Sunday, 13 April 2014

'Where Tigers are at Home' by Jean-Marie Blas de Roblès (Review)

As you may have noticed, I've been rather occupied with translated fiction prizes recently, what with shadowing the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize and casting occasional glances in the direction of the American Best Translated Book Award.  However, it's important to remember that (as I've mentioned on several occasions) the judges for these things are far from infallible - and today's book is one which, somehow or other seems to have fallen between the cracks on both sides of the Atlantic.

Which is quite a feat, seeing as it's a very big book ;)

Jean-Marie Blas de Roblès' Where Tigers are at Home (translated by Mike Mitchell, review copy courtesy of Other Press) is a big book in every sense of the word.  Running to 817 pages in my beautiful hardback edition, the novel is a wonderful look at history, geography and many other sciences besides, all wrapped up in several related stories involving characters who manage to reach across time and space to have an effect on other people.

We start off with expatriate French correspondent, Eléazard von Wogau, a man living in the provinces of Brazil sending occasional reports back home about Brazilian news, most of which are simply ignored.  With his geologist wife, Elaine, having left him, and his daughter, Moéma, off having fun at university, von Wogau uses his time translating a document he has been sent, a biography of the life of famed seventeenth-century Jesuit and polymath Athanasius Kircher.  It's a fascinating story, and one which intrigues both von Wogau and the reader, but there's a lot more to Where the Tigers are at Home than that.

Eventually, the writer introduces several other strands to the tale: we follow Elaine von Wogau as she sets off on a perilous journey into the Brazilian interior in search of fossils; Moéma's story is played out on the beaches and in the shanty towns; Nelson, a young crippled beggar, gradually enters the story, destined to cross paths with several of the other characters; and Governor José Moreira, a corrupt politician with plans to transform the region, will eventually cast his shadow across all of the stories...

If one thing has come across from the few paragraphs I've written so far, it's that Where Tigers are at Home is a rather expansive and ambitious work.  It's one where the reader is compelled to take the writer's intentions on trust, as it takes a long time for the underlying framework of the novel to become clear.  With Caspar Schott's biography of his mentor Athanasius Kircher taking up a good third of the novel (these sections begin every chapter), an impatient reader may well give up before the story gets into second gear.  However, the book is well worth persisting with, and each of the strands is interesting in its own right.

As mentioned, the biography takes up the bulk of the novel, and on its own it's interesting to read.  It follows the (real-life) Kircher throughout his travels, as he wanders Europe in a quest for knowledge, hoping to unlock the secrets of the universe and link them all back to an all-powerful deity.  While he is undoubtedly a genius, the trouble is that he is working from a false premise - and almost everything he comes up with is completely lacking in facts...

Much of the humour from this part comes from the hapless Schott, the Doctor Watson to Kircher's Sherlock, and while his master braves evil to further the church's aims, it always seems to be the assistant who has to take one for the team.  A particularly memorable episode is when Caspar encounters a beautiful lady of high standing, who turns out to be more interested in worldly pleasures than in heavenly delights.  Poor Caspar, trapped by events, is forced to submit to her wishes:
"Lingua mea in nobilissimae os adacta, spiculum usque ad cor illi penetravit."
p.269 (Other Press, 2013)
It's a little too racy for me to put into English here, but if you are interested in Latin porn, there's always Google Translate ;)

The whole point of Kircher's story, though, is the way it reflects on events taking place in contemporary Brazil, as the actions described in Schott's biography mirror those elsewhere in the chapters.  The debauchery at the prince's house is contrasted both with an evening party at Governor Moreira's mansion and with a frenzied native ritual in the jungle.  When Kircher foils a charlatan who claims to have the secrets of alchemy at his fingertips, Nelson then tells us of a girl who was tempted with sweets, only to wake up with no eyes...

The title of the book comes from Goethe's Elective Affinities (Die Wahlverwandtschaften), from a passage that says:
"No one can walk beneath palm trees with impunity,
           and ideas are sure to change in a land where
                           elephants and tigers are at home."
However, as Eléazard argues with a friend, what this passage actually means is up for debate.  Are we obliged to travel the world and broaden our horizons, or does becoming aware of the wider world blind us to what is going on around us?  To paraphrase, is increasing globalisation a good thing?  As Eléazard remarks:
"What can one say of a population that is incapable of visualizing the world in which it lives except that it's on the road to ruin for lack of landmarks, of reference points?  For lack of reality... Is not the way the world has of henceforth resisting our efforts to represent it, the mischievous pleasure it takes in escaping us, a symptom of the fact that we have already lost it?  To lose sight of the world, is that not to begin to be happy with its disappearance?" (p.782)
A rather telling thought in the land of the rapidly disappearing rainforests.

It's here that the Brazilian side of the story comes into its own, as several of the protagonists have their own encounters with indigenous culture, all falling victim to the lure of the exotic.  Moéma's desire to atone for her privileged upbringing takes her to some rather dark places, while her lecturer, Roetgen, finds his own connection with the past on a fishing trip with some locals.  It's Elaine, though, who has the most confronting encounter - in pursuing knowledge from hundreds of millions of years ago, she is brought face to face with a slightly more recent past...

At which point, I have to simply give up on analysis and recommend you to the work instead.  There's far too much here to be covered in a single post, and in the end I'm reduced to offering tempting comparisons, hoping to entice you into giving Where Tigers are at Home a read.  One of those would undoubtedly be David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas, for while the set-up is slightly different, both books share an overarching ambition and a desire to let people know that what we think we know is not always right - and that progress isn't always a good thing.  If you're the sort of person who was able to stay with Cloud Atlas, trusting that the writer was steering you in the right direction, then this might be a book for you :)

Sadly, as I said in my introduction, Where Tigers are at Home has been strangely overlooked.  The Dedalus Books UK edition pretty much sank without trace, and while Other Press' US version has received more praise, it was still, inexplicably overlooked for the BTBA longlist this year.  Why?  Well, it's a rather off-putting beast, and I suspect that many people simply couldn't bring themselves to give it a go.  A book centred on a Jesuit priest, a novel which you might struggle to lift if you haven't been eating your greens - I can see how that could be a bit of a hard sell.

However, while taking a leap of faith isn't always a good idea (and there are several examples of that in the book...), this is one time when it's definitely worth the risk.  Yes, there might be tigers out there, but if you don't venture out into the literary jungle from time to time, you're never going to stumble across the gold that's buried in its midst.  Deep breath, turn the page - and off you go ;)