The Wandering Unicorn
Kenrick E.A. Mose is an associate professor of Spanish studies at the
Manuel Mujica Lainez is an Argentine best known for his work Bomarzo (1962), which was made into an opera. Though his previous novels showed the changing social structure of Buenos Aires, Bomarzo and The Wandering Unicorn are historical novels on the Renaissance and the Middle Ages, respectively.
The Wandering Unicorn is useful to show a writer neither in the mainstream nor on the front line of Spanish American letters. The novel combines history and fantasy in an epic sweep through the turbulent history of medieval life with its knight errantry, Crusades, court intrigues, mighty battles and loves, magic and sorcery, pageant and wealth.
The broad canvas is detailed for us in the first person by the fairy Melusine, daughter of the King of Scotland and the fairy Presina. Melusine is cursed by her vengeful mother into becoming a serpent-woman with tail and scales every Saturday, and then cursed into immortality when her husband sees her in that condition. Using a contemporary perspective, Melusine first tells of life with her noble husband and her monstrous children. Generations later, she falls in love with her descendant, Aiol, an affair that is problematic for she is invisible until her mother transforms her body into a young man’s. The attachment to Aiol provides a framework for the wanderings that serve to show twelfth century life.
This is the principal achievement of Mujica Lainez. The atmosphere of medieval life is well conveyed from the perspective of aristocratic, opinionated, witty Melusine. The elegant style seems appropriate to the theme; the descriptions are brilliant, reflecting painstaking research into features like courtly love and the politics of the Crusades. Certain episodes are unforgettable: the hermitage at Lussac; the incredible will of Baldwin IV, King of Jerusalem, ravaged by leprosy but valiant in battle; the clash of battle; the gleam of ubiquitous jewels. At times, though, infatuation with history leads to thinly disguised lists of facts. Suspense is adequate for the movement of the story and builds to a climax with the fall of Jerusalem to the Moslems and Aiol’s death.
The appeal of this work, splendidly translated, is somewhat limited. It is directed to an urbane reader who is willing to enter a world of magic and medieval history in which the texture of what is narrated is more important than the story, onto which is embroidered a recurrent notion of fate.