WHERE THE BIRD SINGS BEST
Alejandro Jodorowsky, the Mexican filmmaker who in 1970 wrote, directed and starred in the very first midnight movie, El Topo, is also a superb novelist. His newly-translated Where the Bird Sings Best is the first of three exciting new Jodorowsky translations coming from Restless Books. The title comes from Cocteau’s “A bird sings best in its genealogical tree,” and the novel traces the filmmaker’s personal genealogical tree through three generations from both sides of the author’s Jewish family, beekeepers on one side, lion tamers on the other, in one gloriously readable fantastical autobiography.
Let me just tell you the first page. The saga begins when his grandmother’s first son tries to escape from a flooding river in the Ukraine by climbing on top of a wooden chest. He doesn’t realize it’s weighed down with the thirty-seven tractates of the Talmud and drowns. Outspoken, outraged grandmother Teresa storms grieving into the synagogue, interrupting the service, horrifying the men, cursing her religion and giving God a piece of her mind. She never forgives Him, decides the only thing deserving of her love are fleas, and begins training seven fleas to perform circus acts and live in her old watch case.
Teresa is just one of the larger-than-life relatives who dominate this deliciously far-fetched multigenerational saga, as jammed full of outrageous incidents as One Hundred Years of Solitude. Teresa discovers the Tarot, becomes a fortune teller, and emigrates to America with the author’s grandfather, a humble, impractical and saintly man who becomes a shoemaker after a Chilean earthquake. When his right hand is caught in machinery, he begins to work miracles with his dead hand. Soon he is accompanied by a disembodied floating Rabbi from the Interworld who provides constant advice.
When Teresa and Alejandro finally get together, their conjugal union reduces the house to smoking ruins. They have two sets of twins, and Jodorowsky follows all four. It’s Jaime, one of the twin brothers, who will be the author’s father. Excelling at manual labor and physical violence, Jaime is trained to be a boxer, carries an enormous crucified Christ all the way to Santiago, and becomes one of a troupe of actors going from mine to mine in Chile performing political clown shows.
From the other side of the family comes Alejandro Prullansky, a gigantic male dancer with long golden curls who trains in Moscow for ballet until he becomes aware of the pain in the world and goes to work in a brutal meat-packing plant. His daughter becomes the author’s mother, Sara Felicidad, who sings while her father sets himself on fire for one last leap, menstruates at the age of four when told by her mother never to sing again, and is forced to live in a barrel behind the house. One outrageous set piece follows another with an exhilarating density of imagination, juggling tale within tale with Arabian Nights agility.
His cast include a lion tamer who grows a mane, eats raw meat, and sleeps naked with his lions, a mentally damaged boxer, a dwarf tenement prostitute, a hermaphrodite baby, a six-foot-three thirteen-year-old girl with heavenly singing powers, and an Indian sorcerer who demands a molar from each person he helps as payment. Though surreal images abound, so do more graphically real ones, like army patrols followed by well-fed vultures, thousands of mine workers marching in demonstration against nightmarish conditions, or the horrors of the meat-packing plants. Real characters from the tumultuous history of Chile and Argentina are interwoven through Jodorowsky’s story, including the heroic Luis Emilio Recabarren, activist politician who campaigned against mining abuses. When the saga at last arrives at the author himself, Jodorowsky begins to narrate his epic in the first person as a being before birth, drawing together the two humans he has chosen to be his parents.
“In memory, everything can become miraculous,” says Jodorowsky. “The past is not fixed and unalterable. With faith and will we can change it, not erasing its darkness but adding light … to make it more and more beautiful…” Exuberant, unrelentingly creative, his narrative feels inexhaustible, a current of storytelling that assaults the reader with fiercely vivid images and provocative, lyrical ideas.
Though he is not above a few soaring leaps into silliness, these moments are nitpicking and negligible compared to the sheer originality of his sustained vision in its own particular folkloric version of heightened reality. The book serves as one gigantic prequel to his autobiographical 2013 film, The Dance of Reality, his first in 23 years, the visually-dazzling masterpiece in which Jodorowsky re-creates his childhood with his parents. Filmmaker or novelist, the man’s sheer energy level is off the charts. A master in both mediums, he expertly harnesses boldly surreal images to capture the gorgeous, brutal essence of life.