cover image The Desert and Its Seed

The Desert and Its Seed

Jorge Barón Biza, trans. from the Spanish by Camilo Ramirez. New Directions, $15.95 trade paper (240p) ISBN 978-0-8112-2580-9

This ambitious novel, based on the lives of the late Barón Biza (1942–2001) and his parents, concerns the aftermath of an acid attack. The book opens in Buenos Aires in 1964, just after Aron Gageac, an anarchist, has thrown the acid at the face of his ex-wife, the historian Eligia; he kills himself the next morning. The many surgeries that follow are narrated by Mario, their 23-year-old son, who watches, rapt, as the acid, scalpel, and swelling leave his mother unrecognizable; he gives exacting descriptions of skin grafting and eyelid depilation. Eligia and Mario then decamp for Milan, where a famous surgeon has agreed to try to reconstruct her face. By day, Mario tends to his mother; by night, he drinks his way through louche escapades with the prostitute Dina and her clients. Both sides of Mario’s double life serve as a way for him to probe the gestalt of the female body, in which he sees by turns deceitful shape-shifting and the divine grace of regeneration. Men’s power to force that regeneration, be it through violence or surgery, is the source of Mario’s mingled desire and shame. Though Mario’s philosophizing is sorely lacking in irony and thus flounders, there are moments of psychological insight and elegant prose. (Apr.)