Virgil’s Palinurus was Aeneas’s helmsman who fell victim to the god of sleep. His namesake in this complex, beautiful novel, is also a guide to a novel that straddles the conscious and subconscious, life and death. A combination of Dante’s Virgil, Lemuel Gulliver and the little prince, Palinuro leads readers through congeries of cultural and medical reference. Having been raised largely free of a “”disgust for life,”” Palinuro, his beloved cousin Estefania and pedantic cousin Walter describe the body in detail that both repels and enchants.
On the face of it, this is the story of Palinuro, a more or less contemporary medical student who lives with his cousin Estefania, and an overheated imagination. But it is also about the power (and powerlessness) of words to define and influence. Palinuro’s obsessive fantasizing about the personal life of objects in his room (including an unbeatable passage on the dying days of his mirror); the boarder, don Prospero’s compulsive reading of the encyclopedia; and a Proustian description of childhood, are all searingly beautiful. Del Paso’s characterizations, often an accumulation of details that become sharply focused, are brilliant, as when he describes Grandmother Altagracia, “”who played `Clair de Lune’ on the piano and knew how to lower her lashes in gatherings to hide her spiritual myopia, read the Reader’s Digest Selections and remembered having once seen a Titian original.”” And little beats the humorous pastiche of “”Palinuro’s Travels Among the Advertising Agencies and other Imaginary Islands.””
What defines the book, though, are the fetid, pullulating, intimate, miraculous realities of life and its ultimate fragility.