Where Tigers Are at Home

Written by Jean-Marie Blas de Robles Mike Mitchell (trans.)
Review by James Hawking

Each chapter of this novel begins with a selection from a biography of the 17th-century Jesuit polymath Athanasius Kircher, purportedly by his closest associate. Eléazard von Wogan, a French scholar living in Brazil, is editing the book in spite of a diminishing respect for its subject. The rest of each chapter takes place in Brazil in the 1980s and involves the scholar’s life and that of the people connected with it: a bisexual daughter who writes him for money she needs for drugs; his estranged wife, a paleontologist on an expedition into the wilds between Brazil and Paraguay; a mysterious Italian woman he meets in a restaurant; a likeable young beggar with an ambition to buy a motorized wheelchair; and a corrupt governor who is planning to turn part of his territory into a golf resort. Kircher’s speculations on Egyptian hieroglyphics, science, linguistics, and history are usually interesting, although frequently incorrect and always governed by a desire to stay within Catholic orthodoxy.

The modern stories alternate between the characters with cliffhanger endings, not to be resolved until several chapters later. The fossil expedition becomes dangerous, the daughter’s sex life grows more complicated, and the Italian woman reveals more of herself while deflecting Eléazard’s romantic overtures. Each thread of the story becomes increasingly interesting as they all move toward a connection. Events in modern Brazil contain subtle echoes of the Kircher story.

Mike Mitchell’s translation finds English equivalents like “killing two birds with one stone” for expressions like “to get two sons-in-law from one daughter,” making the English read smoothly but losing the sense of the underlying French. Latin sections are translated in footnotes but brief snatches of Portuguese are left untranslated.

Highly recommended.