PUBLISHERS OF LITERARY FICTION SINCE 1983
'Eleazard von Wogau, an occasional Reuters correspondent living in semi-retirement in Brazil's Nordeste, is the centre of Jean-Marie Blas de Robles's ambitious, ingenious, hugely enjoyable epic Where Tigers Are At Home. Elezard is the hub from which radiates the spokes of a freewheeling narrative that mixes adventure yarn, magic realism, social comment, political satire, high ideas, popular culture and a standard injection of sadism and sex...
Long in the making, and rejected by thirty-five publishers, this clever, exuberant philosophical novel, the winner of three major French prizes, now appears in a splendidly complicit, fluent, vivid translation by Mike Mitchell. Where Tigers Are At Home favours action over character and quirky knowledge over argument, but is never shallow. At its heart it is a clear, Hobbesian reminder that we do not live in a protected Eden but in a land where power is king and tigers are more at home than we are.'
Writing in French a story set in Brazil, Blas de Roblès simultaneously channels Umberto Eco, Indiana Jones, and Jorge Amado in his internationally acclaimed 800-plus–page riff on science, civilization, and self-interest. Fact and fiction interweave through alternating narratives: a French journalist attempts to translate a 17th-century manuscript recording the life of real-life Jesuit scholar Anathasius Kircher as seen through the eyes of his private secretary; the journalist’s ex-wife searches for rare fossils in the Amazon rain forest; the journalist’s daughter seeks oblivion in drugs and sex; Nelson, a 10-year-old crippled beggar, exists among the dregs of society; Carlotta, wife of a corrupt politician, entertains the elite. The novel opens with journalist Eléazard von Wogau reading about
Kircher’s wide-ranging academic studies and acquaintances with figures like Bernini, Galileo, and Sweden’s Queen Christina. But what begins as a faux metabiography turns to picaresque adventure with erotic escapades, scams, and unexpected changes of fortune: Elaine von Wogau’s geological expedition is attacked in the jungle and must seek refuge among headhunters, while her daughter, Moéma, spirals downward into addiction. From a foul-mouthed macaw to Leonardo’s flying machine, this sprawling novel depicts “the absurdity beneath which the criminal stupidity of men generally
This French novel set in North East Brazil follows a French reporter as he writes a book about the polymath Athansisus Kircher, a priest interested in all branches of contemporary knowledge and technology. The action jumps from Brazil to a bio of Kircher. Unusual - one that needs to be read widely.
Late in de Roblès’ remarkable novel, a tribal shaman chants, “Soon the Messenger will guide us to that mountain where visions cascade down uninterruptedly.” This dazzling book is itself such a mountain, overflowing with visions that dramatically enlarge the reader’s imaginative horizons. At the narrative confluence of these surging visions, de Roblès places the complex psyche of Eléazard von Wogau, a French journalist living in Brazil, spending his retirement editing the manuscript of a biography of a seventeenth-century Jesuit, a polymath whose life trajectory exposes theological passions, alchemical secrets, and sensual appetites. Unsettled by the serpentine turns in the life of this dead cleric, Eléazard struggles to cope with the more immediate influence of an ex-wife venturing into a perilous rain forest to do archaeological research and a mercurial daughter hitting the beach with a lesbian lover and a freethinking professor. As Eléazard teeters on the brink of insanity, readers may find their own grip on reality slipping away in a vortex of literary enchantment that fuses arcane scholarship, polymorphic sex, exotic geography, psychedelic drugs, and gruesome violence. Thanks to a gifted translator, English- speaking readers can now understand why European critics have been raving over this astonishing novel, winner of the Prix Médici
Where Tigers are at Home is set in Brazil, in 1982. [The World Cup, going on in the background, supplies the date (which is also around time when author Blas de Roblès was apparently running the local French cultural institute in Fortaleza, which is one of the locales of the novel) -- though in describing Brazil's 2:1 win over the Soviet Union Blas de Roblès frustratingly mistakenly ascribes the second goal to Zico (it was Éder who scored in the 88th minute) and claims that this was the win that put Brazil through into the second round; it was only the first match in group play, and the win didn't assure them of advancing yet (thought they did).] The central figure in the novel is Eléazard von Wogau, who lives in the northeastern town of Alcântara. He is separated from his wife, Elaine, who is making her mark as a paleontologist in Brasilia, and their daughter, Moéma, has moved away from both of them and is a student in Fortaleza. Nominally a foreign correspondent -- but hardly in the thick of any news-reporting in this remote outpost -- Eléazard had, long ago, worked on a thesis on seventeenth century polymath Athanasius Kircher and still: "knew Kircher's works better than anyone -- fifteen years of close acquaintance with a famous unknown are generally sufficient to procure one that useless privilege".
The novel begins with Eléazard having been sent a biographical account of Kircher that is ostensibly the work of one Caspar Schott (better known as Gaspar Schott), who had long been an assistant to the master. Eléazard is commissioned to: "establish the text and provide a commentary", readying it for publication. Much of the novel presents chunks from the Schott-manuscript directly, recounting Kircher's life and adventures (and Schott's with him), but the chapters also alternate with accounts from what Eléazard, Elaine, and Moéma are up to in the present-day.
Kircher is an intriguing figure. Eléazard describes his fascination with this "perverse polymath" -- who wasn't sexually perverse but rather intellectually so in his encyclopaedic ambitions:
but this guy no one's heard of is an interesting oddity. He wrote about absolutely everything, claiming each time and on each subject to have the sum total of knowledge. That was fairly standard at the time, but what fascinates me about him -- and I'm talking about a man who was a contemporary of people like Leibniz, Galileo, Huygens and was much more famous than they -- is that he was entirely wrong about everything
Eléazard isn't the least fooled by Kircher (unlike lackey Schott, in awe of everything his master and mentor does), and recognizes that:
Kircher's a common manipulator. He tampers with facts until they make sense. His clear conscience is no excuse.
Yet as someone suggests to him: "All of history is nothing but this self-hypnosis in the face of the facts" -- the idea that we only see what we want to see, and selectively take evidence to support our pre-conceived notions, disregarding anything that is contrary. Given this, this person suggests to Eléazard:
You're dreaming up Kircher at least as much as he dreamt himself up, as much as we all dream ourselves up, each in his own way ...
This comes, of course, also as a reminder of what fiction is and does. There are no writers of fiction in the novel -- no novelists (or at least no writers presenting themselves as such ...) -- but Kircher is an arch-fabulist, creating a world of his own invention, and Schott is his scribe, documenting this fantasy world -- even as they take it for real (with the occasional Quixotean realization that they are tilting at windmills ...). Reading the manuscript, Eléazard -- and the reader -- can smile (and occasionally laugh out loud) at the silliness of some of their interpretations, yet their self-deluded sincerity is ultimately no different than Eléazard's (or the reader's ...).
Kircher and Schott's adventures are good fun all by themselves: Blas de Roblès could have carved out Schott's manuscript and it would stand alone quite nicely as an entertaining mock-biography. But there's a whole lot more to the novel, beginning with Eléazard's rambling about, and the introduction of a new woman in his life -- the interested yet hesitant Loredana, a rare visitor to Alcântara (begging the question of what the hell she's doing there -- something she doesn't care to share immediately). Meanwhile, carefree Moéma is acting up and out, enjoying a passionate lesbian affair, doing drugs and wasting dad's money in a variety of ways; among her adventures is an outing she takes a visiting lecturer, Roetgen, on, to a very out of the way seaside village. Finally, there's Elaine, who heads deep into the Mato Grosso in search of a possible incredibly important fossil find; she and some colleagues wind up on the boat of a suspect German immigrant in the hopes of making their way to their destination, but things soon go horribly wrong.
Eléazard remains largely within his element -- in backwater Alcântara, with Kircher to pre-occupy himself with --, distracted only by the the new woman in town, and the questionable doings of a local politician (as something big is underway in Alcântara -- the establishment of a grand resort ? an American military base ?). Elaine and Moéma, meanwhile, are pushed to ther limits as they lose the holds that anchor them, Elaine deep in the Brazilian jungle, and Moéma closer to home. The characters are not brought together, but there stories are, in quite clever ways.
An old friend of Eléazard describes him as:
The kind of guy who's always preoccupied with the world and with himself and despite that not very perceptive about other people.
So too Elaine and Moéma, as Where Tigers are at Home turns out to be a novel where each man (and woman) is an island. But credit Blas de Roblès with considerable imagination in how their very different journeys of self-discovery are presented (and also concluded) -- so also even with the 'island' one of them literally finds herself on.
This is a novel of knowledge-seeking, from Kircher forcing interpretations on every fact he comes across to Eléazard's struggles with the figure of Kircher, whom he continues to have trouble coming to grips with, to Moéma's repeated recourse to drugs. (Indeed, drug-(ab)use is rife in the novel -- and, like all the other paths to enlightenment taken by the various characters, little good comes of it.) And, as Eléazard comes to understand in the end, fiction:
represented more faithfully than any scientific study our poignant, unhealthy and obsessive determination to romanticize our existence. The message, if there was one, came down to this: the reflection always wins out over the reflected object, anamorphosis always has a greater power of truth than the object it at first sight distorts and transforms.
Yes, Where Tigers are at Home is a philosophical novel, but in the best tradition of old-school philosophical novels -- like Goethe's Elective Affinities, from which it takes its title -- it is events rather than abstract thought that propel the narrative. And aside from any deeper meanings Blas de Roblès layers on, the novel offers a fairly rousing set of stories, from Kircher's fascinating life to Elaine's jungle adventures to political manipulations and the various get-togethers, from festivals to a political rally, where people are (or can be) 'not quite themselves'. Yet Blas de Roblès is careful not to make this some sort of non-stop action novel, instead pacing it carefully and well (with the frequent switches from one narrative thread to the next keeping reader-interest from flagging at any given point).
In one of the books many beautiful images, Loredana suggests to Eléazard
There's not much left of a story when it's finished. Stuff floating on the sea, like after a shipwreck ...
Where Tigers are at Home leaves readers with much such flotsam -- but also with greater satisfactions. An elaborate but well-conceived and presented work of fiction, Where Tigers are at Home repeatedly surprises -- and, despite its occasional violence (and, ultimately, very high body count) is far from a depressing take on the human condition. A very good adventure tale -- of both the intellectual and traditional kind --, Where Tigers are at Home is creative fiction of a very high order.