John Walker

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1099

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 Fuentes' treatment of the Mexican Revolution in The Death of Artemio Cruz, or Cortázar's monumental blockbuster Hopscotch, or Vargas Llosa's indictment of Peruvian society in Time of the Hero. As an "anachronistic" Argentine writer, Mujica Lainez would appear to have little in common with any of the above, although The Wandering Unicorn was published in 1965, right in the middle of the boom.

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Argentine literature has, not surprisingly, reflected something of the development of that country…. As one of the "white" republics which sought the panaceas of education and immigration (especially Anglo-Saxon), Argentina, in its rootlessness, has spent the twentieth century questing for its identity, looking back nostalgically to the nineteenth century (gaucho and country) while trying to cope with the realities of Europeanization, the city and a whole existentialist strain which is characteristic of contemporary River Plate literature.

Perhaps because of this very rootlessness, the existentialist concerns and the eternal search for la argentinidad (the essence of Argentine-ness), there has also grown up in the Plate region literature a "fantastic" current, as manifested in some of the work of the aforementioned Cortázar, Bioy Casares and perhaps the best known of all Latin American writers, Jorge Luis Borges, who in his ficciones has created a world of the imagination difficult to distinguish from the "real" world, whatever that might be, Borges would surely add. (pp. 1224-25)

In introducing Mujica Lainez I used the word "anachronistic," since in a sense he is not of this world or of this century. By style, temperament and cultural awareness, Mujica Lainez belongs to the Europeanized, cosmopolitan aristocracy of the nineteenth century. As a poet-magician he makes use of the qualities of magic and fantasy and has recourse to the world of the supernatural, mythology and legend, not so much to reconstruct the past but to offer us what Borges calls "a glowing dream set in the past." When one reads The Wandering Unicorn one forgets the mythological trappings and is convinced by the verisimilitude and credibility of these legendary but real characters.

The Wandering Unicorn … was published three years after the appearance of perhaps [Mujica Lainez's] best known and most successful novel, Bomarzo …, an imaginary recreation of the life of the little known Italian Renaissance duke Pier Francesco Orsini. As in Bomarzo, the narrator of The Wandering Unicorn relates (from her favorite bell tower) what happened to her centuries before. The fairy Melusine, as legend tells us, was cursed by her wicked mother, and thus turns into a serpent-woman every Saturday. She is forbidden to reveal her terrible secret to her husband, who nevertheless finds out. Thus Melusine is fated to remain trapped half-woman, half-serpent for all time. (p. 1225)

There is so much to admire in The Wandering Unicorn—the language is rich, colorful, brilliant, and expressive. Through the medium of his fairy narrator he informs, educates, entertains, surprises, and shocks us with his matter-of-fact but humorous and telling instruction, nay correction, about life in the Middle Ages—for example, the alleged lack of hygiene. "Whatever they tell you, we liked bathing in the Middle Ages. I was there, and I know…. Dirt came in later, with the Puritans." How deliciously ironic and illuminating. But one must not think of the medieval period in such prosaic and mundane terms. After all, Melusine is a fairy: "There are angels too. You may be sure that angels and fairies exist, as they did in the Middle Ages. Angel and fairy—they were the Middle Ages. And the Devil, of course." But although Melusine is a fairy, her ambition is to be a nice, peaceful, ordinary housewife. With just a little tongue in cheek, Mujica Lainez links the past and present with a satirical explanation of her condition: "I had to wait for Sigmund Freud to illustrate the motives behind my mother's excessive reaction, and to show that she was in fact frustrated and revenging herself on me."

The Wandering Unicorn is a fascinating, thought-provoking, challenging novel which, for all its fantasy, is never mere escapism, although it does restore to contemporary fiction what Borges calls "the sense of destiny, of adventure with its hopes and fears." In the life of the protagonist Melusine, one sees the theme of immortality, not just in its religious sense, although in the spiritual world of the Middle Ages this is an obvious concern, as we see in the climactic ascension to heaven of Aiol and the Leper-King…. Melusine, who is already inflicted with the curse of immortality, an earthly immortality, cannot aspire to that kind of glory. She sinks earthwards once more, companionless forever, to suffer the fate of alienation, the incommunicability of the sexes—the existentialist themes of other Argentine writers, which brings us and Mujica Lainez back to Earth and our own time, alongside other great contemporary writers of the River Plate region like Mallea, Sábato, Onetti, and Cortázar.

Manuel Mujica Lainez, the aristocratic dandy and exemplar of nineteenth-century Argentina, appears to be an anachronism in the crassly materialistic philistine world of the 1980s of cosmopolitan Buenos Aires—and North America. The Wandering Unicorn appears to be just a brilliant and imaginative exercise in the recreation of places and times of far away and long ago. However, by his treatment of the eternal themes of life and death, love and hate, mortality and immortality, and the search for values and ideals, Mujica Lainez transcends the geographical and chronological barriers to penetrate to the heart of the human condition. With such metaphysical concerns he raises himself to the level of the universal writer. To have achieved all this with a fine prose (well translated by Mary Fitton) that corresponds to the profound themes treated, Mujica Lainez reveals himself to be a great artist. (pp. 1225-26)

John Walker, in a review of "The Wandering Unicorn," in Queen's Quarterly, Vol. 90, No. 4, Winter, 1983, pp. 1224-26.

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