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The Strangest Book in the World!
 

The strangest book in the world?  Thatís easy: itís the mind-bending CODEX SERAPHINIANUS by Luigi Serafini. 

     Quite simply, the CODEX is an astonishing piece of work whose conviction and imaginative fecundity are without precedent, being a guidebook to an alien planet that resembles our own in many bizarre ways.  The only thing is, the whole thing is written in a completely made-up language--pages and pages of it, along with complex mathematical diagrams--accompanied by illustrations that often seem equally incomprehensible.   

     Yet the language and artwork have a way of complementing one another thatís downright ingenious.  Even at its most baffling, the book possesses an inscrutable dream-logic that holds oneís attention.  In the end, one can take CODEX as a serious (if whimsical and somewhat grotesque) science fictionish attempt at depicting an extraterrestrial landscape, or as an elaborate surrealist put-on.  I personally believe itís a little of both.

     The very definition of a cult book, CODEX SERAPHINIANUS began life as a two-volume work published in Italy by Franco Maria Ricci in 1981.  Its creator Luigi Serafini is an Italian architect who wrote and illustrated this surreal epic during the late seventies (and in 1984 published another book called PULCINELLOPEDIA PICCOLA, copies of which are VERY scarce).  The book, which has since been compressed into a single volume, quickly amassed a limited but enthusiastic following.  I myself only recently (a few weeks ago) learned of its existence, but immediately joined the ranks of CODEX buffs. 

     I said this book is without precedent, but it dimly recalls Jorge Luis Borgesí immortal 1940 tale ďTlon, Uqbar, Orbus TertiusĒ, which explores the bizarre philosophies and beliefs of people living on an invented world.  More minor similarities can be found in the Harlan Ellison edited MEDEA: HARLANíS WORLD (1985), in which several top sci fi writers analyze the particulars of an alien society, and the 1973 French animated film FANTASTIC PLANET (LA PLANETE SAUVAGE), whose hallucinogenic Roland Topor-designed images will resonate with CODEX fans.  

     Thereís also THE VOYNICH MANUSCRIPT, an apparently medieval text written in a language nobody has yet been able to decipher, that, like CODEX, seems to be a sort of scientific guidebook.  The difference between the two is that unless youíre a medieval scholar THE VOYNICH MS, based on what Iíve seen of it, isnít terribly interesting, whereas CODEX SERAPHINIANUS very much is.  If nothing else, Luigi Serafiniís colorful, eerily beautiful images are a constant wonder to behold, vaguely echoing Hieronymus Bosh and M.C. Escher, and perpetually challenging the spectator to decipher them. 

     Many commentators claim to have discovered a way to translate Serafiniís language and numerology system (see www.math.bas.bg/~iad/serafin.html), but I believe that takes away one of the bookís primary pleasures.  In CODEX SERAPHINIANUS the cognitive process is forced into play in a manner thatís virtually unique, providing one with hours of fascination.  If youíre willing to grant it your full attention, I guarantee CODEX will suck you in.

     Iím not going to attempt a conventional review because, frankly, I wouldnít know where to begin--and anyway, CODEX SERAPHINIANUS has already been written about at length on several web pages.  Of those I recommend www.io.com/~iareth/codindx.html where I found out about the CODEX for the first time, www.believermag.com/issues/200705/?read=article_taylor which contains an English translation of Italo Calvinoís introduction to the original edition, and www.flickr.com/photos/cottoncandyhammer/sets/72157594263968563/ which features a gallery of thumbnail photos from CODEX; youíll need to peruse a printed copy to get the full effect, but these thumbnails will definitely whet your appetite.

     CODEX SERAPHINANIUS begins with a prologue (available only in the 2006 Rizzoli edition--see below), followed by eleven self-contained sections, each exploring an aspect of the strange world under review: plant and animal life, the languages spoken by its human(oid) inhabitants, the clothing they wear, their vehicles, living quarters, grooming and eating preferences, etc. 

     Despite the guidebook format, certain portions appear to tell a (symbolic?) story, such as the sequence of illustrations depicting a lovemaking couple who metamorphose into an alligator, or the roller skate wearing man whoís seen on one page writing with a quill pen he has in place of a right hand, and impaled by a giant pencil on the next.

     Much of the book seems comprehensible enough, yet Serafini often adds one or more seemingly inconsequential details that subtly throw things off.  In one more-or-less straightforward illustration a reverential crowd flanks a red carpet, along which struts a tiny creature with two legs topped by what looks like a seashell--but the strangest part is that among the crowd is a dead man standing upright in an open coffin!  Also, a picture that occurs near the end depicts a condominium that stretches into the clouds...and alongside it an indistinct person falling to his/her death! 

     Other puzzlements: a pair of eyeglasses with a maze-like contraption in front of them that would appear to seriously obstruct their wearerís vision; a rainbow-making machine seen zooming across the sky, alongside which are pictures of discarded rainbows twisted into spirals, tied in knots, etc.; a gallery of eye diagrams, one of which shows a cracked eyeball with music notes emanating from it; a headless, suspender-wearing torso that bursts open to disgorge a ravenous leopard. 

     Equally perplexing are the many symbols and motifs of our world that turn up in this one, often in wildly unexpected permutations.  Arrows, streetlights and fried eggs(!) are constants, as are bones, masks and flags--but Iíll leave it to you to discover, and ponder, these things on your own. 

     Obviously any attempt at fully understanding this nutty universe is doomed to failure.  This is enumerated in the bookís most remarked-upon image, of a crumbling Rosetta Stone utilized by a professorial dude translating some unknown language for us...into the nonsensical dialect of the rest of the book!

     As for obtaining a copy of the CODEX for yourself, Iíve got good news and bad news.  The good news is that, as of July 2007, the book is available in a large-format coffee table edition courtesy of the Italian publisher Rizzoli, whoíve included a supplementary booklet of reviews and interviews (in Italian but for a brief piece by American writer Douglas Hofstadter).  Itís available from the online bookseller www.ibs.it for around 75 Euros (approximately $100 US, plus another $30 or so in shipping costs), a relatively economical sum considering secondhand copies usually go for upwards of $400.   

     Which brings us to the bad news: this edition of CODEX SERAPHINIANUS probably wonít be available much longer.  The book has over the years been periodically reprinted by various European publishers, but never for very long, leaving interested parties at the mercy of greedy used booksellers. 

     As for an American edition, thereís only been one, from Abbeville Press back in 1983; itís now long out of print, with no further printings in sight.  Nonetheless, I can assure you it will be well worth your while tracking down CODEX SERAPHINIANUS, unquestionably the strangest book in the world.

 

--6/02/07
 


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