Where Tigers Are at Home

French author—philosopher, poet, novelist—de Roblès writes something approaching the Great (Latin) American Novel, about Brazilian characters, one of whom is steeped in the life of the seventeenth century polymath (but almost always erroneous) Jesuit Athanasius Kircher. Eleazard von Wogau, a French journalist lives in a dilapidated mansion in a town being overtaken by the Amazon vegetation, with his housekeeper Soledad: all of this at first seeming like Garcia Marquez-like clichéd Latin American tropes, but subverted in short order. He is a character at the center of a fragmented family and the various narratives that radiate out into seven different directions, each a quest of varying and dubious goals, but all of it conveyed with seriousness, more often with dark humor.

Eleazard is translating the hagiography of Kircher written by his amanuensis and acolyte Fr. Caspar Scott; each chapter of this novel opens with an account from Schott’s biography, and most chapters end with Eleazard’s journal reflections which reflect his own feelings but also reach into Wittgenstein and other modern philosophers (in a style reminiscent of Markson actually).

His ex-wife Elaine is a university paleontologist who travels in the company of other scientists upriver through a jungle inhabited by smugglers and indigenous tribes. They want to find the origin site for fossils of which a few samples have been tantalizingly brought back by a previous scientist; he had been given them by a tribal shaman.

In a passage that describes all the quests of the novel, Elaine recalls one of Eleazard’s rants:

Sending a missionary to convert the Chinese or a cosmonaut to the moon is exactly the same thing: it derives from the desire to govern the world, to confine it within the limits of doctrinaire knowledge that each time presents itself as definitive. However improbable it might have appeared, Francis Xavier went to Asia and really did convert thousands of Chinese; the American, Armstrong—a soldier by the way, if you see what I’m getting at—trampled the old lunar myth underfoot, but what do these two actions give us, apart from themselves? They don’t teach us anything, since all the do is confirm something we already knew, namely that the Chinese are convertible and the moon tramplable.

The reader is not too optimistic about the outcomes for each story line, even when coming to care for the fate of the characters who de Roblès portrays in sympathetic terms, save for some unambiguously nasty people.

One of Elaine’s companions is a graduate student named Mauro, son of an overreaching, ambitious state governor and his alienated wife. Governor Moreira seeks a land deal to lure foreign investors, and he uses increasingly violent means to disposes from the land the poor who stand in his way. Eleazard meets and briefly socializes with the governor and wife. Eleazard is accompanied by Lordena, an Italian woman who is one of the few guests staying in the town inn, and who begins a relationship with him while hiding her bleak health prognosis. Her quest will lead eventually to a Santeria ceremony to seek healing.

Eleazard’s daughter Moema is a sometime college student who relies on dad’s money to fund drug binges for her and her lover Thais, and a young male professor whom the two women drag to an isolated fishing town for variations of sexual pairings and encounters with fishermen/smugglers. Moema will seek some real meaning through idealized human relationships and to herself; but she takes direction, for example, from a billboard she’s seen: “Today is the first day of the rest of your life.” The reader is not inspired to confidence about Moema’s new resolutions.

The elite, powerful, and educated—the governor, Eleazard and Elaine, Lordena, Kircher and Scott in their own day and time—are counterbalanced by ten-year-old Nathan, a crippled beggar who lives in a favella with his uncle Ze. All the characters have at most only two degrees of separation from one another by the end of the novel. Ze and Nathan are on a collision course with Moema and the governor.

Also offering contrast are a shaman and his tribe who have been isolated for centuries, but who possess the memory of a Jesuit missionary from the eighteenth century who brought with him one of Kircher’s many books. They are the erstwhile rescuers of Elaine and her party. The tribe is on a quest of its own, to return to some ur-existence, in part guided by the Jesuit’s teaching distorted and parroted through generations of shamans.

Still, the story of Kircher takes up what seems a full half of the novel over against all of the contemporary Brazilian stories of Eleazard, et al. Kircher is a real figure from European history. Varyingly regarded as a last scientific holdover from a medieval natural scientific approach and a quintessential Counter-Reformation thinker, Kircher has become a subject for contemporary rediscovery. A Man of Misconceptions by John Glassie (Riverhead, 2012) is one of the recent explorations of Kircher’s fascinatingly weird genius, captured by de Roblès, as Kircher gets almost everything wrong, from medical treatments, to his quest to identify the pre-Babel language of humanity, to natural phenomena. In one comical scene a dismayed Schott describes Kircher as he insists on drawing closer and closer to an erupting volcano’s opening:

The heat was almost unbearable and we were finding it difficult to breathe when dozens of crawling things suddenly started to pour through our refuge: all sorts of snakes, salamanders, scorpions and spiders scuttled between our legs for a few moments that seemed close to an eternity to me. Flabbergasted by this phenomenon, we did not think of using our equipment to collect some specimens. Kircher, who had observed the process with his usual concentration, immediately drew the most unusual of these creatures in his notebook. “As you see, Caspar,” he said when he had finished, “we have not wasted our time coming here. Now we know from the evidence of our own eyes that certain creatures are born of the fire itself, just as flies are engendered by manure & worms by putrefaction. Those there had been created practically before our very eyes . . .”

De Roblès makes this long novel readable by his control over pacing, with subject headings within each chapter linking to specific story lines. No one story goes on so long that the reader loses the thread of the others. Many of the quests lead to transcendent-seeming moments with de Roblès using effective, incantatory language to carry along the reader. The 32 shortish chapters, plus prologue and afterward, would seem to beg for one of those dramatis personae lists that authors of complex novels sometimes provide; not needed here.

Having said that, I’ll also admit that I bogged down about 1/3 of the way in. I’m the sort of reader who has finished some longer books after two or three attempts (Moby-Dick, Gravity’s Rainbow), never attempted any of those long Victorian novels, passed through the long-Russian novel phase in late high school years never looking back, and I still haven’t completed Ulysses (sorry Prof. Davis), nor Gaddis’ Recognitions or JR, no matter how many new copies with attractive new covers I’ve bought.

So I set this book aside for over a week. In order to write the promised review I returned to the novel when I decided I would try the last 100 pages just to find out how matters resolved. Clearly the plots had too many turns for this to work, so plan B was to skim the in-between parts. Be darned if it didn’t hook me instead. This novel is a quite satisfying read, one of best novels I suspect that will appear in English, in the original or translation, in 2013. The endings of the various quests draw in story lines closer and closer, characters previously separate eventually move into relationships with one another. If a new reader begins to doubt the worth of the effort, bogged down in some intellectual digression, this reassurance: the Prologue starts with a Eleazard distracted by a parrot named Heidegger (!): “‘Man’s swelling his pointed dick! Squaaak! Man’s swelling his pointed dick!’”

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