A book is vegetal: The Geography of Rebels Trilogy by Maria Gabriela Llansol

I then began to accumulate memories of the future in a great meditation

There was a woman named Maria Gabriela Llansol, born in Lisbon who, fleeing repression in her native country, put herself into exile in Belgium for twenty years before returning to Portugal to settle in Sintra for the rest of her life. She was a writer when she arrived in Belgium, but it was during her time there in that, in an environment more conducive to her creative energies, writing began to flow in earnest—that she became as she might have preferred to say, a “writing being,”[i] for hers is a deeply inhabited landscape within which an experience of living with the wisdom of the past and the present, of human, animal and plant life alike, is not only possible but necessary.

Despite a relatively late start, Llansol would go on to have an extraordinarily prolific career as an author and translator. At the time of her death at the age of seventy-six in 2008, she left twenty-seven published books and more than seventy notebooks. Her singular style won her significant critical praise, but she was not expecting her books to attract a general audience. Like the many religious, historical and literary figures who move through her texts, she was writing with the belief that her work would outlive her. And so it has, for those who venture into her literary universe are unlikely to emerge unchanged. But it is a journey that requires one to have a willingness to suspend expectations of how a work of fiction should behave. In fact, Llansol herself would reject the notion that her books are fiction at all:

I don’t see them that way. Because they are really books based on a reality that is lived, that is an intimate observation of my journey as a body, as a person. So even though they usually call it fiction, I think this writing isn’t fiction. It is the product of an experience that deepens, a textual conveyance of the worlds I traverse.[ii]

This understanding encourages an engagement with her novels, then, as one might with mystical and philosophical writings that are continually questioning, seeking and exploring relationships where the “characters” and the authorial voice is a shifting, open plain—sometimes specified, other times formless and timeless. Conventions of spatial and temporal continuity have their own logic. And yet, as one catches the rhythm and flow, a beautiful, sensitive, otherworldly narrative unfolds.

The first opportunity English language readers have had to enter Llansol’s expansive world came with the 2018 release The Geography of Rebels Trilogy from Deep Vellum in Audrey Young’s translation. Comprised of three linked novellas, The Book of Communities, The Remaining Life and In the House of July & August, these works can be considered as a clear directional shift away from the two short story collections she had already published and later dismissed as too conventional. They are connected thematically, with recurring personages, the first two texts perhaps to a greater extent than the third, but for Llansol all her books draw on her own earlier books as well as the writers, texts, conversations and experiences that she has along the way. She sees writing as a cumulative process, one in which “characters” appear and reappear, situations recur and take on new realities, while at the centre of it all is the being, the writing being, who is “giving them a certain response.”[iii] As such, perspectives shift, moving in and out of a first person voice that may or may not identify itself in a fragmented narrative that often drops off mid-sentence or rearranges itself on the page into narrow columns. Yet although it may sound unlikely, Llansol’s work is enveloping, atmospheric and not difficult to read if one respects the fact that it is not prescriptive in nature, but rather inquisitive and exploratory.

The Book of Communities opens with the description of a woman who “did not want children from her womb” and instead invited men to bring their children to be educated. While the children recite passages from the writings of Saint John of the Cross she entertains dreams of the discalced Carmelite himself. This woman initially echoes Llansol who, upon moving to Belgium, taught in a community school for international students, but she introduces herself as Ana del Mercado y Peñalosa, a historical figure who was a friend and benefactress of Saint John of the Cross. Little detail is known about her life, so into this open biographical space blossoms an enigmatic, inspirational and generative female force whose presence provides a continuity to the trilogy, at times central to the “action,” at other times observing, and eventually seemingly directing activities from afar. Ana de Peñalosa is regularly described as being near the end of her life, at one point she appears to die and be immediately reborn, but it begins to seem that she is simply ageless. Yet, although death is spoken of with some fear, “living” and “dead” have no permanent meaning in this world. Many of the characters or “figures” that populate these novels are long dead, often by centuries or not yet born at the time in which the work is loosely set—the years of the Counter Reformation. But, of course, this trilogy exists on its own plane of reality, one in which writing is the vital and essential metaphysical force that unites disparate strands to form images with their own unique integrity.

The work proceeds through a series of often strange or surreal scenes or vignettes. Some are centred around a house that belongs to (or is dreamed into existence by) Ana de Peñalosa in a remote, forested area near a river. Others depict periods of exile or wandering. A number of controversial, even heretical, figures are drawn into the narrative, including John of the Cross, the radical Protestant Thomas Müntzer, Friedrich Nietzsche, 13th century mystic Hadewijch, Meister Eckhart, Lorenzo de Medici and many more. Animals and plants are also an important part of the community that arises—in their own right and as forms that human characters assume permanently or in passing. John and Thomas Müntzer are especially dear to Ana de Peñalosa; she refers to them as her sons. The latter, beheaded in 1525 for his role in the German Peasant Revolt, carries his head with him throughout. Nietzsche, who arrives first in correspondence before appearing in person, also briefly in child-like form, will spend more of his time alone in his room writing and is the third key figure, while the fourth, Hadewijch, the Flemish Christian Beguine known for her ecstatic poetry, appears midway through the trilogy and becomes more influential as the work progresses.

The third novella, In the House of July & August, maintains a somewhat more consistent narrative. It is revolves around an imagined community of Beguines, the Christian lay order of women who dedicated themselves to a life of devotion and service, which includes among their number, Hadewijch. Ana de Peñalosa appears to have a role directing the lives of this group along with a man referred to as Luis M. He is not further identified, but early in The Book of Communities, Ana de Peñalosa speaks of a brother-in-law, Don Luis del Mercado who entrusted her with care of her niece Inés, so there may be a nod toward the historical Ana here. Nonetheless, Luis has a cryptic relationship to these women that may extend to the physical. There is a deeply sensual feminine aspect to this community who are known as The Ladies of Complete Love.

If the act of writing and the book have an existential quality in the first two books of The Geography of Rebels, both become somewhat more concrete in the third as the focus turns to the printing and production of texts and the acquisition of manuscripts. One of the beguines, Marguerite, is sent to study in the house of Christophe Plantin, the French printer and book publisher who lived and worked in Antwerp. The craft becomes a vocation for herself and some of her sisters until she is sent on a dream-like mission to locate the headwaters of the Tigris and the Euphrates where she is to obtain an important document. Meanwhile her dearest companion, Eleanor, is sent Portugal to work as a gardener before being taken to Lisbon to live in a convent where she discovers a library containing forbidden books. Communications between Marguerite and Eleanor form much of the narrative, however, this is still a world featuring enigmatic beings, neither living nor dead, consultations with ancient and arcane knowledge and an intense connection to rivers. In other words, well within Llansol’s expansive, yet self-contained universe—one that is, as ever, realized through a living text, carried on a breath and a prayer.

Maria Gabriela Llansol’s works may defy easy summary or classification, but they are born of a deep personal engagement with the philosophers, authors and spiritual figures who emerge in her writings. There are few writers to whom she can be meaningfully compared, Clarice Lispector and Fernando Pessoa possibly being the most immediate, but hers was a life-long project with a distinct and innovative continuity running from book to book that allowed her to chart a literary cartography all her own. One can only hope that this luminous trilogy will be followed by further opportunities for English language readers to explore Llansol’s oeuvre.

The Geography of Rebels: The Book of Communities, The Remaining Life and In the House of July & August by Maria Gabriela Llansol is translated by Audrey Young with an Introduction by Gonçalo M. Tavares and an Afterword by Benjamin Moser, and published by Deep Vellum.

[i] This is from a transcript of a radio interview with Llansol recorded in 1997 at the time of the release of her Inquérito às Quatro Confidências: Diary III, translated by Audrey Young and reproduced with permission on Anthony’s excellent site Times Flow Stemmed. Llansol discusses her own unique perspective on the nature of her writing.
[ii] Ibid.
[iii] Ibid.