The theatre of the desert: Pierre Senges’ Falstaff: Apotheosis and Geometry in the Dust

Last week, as I sought a text to carry me across the midnight bridge between decades, I wanted something that might, even for a moment, turn the world on its head. What could, I wondered, be more fitting than to spend New Year’s Eve and the following day in the company of Pierre Senges. After all, a voyage with the French writer, be it brief or extended, is guaranteed to offer a taste of the unexpected. The world he inhabits exists on the edges of maps, in the margins of manuscripts, in the creases between pages, and tucked into the corners of the imagination. If it looks familiar that’s because you have been there, wandered its streets, navigated its seas, crossed its stages. But when you stop to adjust your compass, or try to align yourself with the stars, the needle tends to spin, shudder to a stop, and, then, as soon as you think you know where you are heading, a flood of literary, historical, or starkly contemporary references will slide into the narrative and lead you off track once again. To read Pierre Senges is to embark on an adventure, one that may just as easily take you travelling halfway around the world as stumbling down the block and into the local pub.

Fortunately for me, I had recent translations of two rather different texts by Senges on hand, both translated by his tireless advocate Jacob Siefrig, and published by a couple of inventive small publishers. The first, my New Year’s Eve companion, was the chapbook Falstaff: Apotheosis. Published by Seattle-based Sublunary Editions, a project that began in mid-2019  to produce original literary offerings distributed as a monthly print newsletter, this small, pocket-sized volume marks their first foray into the big world of book publishing on a manageable small scale.

Senges delights in taking characters and themes from literature and history, reimagining  them in terms that stretch from the mildly satirical to the strangely absurd, and then proceeding to fashion tales shot through with sharp, dry humour—one that can, at times, be lost on readers who like their humour to be more, shall we say, in your face. In this regard, Falstaff: Apotheosis, taking as its subject Shakespeare’s most misunderstood minor character, is an ideal bite-sized introduction to his singular style. More than a comic foil, Falstaff is presented as an ingenious master of humiliation as a heroic act. His crowning glory, or apotheosis, is his bold and daring performance of a deceased figure on the battlefield, an act that sets the stage for a treatise on the ethics of playing dead:

To be the master of one’s own death, what a timeless caprice: the trick being to lie down not just any old way, rather to adopt the humble simplicity of the sandbag, or the hieratism of the tree trunk, or the mannerist posture of a hunting dog, or an expressionism inspired by anatomies of past centuries and the bold contrasts of cinematic skills—to breathe out one’s last sigh, but exhale it negligently, instead to opt for the Romanticism of the last and lightest breath, like the breath a child turns on a dandelion. . .

What makes Senges so successful is his language—long winding sentences filled with wise and wonderful imagery, holding fast to a measure of seriousness in the narrative voices he employs.

My into-the-new-year Senges was Geometry in the Dust. Published by the bold, experimental Lawrence, Kansas-based publisher Inside the Castle, this is a longer, more elaborate ruse—a delicious anachronistic tale presented as a report to a desert-bound prince keen to construct a city in his kingdom of sand, from his loyal minister who has been sent on a mission to learn about the features of a real-life city and advise his ruler on what will need to be considered. Echoing the spirit of the travels of Ibn Battuta or Marco Polo, our narrator is attentive but a step out of time, observing the modern metropolis, but not always connecting the dots completely. The result a strangely insightful and original reflection on the nature of the urban landscape.

His observations are often trapped in time. He seeks out the city scribes at one point, hoping to be able to compare his ideas to theirs and finds, rather than rows of copyists at their desks he finds that calligraphers ply their trade by night, running through the darkened streets, clutching paint, hurriedly scrawling messages on walls. The intensity of city life overwhelms him, continually exceeding his expectations, but leading to wonderful portraits as he seeks to describe the indescribable to the sheltered and isolated ruler he serves:

To define a city for you more or less: it’s a danse macabre every single day of the week: it seems to me that the idea of the danse macabre will help you put your finger on what a city is, because it communicates to you a scraping of nail on bone, as well as a gnashing of teeth. The danse tells us all we need to know about the city’s circular nature (not so long ago cities were contained within wooden circles, like certain soft-rind cheeses; although they tried hard to emancipate themselves and go over the walls, they still retain a bit of this roundness: it will be necessary to take this design into consideration)

Yet, even if the noise, chaos and moral loose edges of the city challenge our often judgemental traveller, he is determined to make sense of everything (including the curious cul-de-sac) and advise his prince on the extent to which all architectural, cultural and social intersections should be designed so as to leave nothing to chance. It’s difficult, of course, not to be struck by the degree of hubris driving the ambitions of this desert monarch and his faithful servant, especially on their shifting terrain of sand and dust. But then again, perhaps it is only in the space of pure fancy that the ideal metropolis can exist. Paired with the artist Killoffer’s grotesque depictions of the hectic, congested modern city, Geometry in the Dust offers a fantastic meditation on the impossibility of reducing a concept as complex as the city to a few lines scratched in the dirt.

For a taste of this work and Senges’ inimitable style, see this excerpt from Geometry in the Dust with illustrations by Killoffer at 3:AM Magazine.

Falstaff: Apotheosis and Geometry in the Dust by Pierre Senges are both translated by Jacob Siefrig and published by Sublunary Editions and Inside the Castle respectively.

Truth, lies and wild allegations: The Major Refutation by Pierre Senges

In an age when climate denial, an increasing distrust of immigrants, and the epithet “fake news” dominate the headlines, the eloquent arguments ventured forth in the pages of the anonymous Refutatio major (c. 1517–1525) play neatly against the public consciousness, reminding us that, even now, there are still those who hold to a view that the world is flat and the moon landings were fabricated. But none of our contemporary doubters or conspiracy theorists who peddle their “alternate facts” would deny the existence of the New World. . . However, in the decades that followed Christopher Columbus’ fated encounter with a land mass that would soon turn long held assumptions about the geographical reality of the world on their heads, what sort of skeptics might have crawled out of the woodwork?

Well, if you accept the premise French author and playwright, Pierre Senges, is prepared to offer alongside his spirited “translation” of this curious treatise claimed by no one but attributed to Antonio de Guevara, we have a Renaissance-era Latin document that purports to call into question the veracity of the reports, artefacts, and individuals ferried across the ocean from this distant new land by a steady stream of seafaring Spanish and Portuguese adventurers, colonists, and missionaries who have disappeared and reappeared over the watery western horizon since the reported discovery of the Mundus novus. And what an imaginative and persistent defense is waged in this apparent “Epistle to Charles V,” now translated into English by Jacob Siefring as The Major Refutation.

The new world, an enchantment? however when John Day, a good sailor no doubt, but a geographer of little import, announces that somewhere to the west islands have been found where “grass grows,” he is either smirking with deceit, or mocking our rulers, to whom he extends an offer of six square yards of lawn in the guise of a vast kingdom. These men go off into the horizon, where they lose their heads, exert themselves furiously, ravish Indian women, move mountains and entire populations, drown a thousand sailors in their wake, and then come back to us, swearing in magnificent syllables that grass grows on these lands and that in their environs, by the grace of God, rain falls from on high.

Senges is a prolific French writer, but to date little of his work is available in English. With a spirit akin to Borges and Calvino, Senges frequently exploits the possible, potential, and unfinished spaces that exist in history or literature. That porous line between fact and invention is blurred with a nimble oratorical style that lends itself to work with a sharp satirical, critical, and philosophical edge. Throughout the text, the personages and recorded events are real, but it’s the dogged determination to prove that the celebrated New World is an elaborate hoax that forms the heart and soul of this wildly entertaining feat of double imposture.

The magic of The Major Refutation lies in the delight the author (or his surrogate, shall we say) takes in language. The biting, sarcastic humour is infectious. One can imagine our Franciscan chronicler writing with a healthy measure of unholy abandon in this passionate entreaty to Charles V, king and Holy Roman Emperor. Antonio De Guevara (1480–1545), the imagined author of the manuscript at hand, was in truth, no stranger to writing in the voice of another—he infamously penned a text he tried to pass off as original by Marcus Aurelius. Granted free reign he openly attacks anyone, his clerical brethren notwithstanding, who comes within his sights in his effort to prove that the so-called New World is nothing more than a grandly orchestrated act of fraud and collusion. The concessions granted with respect to dominion over the distant vistas fail to impress him:

To the observer, these textual games and universal decrees sitting alongside and contradicting one another, these privileges to a single treasure granted to so many, these supposedly definitive treaties that are deprecated before the year is even up, that manner of signing at just two streets’ remove a couple of decrees that mutually refute one another, all the while perceiving that the world carries on under the weight of such numerous paradoxes, to the solitary witness all of this looks as much like naiveté, as much like a superior ruse. Because to adopt a proprietary attitude towards invisible islands is either proof of blindness, become lately a fashion of the courts & palaces, or it is a deliberate strategy, dictated by the crafty to the envious; to delude the people, it would hence be a question of acting as though the chimerical continents were so valuable they were worth the price of humiliations on their behalf, worth the aristocrats sharing trading posts and territories, like barkers sharing stalls in the marketplace.

With an stirring echo of florid baroque language, The Major Refutation calls in the prominent personages of the day, and implicates the state, merchant bankers, and the Church in the creation and perpetuation of the myth of the new world. Queen Isabella, Columbus’ sponsor, is a favourite suspect to whom the author returns repeatedly. He imagines ingenious means by which the entire enterprise could be facilitated —insisting that once beyond the horizon ships turn south to Cape Verde to hold over before sailing back with gold smuggled out of Spanish coffers and returned again. Of course, the unspoken value of fostering belief in a far off land of untold wealth and opportunity is not lost on him:

The principal reason for the invention of the new world would surely be to send off into the ocean a portion of our great surplus of useless men, who fill our countrysides, our cities, and betwixt the twain our faubourgs, with the speed of a spreading plague. . . . The new world and the enticing advertisements which speak of it so fantastically invite all these beggars & jobless, worthless players to board dinghies, strap a sail to their torso and head due west, without demerit. A steady stream of disfigured men, ugsome-faced knaves and scrawny blackguards have thus quit terra firma, this world for its beyond, in prestigious and ruined galleons.

From the opening “Editor’s Foreword” that places the Refutation into historical context, to the scholarly “Afterword” that vigorously defends the case for Antonio de Guevara, confessor to Charles V, as the probable author while considering less likely alternate candidates, Senges is essentially presenting a carefully designed meditation on the nature of truth—on that which is credible and that which is contrived, on belief and doubt. Selecting de Guevara as his preferred composer, a historical figure with an attempted forgery to his credit, and allowing him to imply that his faith in his own argument is perhaps less than genuine, adds depth to the layers of a deception designed and executed as one thoroughly intelligent and entertaining whole.

Of course, the release of the of “English Version of Refutatio major” in late 2015, ten years after the “original” French version, is especially timely. Conspiracies abound. In saecula saeculorum.

The Major Refutation by Pierre Senges, translated by Jacob Siefring, is published by Contra Mundum Press. And, for the record, the book design and typesetting is exceptional.