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A Fantastic Voyage Into 'Magical Realism' : THE IGUANA (McPherson and Co.: $9 paper, 198 pp.) : A MUSIC BEHIND THE WALL: Selected Stories, Vol. 1. (McPherson and Co.: $20, 160 pp.) . By Anna Maria Ortese, translated by Henry Martin

August 25, 1996|Katherine McNamara | Katherine McNamara is a writer and essayist living in Virginia

Aren't we happy when we find a writer unlike any we knew, whom we come to love or admire, even more when we find him or her secretly? We're browsing in the lone bookshop in a small town we are only passing through. An author's name, unknown to us, strikes our eye. We leaf through the pages. Her sentences arouse our curiosity. We buy the book, are amazed by it and cannot keep it to ourself. In that very manner I "found" the Italian writer Anna Maria Ortese and "The Iguana," the only novel of hers published in English. That book has since been joined by a volume of her stories with the lovely, haunting title "A Music Behind the Wall."

"The Iguana" is a travel book in the genre of the fabulous, metaphysical voyage. A sympathetic, high-minded young count from Milan sails his yacht to foreign countries at his mother's urging, to buy land cheaply for development, but this count, whose nature really is very sweet, wishes instead to meet the poor and downtrodden and, generously, to help them.

A literary trick sets off his fantastic story. A fashionable publisher, always on the lookout for sensational material to please his readers, asks his friend, the count, to look out for an undiscovered manuscript about a madman in love with an iguana--a perverse example, to illustrate to his unworldly friend what he has in mind. But indeed, the count "discovers" an uncharted island and does meet an iguana, a sad, child-like creature that is the servant of a grandiloquent but threadbare young marquis and his brutish half-brothers. And the marquis does have a manuscript to sell!

Ortese's satirical fable is about the modern mix of fashion, media, social hierarchies, a tony variety of "eco-tourism" and the personal mechanisms that produce both oppression and a way of accepting oppression. Yet, brilliantly, it is told as if it were a dream, which neither glorifies the oppressors, these young, silly noblemen, nor sentimentalizes the oppressed iguana, which is stupid and has a rather bad character, yet which is a genuinely piteous creature.

The iguana refuses the count's help, for she adores the marquis, who once passionately loved, then abandoned, her--a Gothic romance at its most affecting and ridiculous yet equally a caricature of such fantasy. Yet, because they have feelings, these characters are not wholly reduced to types. Therein lies the moral conundrum presented to the "honorable reader" whom Ortese addresses.

The high-minded goodness of the count drives him into brain-fever. The iguana will not leave her beloved marquis. The marquis, on the other hand, hopes he can indeed sell his (poetic) manuscript--and the iguana--at a high price, and so, redeem his heavily mortgaged family property. In the end, Americans buy up everything and everyone, except the count, who dies. The iguana is taken off by a Barnum-like impresario to join his circus.

The iguana's fate in the hands of the American impresario should easily recall to American readers the historical dilemma of Sitting Bull, who performed with Annie Oakley and a crowd of otherwise-unemployed cowboys, soldiers and bison hunters in Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show. Geronimo, after his capture, became a businessman, signing autographs for money.

The Elephant Man, too, was exhibited in London: How else could he eat? Barnum nicely observed the fact that carnivals are often the refuge of those whom a society makes marginal; he built a fortune from the related fact that society--he used a less polite word--will always pay money to see a spectacle.

Ortese pointedly recognizes miserable social realities; yet her complex fable proposes that they are not the only realities. Rather, it proposes that all reality is difficult. The "Imagination," too, is real.

Ortese was discovered about 60 years ago by the Italian novelist and critic Massimo Bontempelli, who around the turn of the century invented a kind of writing he called "magic realism." In Italian, this new genre took a different turn than the later fantasticalism of the Latin Americans. In her book of stories, Ortese calls it the "music behind the wall," a beautiful sound you might hear in the course of an ordinary walk and are for a little while transported by. This is the realm of the "Imagination," which exists independently of us and which we long to enter.

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