Monday, 11 January 2016

The Avenue of Mysteries by John Irving


John Irving returns to the themes that established him as one of our most admired and beloved authors in this absorbing novel of fate and memory.
As we grow older—most of all, in what we remember and what we dream—we live in the past. Sometimes, we live more vividly in the past than in the present.

As an older man, Juan Diego will take a trip to the Philippines, but what travels with him are his dreams and memories; he is most alive in his childhood and early adolescence in Mexico. “An aura of fate had marked him,” John Irving writes, of Juan Diego. “The chain of events, the links in our lives—what leads us where we’re going, the courses we follow to our ends, what we don’t see coming, and what we do—all this can be mysterious, or simply unseen, or even obvious.”

Avenue of Mysteries is the story of what happens to Juan Diego in the Philippines, where what happened to him in the past—in Mexico—collides with his future.

Goodreads description

I confess that this is the first John Irving novel I have read. He is of course on my list of magic realist writers to read, but I just hadn't got round to reading his work. From what I can gather this book deals with many of the subjects of his previous novels, whether as well or worse I cannot of course say. 

The book is effectively two stories. One is the story of the writer Juan Diego, who may be in his fifties but he comes across as older than that, and one is the story of the boy Juan Diego and his sister Lupe. The novel drifts from one story to the next as the man dreams about his childhood both while he is asleep and as he is in a semiconscious state of daydreaming. Even when he is apparently fully conscious he does not seem to be in control of himself or what is happening to the degree that the reader cannot be exactly certain of the veracity of what is occurring. This is explained partly by the fact that he is playing with not taking the correct dosage of betablockers and combining that dangerous activity with taking viagra. Something that is covered over and over again. 

The problem with the novel is that the story of the young Juan Diego is more engaging than that of his older self. In part this is because of the elder Diego's somnambulist state and in part because the older man does not develop during the course of the book. Indeed he is incredibly passive at the mercy of an over-eager former student who organizes his travel itinerary and then at the mercy of two femmes fatales - a mysterious mother and daughter who are "women who appear". 

The story of Juan and his sister, whom we meet when they are scavengers in the city dump, is wonderfully drawn and yes, the way Irving reveals it in snatches as part of the writer's dreams is masterful. The character I would have preferred at the centre of the story is not young Juan but his mind-reading younger sister. Lupe for some reason speaks in a garbled language that only Juan can understand. He therefore acts as her interpreter and censor. There is much fun to be had reading what Lupe is actually saying and what Juan says she says. She is a much stronger individual than her brother, determined and angry. Not only can she read minds, but she can also see people's pasts. She also sometimes can see the future, but not always correctly. The story is in many ways driven by her and her abilities and when they combine with a fierce protectiveness towards her brother they result in a striking climax. 

Juan's early story is packed with colourful characters - Pepe the monk who encourages Juan to have an education, Edward the self-flagellating Hawaiian-shirt-wearing American Jesuit, the transsexual prostitute with a heart of gold, and the children's mother (monastery cleaner, prostitute and adult-child), to say nothing of the cast of characters to be found at the circus, that the two kids join in the run-up to the climax of their story. 

Of course there is loads of stuff in this novel about 'the avenue of mysteries', i.e. what makes us what we are, specifically what makes a writer what he is, in this case a lonely lost old man. There is a quite a lot of sex and even true love. And there is a lot on religion, the church and the uneasy relationship between the Catholic Madonna and the more native Mary of Guadalupe. But at its heart for me it was about a boy and a girl - as Lupe says "We are the miracles. . . . We’re the miraculous ones.”

I received this book free from the publisher in return for a fair review.

No comments: