on The Journey by Miguel Collazo, translated by David Frye, with an introduction by Yoss

Miguel Collazo’s puzzling, spasmodic novel The Journey (1968) is a multigenerational tale of hapless inhabitants persisting on a strange planet. The novel hopscotches across hundreds of years, yet carries inside it relics of its origins in post-revolutionary Cuba. While this new translation breathes anglicized life into an idiosyncratic work of fiction underappreciated in the U.S., it seems that every washed-out adjective used to describe unconventional fiction of the ’60s (“psychedelic,” “mind-bending,” “hallucinatory”) has been applied to The Journey by critics over time; they show up again in the novel’s new introduction, provided by contemporary Cuban sci-fi author Yoss. A discombobulated novel, Collazo’s next after El libro fantástico de Oaj (1966), it’s certainly experimental and delusive. But these descriptors seem to miss the singular site Collazo and his contemporaries occupied in global, national, and literary chronology.

Publishing his two novels in Cuba not ten years after the Revolution, Collazo helped to seed the burgeoning genre of Cuban science fiction, joining the poet Oscar Hurtado (La ciudad muerta de Korad, 1964), the short-story writer Ángel Arango (Robotomaquia, 1967), and, to lesser extent, the novelist Arnaldo Correa (El primer hombre a Marte, 1967) and the anthologist Rogelio Llopis (editor of Cuentos cubanos de lo fantástico y lo extraordinario, 1968). But the speculative narrative tradition has a long history on the island, as Yoss says elsewhere, “with practitioners as prestigious as Alejo Carpentier, José Lezama Lima, or Virgilio Piñera,” and even an early precursor in Esteban Borrero Echeverría’s fantastical satire “Aventura de las hormigas” (1888). Indeed, this pinnacle of literary output defined the genre’s golden age on the island, before the subsequent Quinquenio Gris (1971–75), a period of five years during which the state formally endorsed socialist realism and revolutionary spy novels became popular. It wouldn’t be until the later 1970s and ’80s, which brought the influence of Soviet-sponsored science fairs and peer-reviewed journals and the spectacle of Cuban cosmonaut Arnaldo Tamayo Méndez’s flight in Soyuz 38, that the next generation of writers returned to science fiction.

But Collazo’s career as one of the genre’s progenitors begins and ends with his two novels, published two years apart, bookending an oeuvre produced during a brief window between social revolution and cultural repression. While he remained artistically active as a professional painter and textile illustrator and also produced scripts for tv and wrote newspaper columns, Collazo never published another work of science fiction, despite bringing some of the genre’s most rewarding—and most challenging—tropes to the island’s late-sixties literary scene.

Like many works of speculative fiction, portions of The Journey’s premise prove exceptionally bizarre. To begin, the ine people inhabit Ambar, their current planet, home to great desert wastes and three gigantic flowers. They broadcast colorful images from their foreheads and sense the energy of others. They dig for machines long buried by their ancestors and cower under the “symbols” that assail them. These symbols define life on Ambar, and they serve a variety of functions: they float overhead in ominous patrol (“The deep, dark sky, without stars or moons, was watched over by roving symbols”), offer recuperative healing (“The men who had been attacked by the flowers were recovering quickly under the protection of the ships and their own symbol”), and even manipulate the material world of the ine (“The vestiges of certain symbols from the planet rose up and formed a house overhead”). But as the Methuselah-like character Bulis puts it, “Without symbols there is liberation.” This proclamation animates the thematic and literal heart of the novel. Some ine seek to free themselves of their symbols. Others, like Vet, seek only to sit and chew leaves, content to crystallize over time. Two other characters, Ates and Bulis, live for a thousand years, only to transform into actual stone, yet retain the ability to communicate with others. Numerous ine forget their names, or where they are, and when. An inventory of these absurd figures could continue for several pages, since The Journey tracks ten generations of ine men—plus offshoots and dead-ends of the lineage—going as far back as the proto-ine, Nur B, who is equal parts mythical patriarch, storied great-grandfather, and—crucially—inventor of the ine’s forgotten technology.

At first glance, it may seem daunting to tackle a novel that follows ten generations of space men on an unforgiving planet. And it certainly is, but not because the burden of genealogy asks readers to map multiplying branches of Nur B’s family tree. On the contrary, tracing Nur B’s descendants proves as straightforward as turning the page, since successors simply pop up, without fanfare, context, or, in some cases, any real introduction. Indeed, in some instances, Nur B’s line proliferates under especially unceremonious circumstances. Early in the novel, Teles (already three generations removed from Nur B), stumbles upon his progeny:

Teles felt that he had stepped on something soft and throbbing; he combed through the leaves: a baby’s wail, plaintive, stifled, so sad! He frantically swept the leaves and sand aside. A tiny hand, soft and damp, clung to his finger.

He lifted the little body. A baby. His son!

Later on, the baby in his arms, he looked out over the infinite expanse of desert. He was alone with an infant he felt obliged to protect and nourish. The sky looked like rain. He sought shelter among the quartz outcrops.

Collazo’s casual cruising through each generation requires the reader to quickly abandon any sentimental attachment to individual ine, and even the ine themselves become confused about who they are and how they’re related. Annoyed with the aforementioned leaf-eater, Teles attempts to clarify the kinship: “Your name is Vet, not Vel. You’re Gorse’s son and Solmes and Arla’s brother. Gorse was Jalno’s brother, Bímer and Beres’s father. And I’m Teles, Bímer’s son; so we’re related. Do you understand?” Vet doesn’t answer, and, like Teles, readers may not emerge completely satisfied from the exchange, but only because the familial uncertainty derives from a larger disorder: the ine’s fundamental lack of societal organization. The absence of these principles for meaning-making prevents the ine from understanding their own situation and dooms them to lives of pointless, fearful meandering. 

Graciously, Collazo provides an outside perspective on Ambar’s odd inhabitants, when an extraterrestrial visitor called Catal, leader of the Ammes, lord of the Ellipse, lands on the planet and encounters Teles. Catal finds himself perplexed by the ine’s unusual speaking habits. Nevertheless, he “quickly comprehended that there was no social order of any sort on this planet, not even the most rudimentary, nor did the ines have the slightest idea what ‘social order’ meant.” Catal deduces that the ine must have descended from a race of beings from another world who colonized Ambar and who suffered collective psychological and physical consequences of the voyage. Moreover, the ine seem to have lost, or never developed, the ability to produce permanent records, since “Teles’s history went back as far as his father: that was all the history he knew or remembered, apart from a few details that had reached him by word of mouth, which he kept stored chaotically in his memory.” Without a conception of social order, the ine possess no means for transmitting information beyond their direct line of reproduction. Only when a few exceptional ine step forward to lead their people can the cycle be broken.

If another trait of successful speculative fiction is the ability to use aliens and robots to provide commentary on social and cultural happenings here on Earth, then The Journey succeeds in several ways. By posing questions about the legitimacy of memory and inherited knowledge, about the consequences of colonization on the colonizers, and about the malleability or persistence of social order, Collazo draws obvious parallels with post-revolutionary Cuba. For, when a cultural revolution or accidental crash landing befalls a people, how do they (re)write their story? How do they understand themselves? Which narratives survive to govern history, and which stories are banished from the telling? For Collazo, the way forward involves an intense fixation on the origin, existence, and eschatology of the disoriented ine, and the emergence of liberators from among the ine ranks.

As it turns out, Teles’s son, Cásel (the child discovered literally underfoot by his father), becomes the first of these prophetic figures as he performs miracles for his people (“Pearlescent spheres sprang from Cásel’s hands and he set them moving with his will, making them form complicated systems in the air”) and attracts a crowd of adherents: “wherever he stopped to rest the men made themselves comfortable, watched his forehead, and awaited his wonders.” But more importantly, Cásel can remember his ancestors. He has clear visions and recollections of interactions between Nur B and his son, Jalno, events he couldn’t possibly have witnessed. This supernatural tether to the origin provides Cásel an incomparable perspective on himself, his people, and his planet. The second savior is Cásel’s great-great-grandson, Cadars (eight generations removed from Nur B), who speaks in parables and likewise attracts an apostolic following. Cadars is a sort of anti-Cásel, in that he’s less concerned with the source, and intently focused on the future. Whereas Cásel receives visions of life, Cadars imagines “a new kind of death . . . a strange and cruel way of dying.” But his purview is not simply the passing of an individual ine, or even the extinction of his line; Cadars prognosticates the cessation of the ine altogether. “Man, as they knew man, had an end. Not on this planet, Cadars had explained, but far away, very far, in some distant space. Cadars called this ‘the Journey to the unknown symbol,’ or simply: ‘the Journey.’ ” Whether an interplanetary migration, an expedition across a hostile planet, or an inner investigation of the soul, Collazo’s ine finally find direction—and meaning—in their pursuit of a shared outcome, a collective consciousness that had previously escaped them.

While uniquely situated within Cuban letters and the era’s international politics, The Journey’s certainly not alone in the universe. The novel’s arching metanarrative is vaguely reminiscent of Donald Barthelme’s early fiction, most closely The Dead Father (1975), with its archetypal characters and predominance of thematic exploration over anything construing a coherent plot. But nearer parallels can be found in other media of the era, particularly in the lower-brow, illustrated arts. For example, The Journey’s scattershot plot resembles the disjointed storytelling of Richard Corben’s Den saga, which whiplashes between befuddled fornication and panels of fast action (though Collazo’s novel contains abundant procreation, there’s nearly zero explicitly sexual content). The character of Den originated in Neverwhere (1968), an animated short, but his storyline found extended life in the pages of Heavy Metal magazine throughout the 1970s, appearing next to the bright landscapes of new planets illustrated by Moebius, which could easily depict Ambar and its inhabitants. Comparisons to comics and cartoons from the time may seem superficial, were it not for Collazo’s training as a visual artist. And the tone and tenor of Ambar closely resembles the otherworldly weirdness of Ralph Bakshi’s post-apocalyptic Wizards (1977), with its strange juxtaposition of fantasy creatures who wield advanced technology and magic. And one can envision the bumbling ine as similar to the bulbous, monochrome brigands who roam the desert wastes in The Thief and the Cobbler (1992), an animated feature undertaken by Canadian-British filmmaker Richard Williams four years before The Journey’s original publication in Cuba, but which wouldn’t see fruition until three decades later. 

If there’s anything to prevent readers from becoming immersed in Collazo’s destabilizing prose, it’s one major and perhaps two minor concerns. First, The Journey is just blatantly, hopelessly sexist. It is perhaps no more so than other fiction of the time, but that doesn’t warrant excusal. Women characters are feisty, sexualized companions at best, and sidelined, sexualized accessories to the men at worst. For a story obsessed with reproduction, there’s a conspicuous lack of mothers, not to mention any matriarchs. To that aspect of the novel, and others like it: good riddance. Secondly, critics have insisted The Journey falls squarely into sci-fi, even if its concerns with societal order (or lack thereof) place it closer to the social and behavioral science end of the spectrum, and further from the “hard sci-fi” of interstellar propulsion and planetary terraforming. There’s a case to be made that much of the novel’s supernatural mechanics and funny, inconsistent phenomena derive from conventions of fantasy, but that may be pedantic nitpicking. A final complaint is that this English translation of The Journey is available only in eBook format, for now. This is a shame, since it’s the kind of novel you expect to discover stuffed into the back of a used bookstore’s dusty sci-fi shelves between Choose Your Own Adventure titles, its trippy cover art both abstract and promising. The kind of unexpected treasure a reader might decide to purchase only after flipping through its pages and, landing on the last utterance of the final page, find it amusing that an unknown author chose to conclude his second novel and, unbeknownst to them, his literary career, with the enigmatic utterance “The Journey has begun.”

 

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New York: Restless, 2020. 224 pp. $14.99, eBook.

 

Diego Báez is a writer, educator, and abolitionist. He is the recipient of fellowships from CantoMundo, the Surge Institute, and the Incubator for Community Engaged Poets at the Poetry Foundation. He writes regularly for Booklist, and his poetry and other reviews have appeared in The Acentos Review, The Rumpus, and The Los Angeles Review. He serves on the boards of the National Book Critics Circle and the International David Foster Wallace Society. He lives in Chicago and teaches at the City Colleges.