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Book Review : Eternal Sojourner in a Mexican Prison

October 30, 1987|ELAINE KENDALL

The Dresden Gate by Michael Schmidt (Vanguard Press: $15.95, 152 pages)

This is a poet's novel in which plot, character and setting are distilled to absolute essence; the space that might otherwise be crammed with incident filled with image, sign and portent. The subject is exile and its variously devastating effects upon the human spirit. The people are a father, his son and an uncle. There was once a wife and mother, but she's gone before the book begins, deserting her husband and child to return to her family in France.

The ornate Dresden gate hangs at the entrance to a deteriorating hacienda in the Mexican heartland, a grandiose reminder of the days when the vast holdings were owned by a prosperous German family who had settled there in the 18th Century and endured till the early years of the 20th, making their fortune in gold, sugar and cattle. By the time the property came into the hands of the hapless young Frenchman Don Raoul and his bride Paula, the mine was worked out, the land exhausted; the thin topsoil blowing and settling everywhere as fine red dust.

In fact, Raoul and Paula had been sent to Mexico by Paula's father, ostensibly to make their fortune but actually to banish them for marrying without his approval. Within a year, Paula is back home, her bitter lesson learned. Love alone is not the basis of a proper marriage. After Paula absconds, telling no one of her plans, "La Encantada" becomes a cruel irony, a place no longer enchanted but bedeviled.

A Shared Future

Paula has abandoned not only her baby and husband, but the impecunious cousin she brought with her for feminine companionship in the wilderness. She has also left her husband's brother, Alex, a consumptive who embarked upon the Mexican venture with mixed emotions and motives--part family loyalty, part hope that his health would improve, part unrequited adoration for his brother's wife. None of these expectations have been fulfilled. In saving herself, Paula has run away with their shared future.

When the novel begins, Uncle Alex has become the boy's tutor and sole companion. Cousin Therese is a frail recluse, living almost entirely within the confines of her room. Raoul ignores them all, consumed by his continual and ever more difficult struggle to keep the farm from failing entirely; fantasizing that if he can only make it flourish, Paula will return. The boy, who is the central figure in the book, is given no other name, a device encouraging us to accept him as an archetype. Neither Mexican nor French, he is the eternal sojourner in space and time.

In a rare moment of concern for his son's welfare, the boy's father orders some village children brought to the estate as companions. One by one, they drift away in boredom, leaving only one, Isidro. When the relationship deepens into genuine friendship and the boy begins to become involved in village life, the father heartlessly sends Isidro away. The feudal order is to be preserved at all costs.

The next phase in the boy's maturation is a month at a monastery, where his solitude deepens and solidifies. Faith cannot be created in a vacuum. Meanwhile, the beloved uncle's health is failing and the father becoming ever more distant and remote. Finally Don Raoul has a child with Margarita, the boy's former nursemaid. He dresses her in his wife's clothes and makes her mistress of the house in all but name. Once so gentle and loving, Margarita is irrevocably changed by her new status.

Complete Alienation

Raoul has turned her into an exile in her own country by removing her from the village and involving her in his own fate. The alienation is complete. The boy falls mysteriously ill and languishes, rousing himself from his lethargy only when the birth of Margarita's son threatens his inheritance. By then the Mexican revolution is gathering strength and there is no possibility of selling the land or escaping from the embattled property. The Dresden gate defines a prison. Unlike the German heir, who sold the doomed plantation and lived to enjoy his profits in Europe, the boy has no options. His father has stayed too long, binding his future to a moribund colonial order. Still not yet an adult, the boy has become an involuntary actor in a classic myth.

The lyrical, faintly archaic language of the novel bears the entire weight of the theme. Cut off from country and family, displaced even in time, love withers, hope gives way to cynicism, intellect consumes itself in fruitless pastimes and ambition sours into cruelty. Despite its bleak message, the book exerts the curious dramatic fascination of the inevitable, demanding the same attention paid to any example of force majeure at work.

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