Book Review: Where The Bird Sings Best

I’ve never much cared for Alejandro Jodorowsky’s movies. Jodorowsky’s 1971 Acid Western, El Topo, works fairly well as a story, but I find the meaning behind its symbolism to be very obscure. Conversely, the themes of Jodorowsky’s 1973 gonzo epic, The Holy Mountain, are powerful, yet the film works poorly as a narrative. Every Jodorowsky film is a sensory onslaught filled with harsh music, brilliantly colorful sets and costumes, and copious amounts of sex, nudity, gore, and terrifying violence. They are not for the faint of heart. Finding spiritual truth within them can remain difficult when the images are so transgressive.

The man himself is a marvel. Jodorowsky grew up in Chile, studied and lived in Paris, wrote comics and novels, directed a handful of crazy movies, and generally reigned over esoteric counterculture for the last forty-five years. There is no one else like Alejandro Jodorowsky. There may be other atheist Jewish Tarot-reading mystics in the world, but Jodorowsky is certainly the most famous. His delirious inteviews are fun to read, but again you’re never quite sure what he’s talking about. Jodorowsky is an enigma.

In prose, however, it appears that Alejandro Jodorowsky’s spiritual themes are conveyed in a more coherent way. Where The Bird Sings Best was first published in 1992, but it only was translated into English this year. In a sterling translation by Alfred MacAdam, Where The Bird Sings Best reveals Jodorowsky to be a major novelist with nearly unlimited ambition. More happens in the first forty pages of Bird than in most entire novels.

The cover for the new English translation of Where the Bird Sings Best. Source: http://bit.ly/1Ib5Rpd.
The cover for the new English translation of Where the Bird Sings Best. Source: http://bit.ly/1Ib5Rpd.

To be clear, Where The Bird Sings Best is difficult to read at times. Like Jodorowsky’s films, the book contains an excess of sex, violence, and appallingly graphic imagery. Characters are conned, murdered, exiled, tortured, raped, pushed beyond the limits of human endurance, and/or subject to heartrending reversals of fortune. But far more than in Jodorowsky’s films, there is a profound strain of hope in this book. The characters struggle onward despite the challenges thrown their way. The world remains beautiful, even if we forget that beauty as we progress from childhood innocence to knowledgeable adulthood.

Simply put, this is an astonishing, horrifying, unforgettable work of fiction. Jodorowsky blends world mythology, Judaism, the tarot, esotericism, Kabbala, Christianity, South American history, and leftist politics into a deeply weird story of immigration and generational change. It’s a bit much that Jodorowsky’s narrator, a fictionalized version of himself, claims to be an immortal spirit, devoted to spreading the tarot’s esoteric teachings throughout the ages, and that this spirit allied itself with the ghost of a Jewish rabbi to bring together the narrator’s parents. But hey, these are such insane claims that I went with it. A number of immortal spirits whiz around the book, so I decided to go with the text’s internal logic. Maybe every one of us is an immortal spirit with a mythic heritage, in Alejandro Jodorowsky’s eyes. (The author claims to be an atheist, but his fictional self, the narrator, certainly comes off as some sort of believer.)

Certainly, this autobiographical content suggests a deep desire on Jodorowsky’s part to address his family history, find meaning in it, and elevate it to the level of myth. As he said in a recent VICE interview, hyperlinked above, regarding a new autobiographical film: “I’m going to make my mother sing, I’m going to humanize my father, I’m going to correct my family tree. It’s therapeutic work for me and everyone.”

At any rate, Where The Bird Sings Best is a powerful story of Jewish immigrants finding their way to South America. We follow two family lines – those of Jodorowsky’s mother and father, but blown up to tall-tale proportions – as they move from the Old World to the New World. Hundreds of bizarre characters populate the pages of this book, so that you feel like you’re exploring a fully developed world – a real one, albeit it’s not exactly our real world. Rather, the world of Bird is filtered through a funhouse mirror. Everyone speaks in elaborate paragraphs, with didactic lessons to declare. They are their feelings. Subtlety is not one of this book’s virtues.

The plot is almost impossible to summarize in any simple manner. Speaking of the characters in brief vignettes is probably the best way outside of a full-fledged academic paper to convey the virtuosity of the shifting, non-chronological narrative. My favorite characters were:

  • Alejandro Jodorowsky I, the narrator’s shoemaker grandfather, who slowly learns to stand up for himself and becomes his own mystic;
  • Teresa, Alejandro’s wife, whose rage at God over her son’s death and eventual descent into madness is deeply moving;
  • Jashe, the spunky young woman whose spirit is destroyed by her harsh life;
  • Jaime Jodorowsky, Alejandro and Teresa’s son, who harmonizes the spiritual lessons of his parents while rising above their flaws;
  • Luis Emilio Recabarren, the real-life Chilean politician whose Marxist dreams become despair;
  • Alejandro Prullansky, the narrator’s maternal grandfather, a ballet dancer whose fierce artistic vision drives him to a suicidal final performance; and
  • Sara, the narrator’s angelic mother, who like Jaime fuses the best of her parents’ mixed Jewish-Christian heritage while avoiding her parents’ excesses.

When the narrator – the fictionalized Alejandro Jodorowsky II –­­ is born at the novel’s end, he is the culmination of centuries of struggle, survival, loss, and magic.

A still shot of Alejandro Jodorowsky in costume as the Alchemist from The Holy Mountain. Source: http://bit.ly/1JPQxmf.
A still shot of Alejandro Jodorowsky in costume as the Alchemist from The Holy Mountain. Source: http://bit.ly/1JPQxmf.

In its specific focus on one life, the novel’s ending reminds the reader that it’s a miracle any of us makes it into the world. We all have saints and sinners in our family line. Through war, famine, natural disasters, and personal anguish, life endures. Each of us won the genetic jackpot just by being born. Jodorowsky’s book is a profoundly beautiful celebration of life. And the book’s deeply personal religious message – each of us, and not a Heaven-sent messiah, must provide salvation – is fascinating.

Trust yourself; trust the teachings of your parents; forgive their wrongs; remember your history.

Cover Photo: Illustration by Daniela Carvalho for VICE (March 17, 2015). Source: http://bit.ly/1xcQb5M. The full banner image appears below.

Illustration by Daniela Carvalho for VICE (March 17, 2015). Source: http://bit.ly/1xcQb5M.
Source: http://bit.ly/1xcQb5M.
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