Excess baggage


Alejandro Jodorowsky is a writer, avant-garde film-maker and actor born and brought up in Chile, who moved to Paris in his early twenties. Enormously prolific, little of his work has been translated into English. His novel, Where the Bird Sings Best (Restless Books, £12.99), is typical. Originally published in Spain in 1992, it has only just been translated.

Now 87, Jodorowsky was born to Jewish-Ukrainian parents and this semi-autobiographical book tells the story of the narrator's family, Jewish immigrants from the Russian Pale, culminating in his birth in Chile in 1929.

It has a cast full of exotic characters, including a dwarf-prostitute, lion-tamers and slave traders. The book is full of acts of terrible violence, castration, rape and murder. The 280-pound Estrella is raped while watching her husband castrated with a red-hot dagger. A few pages later, a boy sees a bear bite off his mother's head.

The writing teems with quirky detail. In the opening paragraph, a boy drowns in the Dnieper River when the trunk on to which he has climbed sinks, "because it was stuffed with the thirty-seven tractates of the Talmud".

The Arcavis, once lion-tamers, become merchants selling furs, swords, prostitutes and eunuchs. No sooner has the narrator's father's family arrived in Chile than there is a terrible earthquake. The Jews dodge "large bits of wall, glass, roof beams, and human body parts."

The long sentences burst with detail and adjectives

The long sentences burst with detail and adjectives. Over 400 pages long, the novel is full of references to Tarot cards and Jewish mysticism, and moves from the Venice Ghetto to Odessa and Vilna. Crossing the Atlantic to Chile, the Jewish immigrants constantly swap things, "a wool vest for three sets of underpants, half a loaf of onion bread for six rotten oranges".

Inevitably, some have compared this sprawling family chronicle with its bizarre stories and magical realism with the writing of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, an almost exact contemporary of Jodorowsky.

But, with its rabbis and talmudic lore, admirers may feel that this story of Russian immigrants coming to early 20th-century South America is more like Marquez crossed with Chagall.

More critical readers, however, may tire of the sex, violence and sheer excess of the novel. There is just too much of everything. Too much detail, too much cute eccentricity.

There are two horses: one named Whitey is, of course, black, and Blacky is white. When the immigrants arrive in Chile, one earthquake isn't enough, there have to be two.


All this makes you long for some restraint. Less can be more.

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