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A Filmmaker's Surreal Vision On The Page In 'Where The Bird Sings Best'

"On this side I have old age, and on this side I have death." — Alejandro Jodorowsky

First, a hard-boiled fact: No one alive today, anywhere, has been able to demonstrate the sheer possibilities of artistic invention — and in so many disciplines — as powerfully as Alejandro Jodorowsky. An accomplished mime, filmmaker, playwright, novelist, composer, actor, comics writer and spiritual guru, Jodorowsky — best known for surrealist films like The Holy Mountain —is an ambitious misfit whose culturally disruptive work has much to offer the world.

His new semi-autobiographical novel, Where the Bird Sings Best,translated by Alfred MacAdam,is hismagnum opus, a fantastical something that in many ways mirrors the author himself: It is brilliant, mad, unpredictable.

The story begins as Teresa, the narrator's grandmother, is grieving over the death of her son, who drowned while attempting to ride out a grand flood floating on a wooden chest. Unfortunately, the chest is"stuffed with the thirty-seven tractates of the Talmud," and the weight drags it down. Teresa is angry; she curses God and is deeply frustrated by the faith and unyielding commitment of her husband, Alejandro — who, even in the midst of tragedy, holds fast to prayer. Not even the memory of seeing his mother murdered with an ax when he was a toddler is enough to break his fervor.

Throughout this multigenerational chronicle, we meet a large cast of characters — from a dwarf prostitute and a floating ghost-Rabbi, to a lion tamer who eats raw meat and teaches his beasts to jump through flaming hoops and dance along tightropes. In language that is at once poetic and grotesque, Jodorowsky mixes family history with allegorical legend, spanning Russia, Lithuania and South America. At its heart, Where the Bird Sings Bestis an immigration tale, following his parents as they escape the fierce anti-Semitism of 1920s Europe — where, as he describes it, all the Jews did was "rock back and forth, chanting their prayers," and "to be humiliated and plundered was normal for them."

In Jodorowsky's world, somehow, little is fact and yet everything is true and also a miracle. Painful memories, if one is brave and imaginative enough, can become something else entirely, because "the past is a continuous invention," and "if you want to draw some advantage from your history, you must accept not only this miracle but also many others. In memory, everything can become miraculous."

It's not difficult to see why Where the Bird Sings Besthas been compared to Gabriel García Márquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude. But Jodorowsky's saga stands firmly on its own — its Tarot and its Jewish mysticism smacking of hallucinations from a completely different orbit than anything that went down in Márquez's Macondo. Here, lions eat people and speak Hebrew. Angels unleash their fury and give revelations as punishment when their choruses are interrupted by too many stupid pleas. Reading Jodorowsky is not suspending reality; it is allowing yourself to believe that with imagination, anything and everything is in the realm of possibility. "All you have to do is wish it, and freezing winter turns into spring."

After a series of disconcerting episodes — like the narrator's visions of being devoured by the ghosts of furious sheep — the fifth and final section culminates in the author's birth in Chile in 1929. It was a period of economic crisis all over the planet, and Chile was one of the hardest-hit places. But the ghost-Rabbi who led his grandfather all those years finds, in the newborn baby, a happy place to dwell and provide guidance. So, you have to wonder: Has the Rabbi been speaking through Jodorowsky all his life and career?

Some ancient scholars believed in something called channeling. They held to the idea that poets in particular were possessed of a kind of divine cognition, an ability to hear and pass on the words of higher beings. You can't be certain as to what exactly Jodorowsky is channeling in Where the Bird Sings Best — but it doesn't feel like it's native to our universe. Still, inthis absurd and glorious carnival, he is the only one worthy to be called the keeper or tamer of anything.

Juan Vidal is a writer and critic for NPR Books. He's on Twitter:@itsjuanlove.

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