Monday, December 10, 2018

Manuel Mujica Lainez, Bomarzo (1962)

So here's one you won't have heard of.  I discovered it via this list of "books you didn't even known existed in translation," which seems like a bit of an odd way to title that: if I knew about any of these books, period, I probably would've idly checked to see if there were English translations.  As it happens, however, I didn't know about them, in any language, and indeed I was only aware of one of the authors (Nikos Kazantzakis).  Some of them looked more interesting to me than others, but for whatever reason, I chose this one to read.  Well, I say "whatever reason," but there are perfectly straightforward reasons: I was still sort of on an incipient Latin-American-Boom kick, for one, and the fact that this was translated by none other than Gregory Rabassa certainly didn't hurt.  But then there were also economic reasons, which probably don't say good things about how capitalism makes us act: so I looked the book up on the usual sites, and I saw that, for whatever reason, the gods of the free market had decided that the minimum price for used copies should be seventy dollars.  Now...I wasn't likely to pay that kind of money for a book completely on spec.  But when I idly looked on ebay and found a copy available for only twenty-five...well, comparatively it just seemed like such a deal that I couldn't resist it (it had been there for a while, and the fact that it hadn't been snapped up indicated to me that the odds of those seventy-dollar copies selling is somewhat slim).  Blah.

Welp, anyway, I bought it, so I read it.  It took a while because it's long, dense, and slow-moving.  It presents itself as being the memoir of Pier Francesco Orsini, a sixteenth-century Duke of Bomarzo, known today for having directed the creation of the Gardens of Bomarzo, a park filled, for enigmatic reasons, with strange and grotesque statues.  It's a good bet that the initial impetus for this novel was Mujica Lainez seeing this garden and thinking, why would he have done this?  Pier Francesco is a lame hunchback (not sure that this is part of the historical record; he remarks that painters would deemphasize or eliminate his hump to flatter him).  He grows up with abusive older and younger brothers and a father who holds him in general contempt (his mother is dead); he only receives love from his indomitable grandmother.  A disproportionate amount of the novel is devoted to his childhood and youth, as he grows up, becomes increasingly corrupted, and--obviously--becomes Duke.  As the novel progresses, he becomes increasingly eccentric and isolated, and finally decides to construct this garden as an oblique monument to his life.  His obsessive interest in aesthetics and art objects is decadent in a way sometimes reminiscent of des Esseintes from Huysmans' Against Nature.

What this is, really, is an amazing portrait of the Italian Renaissance: Pier Francesco hobnobs with nobles, artists, courtesans, assassins, alchemists, daemonologists--the whole lot, including many historical figures.  Mujica Lainez' erudition is amazing.  The period was definitely a contradictory one: on the one hand, you have all this amazing, transcendent art; on the other, everything's just absolutely saturated in violence.  If you were a person of any political importance, reaching old age was pretty unlikely.  I was going to say "dying naturally was unlikely," but really, being poisoned was pretty darned natural for the time.  Not that we've become a more peaceful race or anything, but this kind of ubiquitous political murder really isn't as widespread.  I mean, unless you're Vladimir Putin.  Or Mohammed bin Salman.  Or Kim Jong Un.  Or...I'll come in again.  No but REALLY, it's obviously different in kind and degree.

Did I mention--this might be burying the lead--that Pier Francesco is apparently immortal, narrating this from the present-day at the age of four hundred fifty-ish?  'Cause he is.  He casually alludes to twentieth-century figures, and--more to the point--he's able to historicize the Renaissance in a way that someone living through it wouldn't be.  It's bracingly strange, and it puts the whole period in sharper focus.  Is he a sympathetic character?  Well...sort of.  He's certainly an anti-hero.  There's no doubt that he is, by any measure, evil; he's a rapist and murderer, and even if not, his inhuman fixation on aesthetics is pretty suspect in itself.  And yet, he's surprisingly, perhaps, sorta-kinda sympathetic anyway.  His vantage point helps with that; he's not exactly repentant, but he nonetheless recognizes his sins as sins, and that his whole life was pretty twisted.  He notes on a number of occasions that he was a completely typical Renaissance figure, and while that's not exactly exonerating, it's true that you have to consider things in their context.  Well...you don't have to, obviously, but if you insist on judging everything through a contemporary lens, you're not going to get much of anywhere with a book like this.

So yeah.  This is an undeniably monumental book.  And I mean that in every sense: it's great, but it also has a somewhat overbearing feel to it.  It is much of a muchness.  I am glad to have read it, but there were definitely places where it threatens to overwhelm.  I don't know if that's a criticism per se, but I can see how it wouldn't be for everybody.  It's at least reasonably for me, though, I must say, I super-want to go see those Gardens.

Interesting to note that there's an opera based on Bomarzo, to which Mujica Lainez himself wrote the libretto.  Any opera based on a non-musical play--let along a long novel--obviously has to be cut down and simplified, but this synopsis seems pretty reasonable.  I'd love to see it.  The full audio is available here; it sounds good, but with no video or subtitles, it's a little hard to judge the whole.

Simon and Schuster clearly hoped they'd have a publishing phenomenon on their hands with this when they published Rabassa's translation in 1969, but, well, apparently it was a significant failure, as they never even released a paperback edition and it is, as noted, long out-of-print.  I suppose it's unsurprising; a novel like this can't be exactly an easy sell.  Still, it's too bad, as it could have opened a floodgate: Mujica Lainez published several dozen novels, but only one other has been translated to English (an interesting-looking fantasy that, you have to figure, is significantly more accessible than Bomarzo).  It's hard for me to gauge how important he's considered in the Hispanophone world (Bomarzo won awards when first published, but has this cachet stuck?), but he certainly hasn't been translated to other languages to any great degree.  Too dang bad, say I.  At the very least, this is exactly the sort of novel that Dalkey should be reprinting.  Maybe if they'd do that, we could increase public interest and get more of him.

2 Comments:

Blogger Achille Talon pontificated to the effect that...

Seems interesting.

I obviously have not read it, but from what you describe, rather than being "immortal and four-hundred-years-old-ish", a good perspective for the events might be that the Duke is narrating this from beyond the grave — one imagines that writing one's autobiography, and in the reflective style you describe, is exactly the sort of thing someone like him would spend his time in the afterlife doing.

1:31 PM  
Blogger (((Rootless Cosmopolitan GeoX))) pontificated to the effect that...

Well, he describes it in such a way that makes it pretty clear that he's alive (his horoscope taken when he was born didn't say anything about him ever dying, and there's a whole plot strand about his ongoing search for an alchemical immortality formula), but the ending DOES considerably muddy the waters about what this is actually meant to have meant.

3:34 PM  

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