Passionate Nomads, by Argentinian writer María Rosa Lojo, comes to us from Aliform Publishing in a riveting translation from its Spanish original by Brett Alan Sanders. And before I get into the book’s details, allow me to first make a quick and rather bold statement: if these roughly 250 pages of prose lack anything, it’s proper marketing and getting word about it out there. Consider this an executive order, if you will, to dig deep into your pockets and buy a copy.
Behind the publishing of Passionate Nomads is also a passionate story. Sanders received a grant to translate the book, but due to external circumstances had to make a rather dramatic decision and in the end used the grant to actually publish the book. Now, if that’s not passionate enough for you, I don’t know what is. Ursula K. Le Guin blurbed the book and wrote:
“ Passionate Nomads is a most extraordinary addition to the literature of the New World . . . Lojo evokes a profound fantasy of the real—not a rewriting of history, but an imaginative recall and understanding of what has been forgotten, cannot be remembered, and yet must be remembered.”
The story of Merlin the Magician, his protégé Rosaura dos Carballos, and a modernized, Argentine version of Baron von Münchausen in the character of Lucio Victorio Mansilla melts genres and poetics, leaving you enchanted. Lucio escaped Heaven. Yes, you read right: he was bored and disappointed (no wonder, as his particular Heaven was filled with stage props) and felt like there was a lot to be done “downstairs.” He got the basics right. Indeed, before he knows it, a line of disgruntled characters—from former lovers to tribal chiefs of Ranquel Indians, some in the flesh, some in spirit—hold meetings with Lucio to explain a thing or two to our hero:
He came to make us sign the peace treaty that afterward no Christian chief respected. He knew and he didn’t say. He wrote a book where he portrays us as he thought to see us, and they gave him prizes for that long story and even across the sea they found out about our lives and customs and many gringos must have laughed about what we learned from our parents and they from theirs back to the first days.
There are others too. Rosaura, a daughter of a noble fairy and a common practical joker, goblin, and vagabond— trasnos —and Merlin, the famous magician who in the 20th century does just as well as in medieval times—managing his real estate and navigating the new reality:
As usual, the ancient Scottish blood that circulates through Merlin’s no less ancient veins guided him with blind instinct to attaining the best financial bargain with that first enemy of the soul invented by bored theologians: the World, which is driven by the mercenary law of gold.
We hear Lucio’s voice through his letters:
Friend Santiago: It has been more than a hundred years since, with winged pen, I set about writing you those letters that became so famous and dealt with my audacious visit to the Ranquel Indians. If at the time I counted on your envying my trip—I tried, in the friendliest fashion, to rile you—I’d rather not even imagine what you would feel now were you to find out where I am, and in what sort of company.
We also get Rosaura’s voice through her manuscript, which recounts the entire trip; and Merlin’s, who chimes in whenever (and however) he feels like it. The author is masterful with her language, her use of different voices, and this rare art of fluid transitions—a painless back-and-forth jaunt from one engaging narrator to another. You don’t feel deprived, you don’t think, “Shit, just when it was getting interesting I have to deal with this guy’s problems for the next 30 pages.” No, Passionate Nomads feels good all the way. I’m sure there’s a more literary way to put it, but to me it felt like a time when you’re listening to a really good story—let’s say by the fire, and let’s say that this fire is located somewhere in the Argentinian Pampas where the icy, crisp air and the dry, low brush are all painted with nice, pastel-colored strokes and just the right amount of detail. That’s how it felt to me.
I don’t speak Spanish, so I read only Sanders’s translation. His rendition of Rojo’s novel comes to life, the dialogues flow, but feel a little alien, too. There’s no doubt we hear voices from a different land, different time, and often a different dimension. It’s detailed—Sanders made sure to save what should be saved in the original. So, if you care to indulge in a little metaphor with me, we—the readers of translations, literary vagabonds, or trasnos —get exactly what we’re striving for: a variety, something distant brought a little closer, an alien conceit showed and explained a little bit by our learned friend.
Passionate Nomads is also, to some extent, a historical novel. Sanders made sure all of us ignorant fellows will learn something about Argentina, its people, and its history. He has provided readers with extensive endnotes, and I like to have them, so I praise them. Just as much as I admire Sanders’s ear for dialogue, I appreciate the hard work put into the research for those endnotes. They’re not too detailed, and in my mind, give the right amount of background for all that happens in the book.
An adventure story, comical and full of spunk, but also nostalgic and reflective— Passionate Nomads is all of that. But aside from the plot, it’s simply beautifully written and translated.
An insatiable sorrow rises in my throat, no longer for myself but for those I loved so much and who kept dying, for the imperfect and turbulent world that I nevertheless loved and that died with them and with me, for the grand, pure words we all take upon ourselves to bury when our life exhausts and corrupts them.