The Wandering Unicorn, by Manuel Mujica Lainez

If the last novel I reviewed was a typical Latin American novel written by a European, this is a European novel written by a Latin American (an Argentinian). In fact, I can’t think of a Latin American novel I’ve read which is as untypically Latin American, or has as little interest in Latin American themes or the Latin American experience. But saying it is a European novel is also wide of the mark. The work I’m reading currently which it has most in common with is that pre-Don Quixote medieval saga, Tirant lo Blanc. For Mujica Lainez’s book is more or less a faux-medieval romance crossed with the novel.

My edition has an introduction by Jorge Luis Borges in which he denounces the realistic novel, the psychological novel and the avant-garde (“the arduous experiments of Joyce”), and suggests that future generations will return to novels of adventure – he mentions Stevenson, Hugo and – Ariosto. I understand where Borges is coming from; it is what he claims throughout his writings, even if his own fictions seem to be mere scholarly reflection on the thing rather than the thing itself; and it is in the list of things he admires, including this novel.

So what’s it about: – it’s about a fairy Melusine and her love for a knight called Aiol. Much of its early part is spent in France, as the characters concern themselves with knightly matters and jousts, before everyone sets off for the Holy Land to fight Saladin. (Which is, of course, pretty much the same plot as Tirant lo Blanc – except in the latter book the early action is largely relocated to England). The fairy is immortal and is telling the story from the present day, recalling these medieval events from her past, which perhaps justifies the novelistic encroachments into an otherwise medieval pastiche (not, of course, that it needs any such justification). For on saying it’s a medieval novel, it also comes as no surprise that it was written in the 1960s. Courtly love is portrayed much in the manner of free love, which I have an idea it was not; – it’s portrayed as a suspect challenge to the prevalent moral orthodoxy; – but, on the other hand, I feel a bit more tentative about my concept of courtly love after reading this, since Mujica Lainez demonstrates a familiarity with, in particular, troubadour poetry which I do not have. Nonetheless I still sense there was something fundamentally illicit about adultery in medieval courtly circles which possibly doesn’t come across in Mujica Lainez.

Anyhow, it’s good fun; but not, pace Borges, I feel, of any great significance [he says, as he plans his own faux-medieval works].

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