CLEOPATRA DISMOUNTS

Carmen Boullosa, Author, Geoff Hargreaves, Translator , trans. from the Spanish by Geoff Hargreaves. Grove $22 (224p) ISBN 978-0-8021-1753-3

Mexican writer Boullosa (Leaving Tabasco, etc.) lavishly reimagines the life of the legendary Cleopatra of Egypt in this daring intermingling of fantasy and history told in various voices. The book begins with the words of an assistant to Diomedes, Cleopatra's scribe and informer, who attempts to bring order to the fragments the dying scribe has preserved of Cleopatra's words. Cleopatra's histrionic yet formal recounting of her love affair with Mark Antony as she prepares to commit suicide next to his dead body is followed by a disclaimer from Diomedes, who discounts the previous sections as manipulated by the Romans who wished to disgrace Cleopatra's memory. He quixotically vows to recapture the speech of the true Cleopatra, and thus begins a convoluted, fantastic first-person account of Cleopatra's escape as a girl from her father's residence in Rome, her adventures with Cilician pirates, her supernatural abduction by a magical bull and her encounter with the Amazons as she attempts to recover her embattled country. The queen's erotically chaotic education under the Amazons, as well as the abandon of her numerous sexual liaisons, stand in contrast to her commitment to order and clever administration of her empire, and we are left, like Diomedes, with a conflicted picture of the true Cleopatra. Unfortunately, that picture is made almost incomprehensible by an overabundance of minor historical and mythological figures and an abrupt, disconnected, hallucinatory narrative; the translation by Hargreaves feels haranguing and flat rather than powerful. Though Boullosa makes a bold attempt to reflect on the power of women and the sacrifices of erotic love, her effort falls short, leaving an impression of the "disharmony, patternless and fragmented, heading in all directions" that Cleopatra despised, rather than the Egyptian queen's "energy, complexity, and violence." (Nov.)

Reviewed on: 10/20/2003
Release date: 10/01/2003
Paperback - 224 pages - 978-0-8021-3979-5
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