen. X himself, for example, is at first sight at least very far from being “integrated into the universe.” Or if he is, then this is a universe characterized more by chance encounters and random violence than by beneficent order. He tries to assert some kind of logic and familiarity to his unsettled drifting by clinging to certain habits of cultural consumption: always buying the same books in each new city he finds himself in, for example. But he is constantly led astray, not least by the women that he meet who can seem at times to be all too reminiscent of the Biblical Eve who likewise turned out to be a disruptive force within the idyll that was Eden. And yet Peri Rossi refuses to condemn Eve (even as she will catalogue the ways in which young children habitually repeat the accusations that it is she who is responsible for mankind’s downfall).
In the end, La nave de los locos is rather ambivalent about the so-called harmony that an image such as the Girona Tapestry professes. After all, as a footnote observes, such harmony depends on violence in that “it presupposes the destruction of the real elements that oppose it, and for that reason it is almost always symbolic” (20). This is where a gap opens up between symbolic representation and the real. And X, for all that he sometimes seems–from his (missing) name onwards–to be pure symbol, is ultimately for good or ill condemned to live in the universe of the real. It might be nice to live in the eternal present (or eternal past) of the tapestry’s cyclical, God-ordained symmetry, but in fact we are historical beings, and history’s revenge on such dreams of symmetry can be seen in its gradual degradation, its frayed edges, and the dimming of the colours so that they end up rather closer to Balet’s drained greys than the twelfth-century artisans would have hoped.