Manuel Mujica Láinez

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Kessel Schwartz

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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, observing with his thoughts and seeing with his eyes. We learn of Mujica's need to withdraw from Buenos Aires in order to see clearly within himself. (p. 186)

The villa in which the author lives with his wife, an eighty-eight year old mother, two maiden aunts, and a one-eyed cat is loaded with photographs, drawings, statuary, a 13,000 volume library, and numerous paintings, including one of the fairy Melusina of El unicornio done in the likeness of his wife and one of Heliogabalus, a Roman emperor, Etruscan relics, and a host of other archeological wonders, each with its own memory, literary allusion, or history. The objects have a temporal quality which allows them to live in two worlds at once.

On their walks to visit friends like the septuagenarian French Madame Pamelá or the fortyish Günter, both of whom, along with Mujica, believe in the supernatural, Cecil's master projects imaginary creatures so vividly that they acquire an ephemeral life. Cecil encounters the ghost of Mr. Littlemore, whose legend, love life, and death by poisoning, the writer reconstructs. Cecil tells us the house's history, a composite of truth and legend, and about the people who lived there, fusing relatives, ghosts, and literary images so that it is difficult to separate the limits of one world from another, existence from non-existence.

In addition to recalling his own past, such as his sojourn in Nazi Germany, Mujica, through objects and incidents, creates a new reality. The bust of Jean Rotrou, an almost forgotten seventeenth-century poet, helps him recreate a former owner's life in novelistic terms. While listening to a Renaissance song, the writer recalls Boabdil and Juana la Loca. The painting of Heliogabalus becomes an obsession for Mujica who, after reading countless books on Roman history and antiquities, writes a biography of that third century emperor, transcribed in thirty-five intercalated pages by Cecil. While in the process of creating this work, Mujica is distracted by the impending arrival of a statue of Achilles, which triggers in his mind associations with the French Opera, "Achille et Deidamie" and fragments from the Greek hero's life and times. When the statue finally arrives, the author gives the role of Achilles, in his mental lyrical drama, to Leonardo, a young architecture student with whom he becomes fast friends but who deserts him for the young girl who is writing a study of Mujica's works. Finally, a visit to see some cave drawings sets in motion, in the writer's mind, the phantoms and the real people who have visited the villa, all of whom are overshadowed by his association with Cecil, the final vision of his novel, the one we are now reading. (pp. 186-87)

Kessel Schwartz, in a review of "Cecil," in Hispania, Vol. 57, No. 1, March, 1974, pp. 186-87.

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