Antonio Benitez-Rojo died long before I ever read his wonderful book, and I never took a class at his college anyway, as I was too busy desperately writing my own fiction to venture more than a few dozen feet away from my Platonic cave and out to the swine-flu-, J-Crew-, infested ways and avenues of Amherst College, by the time I’d read Sea of Lentils. Had Benitez-Rojo still been around, I would have braved the journey.
John Updike has written a great review, a model book review, available at the New Yorker’s website, and I’m not even going to try to compete with that kind of eloquence, nor am I going to complete a short summary of plots or ideas or themes—you can find that in Updike’s review or on Google Books. And you already know that I like the book and that I think you should read it, that it’s a great work of intelligence with broad appeal, so you’re not going to have to wait for my judgment at the end of the review—it’s already here. Instead, you get a passage, and a literary explication, which hopefully interest you.
Some context for the following quote: the young John Hawkins is climbing a mountain with the family of his father’s commercial contact in the Canary Islands. It’s the Age of Discovery. Things are a little different.
…and Don Pedro’s beard was dripping as though made of dark brown moss, and Ines seemed almost dry, like a polished fruit in that region of mists and sulphurous vapors, and they walked along a red lava path and he kept looking at her, looking at her, and then he stopped because Don Pedro had transfixed him with that look of his, and he could see that Don Pedro’s face was puffing up and he was growing bags beneath his eyes and wrinkles on his brow and at the corners of his eyes, and his shoulders sagged and his chest had bent and sunk below his black silk tunic, and the beard had thinned and now seemed poor and blotchy, and he was frightened for a moment, being there among these Pontes, his father had told him once that Don Cristobal was a Jew who knew about sorcery and could read the future in the stars, and now Don Pedro had become almost like Don Cristobal, leaning on the very same gold-handled cane, although his eyes looked at him big and shiny like Ines’s eyes; Ines of the crimson bodice, of the radiant face both orange and apple, an impossible but ripened fruit, Ines of the mouth accentuated by libidinous down, a lip of wine from Malvesie; up above his head the strange Adeje tower room seemed to flash and yearn, and a shudder seized the brocades hanging at the bed and the magnificent tapestries, and it was the wind from the Levant, wind blowing papers from the great stone table, setting the beads dancing on the abacus of ivory and bamboo, rippling charts of planets and of zodiacs, snuffing the candelabra’s seven flames, welcome John, how good to see you, we’ve been waiting for you for so long.
Read it again, read it closely for the style and the feel and the atmosphere, read it closely for the cinematic transformation—forget your need for context, you can only get that from reading the entire book very closely, and I think even the most stalwart of this book’s readers would be challenged by the question of what is going on here? The answer is a technique I’m calling cinematic transformation—Updike’s review provides the appropriate jargon and literary technobabble, “polyrhythms of interruption, divagation, reconsideration, extenuation”, if you prefer an academic terminology with a more classical resonance. He’s quoting an Introduction that was not included in my own edition, perhaps for the better, perhaps referring to the same ideas I’m having now, perhaps not.
The cinematic transformation in this novel is abrupt and confusing, occurring specifically, in the quoted passage, at the delightful semicolon winking between ‘Malvesie’ and ‘up.’ The narrative shifts from the mountain to the tower, from the narrator’s youth to his adulthood—jumping forward in the blink of a very perplexing eye, both for the reader just dipping his toes into this text as well as the reader who’s been thrashing her way through the bathetic depths for 114 pages. The shifting technique in this book is always interesting and never overdone, and so visceral and intense is this language, so purple is this prose, that I feel at times as if I’m watching a film, and that the screen has cut, has twitched, has flipped, from a massive mountain rising over my head like an ocean wave to a sturdy medieval tower hunched over in the gales of a billowing storm. This technique is only one of many arrows stuffed in Benitez-Rojo’s crossbow quiver, and he uses all of them to bull’s-eye effect.
At the same time, this wasn’t the passage I was searching for in this review, and no matter how hard I tried I couldn’t find it. I’ve written earlier about the quantum effect of art, how once we’ve read a book, for example, we may imagine, in our impressionable memories, events and words associated with that book which do not, in fact, exist; and upon re-reading this book, the memory changes, the tower of Adeje burns away in a pillar of broiling sand that whirls and whirls in the turning winds sent down from the glaring sun, and as a piercing ringing fills our ears we see the sand fall away beneath the dark silhouette of a conquistador, whose crossbow is cocked on his armored shoulder, whose face is shadowed by the gleaming rim of his morion.
It’s Anton Babtista, one of the four main characters in this book not even mentioned in this review, the victim of a moment I found to be nonexistent upon re-reading, and the modern descendant of Sancho Panza, a man who deserves his own forthcoming essay.