This Breathing World

Written by Jose Luis de Juan
Review by Mary Sharratt

This novel encompasses two mirrored stories: one set in 1st Century Rome, the other in 1950s Harvard. The Roman narrative tells of Mazuf, Syrian slave and “lover of boys,” who rises from being a lowly scribe to a celebrated man of letters. He makes his mark by manipulating the texts he is transcribing, surreptitiously editing and correcting them, becoming a ventriloquist and secret author. He is also a murderer who is never punished for his crime. When he gains his freedom, he trains his young lover-apprentices to correct and edit the works of such authors as Ovid, Virgil, and Herodotus, as a reminder that history itself can be rewritten and transformed.

The theme of pederasty continues in the Harvard narrative as 19-year-old Laurence becomes the lover and protégé of a powerful older man in the university library. He also becomes obsessed with Jonathan, a brilliant young man his own age, who is driven by masochistic desires that Laurence is only too willing to fulfil. Jonathan attempts to alter history by cutting apart and reassembling the pages of Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Then Laurence murders him.

The author’s unflinching examination of the dark side of male homoeroticism is the novel’s strongest point and brings to mind the work of Alan Hollinghurst. Unfortunately, on a literary and philosophical level, the novel falls flat, at least in this particular translation. The first-person American narrative for the Harvard sequence reads very obviously as a translated text, featuring such howlers as, ‘He didn’t have an Arizona accent.’ The author tends to indulge himself: his characters converse in flowery speeches and there are so many library orgies that one grows bored. An ambitious novel, nonetheless, that might have been much more powerful in the original language.