Nocilla Lab, Agustín Fernández Mallo (Translated by Thomas Bunstead), Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2019, pp. 192, £12.99

“The fascination of humankind with beaches goes to the heart of a time that has the form of a Rubik’s cube.”

It is difficult to summarize Agustín Fernández Mallo’s Nocilla Lab, or even to put together one’s thoughts about it. Translated from the original Spanish by Thomas Bunstead, Nocilla Lab is the standalone third volume of the Nocilla trilogy – a curious spread- and a work as hard to decipher as the quote above.

Split into three parts, Mallo’s work starts with the chapter “Automatic Search Engine”. We are immediately thrown into an eighty-page sentence, which tells us of the genesis of the Nocilla trilogy. Confined to a bed in Thailand after an accident, the writer begins his work, and takes us through facts and anecdotes at a great speed. While the unusually long sentence flows well, it is of course an exercise for the reader to maintain the rhythm; from Paul Auster, to Coca-Cola and the Movida, Mallo makes the most unlikely connections, as he travels the world, working on a Project of the most mysterious nature. The very long sentence that makes up “Automatic Search Engine” lost me at times, and I often had to go over previous pages to recollect. This means one has to have the energy to follow the stream of ideas, but it also means that one cannot put the book down.

We then move on to “Automatic Engine”, which at first is deceptively breezy. Not only is this part cut into sentences, it is also divided into numbered points, and is much more of a story than the auto-fiction natured first part. The intradiegetic narrator, on a road trip with a female partner in Sardinia, continues to work on a Project. We are led through their daily routine, meals and underwear purchases, thoughts about what joins couples, visions of humankind split into categories. In an enchanting paragraph, Mallo takes us through Galileo’s principle of relativity, demonstrating that the writer and the physicist in him are one. However, just when we thought Mallo was giving us a point-by-point account of his travels with his girlfriend, interspersed with scientific and metaphysical ponderings, the chapter slowly, yet abruptly turns into a horror story. It was indeed unexpected enough to have made read the paragraph of the turning point again, two, three, four times to make sure I had understood correctly. And there the question becomes: who is Agustín Fernández Mallo?

The last part, “Engine Fragments”, begins with a series of scattered ideas that look like typed up notes. “Today I thought about my head being like an empty mop bucket”, the author records, one mental picture among many others, always more unforeseeable as we progress through them. We are then presented with a series of comic strips, where Mallo swims up to an oilrig only to find a disappeared Enrique Vila-Matas, who offers him a cup of Irish coffee. The reader is left as astonished as Mallo’s cartoon alter ego, secluded in the sea with a master of meta-fiction.

Reading Nocilla Lab is an enjoyable challenge, a mental exercise that moves between formats and genres in the most unpredictable ways. The author does not hesitate to mix autobiography with fiction, blurring the lines to many advantages – the delicate element of suspense, scientific explorations, and powerful introspection. The different layers Agustín Fernández Mallo puts together make up a literary experience that will no doubt be an unforgettable one for whoever embarks on this journey. 

Words by Laila Obeidat.

For more information on Nocilla Lab and Agustín Fernández Mallo, visit Fitzcarraldo Editions.

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