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Jean-Marie Blas de Roblès: Là où les tigres sont chez eux (Where Tigers are at Home)

Jean-Marie Blas de Roblès spent many years writing this novel. It is huge – well over a thousand pages – and full of a series of complicated, more or less interlinking stories, all set in Brazil.

The title comes from a quote by Goethe: No one can walk beneath palm trees with impunity, and ideas are sure to change in a land where elephants and tigers are at home. As we shall see, this is very relevant.

Our hero is Eléazard von Wogau, a Frenchman who had a German father and French mother. He is currently living in Brazil, specifically in Alcântara. He is divorced from Elaine. His source of income is that he is the Brazilian correspondent for unspecified newspapers but, while he does write such articles, they are not often published, as the French are not interested in Brazil. Nevertheless, he seems comfortably off financially, able to buy the house he lives in and unwittingly fund his daughter’s hard drug use.

A manuscript has recently been found. It was (allegedly) written by Gaspar Schott (Caspar in the French), who was the assistant to Athanasius Kircher, the Jesuit polymath, who also appeared in a book I reviewed recently, Daniel Kehlmann‘s Tyll [Till]. Von Wogau had been very interested in Kircher and was considered something of an expert on him but is much less so now. Nevertheless, he has been asked to provide a commentary on the manuscript

The story consists of chapters on Kircher, as well as chapters on the other stories. To be honest, some of the story of Kircher is not much more than standard biography (I was able to check much of it against the Wikipedia linked above), though we do get some colourful stories which, to a great extent, is the raison d’être of this book. In particular, we learn that Kircher was very interested in Egyptian hieroglyphics though we also learn various other titbits about him. Some of the episodes, however, are clearly the invention of the author.

We are also following the story of Elaine, von Wogau’s ex-wife. She hated Alcântara. She is a paleontologist and has now joined up with an expedition hunting fossils near the Bolivia/Paraguay/Brazil border. This is not an easy task. First they have to take the train of death then they find that their route to the fossil area is barred by bandits who hunt crocodiles for their skins and use machine guns to shoot interlopers.

Meanwhile, Moéma, their daughter, is living with her girlfriend in a Lesbian relationship and the pair are doing hard drugs. She asks her father for money, using various pretences – opening a bar is the latest – and he gullibly hands over the cash, earning not the gratitude but the contempt of his daughter.

We then meet Loredana, an Italian woman, who has bumped into von Wogau in a local restaurant though it seems that this was no accident. Indeed, she seems to be very knowledgable about Athanasius Kircher. She claims that she is involved with selling and buying precious stones but she is clearly hiding something.

A state governor, José Moreira da Rocha, using corrupt methods to buy some land for devious means and a handicapped man, Nelson, whose hero is the famous Brazilian bandit Lampião are just two more of the stories we get.

Naturally, at first, we wonder how these stories link up. Indeed, in a couple of cases, it does not become entirely clear till nearly the end of the book but, of course, they do – to some extent.

All the stories develop. We follow Kircher’s life course, his intellectual endeavours, his travels and his contacts with the Great and Good of his era, all faithfully narrated by his Boswell. The adventures of Elaine and her companions get more and more complex and nothing really goes well. We learn that one of the expedition members is the son of the state governor Moreira.

Governor Moreira is something of a stereotype wicked governor. He drinks, he womanises and he uses all sorts of dirty tricks to preserve his political power and to make money. He is also cruel to his rich wife, who has become an alcoholic. Perhaps not surprisingly, he is in bed with the CIA.

Eléazard von Wogau is on the side of the oppressed, even if much of his time seems to be spent on reading about Kircher, even though he describes Kircher as a vulgar manipulator and accuses him of having a secret vocation for fascism. His other efforts seem to be chasing Loredana. Clearly, Governor Moreira’s actions are not going to meet with his approval.

While this book is not fully in the post-modernist camp, it certainly has some post-modernist traits. There is the obsession with language. I read the book in French. The text also includes phrases and individual words in English, German, Italian, Brazilian Portuguese (with discussion on the nature of this variation of Portuguese), Spanish, Latin and Guaraní and other Brazilian/Paraguayan native languages. Kircher is obsessed with exotic languages, especially but certainly not only Egyptian hieroglyphics and the ur-language which he calls the language of Adam.

In addition we also get our old friend the unrelatable narrator and loads and loads of facts. The Kircher section, in particular, describes in some detail Kircher’s wide learning, from exotic languages to a variety of scientific experiments and discoveries, as well as current thinking on religious doctrine (though the author is keen to point out that Kircher tended to avoid religious controversy). Brazilian fauna, flora, geology and paleontology are also key. Discussions of a wide variety of topics from plagiarism to drug use appear throughout the book.

But did it work? I am not entirely convinced. There were too many of what the French call longueurs or what the more prosaic might call boring bits. I wondered where some of the stories were going and, while, they all, more or less, led somewhere, they all too often took a long time getting there. Clearly, Blas de Roblès, having spent a long time writing this book, really got into the lives of his characters. However, some of the frankly mundane details of their lives were not perhaps quite as interesting to us.

Much of it, of course, was very interesting, particularly the paleontological expedition, much of Kircher’s story and the dirty deeds of governor Moreira, as well as Moreira’s relationship with his wife. Overall, I would say this was a fine book if it had been reduced by around twenty per cent.
Translated by Mike Mitchell

Publishing history

First published 2008 by Zulma
First published in English 2013 by Other Press