The OF Blog: Manuel Mujica Lainez, El unicornio (The Wandering Unicorn)

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Manuel Mujica Lainez, El unicornio (The Wandering Unicorn)

Manuel Mujica Lainez was one of Argentina's foremost fantasists during the mid-20th century.  About four years ago, I received as a gift from an Argentine friend of mine a copy of his Misteriosa Buenos Aires, where he explored that city's four centuries of history utilizing both mythic and historical records.  I enjoyed that book quite a bit and have re-read it on three other occasions in the interim.  So it was with high expectations that I began reading his most overt fantasy, El unicornio (or The Wandering Unicorn in English).  Sadly, those expectations were mostly unfulfilled. 

The story revolves around the medieval legend of Melusine, a hybrid fairy-human who is cursed to have the (occasional) appearance of a woman from the waist up and a serpent from the waist down.  In Mujica Lainez's version of the tale, Melusine meets up with a descendant of hers, Aiol, and she relates her history to him as he travels across Europe to join with the Third Crusade.  Since much of the story revolves around Melusine's past, there are many digressions into her past and themes of forbidden and lost love are explored in several fashions.

This story is one of those rare few novels where I found myself marveling over the prose and totally failing to engage with the story.  Mujica Lainez, at least in the Spanish original (I have heard that the English translation is poor in comparison, but since I have not read it in translation, I cannot weigh in on its qualities), writes beautifully.  I found myself reading and re-reading several passages throughout the novel, especially in the first three chapters, because of how ornate and beautiful the prose was for me.  However, I had great difficulty in caring for the actual stories embedded.  In particular, Aiol was mostly a cipher for me and I really could not engage with the scenes in which he appeared.  Melusine was more interesting, but after a while, the digressions became too much and the story felt weighted down by these flashbacks to her tragic past.  While the story does a good job in giving the sense that it is medieval in origin, ultimately I just could not engage with the text, making for a tedious story despite the beautiful passages interspersed among its pages. 

Perhaps a re-read in the future will improve my opinion of the story, but for now, The Wandering Unicorn is one of the worst stories I have read this year that was not part of the WoT series.  Considering that there are some good qualities to the story, that is in turn damning of the tale and a testament to the novels that I have read for the first time this year (the WoT series being the notable exceptions).  Maybe others can enjoy the story as much as the prose; I just could not.


Mihai (Dark Wolf) said...

I find myself buying more and more Spanish language literature lately. Translated for now, but I am thinking of trying a book in Spanish. For the moment I am reading soccer articles in Spanish for a chance to improve the language, but it is not always easy. But I do hope to improve it :)
I didn't find Manuel Mujica Lainez in my country, but I did buy many of Adolfo Bioy Casares and Julio Cortazar books lately. And looking in my library I found my copy of Angelica Gorodischer's "Kalpa Imperial" which I plan to read and review by the end of this summer ;)

Larry said...

It shouldn't take you too long then to be able to understand most of what's happening if you already are reading sports articles in Spanish. When I was learning how to read in Spanish, I used to buy a few books in both English translation and the original Spanish so I could practice and learn more Spanish. Within six months (I had already had a few years' casual exposure to the language), I was reading Spanish without much need for a dictionary or a parallel text. Maybe the same could hold true for you?

José said...

Well, that title won't make it to my reading list. If I ever read something by ML, it will certainly be his most famous, Bomarzo, but it's far from being a priority. Thanks for the review Larry.

Larry said...

No problem. It was a shame that I didn't enjoy this more, as I really enjoyed his Misteriosa Buenos Aires.

E. L. Fay said...

Do you know if Misteriosa Buenos Aires is available in English? I seem to be reading a lot of Latin American literature lately. (Which is a nice change, as my translated reads tend to be European.)

Larry said...

I don't believe it is, unfortunately. Have you tried César Aira's Ghost, however? He's a current Argentine writer who has written some great short novels over the past decade. I know Ghosts was released in English translation in the past year, so it should be readily available.

Angelo said...

This novel must be read in Spanish, otherwise, the beauty and elegance is lost.
Truly one of the best novels I have read. Unforgettable.

Larry Nolen said...

Maybe a re-read in the future will improve my opinion of it. But while I do recall it being elegant (I did read it in Spanish), there just was something missing during that read that soured me on it. But I will re-read it in the near future.

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