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Book Review: The Ship of Fools by Cristina Peri Rossi

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I first stumbled upon Uruguayan writer Cristina Peri Rossi in a used book store a number of years ago, saw she was a writer I was unfamiliar with, and thus purchased her book The Ship of Fools. What persuaded me to purchase her novel over another was the fact that she seemed to tackle larger themes in her book, themes like identity, freedom, responsibility, power as it relates to sex, as well as other various components of the human condition. I also found it interesting that she didn’t write the way one thinks of a woman writing. While that might sound sexist, I admittedly tire of reading “sentimental women’s novels” (you know, crap like The Lovely Bones and The Time Traveler’s Wife) and at times, I have avoided books because of the feminine (note: sappy) nature of the subject matter.

But Rossi is different in that she takes more of a masculine approach in her work, and while she doesn’t always succeed, she at least attempts interesting ideas and tries to relay them in a non-predictable and non-conforming ways. The Ship of Fools isn’t a book I can really recommend, because it is so odd and scattered in its method of storytelling, and not all of it works. Although the book has a narrative (as all art works do), it does not follow the traditional formula of plot. And while I view this as a good thing (for I’ve never been a fan of a-b-c plot driven anything myself), her weaknesses come through via way of her characters, in that they are never really developed and instead just wander around quoting random points about history and philosophy and not all of what is said is unique or even interesting. In many ways, her characters are just shells. I am always sympathetic to philosophical approaches, and as someone who appreciates writers like Milan Kundera’s The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, as well as the multiple works by Sandor Marai, all of which either do not adhere to standard narrative (or what the publishing industry would deem as ‘standard’), what works against Rossi is that her books are not larded with beautiful, ravishing passages of prose. Instead, her descriptions are rather functional and formulaic, yet it is her ideas and how she incorporates them within larger themes, that makes her book at times interesting, even if the final product is still somewhat scattered.

Rossi is one of those writers one can read if feeling the need to loosen the linearity of thought, or just to cull ideas from, even if the way she writes isn’t particularly memorable in its wording, or expressed poetically the way Kundera or Marai express their ideas in their own works. In fact, very often her prose is rather stiff and clunky. So in that sense, I view The Ship of Fools as a noble failure. The central character involved is one named Ecks, and he goes through a number of journeys to odd, dream-like places, as do other characters. One place involves the earth’s navel. Ecks stumbles upon various women and questions his sexual identity as well as the harmony that can be found in impotence.

The Ship of Fools actually references: “the ship as substitute for the madhouse.” Note that her simile isn’t particularly compelling, and nor does she leave it up to the reader to discover. Then, towards the end of the book, there is a bad scene with Marline Dietrich and another female character engaging in lesbianism which reads pretentiously and isn’t particularly poetic or well written. While this has obvious symbolism, the way it is presented is not fresh.

Translated by Psiche Hughes, Rossi’s prose at times veers into cliché and her attempt at humor doesn’t really work. Things like: “The favorite animal among navelists is the car, which they value above any family member. This inseparable companion enjoys the protection of its master and the attention of experts. Some navelists won’t even leave it behind when they go to the supermarket,” is trying to be tongue in cheek but it’s not really funny. There are also sections that veer off into pointlessness, and come across as the author trying to “show off.”

The Ship of Fools is not a bad book, but it’s not a very good one. It’s a limb unto itself, and many of my gripes would be dismissed if the actual writing contained stronger phrasing. And I don’t blame the translator for this, because I have looked online and read some of Rossi’s essays and poems, all of which read similarly to The Ship of Fools. Rossi is a writer with some interesting approaches and attempts, and for that I can appreciate her, but much of her tropes read as a magical realism rehash very commonly found among South American writers. She is someone with good starting points, but limited in her execution. To last in the world of Literary Letters one must have more than mere attempt: in order to qualify for great, one must succeed. As is, The Ship of Fools hasn’t sunk, but rather is stuck in stagnant water.

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About Jessica Schneider