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In the Beginning Was the Word : Ducornet's imaginary island is the stage for a beguiling satire on inquisitions present and past : PHOSPHOR IN DREAMLAND, By Rikki Ducornet (Dalkey Archive Press: $12.95, paperback; 165 pp.)

December 17, 1995|Michelle Latiolais | Michelle Latiolais is an assistant professor in the USC department of English and author of "Even Now" (Farrar, Straus & Giroux)

Reading "Phosphor in Dreamland" by Rikki Ducornet, one of America's most incandescent satiric writers, is like finding superbly enchanting aboriginal reliquiae in the sifting screens on an archeological dig, the finer points being that you're far less dusty and your body aches not from the tedium of recovery but from laughing.

There is a dreamland, and if any writer can take you there, Ducornet can--and does. In the latest novel, her fifth, set not so completely in dreamland but more tangibly on an island in the Caribbean called Birdland, there is even a dream library wherein resides the life's work of one professor Tardanza, compiler of chimera, bibliographer of the "crystal balls of some other universe," within the sleeping minds of our own.

Tardanza, however, does not dream himself, does not as yet "know how to dream," and spends considerable hours concocting new "porridges and puddings to engender reveries," all the while hypothesizing as to what dreams really are. "The exhalations of the divine--of Will? Exhalations of Infinite Capacity? An ecstatic vapor? Are they the dust of Potencies?"

These questions and their illuminations professor Tardanza poses to his new son-in-law, Nuno Alfa y Omega, otherwise known as Phosphor. Even though this discussion is seminal to the novel's inquiry, it occurs late, and quite perfectly, after we have traversed the ravaged terrain of Birdland with the novel's primary characters, after we have read what a fear and hatred of dreaming can wreak.

On this expedition across the island there is Fogginius, a mendicant scholar whose early zeal for Birdland's abundant bestiary soon leads to its inexpertly taxidermied demise; Senor Fango Fantasma, the trek's sponsor who awaits a shipload of Africans "to work in mines that he feared the atomized aborigines had already scraped to the bone," and Phosphor, a clubfooted, cross-eyed foundling raised from infancy by the blustery Fogginius and who, now grown and in love, has invented an ocular scope, the ostensible and financially justifiable reason for the trip being to capture the island on plates of glass.

As this sublimely mismatched party of travelers embarks, Phosphor lays eyes on his beloved Extravaganza one last time, and in a sentence characteristic of Ducornet's deliciously arch humor, she writes: "So tightly was the poet's heart squeezed with longing that had it been a lime, seeds would have bulleted from his ears."

Their travels are Gulliver-esque, and indeed Jonathan Swift is invoked from time to time as our cast of characters is contemporaneous with the dean himself, and though Birdland is imaginary, albeit only vaguely so, the historical context within which we read this chronicle of a colonized Caribbean island is pointedly accurate. The beautifully dramatized satire of "Phosphor in Dreamland" has much to impart about European expansionism, its brutal vanities, religious persecution and the scourge of one culture's fear and ultimate hatred of the erotic, the natural, the mysterious on another culture's worship of just such sensual transience.

The novel's cast of unforgettables is the foreground against an extinct aboriginal population about which little is known other than they "venerated the cigar and dwelt in great baskets." Spirits of these people past tweak the novel hither and anon, and one particularly hilarious scene has Fantasma's grandmother in high dudgeon over the presence of a "monstrous black one in her very own boudoir. She described him: naked and fiercely hot, his shadowy particulars tattooing the walls as he galloped back and forth upon the bed's counterpane in the moonlight, blowing smoke rings around her nose and causing her lovebirds to throw themselves to their cage's floor in paroxysms of emphysemic terror." For a time, our narrator tells us, the old woman was feared impregnated by the "naked ghost's cigar, but chamomile and patience proved the old lady suffered gas."

Indeed, within the intricacy of this novel's terrific satire gust many types of wind, not the least being a williwaw that the novel's contemporary narrator refers to as the "clean sweepers," those preservers of morality who would destroy the museum's most precious aboriginal artifacts because they deem them "works of obscene and unhealthful minds." Stupendously, the one place in the novel safe from meeting up with a "clean sweeper" is a restaurant on Paradise Street called the House of the Edible Ark Clam, whose sensuous specialties range from native shrimp dishes in palm oil to ravioli di zuca al burra versa. One takes sustenance knowing these fine culinary aromas prevail against the winds of necrotic zealots.

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