Once in a Lifetime, a Tristanian novel
(Best if read after having read the novel.) Several are the leitmotifs on which Once in a Lifetime is structured. And as many are the interpretations which apply to it. I could offer a Jungian/post-Jungian analysis of the text; a Christian one, with the central theme of Fall and Redemption, commixed with the American Dream, reversed—in his life, Michael journeys from riches to rags*; the revolutionary thread, with its ramifications of rebellion and insurrection, both personal and collective. But I choose to dwell on the theme of the star-crossed lovers from a “Tristanian” perspective.
Is Once in a Lifetime a Tristanian novel? The answer is an unashamed “yes”.
The quotation introducing Chapter 16 reads: “Heroic love is a torment, because it does not rejoice in the present as animal love does, but in the future and the absent.” (Giordano Bruno) Here is the troubadours’ l’amour de loin (love from afar). Four are the distinct “objects of separation” or “obstacles” which characterise the novel, in rigorous Tristanian logic.
As made clear in the Prologue, Michael, the virtuous regenerate businessman, has been successful in his philanthropic enterprise, yet is still unhappy. He longs for a companion.
Once he finds her, and she is declared amnesiac by the hospital doctors, he seizes the opportunity, and says that she is his fiancée. He christens her “Angelica.” Why? Many reasons, his and mine alike. His own dead sister’s name (see Musil); his collection of belligerent angels; his own name; her “angelic” features; “my secret angel, my forbidden angel, under a sky of wars and insurrections,” (Pasternak); and, above all, the Angelica of the Orlando innamorato and Orlando furioso (Boiardo, Ariosto). Was Bruno not thinking of Ariosto’s heroine when he speaks, in his own Eroici furori, of love that rejoices in the future and in the absent?
There will be no intimacy between the two. Michael’s self-imposed chastity can be easily explained: intercourse with Angelica, a perfect stranger, would be tantamount to rape. The underlying explanation is quite another: “The man whose strongest excitations are linked to experiences which are all impossible in one manner or another, refuses the experiences which are possible!” (Musil)
Yet, eventually Michael’s self-imposed chastity is about to give way. On the motorcycle journey, he and Angelica begin to sleep in the same hotel room, though still in different beds. Still, he is beleaguered by qualms of conscience. But it is clear that the experience with the shaman will close a chapter and open another one, in which he will probably confess his imposture and hope for forgiveness and acceptance. The Tristanian logic forcibly demands a new obstacle.
Angelica’s own deception now comes to the fore, not explicitly to the reader yet, but it is it that decides her course of action. She betrays Michael and flees. Physical separation intervenes. Finally released from prison, in which Michael does not pay enough attention to the missionary’s insightful interpretation of his ordeal, he begins to seek Angelica, much like Orlando. Seek her he will all the way to the Holy Land, and then to Chiapas, an obscure state in Mexico. But all his seeking will be essentially fruitless. In the search, or quest, he shall even lose his only friend.
A Zapatista recruit, he shall conclude that what was meant for him was really to be a revolutionary and disown money and his past. He heeds belatedly what the missionary and Joaquín have told him, the former using parables, the latter lucidity and poetry, oddly combined. The search for Angelica is finally over. Here, much against the wisdom of the Sermon of the Mount—Seek, and ye shall find—as he resigns himself not to having found her, Angelica appears. The love they make the night of their encounter in a sense lies outside Tristanian logic. Why? I describe nothing of it, but rather insert my editing of the Song of Solomon. By resorting to a pre-Christian culture, incidentally its progenitor, yet one that has still not accepted Christ, I am allowed to evade from the logic. And what an evasion! Poetry runs through the novel like a string of pearls. First, we have Michael and his love of poetry, with several apt quotations from Haziz. Then, repeated occasions to quote excerpts from the Song of Solomon, thanks to Angelica; finally, Vallejo’s desperate pessimism, first heralded by Joaquín.
Moreover, their first and only night together as lovers has strong chivalric resonances. Michael, the knight, does not “wear” Angelica’s sleeve as a “token in battle”. She is stitched to his soul, in the penitentiary in Ecuador, in Israel, as he trains in the Andean altiplano, and finally in the Lacandona jungle. He endures a series of painful trials before at last, having proved his manliness, indeed his knightliness, he wins her favour.
However, the Tristanian logic sombrely informs me that, at this point, it cannot be evaded for long, lest it be utterly jeopardised. A third obstacle is needed.
The scheming Angelica (it shall become evident that the night of her reunion/union with Michael coincides with the peak of her ovulation) breaks the news: she is Marcos’s woman. Michael will not betray him, and here ends their momentary actual union. We have, here, no less than a King Mark (as in the Tristan and Isolde myth) who separates them. Could it be a mere coincidence that his name is Marcos? Western culture has written a single novel!
The Tristanian logic tests us yet a final time.
Angelica, no longer Marcos’s woman, and pregnant with Michael’s child, goes to see the latter. She wants to tell him. Here, in a rain-spattered shack in the south-eastern Mexican mountains, is re-enacted the entire age-old dialectic of Eros and Agapè. Eros is so far triumphing. The passion between hero and heroine is by now of mythical dimension, and, fuelled by a series of increasingly more forbidding obstacles, legitimately belongs to Eros. But Agapè, Christian love of mutual help and tolerance, lurks, and might have the upper hand, after all. If Michael knew of his imminent fatherhood, would he not leave Chiapas, together with Angelica? Would they not settle in some safe haven, and wait for the birth of their child? Would they not become a perfect marriage? Having lost her first child, and having suffered terribly because of that, the reader knows how much Angelica cares. As for Michael, what could suit his kindly and generous disposition better than being a husband and a father, one who, in other words, loves incessantly the present and the tangible?
Is it Tristan himself who intervenes?
“I’ve come here to tell you something,” she said, but only in her mind. Something other than a conscious decision was ordering her to hold back, to refrain from saying what she had come to say. She stared at him wonderingly, and finally saw a man who was, at this point, himself beyond conscious decisions.
Indeed, Michael has entered a mythical dimension, or, Novalis would say, the night. And in the night he must linger, and end. And end he will. His martyrdom shall echo Christ’s and Che Guevara’s, and he shall be thenceforth revered as a hero, and by some as an angel.
It’s as if Angelica had been drawn into the Tristanian archetypal field, and, from within, could no longer act deliberately, although she is only partially subjected to it, and that’s why she does not die. Overall, she is, to an extent, resistant to the Tristanian logic, which is Gnostic-Manichean-Cathar. She is Jewish, and, I may add, life-affirming. Pregnant with Michael’s baby, she will give birth to it, and be an ideal mother.
One need not inconvenience Tristan and Isolde, Romeo and Juliet, or even more recent works by Nabokov, Musil and Pasternak. Popular culture is constantly revisiting the Tristan Myth. Love Story and, recently, Titanic, are perfect examples of how Tristan is still haunting the collective unconscious of Western Civilisation.
ONCE IN A LIFETIME
Copyright © Guido Mina di Sospiro
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