Where Tigers Are At Home

  • Jean-Marie Blas de Roblès
  • Other Press
  • 817 pp.
  • Reviewed by Paul McCarren
  • May 8, 2013

Suspense and quirky 17th-century research in Brazil add up to a morality tale that wrestles with fundamental questions of human life.

Thanks to the translation skills of Mike Mitchell, we who read only English can get lost in the novel Where Tigers Are At Home, by Jean-Marie Blas de Roblès. And get lost we will. Blas de Roblès takes us on many jaunts up and down the steamy northeast coast of Brazil, on a long trek into the jungles west of Brasilia and on frequent trips back to 17th-century Europe.

The novel, set in present-day Brazil, features a 40-ish scholar-turned-journalist. Eléazard von Wogau agrees to translate an unpublished Latin manuscript. It’s a biography of the 17th-century Jesuit polymath Athanasius Kircher, a priest whose scattershot curiosity has fascinated Eléazard since his graduate-school days. Each of the 32 chapters (plus the 28-page Epilogue) begins with a portion of Eléazard’s translation of the manuscript. Blas de Roblès describes Eléazard grousing about the florid style of the Latin and the over-confident approach Kircher takes to his investigations. But readers who don’t fall into Eléazard’s increasingly exasperated mood will see the fun in these vignettes.

The manuscript’s author, Caspar Schott (who, like Kircher, was a 17th-century Jesuit and, at the time, a respected mathematician, physicist and philosopher), recalls with awe many exploits he shared with Kircher. The effect is similar to the Watson-Holmes adventures — “Did you hear that awful noise? Quick, let’s see what it was!” When Kircher’s inquisitiveness isn’t endangering Schott’s life, it’s usually putting his virtue at risk. (According to the manuscript, many of the era’s scholars emulated Aristotle in the library but Boccaccio everywhere else.)

Like the scholars in Schott’s story, the people in Eléazard’s story can’t get enough drink, drugs or sex. There’s much sniffing cocaine and/or drinking cachaça, a sugarcane-based booze. And, like bonobos, the present-day characters see any time as a good time for copulation — or at least a little petting. Drug-addled and over-heated as they often are, they keep finding themselves in one pickle after another. It’s generally amusing, except for a number of gruesome rape-and-torture scenes. But Blas de Roblès doesn’t describe the characters’ troubles just to titillate the reader. When reflective moods strike (and of course they do — it’s a French novel), we hear people grappling with big questions: Why does true justice seem impossible? What is happiness. What is life?

Most of the reflections pop up in conversation — except for those in a recurring section entitled “Eléazard’s Notebooks,” collections of aperçus such as: “Never, perhaps, has the transition from one century to the next been so lackluster, so drearily full of its own self-importance.” But when the characters reflect on how they got themselves into some muddle, we can sympathize with their attempts to understand their (sometimes desperate) situations. Whether we’re lost in the jungle with Eléazard’s estranged wife as she searches for archaeological answers, watching a local governor try to avoid investigations begun by Eléazard and others or following the random quests of Eléazard’s truant daughter, we see the characters struggle to make sense of chaotic events.

Blas de Roblès seems intent on pointing out the folly of thinking we can find perfect solutions to all the problems we encounter. How natural it seems — and how foolish it is — to look for answers to big questions. We can’t see all of life for what it is; we’re too close to the small part of it that sits in our sights. Or, as a character puts it in a discussion of a passage from Goethe that provides the novel’s title: “ ‘Ideas are sure to change in a land where elephants and tigers are at home.’ ... We ought to know, or seek to know only those living things in our immediate environment.”

And, ta-dah! If you thought the author had merely padded this long book by including the ramblings of two 17th-century curiosity seekers, you suddenly realize you’re wrong. All the characters have something in common: a lust for a theory of everything. When Kircher responds to each new scientific conundrum with “Wait, I think I’ve got it,” he’s not much different from any of the others in the novel who, through all the turns of their fate, keep thinking, “Aha, this will explain it!” Blas de Roblès has invented some present-day suspense plots, mixed them with a quirky, out-of-date research record and served us a (rather lengthy) morality tale. He manages, for the most part, to keep our attention through many variations on a simple theme: Don’t over-reach; you’ll lose your balance.   

Paul McCarren is a Jesuit priest writing Simple Guides to the Bible. He does pastoral ministry in southern Maryland at St. Ignatius Church at Chapel Point and Loyola Retreat House in Faulkner. 

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