Manuel Mujica Láinez Essay - Critical Essays

Láinez, Manuel Mujica


Manuel Mujica Láinez 1910–1984

Argentine novelist, short story writer, biographer, poet, critic, journalist, and essayist.

A prize-winning Argentine author, Mujica Láinez is noted for his elaborate, often fantastic narratives written in a richly elegant prose style. Bomarzo (1962), the novel for which he is best known to English-language readers, is a representative work: the life story of a sixteenth-century Italian duke is recounted several centuries later when he is "reincarnated" as the modern-day author Mujica Láinez. Although he has not attained the critical status of such Latin American writers as Gabriel García Márquez and Julio Cortázar, Mujica Láinez is praised as the author of unusual and striking works which achieve a high order of literary entertainment.

Mujica Láinez began his writing career with short stories, poems, historical romances, and biographies focusing on the history and people of Buenos Aires. The four novels of his "saga of Buenos Aires"—Los ídolos (1953), La casa (1954), Los viajeros (1955), and Invitados en El Paraíso (1957)—established him as an important Argentine author. Taken together, these works chronicle the decay of Argentina's wealthy elite as their society dissolves following the upheaval of the Second World War. The theme of decay is common to the novels of both Mujica Láinez and García Márquez. As George Schanzer has found, Mujica Láinez's De milagros y de melancholías (1968), the history of a fictional South American city, is similar to García Márquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude in that both works follow a city into decay and in both works the characters and events are a combination of the realistic and the fantastic. A crucial difference between them, according to Schanzer, is that while One Hundred Years of Solitude is a work of serious social and political comment, Mujica Láinez's novel "is a parody of Latin American reality." Throughout Mujica Láinez's fiction, humor and irony play a central role.

Mujica Láinez's most popular and acclaimed novel, Bomarzo, is the fictional autobiography of a vengeful, alienated hunchback who was a member of the Italian nobility during the Renaissance. From the vantage point of the twentieth century, and with the benefit of such modern systems of knowledge as psychoanalysis, the duke is able to understand why a historical era that glorified human achievement, and that associated physical imperfections with spiritual flaws, rejected him. Critics have described the prose style of this work as colorful and brilliant. But while many applauded Mujica Láinez's evocation of the past and the skill with which he exposed the tensions and paradoxes of Renaissance thought, some charged that Bomarzo was not supported by any larger or more serious aim than that of telling a fascinating story.

Like Bomarzo, the recently translated El unicorno (1965; The Wandering Unicorn) features a twentieth-century narrator who recounts a story from the distant past, in this instance twelfth-century France, where magical powers and supernatural creatures are a reality. Critics were divided in their reception of this work. Some thought the book enjoyable and have described it in terms of fantasy or escapist literature. One re-viewer has observed that in this work Mujica Láinez neglected to confront the social and political themes which have distinguished much of contemporary Latin American fiction. Others found the book to be built solidly on eternal themes of love, death, and human isolation, praising its author once again for his writing skill and his ability to tell an engaging story.

Two more recent novels, Cecil (1972) and Sergio (1976), have entirely modern settings, though they are no less exemplary of Mujica Láinez's idiosyncratic subjects and techniques. Cecil is an autobiographical rendering of a period in Mujica Láinez's life. The title character is the author's English whippet, and the novel is told through a perspective that is a fusion of man and animal. Sergio is the story of a young boy whose great beauty makes him prey to both men and women. Throughout the narrative the author speaks directly to the reader, commenting on the conflict between pare beauty and a corrupt society. These two novels have been especially praised for their subtlety and ironic humor.

(See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 81-84, Vol. 112 [obituary].)

Robert Evett

[The Opera Society of Washington] climaxed a season distinguished by productions of virtually unknown Haydn and Massenet operas with the world premier of Bomarzo, a product of the Argentine composer Alberto Ginastera and the Argentine poet and novelist Manuel Mujica Lainez.

Both text and music reflect a number of strong influences which have been assimilated with varying degrees of success. (p. 28)

The principal characters themselves are drawn from history. The dukes of Bomarzo were members of the house of Orsini—which, during the high Renaissance, was in fairly constant competition with the Medici, the Farnese and the Borgia for the papacy. During a couple of centuries, the Orsini contributed their fair share of saints to the Roman canon, but these people do not figure in the opera. The "Bomarzo" of the title, Pier Francesco Orsini, succeeded to the dukedom against considerable odds…. The opera endows the duke with formidable sexual problems, exacerbated by his hideous personal appearance and his poisonous involvement with his grandmother. The acting out of his fantasies involves an encounter with a nude courtesan who figures in orgiastic ballets so uninhibited that, a few days before the premiere, some of the ballerinas refused to dance. In the end, the duke dies, poisoned by his own astrologer, at the base of a statue called "The Mouth of Hell."

In spite of the historical basis of the material, it must have taken a great deal of effort on the part of Sr. Mujica Lainez to convert it into acceptable adult theatre. His technique has been to divide the literary drama into a set of short episodes, presented like movie flashbacks, in which the events are seen from the point of view of the Duke, and the symbols are drawn from the sculptures of the Bomarzo estate. What emerges is a disagreeable interior journey, a series of fifteen humiliating defeats in fifteen scenes, in which symbol and metaphor combine to convey the kind of existential horror and nausea one finds in an opera like Berg's Wozzeck. Bomarzo becomes the libretto of an Italian opera by an author who has read Freud, studied the best operas since Pelléas, and presumably seen a lot of Swedish movies. (pp. 28-9)

Robert Evett, "'Bomarzo', Si, 'Rigoletto', No," in The New Republic, Vol. 156, No. 23, June 10, 1967, pp. 28-9.∗


The figures chiseled out of Etruscan boulders include a 19-ft.-high elephant crushing a warrior in its trunk, a giant dismembering a man, a goddess with each pubic hair clearly delineated, and a 20-ft. satanic head whose mouth opens into a large chamber. These overwhelming creations are 50 miles north of Rome. It is known only that they were carved between 1555 and 1585 at the command of Duke Pier Francesco Orsini.

But are they part of a kinky Renaissance Disneyland for a bored nobleman or projections of a tortured soul? When he visited Bomarzo, Argentine Art Critic and Writer Manuel Mujica-Lainez opted for the latter. He had moreover, an odd feeling of having been there before—perhaps in another life.

Combining a scholar's passion for detail with a novelist's fertile imagination, Mujica-Lainez set about constructing from the few known facts a sumptuous fictional Doge's Palace of the mind. Like that famous seat of the Venetian Republic, whose ceiling, walls, and floors constitute a convulsion of visual splendor, Bomarzo's pages glitter with descriptions of processions, land and naval battles, landscapes, and courtesan's sultry rec room and a cabalist's murky study.

Mujica-Lainez conveys not only the well-known creative energies of the Renaissance but its less understood anxieties as well….

Mujica-Lainez focuses this aesthetic and religious conflict in the mind and body of...

(The entire section is 504 words.)

David Gallagher

Although the hero of "Bomarzo" is some 450 years old, the story he offers us is one, relatively speaking, of his youth, in the Renaissance as the hunchbacked Prince Pier Francesco Orsini, Duke of Bomarzo, who, having sustained a long, heroic and sometimes successful battle against impotence through two marriages, fought without distinction in the battle of Lepanto. The tone of the novel recalls Italo Svevo's "Confessions of Zeno." Mujica-Lainez shares Svevo's candidly endearing irony, and like Zeno, Bomarzo is able to bring to bear on his complexed Renaissance life the lessons of psychoanalysis that he has learnt, centuries later, in Buenos Aires. (p. 40)

The Freudian lessons acquired in Buenos Aires are not lost: the hero has killed his father in order to become him—to become the Duke of Bomarzo—but his life is tormented by the guilt his action has inspired. The fantasy of the hero's remarkable age is indeed a useful device to combine a contemporary account of a Renaissance life with the improving perspectives of a 20th-century education in psychoanalysis. Bomarzo is even aware, in retrospect, that the erect swords flourished at his wedding ceremony were boldly flamboyant, though useless, phallic symbols.

"Bomarzo" has been a best seller in Argentina, and it has earned extravagant praise from perhaps the finest Latin American writer, Jorge Luis Borges. It is as easy to speculate on its appeal as it is to imagine the sour reception it will have from many quarters. Is it not impudent, after all, that a writer from an underdeveloped country should be engaged in a reconstruction of the Italian Renaissance aristocracy instead of tackling the problems of his own people?...

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David William Foster

Although unlikely ever to be considered a great novel, Manuel Mujica Láinez's Bomarzo … has certainly been one of the most memorable—and unusual—works of Argentine fiction in recent years…. Through some feat of necromancy Orsini is able to tell his tale, complete with all the appropriate period accoutrements, while ensconced in his twentieth century study beneath his own gaze as painted by Lorenzo Lotto four hundred years before.

The painting is undoubtedly one of the central keys to the novel. The narrator comments ironically on the idealized Renaissance perfection the portrait exudes, a perfection of body that bore scant resemblance to the man's true physique. Orsini, in frank...

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George O. Schanzer

Since 1965, when Peñuelas noted "la ausencia de nombres hispanos en la extensa bibliografía del mito" [the absence of Spanish surnames in the extensive bibliography of myth], the subject of myths has been explored by Hispanic scholars, and comments on their use by Spanish American writers have become quite frequent. Usually such studies or remarks refer to the born narrators among the novelists of the "boom" who do not emphasize self-reflective structure in their works. The use of myths has been noted and studied in Carpentier and García Márquez, among others. This use has been largely overlooked in Manuel Mujica Láinez, especially in De milagros y de melancolías [Of Miracles and Melancholies], which has...

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Kessel Schwartz

Manuel Mujica Láinez, Argentine essayist, journalist, short story writer, and novelist, like Gabriel García Márquez, Julio Cortázar and other giants of contemporary Spanish American fiction, evokes a magic world of fantasy, managing to fuse the abstract with the real and to concretize the ephemeral and the absurd.

Mujica defines [Cecil] …, replete with picaresque humor and French and English interpolations, as "autobiografía novelesca." It takes place near Córdoba in a world partly peopled by ghosts and is narrated by his faithful companion, the English whippet Cecil. Through his love for his master, Cecil, who indulges in his own autobiographical recall, fuses with the writer's mind,...

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Richard A. ValdéS


Manuel Mujica Lainez is a very prolific Argentine author, perhaps best known for his novel Bomarzo…. Sergio is his fourteenth work published by Editorial Sudamericana. It is the story of a young man's introduction to love and the sexual life. Sergio, the protagonist, has the curse/blessing of being beautiful. His unusual attractiveness makes him prey for several men and women who try to force their affection on him…. The subtlety with which [the author] treats erotic subjects and motifs blends well with the humorous and sometimes satiric tone of the novel.

Throughout the novel the author speaks directly to the reader. In so doing he creates the...

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Anne Collins

One way to judge The Wandering Unicorn is as a 322-page-long evasion. Here is an Argentinian writer, Manuel Mujica Lainez, still living in Argentina under the military regime that invented that particularly 20th-century crime, the disappearance. But in this novel he is not accounting for the missing, or risking his neck in a land where storytellers are the only ones with half a chance of getting unreal reality across. Instead, Mujica Lainez is playing, wishing himself into the Middle Ages, among fairies and dragons, devils and angels, holy hermits and knights in the death throes of courtly love. We could judge him harshly, but we won't. In Mujica Lainez' case, wishful thinking is not so much an evasion as a...

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Paul Stuewe

The Wandering Unicorn is a myth-based fantasy of picaresque adventure in medieval Europe, and it is simply delightful: complexly delightful, actually, given the detailed tapestry of love, enchantment, and chivalric valour the author has so beautifully woven around the figure of the serpent-woman Melusine. I particularly enjoyed the tone of the narration, which manages to be simultaneously chatty, suggestive, and gnomic in a way that very few writers—Borges of course among them—can consistently control. It's a marvellous piece of work, and just the thing for anyone who finds Tolkien entertaining but less than adept at the delineation of character.

Paul Stuewe, in a...

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John Walker

To describe Manuel Mujica Lainez as a South American writer, as the dust jacket of The Wandering Unicorn does, is a misnomer which hardly does justice to Argentine literature or to Mujica Lainez. There was of course something of a boom in the fiction of that continent in the 1960s and 1970s, and names like Borges, García Márquez, Carlos Fuentes, Vargas Llosa, and Julio Cortázar became, if not exactly household names, at least well-known enough to figure in the book pages of the New York Times and other reputable publications. However, the only thing they have in common is geography, since a Colombian novel like García Márquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude has little in common with Carlos...

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Anthony Burgess

Manuel Mujica Lainez's [The Wandering Unicorn] comes with an accolade from Borges. The great experimentalist is happy to see here a return to "the sense of destiny, of adventure with its hopes and fears, the tradition of Stevenson, Hugo and—why not?—Ariosto." The old magician has unerringly picked on the essential elements of this strange tale of a twelfth-century knight preparing to help rescue Jerusalem from the hordes of Saladin. It is a good read, like the two romantic spell-binders he mentions, and it has the frank magic of Orlando Furioso, as well as some of its wit and sexual candour. The heroine is a monster, half-human, half-serpent, immortal and no fool, who conceives an immortal lust for...

(The entire section is 189 words.)