By Carmen Boullosa
Translated from the Spanish by Shelby Vincent
Three narrators from different historical eras are each engaged in preserving history in Carmen Boullosa's Heavens on Earth. As her narrators sense and interact with each other over time and space, Boullosa challenges the primacy of recorded history and asserts literature and language's power to transcend the barriers of time and space in vivid, urgent prose.
Publication Date: October 10, 2017
From Carmen Boullosa, winner of Mexico’s prestigious Xavier Villaurrutia Award, comes Heavens on Earth, a testament to the power of the written word in transcending political, racial, and cultural barriers to create and preserve history. Lear, officially known as 24, lives in L’Atlàntide, a utopian post-apocalyptic society placing increasing limits on the use of language. Steadfast in her resistance to new regulations and pressure to conform, Lear continues to transcribe the writings of Don Hernando, a 16th century Indian priest, and of Estela in the 20th century, an early translator of Don Hernando’s work. Though separated by time and space, Lear and Estela find strength in Hernando’s words, ultimately rebelling against their respective societies in a struggle for remembrance.
Cloud Atlas meets Savage Detectives in Carmen Boullosa’s Heavens on Earth as three narratives thread together in a captivating exploration of memory, language, and humanity.
“[Boullosa] is witty, wacky, iconoclastic, post-modern and thoroughly original.” —The Modern Novel blog
“Mexico’s best woman writer.” —Roberto Bolaño
“A luminous writer . . . Boullosa is a masterful spinner of the fantastic.” —Miami Herald
“Carmen Boullosa writes with a heart-stopping command of language.” —Alma Guillermoprieto
“I don’t think there’s a writer with more variety in themes and focuses in his or her writing. . . . The style and range of Carmen Boullosa is unique for its versatility and its enormous courage.” —Juan Villoro
” . . . a cross between W. G. Sebald and Gabriel García Márquez.” —El País
“The world of Carmen Boullosa is revealed as a sui generis form weathering the storms of history.” —Letras Libres
“Carmen Boullosa is, in my opinion, a true master.” —Alvaro Mutis, author of The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll
“The book occupies a Borgesian tradition in which possible and impossible exist simultaneously in one text.” —John Trefry, Full Stop
“Read Boullosa because she is a masterful commander of fantastic language.” —M. Bartley Seigel, Words Without Borders
Today my name is Lear. Unfortunate circumstances forced me to abandon the one I was using before. The people of my community call each other by number. But I can’t even conceive of myself without a name. I even baptized everyone else in L’Atlàntide—Italia, Evelina, Salomé, Ulises, Jeremías….
I don’t know who my parents were because I was conceived in a test tube and was raised in the Conformación (the first stage is The Cradle and the second is the Image Receptor). I can’t explain my existence in the same way men did in the time of History—for even though dust you are, Lear, to dust you will not return.i But I found a connection to the ashes of earlier times through my work as an archeologist. I’m the only one in my community who does this kind of work, not to mention the only one among the living who stops to think about the mother and father she doesn’t have. Through my work, I connect with, and try to recreate, our ancestors. But this gets me into serious trouble because everybody else in L’Atlàntide wants to deny that we are descendants of the men from the time of History.
I work in the Center for Research because, even though memory and remembering are currently disdained in our community, this institution preserves memory. Whenever I find something I want to keep safe, I leave it here in the hopes that one day it will recover its original form. I also do my writing here in order to safeguard it. Instead of using papyrus or paper, a quill, fountain pen, pencil, ballpoint pen, typewriter, computer, or chisel and stone, I use the writing instrument of my people and my thoughts glide through space without leaving a physical trace of the rhythm, sound, or shape of the words. But my thoughts won’t be inscribed in books, as they would have been in the time of Time, in the time of History. Instead of being written in ink on pages that turn and are bound by thread or glue, my words will assume their truest, most accurate form. No light will touch them, nor will ink or heat stain any surface. Stripped of physical form, they will keep watch over the Center for Research. And despite their advanced form, their subject runs backward, in a counterclockwise direction—in direct opposition to the normal order of things. While I bow to the past, the rest of L’Atlàntide stands on tiptoe reaching for and trying to hold onto the perpetual present in the hopes of recreating the sublime Natural world that the men from the time of History destroyed. I, on the other hand, remember them, talk to them, and describe our world for them:
We live suspended in the upper atmosphere of the Earth, far enough away to avoid the radiation, the ruins and destruction, and the sandstorms and toxic storm clouds that cover the surface. I like to think we established L’Atlàntide here, in this way, for aesthetic reasons— beauty rules our colony and to my constant delight our rooms are transparent. We’ve learned to appreciate the beauty of the light and dark, the clouds, the moon, and the stars. Given the abundance of waste and rubbish that covers the surface of the Earth, we have, by consensus, decided not to add anything to the cemetery of things.
As the lords and masters of the air, we’ve achieved more control over this element than the men from the time of History ever did. Although they figured out how to endow a disembodied piece of plastic with a relative degree of intelligence, we’ve been able to use the components of the atmosphere to build our houses and guarantee our survival. Our dwellings are made of air—air that impedes the entrance of air and never lets in either heat or cold. Solid air— an invisible material without substance or physical form—that tempers and attenuates the strength of the winds. Even our clothes are made of air—we wrap ourselves with it whenever we leave the transparent walls of L’Atlàntide. Our tools are made of air. Everything here is made of air. Even the Center that safeguards my writing is made of air (or you could say it’s made out of a transparent material like glass, except that it’s not solid).
In our world, air is the element that propels us, supports us, elevates us, and protects us. In our creation myth air conquered the sun—air ripped off man’s overcoat, stripped him bare, and mastered him. Air—the wild element that we domesticated in our sphere—flows in a filthy current over the surface of the Earth. Whirlwinds, hurricanes, cyclones, and tornados—often so dense with dust and rubbish that the sun can’t get through to touch the ground or the water— unleash an uncontrollable rage over the empty planet. There, too, the wind conquered the sun— this is the Age of Air. Enveloped in a whirlwind, the Earth wears a tattered outfit that no longer has a skirt, bib, stockings, or hat to go with it. The torn dress is adorned with the rubbish that the wicked weather has bestowed on it.
Our home, however, is an Earthly Paradise (like the one inhabited by the first man and woman in the Bible legend), but a paradise without vegetation, suspended in the middle of the sky. We live in an enormous, transparent, flattened sphere that doesn’t have visible walls or floors and was built without mortar, cement, stone, or brick. It’s the exact opposite of a house, castle, or cave. We don’t have things, nor do we use or make things. All we have is water.
Even though I study the past and I write in order to be faithful to the past, my connection to the past doesn’t mean I’m disconnected from the present. The fact that I do historical research doesn’t mean that I collect unnecessary or dangerous material and it doesn’t mean that I don’t dream about the future. Most people in L’Atlàntide think we should only be concerned with the present and the future. In fact, they think we have to forget the past completely because it was merely a lesson in errors—a lesson on how to destroy the Natural World. If it’s true, as they say, that we only need to focus on the present and the future—and if we erase the past completely like they want us to do—Time, or what we know as such, would dissolve. We would float in an amorphous mass where there isn’t a place for Time. The proposed reform—calling for total oblivion—means that we would lose conscious awareness, we would lose everything it means to be human. But what if we didn’t lose consciousness? What if consciousness left us instead and closed the doorway to the imagination? What kind of future would we have? Do we have another door to the future? To be able to imagine we have to remember, we have to listen to the voice of memory. That’s what I think anyway.
We’ve managed to overcome sickness and old age and it’s been a long time since any of us has known death. But memory must play the same role for us as it did for the Ancients, our predecessors—the men from the time of History who once inhabited the Earth. If we forget everything, we would lose the thread of life—the clouds would no longer strike us as beautiful; neither the light of the sun, nor the play of the shadows in winter, nor the beauty of the flower would have any weapons that could touch us. But our thinning hair couldn’t even reach our ears and there would be no way for us to convincingly imitate beasts because Mother Nature couldn’t protect us.
This belief that I profess like a proselytizing preacher is not shared by anyone else in L’Atlàntide. They say we should break all ties with the time of men. But didn’t we baptize our colony “L’Atlàntide” in honor of those we’ve condemned to oblivion? The name itself invokes the time of History. Of course, now nobody ever even mentions the origin of our colony’s name. Nobody remembers the continent submerged under the sea with its grove of golden oranges and orichalcum (the red mineral that Atlantis dragged down when it disappeared). Nobody ever talks about those who dreamed of Atlantis, those who described it, or those who swore to have seen it. The people of L’Atlàntide want to bury the memory of those who preceded us and justify this desire by saying that all their knowledge and actions only brought destruction, and that we, the survivors, must run from it. However, everything we do is somehow related to the civilization that existed in the time of History. The survivors don’t care anymore that the name of our colony—“L’Atlàntide”—retains both the Catalan accent and the French ending. It doesn’t matter to them that words are gradually losing meaning because they’re busy inventing a communication code that won’t use words. I try to tell them that any code will allude to the past, to History. The disadvantage of a new code is that it will be maimed and, thus, useless from the beginning. Not only will this wordless new code limit our ability to imagine, it will also reduce the number of our imaginings. I’ll admit that language was maimed too—as my favorite poet, Álvaro Mutis, wrote: “words are, already, in and of themselves tricks—traps that mask, conceal, and bury the framework of our dreams and truths—all marked by the sign of the incommunicable.”ii But at least language had the power to invoke the memory of other times and imaginings, and all that was, by the arbitrary law of reality, impossible.
Anyway, returning to our bond with the men from the time of History—didn’t we leave their waste on the Earth so that we wouldn’t forget? Except for what was necessary to recreate the gardens, we haven’t removed any of their trash or debris. Instead, we’ve preserved them as a monument to foolishness and mismanagement. But why should we hold onto their mistakes and deny ourselves their greatest treasure? If we do, then we’ll forget the symbolism behind the junkyard of trash and debris and imagine that the Earth was never any different than it is today.
Right now the community is only interested in forgetting the past and imposing a communication code that will nullify language. But eventually things will get better. One day we’ll understand that to remember is to survive. Then language will regain its proper place and the memorious will be the soul of L’Atlàntide. Once again we’ll hear the Laughter and fear the darkness. Then, my ethereal “writings” will turn into books. And I won’t change my name anymore—I won’t call myself Lear today and then Clelia or El Príncipe tomorrow. Then, I won’t be able to maintain this blindness that can’t distinguish the wolf from the lamb.
For now, I’ll write even though there isn’t anyone who can read what I’ve written unless they’re willing to travel back in time to learn the language—back to the time of History when humans lived in nontransparent houses cemented to the ground, surrounded by things. This will happen only when L’Atlàntide surrenders to the power of Nemesis.
I respect the past because I remember. But I don’t do so blindly; remembering the men from the time of History doesn’t mean singing their praises, lamenting their demise, or exalting ourselves. I remember them by writing for them, even though they don’t know it because they destroyed themselves. Remembering doesn’t make me a doe-eyed optimist or a slave to the past. I remember in order to stir my imagination and sharpen fantasy’s penetrating point.
My archeological work involves the recovery of books and manuscripts. I’m not interested in salvaging other objects—I don’t look for memories in things anymore—and it’s been centuries now since I’ve recovered anything other than a book. The works of art that had any value on Earth remain intact under an air-bubble connected to the surface that we call Das Menschen Museum, or the Museum of Man. But I don’t think anyone ever visits it. Sometimes when I remember the atmosphere burning, I think I feel what they used to call “melancholy.” But I’ve had enough of the sad, cadaverous footprints of things—dirtying the bottoms of the seas and lakes, the water of the rivers, and the surface of the Earth—dancing a macabre dance in cyclones full of man-made things.
So why books? I work with books because they survive across time. From the moment a book is written, it begins to interact with the past and the future. Books have always been the memory of other times—those that have been, those that will be, those that couldn’t be, or can’t be, or that should have been. L’Atlàntide, on the other hand, survives because the community is determined to hold tight to an isolated moment floating in stagnant waters that repel death.
I’m writing these notes before I begin to paleograph and annotate my most recent discovery—a manuscript I found in the Library of the College of México. It’s not that I’m particularly interested in México. I don’t “believe in you,” México, as a hair-gelled poet once regrettably sang out. No, I don’t believe in you. On the other hand, I don’t see any reason to attack a place, ripping it up as if it weren’t a part of the Earth. I might not believe in you, México, but I do love you—in the way Ramón López Velarde, our divine national poet, wrote: “not the myth / but your communion bread of truth / as I love the young girl who leans over the rails / blouse buttoned up to her ears / skirt touching her delicate ankles.”
This is not the first time I’ve discovered material for my work at this site, but I’ve also searched many other places. Discounting Sevilla (with which I have a history that I’ve promised myself not to write about here because if I start, there’s no stopping me), I’ve found important texts in the British Library, in the national libraries of Madrid, Bogotá, Paris, México, and in the John Carter Brown Library; not to mention those of the Arab world, Russia, China, India, and Tibet. I rarely work at the Library of Congress in Washington, however, because they left all their material in the form of microfilm (MF) inside a closed capsule that survived the chains of explosions. I don’t work with MF because it’s not my field of expertise. Those who work with MF work with intact objects. As an archeologist, I work with dust and extremely small particles, with the memory hidden in the material. In my work, I use particle magnetizers that I won’t describe here because they’re invisible like the memories they recover, and also because this is not the place to explain the science or the knowledge of my colony. Our science can’t really be communicated in words anyway.
The only memory of the past L’Atlàntide wants to preserve is that the men from the time of History destroyed the Natural World and caused their own extinction. The people in charge of MF have let themselves be convinced that all the teachings of the past are destructive and so now nobody works with microfilm anymore. Fortunately, before they adopted this position, they translated the MF into our reading code, the result of which is a basic universal library of two thousand volumes. According to those in charge, the men from the time of History selected these two thousand titles themselves, so even though the people in charge of MF are complete idiots, it’s not fair to blame them for the barbaric selection criteria. The Bible and the Koran were at the top of the list, followed by fifteen encyclopediae considered to be essential and some twenty scientific books, including Newton’s Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica, Goethe’s Theory of Colors, and Leonardo da Vinci’s papers on the behavior of water in which he asserts that the surface of the moon and the center of the earth are made of water. Next come the classics, among which we do not find Quevedo, Plato’s Dialogues, The Iliad, or The Odyssey; but instead Gone with the Wind, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and an atrocity titled Jonathan Livingston Seagull. These are followed by another three hundred similar horrors, but no Faulkner or Rubén Darío. There are two frivolous, sentimental novels by Clauren, but nothing by Chekhov. On the list we find everything (even to the last word) written by Madame de Staël, but not a single word by Chateaubriand, Voltaire, or Rousseau. Having mentioned all these, I shouldn’t feel the need to add anything else, but I don’t want omit other examples. They didn’t save any part of One Thousand and One Nights other than some frankly horrific versions of a single story incorporated into sketchy anthologies, such as The One Hundred Best Erotic Stories and Adultery and Misogyny in Literature. The selection doesn’t have a leg to stand on; the entire list is vile and plain nonsense. Nothing can be said in its defense; it speaks for itself. But, there’s no reason for me to speak badly of it. After all, I dedicated myself to archeology because of my contact with this list—an annotated translation of Juvenal led me to Quevedo and Bocaccio took me to Homer, though sometimes I walked hand in hand with less reliable tutors, such as an insignificant little writer who led me to Octavio Paz.
Carmen Boullosa is one of Mexico's leading novelists, poets, and playwrights. She has published over a dozen novels, two of which were designated the Best Novel Published in Mexico by the prestigious magazine Reforma—her second novel, Before, also won the renowned Xavier Villaurrutia Prize for Best Mexican Novel; and her novel La otra mano de Lepanto was also selected as one of the Top 100 Novels Published in Spanish in the past 25 years. Her most recent novel, Texas: The Great Theft won the 2014 Typographical Era Translation Award, was shortlisted for the 2015 PEN Translation Award, and has been nominated for the 2015 International Dublin Literary Award. Boullosa has received numerous prizes and honors, including a Guggenheim fellowship. Also a poet, playwright, essayist, and cultural critic, Boullosa is a Distinguished Lecturer at City College of New York, and her books have been translated into Italian, Dutch, German, French, Portuguese, Chinese, and Russian. Shelby Vincent received her PhD in Literary Translation from the University of Texas at Dallas's School of Arts and Humanities in 2015. She is currently translating another of Boullosa's novels entitled The Virgin and the Violin, which is loosely based on the female Renaissance artist Sofonisba Anguissola, and which Deep Vellum will publish in 2018.