April 2015

Brian Nicholson

fiction

Where the Bird Sings Best by Alejandro Jodorowsky, translated by Alfred MacAdam

I have heard from multiple sources that Alejandro Jodorowsky's film The Holy Mountain is omnipresent at New York City noise shows. On a night where it can be assumed no one is going to perform in a visually interesting way, Jodorowsky's eye for art direction can be counted on to offer some sort of amusement to people high out of their minds. It's a film that is continually visually engaging, colorfully composed, and given to grotesque tableaus. Still, this approach does a disservice to a piece that functions quite well as a work of total cinema. The soundtrack, a collaboration that has the auteur working alongside Don Cherry, is the sort of thing that would trump most improvised performances. The script pulls off a fascinating trick that few films attempt: It is fast-paced in such a way that it feels much longer than it is, and so is able to create the "time dilation" effect more familiar to users of psychedelic drugs than avid viewers of world cinema. The film's second act, driven by voiceover narration expositing the meaning of the images we see, moves from story to story to create a jarring sensation, as the viewer realizes that a coherent forward-moving narrative is basically not going to happen, in favor of this sense of world-building imaginative digression, that make it difficult to summarize or recount.

After 1990's The Rainbow Thief, people stopped financing Jodorowsky's films. Some of the comic books he scripted got translated into English, but I was unaware he wrote prose novels as well. Where the Bird Sings Best was published in Spanish in 1992, and now has an English-language edition. It is a multigenerational family saga that seems modeled, at least on a level of sentence structure, after One Hundred Years of Solitude. Using that approach, Jodorowsky achieves the same sense of fast pace, where individual anecdotes are favored over any sense of structure, that is present in The Holy Mountain.

Looking at the family tree in my copy of the Garcia Márquez novel, I am reminded that in that book there were several characters named José Arcadio. Here, there are quite a few characters named Alejandro Jodorowsky. The family whose story is being told is that of the author's, moving through both branches of his family tree, which includes several generations with the name Alejandro on his mother's side as well. Of course, it is common for families to name their children after a beloved figure from a former generation, now deceased. With Jodorowsky's wide-ranging knowledge of spiritual concepts to select and play with, the recurrence of these names throughout each parent's family gives the novel a sense of destiny. This becomes the book's organizing principle, where each sequence proceeds preordained with a knowledge of a future payoff, rather than the result of causality that defines a well-crafted plot. The final chapter begins with recollections of the author's previous lives, as his soul selects his parents from a space in eternity, and then narrates the next hundred-odd pages while occupying his dad's testicles, waiting for him to meet his mother.

Jodorowsky's embrace of myth and fantasy makes the book more fantastic than what would be found in magic realism, and his well-established sense of the earthly means there is much more talk of semen. A memorable example of this sort of convergence of almost absurdly simplistic myth and scatological imagery concerns a man who has never known love, because of how bad he smells, and a person who is so pure, with such a simplistic diet, that their sense of smell has atrophied from non-use. As they consummate their love, the passion is so strong that the latter regains his sense of smell, and then, becoming sick from the disgusting smell, shits all over his partner, and they part ways in shame, never to see each other again.

It is important to speak of the act of coupling and impregnation when speaking of the family tree, how one came into being. The nature of Jodorowsky-as-guru is incumbent on seeing the wisdom in not being unduly repulsed by these natural processes if they are productive to bringing us to where we are now, or where we want to go. The intention of this book is for Jodorowsky to see in his ancestors figures who are noble for one reason or another, whether it be in matters of spirituality -- their knowledge of the tarot, the strength of their love -- or in politics: their ability to mobilize and inspire the working class. The author, by placing himself in this lineage, presents himself as a culmination of all these things, and passes on to his audience, who know him for his celebrity, the wisdom of his ancestors, in all their different strains of thought. That the book might be kind of a mess narratively may only make it easier to dive in and out of its random pages like one would the Bible.

Where The Bird Sings Best by Alejandro Jodorowsky, translated by Alfred MacAdam
Restless Books
ISBN: 978-1632060136
416 Pages