Thorvald Steen. "Don Carlos" and "Giovanni.".
Thorvald Steen. "Don Carlos" and "Giovanni."
Trans. James Anderson. Green Integer, 2004. 375 pp. Paper: $13.95.
These two short novels take the form of letters written by Giovanni
Graciani, an Italian emigre living in Argentina, to his brother Roberto.
Don Carlos, set in 1833, introduces us to Giovanni, who is living
hand-to-mouth as a shipyard worker in Buenos Aires. While the city is
consumed by civil war, he finds an acquaintance and later a benefactor
in a naturalist known as Don Carlos. Carlos turns out to be the young
Charles Darwin, whose earnest scientific inquiries serve as a foil for
Giovanni's increasingly vitriolic ruminations on personal and
national destinies. Giovanni picks up the story several years later,
after Argentina has been taken over by the dictatorship of Juan Manuel
de Rosas. Implicated in a foiled assassination attempt on Rosas,
Giovanni writes a second letter as he awaits capture. Steen's
protagonist evokes both Borges and Sartre's Roquentin as he
contemplates human idealism and the everyday brutality that belies it.
Steen's choice of form is by no means incidental. Giovanni's
letters juxtapose anecdote and history, lyricism and violence, to
startling effect. "There is something about Don Carlos I find
almost moving," he observes at one point. "While total chaos
reigns in the world about him, he collects, sorts and classifies his
finds." But the world Darwin classifies is no place for the likes
of Giovanni: "I began to think of the cactus that feeds on itself
like a flame. Burnt out and dry, it blooms. I am no cactus."
Giovanni's fitness to survive is questionable, but his alternately
ranting and resigned musings in this provocative pair of epistolary novels have a staying power all their own. [Pedro Ponce]