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Book Review : An Unwilling Suspension of Disbelief

December 29, 1987|ELAINE KENDALL

The Iguana by Anna Maria Ortese; translated by Henry Martin (McPherson: $14.95; 198 pages)

Named as one of the five most important postwar Italian novels by a leading Italian publisher, "The Iguana" comes trailing clouds of glory. Although the author has been winning her country's major literary prizes ever since her debut at the age of 22 with a short story collection, her work has been translated into English only once before, in 1955. Even this book is not new, having appeared first in 1966, after the swells of the French New Wave had already washed over European fiction, blurring the distinctions between 'real' chronological time and history; between imagination and experience.

As in the novels of Marguerite Duras, Claude Mauriac and Michel Butor; the plays of Ionesco and Beckett, events are perceived in a continuum of fantasy, myth and memory. Past and present overlap; no boundaries separate hallucinations and delusions from actual experience. Even considered in this company and context, Ortese presents unusual difficulties.

The book begins seductively. An impressionable young Italian count is sent by his mother to find properties suitable for development as resorts. Aleardo di Grees is an architect by profession; sensitive, soft-hearted, and well aware of his own intellectual limitations. He sets off on his voyage cheerfully enough, and soon finds precisely what he seeks; a small island off the coast of Portugal, on which he sees only a few trees and a single house. As his boat approaches, he notices a motley group of people on shore, and thinking they must be castaways, he rows to the beach and asks if he can be of help.

Speaks in Archaic Portuguese

He's greeted by a young man who at first seems a mere boy, but preternaturally aged and dressed in clothes of a bygone century. Seen at close range, the young man's face is traced by "a network of fine, short wrinkles like the nervatures covering the petals of certain flowers." When interrupted, he had been reading poetry to a small audience, but he breaks off and introduces himself in archaic Portuguese as Don Ilario Jimenes of the Marquis of Segovia, Count of Guzman, explaining that he and his brothers are the island's only inhabitants, living on an estate owned by his family since 1600.

Though our Italian count immediately warms to his aristocratic young host, the brothers make a less favorable impression. They're coarse in appearance, truculent in manner, and the count immediately decides that life on the island might be less than idyllic for Don Ilario. He sees no reason why they wouldn't be glad to sell the property. When Don Ilario invites him to stay the night, the count eagerly accepts, confident that he can accomplish his mission and return in triumph to Milan.

Bare Hints of Fantasy

Up to this point, we are in 'real' time, with only the barest hints of fantasy, but almost immediately, the count encounters the iguana of the title; a creature not only able to speak but sufficiently evolved to perform the functions of a cook and housekeeper for the owners of the island. After determining that the iguana is actually a young female, the count is overcome with pity and desire.

Spellbound by emotions he cannot understand, he decides to buy the iguana from her owners and take her back to Milan, where he plans to install her in comfortable quarters and provide her with an assortment of gourmet delicacies and a wardrobe of becoming clothes. He will "save" her, and in so doing, perhaps restore her mysteriously lost humanity. Though conscious that the plan is unrealistic, once it has seized his imagination, he finds himself unable to resist it.

A Preposterous Attraction

The reader may have no such difficulty. While certainly pathetic enough to arouse humane impulses, the iguana is conspicuously lacking in the charms and graces of the women the count knows in Milan, and the attraction remains not only inexplicable but preposterous. Unfortunately, the entire book depends upon our ability to suspend disbelief and persuade ourselves that a young Milanese of apparently sound mind could slip so quickly into madness, and if not madness, what?

Ortese offers few clues beyond some abstruse meditations upon the nature of good and evil; the iguana sometimes symbolizing one and sometimes the other. These muddled musings are in the form of asides to the reader. "So, a terrible destiny has been allotted to people who have been thrown by God or their own ambitions (this is not yet clear) into continual conflict with perversity. But have you ever given a thought to the desperate plight of perversity or wickedness itself, deprived for virtually mathematical reasons of all possible struggle with itself, or flight from itself, and therefore condemned to the constant horror of its own desperate presence, this presence being nothing other than itself? No, that's something you have never thought about."

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