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Sunday, March 10, 2013

"Where Tigers Are at Home" by Jean-Marie Blas de Robles (Reviewed by Liviu Suciu)

"Winner of the Prix Médicis, this multifaceted literary novel follows the Jesuit scholar Athanasius Kircher across 17th century Europe and Eleazard von Wogau, a retired French correspondent, through modern Brazil.

When Eleazard begins editing a strange, unpublished biography of Kircher, the rest of his life seems to begin unraveling—his ex-wife goes on a dangerous geological expedition to Mato Grosso; his daughter abandons school to travel with her young professor and her lesbian lover to an indigenous beach town, where the trio use drugs and form interdependent sexual relationships; and Eleazard himself starts losing his sanity, escalated by loneliness, and his work on the biography. Patterns begin to emerge from these interwoven narratives, which develop toward a mesmerizing climax.

Shortlisted for the Goncourt Prize and the European Book Award, and already translated into 14 languages, Where Tigers Are At Home is large-scale epic, at once literary and entertaining, that belongs in the company of Umberto Eco and Haruki Murakami."

Where Tigers Are at Home by Jean Marie Blas de Robles is a "big book" in both page count and themes, book that just cannot be put down after the first 50-100 pages where we get acquainted with what is what.

The narration has 6 strands - 5 that take place in contemporary Brazil and follow the fates of an intertwined group of people - the "middle class" von Wogau family and various people connected with them, the rich Moreira and retainers, the poor and disabled Nelson and his "uncle" Ze - and the 6th that follows Father Athanasius Kircher's life and deeds as told by faithful secretary Caspar Schott in the turbulent 17th century where what we know today as the modern scientific worldview has started to appear and compete with the traditional religious mindset; this last thread is almost as big as the other 5 in page count and contains both a snapshot of those turbulent times and an assortment of oddities.

French news correspondent and independent scholar Eleazard von Wogau is going through a painful divorce with archaeologist Brazilian wife Elaine and has moved to Alcantara, a decrepit provincial town where he is sent by his editors an incredible recent discovery, namely an original manuscript from the 17th century purporting to tell the life of Father Kirchner. Eleazard starts
preparing the manuscript for publication and annotating it heavily, while getting involved with a mysterious Italian lady of many secrets.
His daughter Moema chooses to stay away from both parents and start college in Fortaleza at quite a distance from them, while indulging in drugs, a same sex relationship with roommate Thais and flings with various men, most notable being French lecturer Roetgen whom she takes on a trip to an isolated beach village.

Elaine - a professor at the University of Brazilia - is going on the jungle archaeology trip of a lifetime with a few colleagues, including star paleo-zoologist Dietlev who is her current on and off lover and the just minted geology PhD Mauro, son of rich Maranhao governor Moreira who is corrupt and involved in very shady stuff as most of his money actually comes from his Countess wife Carlotta while he only administers it in her name.

In the Fortaleza Favela de Pirambu, 15 year old "reduced" Nelson is scrapping a begging and occasional thievery life and dreaming of famed outlaw Lampiao and of better things, while squirreling money to buy his dream wheelchair - Nelson has no legs from birth. Nelson is being helped/tutored by truck driver, "uncle" Ze, as his real father has died long ago in an work accident in one of Moreira's factories.

All these tales intertwine and get associated with the life and times of Father Kircher who was in some ways the last polymath of the pre-scientific world and who wrote tons of books on everything and more, collecting all the oddities known at the time. However as he insisted on filtering everything through his Jesuit teachings, he was also generally wrong about everything scientifically speaking.

Where Tigers Are at Home is a novel that deserves all the accolades and prizes it got as it succeeds in everything - narrative energy that keeps one turning pages and wanting to know what happens next, interesting characters from the distant genius Kircher as seen by his adoring pupil, to the earnest Eleazard and the oddly compelling Moema and Nelson, superb atmosphere that moves from the quiet town, to the wild jungle, the college life and the beach party, all in seamless transitions which intertwine to the literally half-world away in space of and time that was Europe of the 17th century. 

The clear number one novel of the year for me so far (going by the US translation just published in March 2013, while the UK edition appeared in 2011) and a novel that I believe will be hard to top the rest of the year.


Anonymous said...

What a pitty to have as a candidate for "best book of the year" a novel which can hardly be described as SFF on a site called Fantasy Book Critic...

Liviu said...

the best book is the best book so to speak; sff or not (and this is definitely associational though not overt sff true) has nothing to do with it

Anonymous said...

Have you read 'Where the Tigers are Home'?

As an adult, I went back to reading Sci-Fi/F via reading magic realism, Literature that incorporates myth, fairy tales or otherworldly creatures & speculative fiction.

Are L. Ron, Robert E. Howard & Edgar Rice Burroughs considered more legitimate genre writers than Ben Okri, John Crowley, Borges, Calvino, Rushdie, Saramago & Jeff Vandermeer? Do any of these writers create realistic stories that could actually occur? If one actually understands the definition of SFF, all of the above writers fall into the category of genre writers. However, for me, the latter author grouping & de Robles far exceed in talent than the former authors mentioned above.

Liviu, thanks for your thoughtful review. :-)

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