Friday, January 04, 2019

Manuel Mujica Lainez, The Wandering Unicorn (1965)

Well, I decided to read Mujica Lainez' other English-tranlated novel. So I did! So there! Um, anyway.

The first thing you might be wondering--at least if you're like me--is "hey, what if anything does this have to do with Peter S Beagle's seminal Last Unicorn, which was published around the same time? And the answer is: almost certainly nothing. Beagle's novel was first published three years after, so if anyone was influencing anyone, it would've had to be Mujica Lainez influencing Beagle, but, well, the first issue is that ML's book hadn't been translated at the time (does Beagle read Spanish? No idea), and the second--perhaps more to the point--is that, apart from a certain self-awareness, and both being broadly classifiable as fantasy the two really have nothing in common. ML's doesn't even feature an actual unicorn (just the horn of one). I DO think there's one connection, though: the animated movie based on The Last Unicorn was released in 1982, whereas this translation was published in 1983. I think it very probable that this was an effort to cash in on whatever perceived unicorn-mania the movie had engendered. Fair enough!

I must say, though, I fear that people looking for a fun, straightforward fantasy romp may have been disappointed. Because the thing is, this is presented very, very hard as that kind of typical fantasy book (there's an ad for the Thieves' World series in back; I'm pretty darn certain that liking Thieves' World is not an indication that you'll like this--more likely the opposite, if anything). But, well...when I blithely remarked that surely this must be more accessible than Bomarzo, I was right only in the sense that it's shorter. It's actually very, very similar to Bomarzo, and I can only imagine that the effort to market it as something it's not must have led to a significant amount of bafflement.

It's funny: my understanding is that many if not most of Mujica Lainez' novels are chronicles of Buenos Aires, yet the only two in English are historical novels taking place in Europe. This one is Medieval rather than Renaissance, and takes place in France (and later the Holy Land) rather than Italy, but both are narrated from the twentieth century by seemingly immortal beings, and both feature very similar baroque, lapidary descriptions of their respective milieus, with occasional jarring allusions to twentieth-century things.

Granted, the immortality here is easier to understand: it's not because of some obscure thing with alchemy; it's because she's the faerie Melusine, cursed to live forever. Fair enough. The story mainly concerns her fixation with a young man, Aiol, who, as it happens, is one of her descendants (faeries by necessity have different attitudes towards incest of this sort, we are told). She's mostly incorporeal, following Aiol and his companions, first through France engaging in jousts and whatnot, and later (she having attained physical form through Circumstances) to Jerusalem and environs, where there's a whole lot of politicking about rulership while they simultaneously try to fight off Saladin's bunch.

And...yeah. That's basically what this is. There are, obviously, fantasy elements, and although there are a few important points (including the ending) that sort of hinge on that, I still feel like you could take them out with minimal effort and just have a regular ol' historical novel. I feel, basically, like if you're just going to read one of Mujica Lainez' novels, you can pick and choose: which time time and place interests you more? Well there you go. Personally, I think I'd go with Bomarzo, which seems to have somewhat greater depth and scope. But this is fine too. Just don't go in expecting a conventional fantasy novel.


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