Cartographie, donc, d’un espace aux multiples échelles. Non pas à la façon de la mappemonde classique… mais bien plutôt sur le modèle du carnet de terrain d’un groupe de voyageurs s’efforçant de dessiner une route au fur et à mesure qu’il se fraie un passage à travers des espaces saisis dans leur étrangeté…  —Christian Jacob

Preliminary Remarks on the Valaco Notebooks

VAres_map_Strabo2.crp1The “notebooks” of Roberto Valaco–his Schriftatlas, or “Atlas of Writing,” as he designated them–consist, in fact, of at least three separate manila folders containing unbound, loose-leaf sheets of paper of varying types and dimensions. (Only three files have been located to date; others are likely to exist; these remain to be located.) The materials within appear to be fastidiously, if somewhat idiosyncratically, organized according to what we might call “fields,” the titles of which Valaco himself at no point provided. Rather, we have furnished these in a speculative fashion, based on what we have ascertained to be the unifying questions and conceptual underpinnings of the writings contained in each folder. The imprecision of such categories shall not pass unnoticed by even the most casual reader. By the same token, the more interested public—artists, specialists, philosophers, archivists—will no doubt find nettlesome the high degree of overlap among the themes spanning the three extant notebooks. Such defects, alas, are endemic to the enterprise at hand, given the complexities that have governed the transcription and transmission of Valaco’s Schriftatlas.

VAres_map_Pots08.crp1As to the provenance (date, location) of the notebook materials, not to mention the chronological order of their invention, regrettably few of the folios bear any such information. Indeed, it would seem plausible that Valaco himself took no great interest in ordering his writings in any such conventional way, preferring instead to return to various texts over time, adding later (usually with a different writing implement) to what had been commenced at an earlier date, gradually filling up with his musings whatever scrap of blank space remained on a given sheet of paper. Such a method is further implied by those instances in which Valaco appears to have begun some exploration on a new sheet of paper, never to “return” to it again, so that some folios in the notebooks are mostly blank, save for a handful of sentences or short paragraphs.[1]

VAres_map_Berlin45child.lgIn light of these peculiarities, we have strived to maintain the formal integrity of the notebook materials to the greatest extent possible, while allowing for a reasonably intelligible means of reference. To that end, we have adopted a simple annotation schema based on the folder number (I, II, or III); the folio number in the order it was found in the corresponding manila folder (cardinal numbers, beginning with 1); and the side of the folio in question (‘a’ for recto; ‘b’ for verso). This information is included in bold-faced, parenthetical notation directly in the translated text, in accordance with the end of each written face (‘a’ or ‘b’, recto or verso) of the original text (hence, when a passage breaks across pages or folios, these notations will appear mid-way through a paragraph or sentence in the corresponding translation). In those instances in which pages appear to be missing, this reflects either the illegibility of the writing on that page, or the fact that some other, non-verbal material (drawings, diagrams, etc) was found there (in a very few cases, when the material has proven of particular interest or oddity, we have included brief descriptions of such elements, however imprecise, if for no other reason than to convey some sense of the heterogeneity of Valaco’s undertaking). Though it may go without saying, one should assume the requisite folly of any attempt to posit a pure correlation between the order of the folios as they were encountered in Buenos Aires and that which Valaco himself would have intended. By the standards of REASArch, at least, such seductions are to be courted with only the most scrupulous circumspection.

VAres_map_Barc08.crp1With respect to the present translations of the notebooks, we have indicated in brackets where a word or phrase was illegible in the original. At various points, as well, the Valaco manuscripts present words that, while legible, are either of ambiguous meaning or easily mistaken for others due to Valaco’s erratic hand. In such instances, we have suggested, also in brackets, what we feel to be the best approximation of that word or phrase, based as much on the context in which it appears as on an accumulated familiarity with Valaco’s style. When Valaco has stressed a word or phrase by underlining it or writing it in caps (or both, as frequently occurs), we have rendered these words in italics. An additional challenge to the translator, meanwhile, resides in Valaco’s incessant and unapologetic “code-switching,” that is, in his liberal oscillation between German and Spanish (and even, on occasion, French, English, or Italian), often within the same sentence or phrase. Not infrequently, he is given to hispanizing German nouns or verbs, and even deigns to decline the occasional Spanish adjective with a German case ending. In the most remarkable of such aberrations—particularly when it has undermined our attempts at an accurate translation—we have indicated the original text in brackets as well.

VAres_map_Lisb08.crp1The researcher faces yet another dimension of complexity when it comes to the style of the Valaco manuscripts. We have endeavored to convey, to the degree we are able, the singular tone and register of Valaco’s writing, though one should hope the reader may also appreciate the difficult conditions under which these translations have been generated, namely, by hand and in situ, within the constrained space and limited working hours of the archive, and without the aid of any means of mechanical reproduction (neither the photographing nor scanning of docments was permitted at the small municipal library where the notebooks surfaced in 2004) by which one might have been able to deliberate at greater length over the strange writings at hand. In any event, it must also be said of Valaco’s textual practice that it ranges over an often astonishing diversity of tones and registers. As is perhaps the case of any translation, we suspect that our rendering at times veers too blithely from Valaco’s style and, consequently, strays perhaps all too perilously close to that of the translator himself. Indeed, one often no longer feels at all certain of whose style came first.

VAres_map_Huls.crp3Two final anomalies of the Schriftatlas warrant mention here for the inordinate curiosity they rouse. First, the reader will notice various passages set off from the Valaco texts, in the form of indented block citations in italics, enclosed in brackets. These reflect our transcriptions of the interpretive “glosses” scattered throughout the three Buenos Aires files. As described elsewhere, these fragmentary, seemingly extempore critical reflections on Valaco’s ideas were typed in English on 4” x 6” index cards (in some instances on both recto and verso) and attached to select folios with a metal paper clip. Characterized generally by a pronounced erudition (indeed, often beyond the modest range of our own), they contain no other identifying material nor classificatory data, rendering the determination of their provenance all but impossible. In the vast majority of cases it was clear, from either the content of the gloss itself or the position of the index card on the page, precisely to which part of Valaco’s writings the interpretations addressed themeselves. On occasion, however, the connection is far less apparent. In all events, our incorporation of the critical glosses into the broader text of the translations/ transcriptions have strived to balance coherence and legibility with faithfulness to the original Valaco documents. It remains to the reader to decide whether the glosses themselves succeed in illuminating Valaco’s ideas in any appreciable way.

VAres_map_Ellipsis.crpLastly, scattered throughout the notebooks are numerous entries of an entirely separate order—indeed, at first glance of an entirely separate language—though unquestionably drafted by the same hand as the rest of the Schriftatlas. While toiling over the Valaco manuscripts in Buenos Aires, these texts proved particularly vexatious for the obscurity of their content and origin; only the recognizability of Valaco’s script ensured that it was he who had copied them at least, and this seemed reason enough to include them in our transcriptions, despite the mounting pressures under which our work was proceeding at the time. In the intervening years, our research has determined that all the entries in question derive from a single source: a sixteenth-century chronicle of the Spanish conquest of the River Plate region of South America, penned by Ulrich Schmidl, a German Landsknecht who formed part of Pedro de Mendoza’s 1534 expedition to the continent.[2] Schmidl ranged for twenty years through vast swaths of modern-day Argentina, most of Paraguay, and parts of Bolivia and Peru, before returning to his native Straubing to inherit the fortune of his recently deceased brother. It was only then that he committed the memories of his voyage to writing. During his tenure in the New World, Schmidl took part in the founding of the cities of Buenos Aires and Asunción; witnessed acts of cannibalism perpetrated by his Spanish comrades; endorsed the overthrow of a disgraced Alvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca (already renowned for his own extended peregrinations from the coast of Florida across the North American continent to what is now Arizona); and suffered every conceivable kind of privation along the way. Given Valaco’s own journey to parts of the same region, his fascination with Schmidl’s chronicle is perhaps unsurprising in hindsight. Their place in the larger enterprise of the notebooks, however, is no less enigmatic for that reason, nor does the notion of an historical or spiritual kinship across the centuries go any ways toward illuminating Valaco’s rationale for selecting the passages he did. An issue of even greater interest, meanwhile, may be the question of his access to the so-called Stuttgart manuscript of Schmidl’s original work (written in an early-modern southern dialect of German, which Valaco himself transcribed with great precision). Quandries such as these have become the focal point of much recent inquiry, and it is our hope to continue to address them as the Valaco Archive project evolves.


[1] The formal similarities between Valaco’s notebooks and the storied “microscripts” of Swiss modernist writer Robert Walser are noteworthy, if ultimately inconclusive. In any event, Valaco’s penmanship poses slightly less of an obstacle to interpretation: while he does employ a modified Kurrent script reminiscent of Walser’s, his writing is generally large enough and clear enough to decipher with only a modicum of exertion. For a representative selection of the Walser manuscripts, with full-size fascimiles, see Robert Walser, Microscripts, trans. and introd. Susan Bernofsky, afterword by Walter Benjamin (New York: New Directions/Christine Burgin, 2010).

[2] Valaco attaches the author’s name to only one of the many passages he copied, choosing instead of Ulrich Schmidl the Latinized version of Huldericus Fabro. This would appear to be a hybrid of two separate renditions of Schmidl’s name as it appears respectively in two early Latin editions of the chronicle, both published in 1599. In the first, translated by Gothard Arthus from the original German edition of 1567 and printed by Theodor De Bry, the author’s name is given as Ulrico Fabro; in the second, published by Levinus Hulsius (struck from his own German edition), we have Huldericus Schmidel. Refer to Notebook III for Valaco’s mirthful rumination on the many possible “names of Ulrich Schmidl.”