Three Novels in Pepper Marinade

The Nocilla Trilogy

by Agustín Fernández Mallo, translated from the Spanish by Thomas Bunstead
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 3 volumes, 525 pp., $30.00 (paper)
Agustín Fernández Mallo
Agustín Fernández Mallo; drawing by Tom Bachtell

The Spanish poet and novelist Agustín Fernández Mallo’s Nocilla Trilogy had its origins, the reader is informed in a note appended to Nocilla Dream (the first in the series), in the confluence of three seemingly unconnected trouvailles. The first was an article by Charlie LeDuff in The New York Times on May 18, 2004, about “the loneliest road in America,” US 50, which runs through the Nevada desert from Ely to Carson City. “There is a whorehouse, at each end,” LeDuff reports in his article, “and not much company in between.” But in a stand of cottonwoods along the highway outside Middlegate, 110 miles east of Carson City, is a tree that bears the most peculiar of fruits: its branches are draped with hundreds of items of footwear, ranging from work boots to snorkeling flippers.

The first pair of shoes deposited in its branches, LeDuff learns from a Middlegate bar owner, was hurled there in anger some twenty years earlier in the course of a quarrel between a honeymooning couple who had just gotten married in Reno. Their row erupted, as they set up camp beneath the tree, because she had lost a chunk of their savings playing the slot machines the night before, and when, fed up with his complaints, she threatened to walk back to Utah, he threw her shoes into the tree, told her to make her journey barefoot, and drove off to Middlegate to nurse his grievances over a beer. On his return several hours later, they patched things up, and he contributed a pair of his own shoes to what would become known as the Shoe Tree. A year later they were back with their baby, and a pair of the infant’s booties were added as well.

The second trouvaille was Mallo’s discovery on a sugar packet in a Chinese restaurant of two lines from W.B. Yeats’s “Easter 1916”: “All changed, changed utterly:/A terrible beauty is born.” And the third was that on that same day Mallo happened to hear a 1982 song by the Spanish punk rock group Siniestro Total (Total Write-Off) called “Nocilla, qué Merendilla!” (“Nutella, What a Great Snack!”). This song lasts only ninety-five seconds and consists principally of a Johnny Rotten–style rendition of its title, presumably taken from some Nocilla marketing campaign, over thrashing guitars and drums.

The links between the article, the Yeats quote, and the Siniestro Total song are not developed further, nor do they need to be: for Mallo is here advertising his openness to contingency; all that matters is his willingness to allow the “collective fiction” of “reality” (to use his terms and scare quotes) to merge and mingle with his own “personal fiction” to create the “docu-fiction” that is the Nocilla Project. This project resulted not only in the three novels of The Nocilla Trilogy (published…

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