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Monday 15 July 2013

Orphans of Eldorado - Milton Hatoum

Continuing with the Canongate Myths series, Orphans of Eldorado represents the sole offering from South America. Blending the legend of Eldorado with the Amazonian myth of the Enchanted City, Hatoum offers us a journey into desire and despair, a dark river of longing.

Orphans of Eldorado follows the deteriorating fortunes of Arminto Cordovil, third generation Amazonian landowner whose spiralling descent into poverty mirrors the fortunes of pre-war Brazil. In Arminto’s case it seems that his desire, in particular his desire for Indian women, is his downfall. First there’s an affair with his nursemaid, Florita, which condemns him to a solitary existence in Manaus. Later, after his father’s death, Arminto becomes obsessed with a mysterious orphan, Dinaura. His desire consumes him, culminating in the sinking of his ship the Eldorado, the loss of his fortune and the eventual loss, too, of Dinaura.

Orphans of Eldorado is a strange kind of book and one I think I’d like to understand better. One of the things I’ve noticed when reading the myths is that a background understanding of the mythology is advantageous, and in this case I felt that the lack of it inhibited my understanding of the story. There is a blending of culture, a question of segregation between the Catholic ‘white’ aristocratic landowners and the Indians with their shamans and mythologies. In the middle of this is Arminto, a deteriorating Brazil with its collapsing rubber industry and landslide into poverty. There is the strangely problematic relationship between Arminto and his father Amando, a coldness which is never really quite explained but seems to be seated, somehow, in Arminto’s mother’s death in childbirth and, perhaps, the chequered past of Amando’s father. There are many questions of relationship. What is the relationship between Amando and Florita, how is Amando linked to Dinaura and is there, too, a secret relationship between Arminto and Dinaura beyond their desire (there is some suggestion that Dinaura is the child of Amando or, perhaps, his father)?

This seems to be a novel of secrets and mystery, interwoven with the exoticism of Amazonian mythologies. I didn’t quite get it, and was left feeling somewhat dissatisfied but also with the certainty that what was missing from this story was my own lack of knowledge and understanding. It certainly made me more interested in Amazonian mythology and, time permitting, I hope to do some more investigation into this and perhaps slot some of the missing pieces together.

One of the most surprising gifts this novel gave to me was a desire, also, to learn more about the poet C P Cavafy whose poem The City prefaces the story. Not having read anything by Cavafy before, I was strangely moved by the poem and would like to share it here. Another writer I’ll be investigating further.

The City by C P Cavafy (1910)

You said, ‘I’ll go to another land, I’ll go to
another sea.
I’ll find a city better than this one.
My every effort is a written indictment,
and my heart – like someone dead – is buried.
How long will my mind remain in this decaying state?
Wherever I cast my eyes, wherever I look,
I see my life in black ruins here,
where I spent so many years, and ruined and
wasted them.’

You will not find new lands, you will not find
other seas.
The city will follow you. You will roam
the same streets. And you will grow old in the same
and your hair will turn white in the same houses.
You will always arrive in this city. Don’t hope for
elsewhere –
there is no ship for you, there is no road.
As you have wasted your life here,
in this small corner, so you have ruined it on the
whole earth.

Orphans of Eldorado receives a slightly confused 7 out of 10 Biis.


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