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 admissions, describes his physical deformities and the excruciating psychological suffering occasioned him by it through his "central" existence during an age that ill tolerated physical imperfection, believing it to be a sign of inner weaknesses. (p. 33)
Pursuing his central conceit of inverting Renaissance values and infusing them with the black humor of contemporary civilization, Mujica Láinez has Orsini (who may claim to be a faithful figure of the author himself as he would care to be remembered) find himself as a black magician. Not the Renaissance magus who would decipher God's universe, but the necromancer who would plumb the black hell of his own soul. The final result, with much human suffering along the way, is the famous Park of Bomarzo. Intended to clash sardonically on one level with the immense Renaissance murals of the palace detailing the hollow public frame of the master, the Park is an embodiment in horrendous and Gargantuan stone figures of the baroque images of the Duke's inner consciousness. The figures are literally a panoramic representation of the horror, despair and evil of his intensely private human existence, an existence that is incomprehensible to his own contemporaries and, one supposes, only really consciously meaningful to Orsini himself four hundred years later.
Why the Renaissance? Certainly the novel does have something of an aura of falseness about it, although Mujica is too sensitive and dynamic a writer to serve up to the reader unassimilated literary archaeology. My own guess is that many of us in the West still labor under that paradigmatic Burckhardtian-Nietzschean myth of the Renaissance, and one of its most potent legacies, that man is the measure of all things, primarily since he is made in the image of the Divine Being. One need not insist too much that the modern intellectual finds such a cheery if well-worn belief unacceptable. By having Orsini portray himself in the awesome dimensions of contemporary Everyman while still an integrated partipant in the pageant of the Renaissance, Mujica Láinez not only reinforces the validity of the Duke's tortured being, but he offers as well a telling denunciation of the positive man-centered values that we cherish as our Renaissance inheritance. The portrait is magnificent, but the Park of Bomarzo is what brings man to the stark contemplation of his own inner abyss, and for that reason—the elaborate backdrop of the novel aside—it remains, as the title, the more potent of the two metaphors. Orsini's value as a witness is not so much in his self-realization, but in the clinical, detached manner in which he expresses it, as the inescapable and therefore only necessary drama that must preoccupy man. The novel's central conceit and its ironic anachronism become in the end effective devices in support of this original perspective on what is virtually a contemporary psychological—or psychoanalytic—truism. The Park of Bomarzo with its weird and immense figures of stone is Orsini's only true immortality that had been forecast for him by the stars. It is an immortality of his misshapen soul, which is far more tangible than that of his surviving twisted physical form.
To a great extent, Bomarzo deserves to be called autobiographical, not because its details are in any sense a key to Mujica Láinez' personal life, but to the very extent that the author-narrator considers himself, in his artistic perception, the immortal embodiment of the Duke. The novel itself is a reenactment, so to speak, of the latent drama of the immobile figures of the Park, and in attempting to recreate their prehistory, the novelist offers his own equally immortal version of the Garden, its mirror-image as well as its horrifying interpretation as a metaphor of the human soul. (pp. 33-4)
David William Foster, "The Monstrous in Two Argentine Novels," in Américas, Vol. 24, No. 2, February, 1972, pp. 33-6.∗