The Reluctant Leader of Spain’s Literary Avant-Garde


Arts & Culture

Agustín Fernández Mallo. Author photo: Mutari, from Wikimedia Commons.

In June 2007, in Seville, Spain, a conference was held under the banner “New Fictioneers: The Spanish Literary Atlas.” Around forty writers and critics came together at the Andalusian Center for Contemporary Art to discuss the conservatism they felt to be suffocating their national literature. United in their belief that the Spanish novel in particular was in a bad state, they pointed to a disregard for the increasing centrality of digital media in people’s lives and a knee-jerk resistance to anything that smacked of formal experimentation. They were mostly of a similar age, born in the twilight of the Franco regime, committed to the DIY punk ethos of the fledgling blogosphere, and more likely to claim lineage to J. G. Ballard or Jean Baudrillard than any garlanded compatriots of their own. Nonetheless, the only true point of agreement on the day was that they were not part of a unified movement. The conference’s inaugural address itself rejected any suggestion of a coherent generation—a critical commonplace familiar in Spain ever since the clumping together, at the end of the nineteenth century, of the Generation of ’98. Within a few weeks, however, an article appeared dubbing these writers “The Nocilla Generation”: the most significant literary phenomenon of Spain’s democratic era now had a label, and it stuck.

Perhaps appropriately, the group’s designated leader, Agustín Fernández Mallo, had not been at any of these meetings, and he claimed to have no ties with those who had. His Nocilla Dream, the first book in a trilogy and one part of a wider, philosophically inflected project, had, however, been the surprise literary sensation of the previous twelve months. By “injecting the Novel with a large dose of [the land artist] Robert Smithson, and Situationism, and Dadaism, and poetry, and science, and appropriation (collage and quotes and cut-and-paste), and technology (often anachronistic), and images (almost always pixelated), and comic books,” as Jorge Carrion has written—and perhaps above all because he simply presented compelling new possibilities for the form—Fernández Mallo was deemed the most distinctively representative of these writers in all their anticonventional guises. He was certainly the most widely read.

Nocilla Dream was the first Spanish book ever to go viral, a success with readers before its embrace by critics. The enthusiasm of like-minded bloggers propelled it onto spots on national TV and radio, where it was discussed alongside a commemorative edition of Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude as the defining literary event of 2006. The novelist and critic J. Ernesto Ayala-Dip called it a “shot to the heart of traditional novelistic representation,” and the novelist Ana Pomares Martínez echoed a widespread view among younger writers in saying, “It radically changed my idea of what literature was.” The rights to parts two and three—Nocilla Experience (2007, translation in 2016) and Nocilla Lab (2009, translation in 2019)—were then acquired by Alfaguara, one of Spain’s preeminent publishing houses, clearing the way for Fernández Mallo to become the most discussed Spanish author of the decade to follow. In the words of the poet Pablo García Casado, he “invited in a more daring, less constrained kind of reader, one not afraid to look at the world anew; a reader with new hope.” 


Agustín Fernández Mallo (pronounced “my-o”) was born in Galicia, in Spain’s rainy Atlantic northwest, in 1967. A keen rock climber and drummer in punk bands in his youth, he studied physics in the regional capital of Santiago de Compostela, and in 1992 began working as a radiation physicist, designing X-ray systems and developing cancer-radiation therapies. By the time Nocilla Dream came out he had a job in a hospital on the Balearic island of Majorca, far from the cosmopolitan literary milieus of Barcelona and Madrid, and had published one collection of poetry. But most important, he was at work on a manifesto, a self-styled theory of “post-poetry,” and the Nocilla books were an attempt, in part, to put this into practice. Though Fernández Mallo would spell out his ideas in a long essay in 2009, Postpoesía, hacia un nuevo paradigma (Post-Poetry: Toward a New Paradigm), and though he has said that his 2012 poetry collection Antibiótico (Antibiotic) comprises their most complete expression, the trilogy was key in working them out.

Postpoesía accuses mainstream poetry in Spain of backwardness of various kinds. It has, Fernández Mallo claims, excluded itself from its proper domain—the wider world of art—by failing to keep up with a range of scientific, technological, and epistemological changes in society. Whereas the visual arts, music, film, and theater have had no difficulty responding to and incorporating advances such as quantum mechanics, poetry has failed to move on from a mode of operations that is, by extension, still stuck in the nineteenth century. This disapproving impulse was certainly shared by those present at the New Fictioneers get-togethers, along with a willingness to beg, borrow, or steal any technique that might serve their radical purposes. Eloy Fernández Porta, one of the conveners of the New Fictioneers get-togethers, has spoken of taking inspiration from the eighties punk bands of their youth in opposing “certain ingrained aspects of crass mainstream culture … Punk interested us in the same way tribal art interested Picasso, that is, as a pseudo-primitivist reaction against the worst that modernity had to offer.” Science comes in here for Fernández Mallo because his grounding in cutting-edge physics—working at a subatomic level in his day-to-day—entails an almost Blakean view of the world, a vision of the world in which the most apparently mundane objects are poetic. This is taken to its logical extreme in Fernández Mallo’s preoccupation with trash, that essential, and essentially overlooked, facet of modernity. This is why, for instance, the trilogy constantly returns to the dreck of modern life, to detritus, flotsam, and excreta, why abandoned buildings and dumps themselves become objects of fascination, and why vacuums, blanks, and voids proliferate. The world in a grain of scrap metal. A good example of Fernández Mallo’s transposition of low (trash) and high (poetry) comes in Nocilla Experience when a competition on the side of a milk carton (the kind of thing we normally throw away without reading) is set out as verse:

Think Bell invented the telephone
and then sat next to it
waiting for someone to call?
No, he went out
and did everything he could
to sell his idea,
everything to ensure
that there would be thousands
of telephones like his.
Are you a young inventor?
Have you got an idea
you think is revolutionary?
Get in touch.
Green Milk Company,
161 William Street, Miami,
Florida, 33125.
XXI Young Inventors competition.

And yet, though initially conceived as a sort of concept proof for post-poetry, the Nocilla trilogy was also far from deliberate. It was composed almost entirely during a period when Fernández Mallo was recovering from a motorcycle accident in Thailand:

[The Thai doctors] told me to rest and not move at all, just stay in bed, for our remaining 25 days in the country. So it goes, my life delimited to this hotel bed, a window with a view over the city, considerable heat, considerable amount of air con, considerable pain, considerable number of pills, and around the bed bottles of water, the remote control for the TV, and little else … It invariably rained between 6 and 7 in the evening, while I read, watched special programs on Fox dedicated to the history of surfing, and wrote … I ran out of paper and started writing on the little notepads you get next to phones in hotels, and in the margins of my books, and on napkins, and on our return plane tickets, and eventually, as we came to the end of our month there, I saw that I had a novel on my hands.

—Nocilla Lab

Fernández Mallo’s stand against prevailing literary norms, in other words, took the form of plugging the novel directly into a flow of low-culture images, transcribing, as he put it in a 2007 interview in El Mundo, “what I was seeing on the television, as I channel-hopped through programs that were generally in languages I couldn’t speak. All of this came together, it was a strange explosion in which I wrote under the influence of numerous different things that were going on at the time.” It is for this reason that the Spanish poet and novelist Juan Bonilla, in a foreword to Nocilla Dream, described it as “literary channel hopping.” Couch potato, litterateur, but also mystic at the same time, Fernández Mallo has a heavy interest in channeling of all kinds:

… television [w]as a mystical instrument, the executive arm of an absolute wisdom, the place whose waves and photonic particles (a kind of nothing) emitted all the world’s objects, even objects and entities that were inconceivable, yes, the television was an empty receptacle, a perpetrator of old alchemies, forever waging war on the skeptic and the nonbeliever, every message that came from it was at least somewhat new, every advertising slogan a Zen mantra, a cosmos of light, a Borgesian aleph …

—Nocilla Lab

This writing procedure, which Fernández Mallo has dubbed “transversal readings” (after the practice of the French art critic and curator Nicolas Bourriaud), is clearly manifest in the trilogy’s chopped-up stories, truncated digressions, and recycled texts. Dream and Experience include verbatim chunks of science treatises, film-editing manuals, and theories of urban planning, which sit alongside brief meditations on philosophical dilemmas and stark statements of fact. Most of the traditional stories are broken up into short segments and scattered throughout the book, and occasionally, but not always, the nonfictional elements are revisited and reprised later on.

Yet for all its freewheeling topical variation and apparent disjointedness, the trilogy is always foregrounding systems, processes, organizing principles of all kinds. Maps abound, as do scientific theories, architectural concepts, universal technological codes, and instructional works such as agricultural guides, travel guides, and recipe books. One quickly loses count of the number of characters involved in projects and schemes, trying in their different ways to impose order on chaos. It’s also noticeable how often Fernández Mallo skips what happens once these ventures have been set in motion, or frustrates their completion outright; Lab, though following a more continuous narrative than Dream and Experience, is in a way nothing more than the description of the beginning and middle stages of a mysterious “great project,” the execution of which never comes about. Such is the focus on this kind of procedure that critics, such as Germán Sierra in Asymptote, have come to wonder whether order itself might even be the trilogy’s “true protagonist.” In an interview with John Trefry (translated by Luke Stegemann), Fernández Mallo said:

When I finished the Nocilla trilogy—which I wrote in one go … never for a moment thinking that anyone would want to publish it, I realized that my brain had spontaneously organized all the plot lines and chapters, and in general the whole structure of the book, in “network mode” (in contrast to “tree-like mode,” a typically hierarchical structure: proposition; complication; then resolution). I wrote them spontaneously, without thinking too much about it.

Fernández Mallo’s methods hadn’t changed much since his late teens, when Spain was making its bumpy transition from dictatorship to democracy. The year 1985 saw General Franco ten years dead and Fernández Mallo eighteen years old and wearing eyeliner:

… first year of a physics degree plus victim of a certain late punk aesthetic, going around in black drainpipe jeans, my colorful socks on show, red or violet depending on the day, a belt with two rows of silver-stud pyramids and a black leather jacket and a pink Mickey Mouse watch … that year was the first time I experienced the extraordinary pleasure of leaving the TV on and going out unshaven at 9 on a Saturday night for cigarettes and coffee, seeing all the people in the bars or out for a stroll or planning what they were going to do with their evenings, and you like some zombie walking among them, ignoring them, pitching up at the cigarette machine in the bar and extracting the pack you know you’re going to smoke your way through that same night, next stopping by the 7-Eleven for the ground coffee and then home to try and make something, to sit at the typewriter, riding the hubristic sensation of fucking things up, guided by a ridiculous but not ineffective feeling of romantic superiority, every night I hammered away at the typewriter till dawn … and it was during those nights, tobacco-TV-typewriter-gallons-of-coffee nights, that I first felt that making something was like ruling the world, and that the writer was a kind of god among the partying lowlife …

Nocilla Lab

Fernández Mallo and the New Fictioneers alike lived through the wild Movida eighties. A little like the sixties, seventies, and eighties in other Western countries all rolled into one—throw in the post–World War parties the Spanish never had and a departed despot for good measure—this was a time when four decades of censorship and cultural isolation exploded to a soundtrack of the Ramones (and Spanish punk bands like Siniestro Total, whose song “Nocilla, ¡Qué merendilla!”—“Nocilla, What a Great Snack!”—lent Fernández Mallo his title). The brevity of many of the sections in Dream and Experience, and the heedless, cascading opening of Lab—along with the abrupt stops, omissions, and changes of direction in the storytelling—certainly recall the up-yours energy of punk’s heyday in Spain. It is difficult to remove the trilogy’s fractured chaos and its huge, almost yearning emphasis on order from the wider Spanish experience of this period, and in particular the withdrawal of Franco from the national consciousness. The force of Fernández Mallo’s writing, however, and what ultimately sets him apart from his contemporaries, is the general neutrality of his prose style, the almost austere control he exerts even while channeling Spain’s wide-eyed opening up to the world. We are everywhere reminded, even in the texture of his sentences, that he did not follow the fork in the path that led to sex and drugs: while all those around him were getting swept up in a heroin epidemic, he took a job in a hospital.

Fernández Mallo is open about his debt to Jorge Luis Borges, Julio Cortázar, and Enrique Vila-Matas, but his own impact on Spanish letters can perhaps best be likened to that of the avant-gardist Juan Goytisolo (1931–2017). Goytisolo, banned under Franco, later awarded the Miguel de Cervantes Prize (“the Spanish-language Nobel”), was a lifelong critic of his country’s blinkered Catholic, nationalist heritage. From his adoptive home in Morocco, he wrote of Spain’s forgotten Moorish roots and its endemic suppression of Gypsies and Jews, and was a champion of gay rights. He was above all unusual among Spanish writers, in the words of his translator Peter Bush, in his “absorption of other cultures.” Though Fernández Mallo is by comparison only just starting out, and is not overtly political, he has been responsible for opening the Spanish novel to any and all sources, just at a time when the country itself has been doing the same.


Thomas Bunstead has translated some of the leading Spanish-language writers working today, including Yuri Herrera, Enrique Vila-Matas, and Juan Villoro. His own writing has appeared in publications such as >kill author, The White Review, and the Times Literary Supplement.

Excerpted from The Nocilla Trilogy: Nocilla Dream, Nocilla Experience, Nocilla Lab, by Agustín Fernández Mallo. Translated from the Spanish by Thomas Bunstead. Published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux February 19, 2019. Copyright © 2008 by Agustín Fernández Mallo. Translation copyright © 2016 by Thomas Bunstead. All rights reserved.