The Major Refutation by Pierre Senges (translated by Jacob Siefring) is a forged forgery falsely attributed to a real forger by a writer of fictions. Let’s pick that apart.
Antonio de Guevara existed. He was a monk and a courtier of Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor. He was also a popular author who provoked controversy by making spurious historical claims in his books. The Major Refutation is ostensibly a long-lost manuscript of Guevara’s, in which he attempts to refute Christopher Columbus’s #FakeNews that a continent lies across the Atlantic from Europe. An afterword casts doubt on Guevera’s authorship. Many other famous or obscure persons in and after the 16th-century might plausibly have written The Major Refutation. But The Major Refutation is actually, of course, a novel by Pierre Senges. He doesn’t drop character as the editor of a long lost manuscript even once, but copyright pages don’t lie (more’s the pity), so we know that if we go ad fontes, we find Senges. Amazon, happily, has been taken in by the ruse, and lists (as of this writing) Antonio de Guevara as one of the authors of the book.
The Major Refutation is an extremely weird and many-leveled experiment, seemingly committed to a motto buried in its own pages:
The fake does not have the qualities of the true, it only appears to have them; yet, at the risk of pleading against mine own cause, I must admit that the efforts used by counterfeiters often merit far greater attention […]
I have some thoughts about all of this. But first, a glance at the surface of the thing. The opening paragraph displays all the book’s tics and tendencies in one prefigurative sentence. It’s a dedication:
To Charles I of Ghent, who is as magnificent as I am lowly and disparate, formerly by chance, now by necessity; to Charles of Ghent who is the most extraordinary and by far the most fortuitously placed ruler Europe has ever seen on its soil, from Extremadura to the basics of Flanders to the ship of the Hansa; to Charles who, like a child dropped into the lions’ den and brought up alongside his fellow creatures, converts innocence to knowledge and hastens to redress his lack of preparedness through more work and authority; to Charles who has no peer in taking the power held out to him by his ancestors, as if he were accepting no more than a slice of pineapple, and who is peerless as well in relinquishing it, or feigning to do so, within his palaces, where he vows his humble powers to the God he imagines, summons, or dismisses at will; to Charles the Burgundian who knew how to strike fear into the hearts of the Spanish before he subjugated them, giving to eternity the example of a sovereign boldly coming face to face with each of his subjects, because he knew how to appear in their eyes as both a demon and an ordinary man (and to deceive them on both accounts, but with ample guile); to Charles who knew how to trim his family tree, to never subordinate the demands of State to filial love, nor waver in judgment before complaints or appeals, including those of kith and kin — to Charles I of Ghent, the author dedicates the present book.
Still with me?
As you will have noticed, The Major Refutation is written in a relentlessly oratorical style. The sentences are long, ornate, architectural, formal, yet digressive. They are stuffed with allusions to history and literature and out-dated science. The book is a triumph of research by Senges, but you will have to choose whether to allow those allusions to pour over you like water, or to track all or some of them down. I wavered back and forth, spending half an hour on some pages, and covering a few dozen others in as many minutes.
The novel is an undertaking (to read, to have written, to have translated). I think it’s a worthy one.
I hold that a good novel is, among other things, entertaining. The Major Refutation is entertaining. But not often in the normal ways that novels are entertaining, and not, I suspect, entertaining for everyone. Character and plot are buried here to be extracted, if you dig. Gradually, one learns about Guevara’s feud with another scholar named Peter Martyr; and the text itself tells the story of its author gradually confusing himself and coming to desire something different than he did at first. But these, as I said, are narratives to be extracted from a book which is, on the surface, exactly what it looks like: a long attempt to refute the existence of the Americas. It takes work to extract those narratives, and while some find such work good fun in itself, others might be dissuaded from the whole experience by the difficulty the form presents.
There are other possible entertainments on the surface of this book besides a plot: style above all. Long luxurious sentences eventually begin to spin by like lines of poetry. Also there is humor. Mostly wit, occasionally straight comedy, as when Guevara addresses his parrot from the midst of his increasingly insane ranting.
So that’s what The Major Refutation offers as an entertainment: strange, lovely writing; humor; a story-line if you squint.
What The Major Refutation offers uniquely, because of its unusual form, is a reflection on the value of counterfeiting to truth (and of course, by extension, the value of fiction to life). Guevara’s mode of “refutation” is actually conspiracy theorizing. As consumers, lately, of even more conspiracies than usual, we recognize the form: they render an unlikely alternative conception of reality plausible by forming a web of highly detailed minor connections. — Not unlike Sherlock Holmes, buttressing his unlikely large scale deductions by a host of minor observations. If this person has noticed all these subtle details and connected them with such ingenuity, how can they be wrong on the big glaring point their subtlety subtends?
Really good conspiracy theorists have the paradoxical effect of raising the standards of evidence and the scrutiny that precedes belief: it’s the casual counterfeiters we have to fear. We have to worry about the liars who don’t care how shabby and easy to dispel their untruths are, the fabricators who rely upon the prolificity of their perversions rather than intricacy or excellence of their designs. In our time, numerous parties seem to be attempting forgery by brute force, the deployment of auotmated repetition and dissemination as a form of persuasion — not verisimilitude but virality allow the lies that surround us to sink in. In such a climate, a conspiracy theory like The Major Refutation, with its elaborate scaffolding of plausibility and research, is also a pointed reminder of the tawdry laziness of much modern propoganda.
[M]y Refutation is not strictly speaking a work of debunking , and uniquely that, but rather an invitation from one dupe to other dupes to listen to how the stories go round and repeat, to see how a counterfeit money circulates…
The actually revolutionary implication of this investigation is the power it reveals to belong to the honest dupe: that is, to the wondering person, who innocently believes a lie. That person, who, multiplied, is the great sleeping beast of society coddled and lulled by the lies of the powerful, has, ultimately, all the power:
there comes a moment when the world’s last remaining free dupe holds unto himself the conditions necessary to the survival of the imposture : and paradoxically his power is then immense if the collective delusion is to depend on his credulity.
In an interview, Senges has said that the imposture of realism in literature supports that of liberalism: the idea that the free market is a basic reality rather than something forcibly imposed and continuously maintained by force. He has also said that he forbids himself short sentences because the short sentence is peremptory whereas it ought to doubt itself.
The form of The Major Refutation mirrors its theme perfectly: a scrutiny so intense, brought to bear with specialties so hysterically refined, leads the object studied to crumble, and the investigator himself to vanish into self-doubt.