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Stereotype of the Month Entry

Another Stereotype of the Month entry:

'West of Babylon': Gilgamesh in Navajo Land

September 29, 2002

The premise of Eduardo Garrigues's "West of Babylon" sounds like something that might have been dreamed up by Borges a retelling of the epic of "Gilgamesh" in a 19th-century New Mexican setting. The combination of mankind's most ancient written story (the scholarly discovery, decoding and resynthesizing of which have been a high adventure in themselves) with a violent collision of frontier civilizations in the New World seems almost made for his sensibility. Epigraphy and blood feuds, culture simultaneously at its most cooked and most raw what could have been more beguiling to Argentina's gaucho-haunted archlibrarian, our modern mythographer par excellence?

The novel interleaves three different kinds of material: plot elements from "Gilgamesh"; the lawlessness of the New Mexico frontier between immigrants of European heritage and American Indians in the mid-19th century; and Navajo and Apache lore connected with hunting and warfare. The integration of the three is often fairly perfunctory: they are usually simply set side by side, rather than metamorphosed into something rich and strange. This is not in itself necessarily an adverse criticism, collage and applique being arts as legitimate as weaving.

It can, however, lead to real awkwardnesses. In the epic, the wild man, Enkidu, loses his kinship with the natural world after he has sex with a prostitute, and this is compelling at the level of myth. Garrigues's Enkidu (called Decoy) is also visited by a call girl, and the whole episode is presented naturalistically, but then Decoy's animal companions flee from him, as Enkidu's do in the epic, and this mythical element in the midst of a naturalistically presented episode is oddly jarring. More pervasive are problems with the dialogue: this can slip uneasily from snippets of contemporary realism to pseudo-epic sententiousness to American Indian English as caricatured in 1950's movies.

"Gilgamesh" exerted a strong pull on 20th-century artists; a quick Internet search will turn up any number of its avatars (as novels, operas or what have you). Few of these have managed to grab much general cultural consciousness. Garrigues begins with a definite advantage over most attempts to mine the myth by giving it a setting that is in some ways continuous with the original (both versions deal with tribal and fairly brutal desert cultures) while being, because of its relative modernity, distinctively different from it. By doing this he clearly hopes to rescue the narrative from the schoolroom and to restore something of its original elemental force, and he achieves some success.

He selects quite drastically within the myth, so people reading the novel to see how their favorite bits of the epic have been treated might be disappointed. There is a flood (one of the novel's most powerfully realized episodes), but it's not the universal flood of the epic; unlike Enkidu, Decoy is not killed, so we do not have Gilgamesh's hair-raising lament for him, his new consciousness of the reality of death or his search for eternal life. Since Garrigues focuses his narrative on adventure, he largely chooses elements that center on the attack on the Cedar Forest and its evil denizen Humbaba (here a renegade Apache warrior).

Insofar as it does not derive from "Gilgamesh," the novel's plot is a variant on a formula, the quest for glory in an exotic setting, and it echoes many other such fictional quests, like Kipling's "Man Who Would be King" and "The Treasure of the Sierra Madre," by B. Traven. Garrigues's background is unusual for a novelist. He is the Spanish ambassador to Norway and Iceland, and earlier was a consul general in Los Angeles. In the creation of his novel's setting, what is clearly an extensive knowledge of New Mexico's history has stood him in good stead: the neocolonial Spanish presence is especially well conveyed; the principal narrator is an American Army officer, and his voice is believably and deftly ventriloquized; the embattled Indian culture, already partly taken over by Spanish mores, is often vividly documented. This cultural complexity is marvelously conjured up for us: the ever-present threat of violence, the discomforts and exhilarations of living at the edge of civilized order (or where at least three such orders meet and contend for both literal and psychic territory). At its intermittent best the writing, in Nasario Garcia's translation, competes with Robert Louis Stevenson's (that, at least, would have pleased Borges), and there can be no higher praise for the writer of an adventure story.

But it's hard to discuss this book without strong reservations. The chief problem for me comes with the introduction of Navajo and Apache lore. This gradually takes over the book, and wholly dominates its last third. How accurate the lore may be I don't know (I suspect it's a mixture of real ethnography and imaginative guesses), but as an element in this fictional narrative it seems to me disastrous. The embarrassing "Indian" dialogue looks like self-parody at times. Even worse than that, the presiding spirit hovering over much of the writing (the cliched metaphors seem to be contagious) is that of Carlos Castaneda. Those who thought Castaneda a great writer might well revel in "West of Babylon," but for anyone who found the hocus-pocus quotient in Castaneda's books intolerable, the last third of Garrigues's novel will be very hard work indeed. "Gilgamesh" might have provided the original inspiration for the whole venture, but the closing episodes of the book read like a meeting between bad Castaneda and "High Noon." Sadly, Castaneda seems to have won this shootout.

Dick Davis is a professor of Persian at Ohio State University. His most recent volume of poems is "Belonging."

Copyright 2002 The New York Times Company

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