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? Those who entertain such reactions should remember that Buenos Aires is a wholly cosmopolitan city, in which the Italian Renaissance is as real to many of its vast proportion of immigrants as the poetry of the pampas and the gauchos.
The novel is, nevertheless, perhaps objectionable on other grounds, for it flaunts the ingredients of a best seller too obviously. Like many best sellers, it presents an irresistibly for-bidden exotic world of princes, palaces and jewels. The reader is flattered into sharing the impressive confidence of the narrator's friends: Catherine of Medici, the innumerable Orsinis, Benvenuto Cellini, Michelangelo Buonarroti, lascivious popes, scheming cardinals, and the Emperor Charles himself. Spiced with a story of sexual impotence conveyed with careful suspense (will he make it on the wedding night or not?) and the decadent elegance of the narrator's palaces, what more could a reader of popular fiction ask?
"Bomarzo" is a skillful novel. It has been rendered into English by the most talented of all translators of Latin-American fiction, Gregory Rabassa. But among a generation of Latin-American writers of such vigorous linguistic and imaginative talent as Alejo Carpentier, Julio Cortázar, Gabriel García Márquez, Mario Vargas Llosa, and Guillermo Cabrera Infante, to name but a few, Mujica Lainez's achievement is indeed a slender one. In the 19th century, under the Romantic aura of elegant historical novels, it would have passed. Indeed, the names dropped (cultural name-dropping is a notorious Argentinian literary habit) have a distinct 19th-century flavor about them: the novelist's heroes are Victor Hugo and Gérald de Nerval, two poets who greatly influenced Latin America's most self-consciously and objectionably exquisite literary school—the modernist movement that flourished in the 1890's. In many ways "Bomarzo" is a modernist novel 80 years late.
In fairness, we may perhaps ask ourselves what it is that allows us to accept a given type of writing if we know it was written at a particular time in the past when we reject it if it is deployed by a writer now…. The sometimes humorous fantasy involved in Bomarzo's great age and the modern perspective that his psychoanalytical bent brings to bear on his subject are lost in nearly 600 pages of sublimely anachronistic narrative. The fact that Svevo is a contemporary of Zeno's makes "The Confessions of Zeno" an incomparably more vigorous novel. The same is true of Lampedusa's "The Leopard." The difference between them is the difference between women's magazine history and literature. (pp. 40-1)
David Gallagher, "Hunchback Methuselah from the Renaissance," in The New York Times Book Review, January 11, 1970, pp. 40-1.