‘The Red Album’ by Stephen Collis

Book Reviews

The Red Album coverReviewed by Keith Cadieux

Established poet and critic Stephen Collis ventures into new territory with his first novel, The Red Album, a complex meditation and dissection of authorship, textual authority and the truth (or lack thereof) within history and memory.

In terms of categorization, The Red Album qualifies as an epistolary novel; rather than a straightforward narrative, the novel consists of a number of collected documents. The overarching narrative is compiled from a novella, two critical essays, a filmography, a film treatment, and two poems. Each of these pieces allude to or indirectly refer to a lost epic poem called El Album Rojo, or The Red Album, by revolutionary poet Ramon Fernandez, supposedly executed during the Spanish Civil War.

In the novel’s introduction, Collis (or at least the fictionalized character named Stephen Collis) explains that the main narrative, entitled “Narración,” was sent to him as a PDF file by a poet friend named Alfred Noyes. Noyes supposedly received the manuscript from another writer, Gloria Personne, who has since disappeared. In a collaborative effort, Collis and Noyes have edited and annotated Personne’s novella. This introduction, though, is the first fiction, setting the reader up for the kind of active reading and elaborate detective work that will be required to make sense of the various texts.

As if these multiple layers of authors and editors weren’t enough to signal to the reader that the following documents may not be entirely reliable, Collis explains that chapter 10 of the novella is missing. Instead, there is a lengthy footnote where Noyes and Collis assume and extrapolate just what might have happened in this missing section. This use of annotations is reminiscent of Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire, where the actual narrative focus is on the figure writing the annotations, rather than the text being annotated.

Personne’s manuscript is the longest document and tells the story of Dio, the estranged nephew of the revolutionary Spanish poet already mentioned, Ramon Fernandez. Dio lives in South America, though the family traces its roots back to Spain. While still a teenager, Dio’s father Ignacio was sent to live in South America in order to protect him from the unstable situation in Spain. Dio has never heard of this uncle who was such a prominent revolutionary figure. Ramon Fernandez’s bones have been discovered in a mass grave and Dio has been asked by the Department of Historical Memory to attend a funeral ceremony for his famous uncle.

The other major documents here include an essay by Alfred Noyes, another by Stephen Collis, and a film treatment by an enigmatic filmmaker mentioned in Personne’s novella named Eliastrel. The would-be film is about teenage girls who have the power to change anything they touch and the various world governments’ attempts to convince these girls that they aren’t actually capable of anything. Here we see some influence from Stephen Collis’s (the real one) career as a political activist, particularly his work involving the Occupy Movement.

But all the while the reader is constantly reminded of the possibility that nothing related here is actually true. One of the footnotes seeks to “remind the reader again, though, that this is all pure speculation. An attempt to conjure something that is completely lost, but the absence of which beckons and fires the imagination. How badly we want completion! The tying together of loose ends. The reconciliation of accounts. We are rarely so lucky.” Indeed, this seems to be the whole point of the novel — though readers are sure to strive to make sense of all of these threads, to tie them neatly together, the reality may be that they just don’t actually add up. But it’s our attempts to do this that bring the narrative to life.

For all the talk of Ramon Fernandez’s poetry and influence on Spanish culture, there are only a few snippets and scattered lines of his poetry given here. Alfred Noyes is meant to be the leading authority on Ramon Fernandez’s poetry, having translated the only poem of his that has survived. But Noyes seems to be a pen name of Collis’s (BookThug has published two books of poetry by Noyes, one of them being a supposed translation of Fernandez called The Quixote Variations, but BookThug is also the publisher of this novel… coincidence?), who seems to have woven quite an elaborate web in order to make it appear that Ramon Fernandez is an historical figure, and that the study of whom is a popular critical pursuit. But at the same time, one of the essays in the novel notes that Fernandez’s is “a work which we will never really be able to read.”

The Red Album is not an easy, casual summer read but that is not to say that it isn’t intriguing. It is a definite challenge, requiring very meticulous attention from its readers, and likely at least one re-reading. It isn’t the kind of book one reads for fun, but it is ultimately rewarding, even if only for its thought provoking challenge of the possibility of finding the truth in our histories.

BookThug | 248 pages |  $24.00 | paper | ISBN # 978-1927040652


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Keith Cadieux

Keith Cadieux is the co-editor of the weird fiction anthology The Shadow Over Portage & Main, published by Enfield & Wizenty and recently shortlisted for a Manitoba Book Award. During the day-job hours, he is the administrative coordinator for the Winnipeg International Writers Festival.