Leopoldo Brizuela: Inglaterra. Una fábula [England. A Fable]
Why has this not been translated into English? I admit that I was attracted by the title as well as by Brizuela’s reputation and I was not disappointed. I had just finished reading Diego Marani‘s Nuova grammatica finlandese (New Finnish Grammar) when I read this. Marani’s book superbly synthesises an Italian perspective of Finland – two countries not generally associated – while this one brilliantly synthesis an Argentinean perspective of England, two countries which have some historical association but are still very different. Of course, another Spanish-speaking writer, the Spaniard, Javier Marías, has written about England and Englishness but not in the way that Brizuela does.
The story starts with a group of researchers arriving at a remote island in the Tierra del Fuego area, where they find the only inhabitant, a native called Waichai, after whom the island is named. (Don’t look for it on maps. It does not exist.) There they find documents about the famous English circus, the Great Will, and the Countess Broadback. The novel tells the story of these two. The Great Will (named after William Shakespeare) was a theatrical company going back to Shakespeare’s time. However, much of the narrative tells of what happened in the 19th century. Count Axel took it over. The Count, unfortunately, was insane. He is passionate about Shakespeare. Within the theatrical group there are two strands – the group, led by Sir Gielgud, who think Shakespeare is God and another more moderate group, led by Mr. Soerensen, who consider Shakespeare a great writer but no more. Count Axel is of the former persuasion. For example he spends a significant amount of his fortune on hiring everyone in the town of Elsinore as actors. Indeed, we first meet him when his troupe are on a ship, with all hands struggling against a fierce storm, while the Count stands at the helm declaiming from the Complete Work of Shakespeare.
We follow the adventures of the group. There is the merger with an Italian circus (hence the reference in Waichai’s documents), the influence of the Russian (as he is always called) on Count Axel and, in particular, the Count’s marriage. He is taken by a young woman, daughter of the Pastor of the Church of the Word, who can prophesise and who is known as the Prophet Girl. He soon marries her and they travel together, including meeting Oscar Wilde and Lord Alfred Douglas. When he dies, she inherits and becomes Countess. She has always been looking for what she calls the name of her destiny and decides to set off for Latin America to find it. She starts at the Panama Canal but they soon head for Patagonia, where the Countess feels that her destiny is to be found. While navigating the Beagle Channel, they are shipwrecked, where they land on an island (the island that will become Waichai’s Island) and where the Countess does indeed find her destiny though it is not what she (or we) expected. However, both before we arrive here and afterwards, the whole story and, to a great extent, the story of England, has become inextricably linked with the story of The Tempest, with Brizuela explaining how Shakespeare got the story (not the conventional view of Shakespeare’s source), including the role of the wittily named sailor, Sir Stephen Dedalus. The Countess finds herself linked to Caliban, though how this is done is not obvious.
Brizuela tells a superb story, mixing in fable, the occult and pseudo-realism and jumping about between the past and present, with mad adventures, discussions on truth and art and a view of England which might not be quite what the English reader is used to. Indeed, the Argentinianed England is what makes this book so worthwhile. And what a pity that you can read it in French or German but not English.
First published by Clarín Aguilar in 1999
No English translation
Published in French as Angleterre: une fable by José Corti in 2004
Published in German as Inglaterra by Berliner Taschenbuch-Verlag in 2006