Manuel Mujica Láinez Critical Essays

Introduction

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].)