Zulfikar Chose was born in Pakistan, grew up in British India, emigrated to England in 1952, and since 1969 has taught in the English department of the University of Texas. He is married to a Brazilian and has enough knowledge of South America to write novels set there. This is his 10th novel. He has also published a collection of stories (with B.S. Johnson), an autobiography, four volumes of poetry, and two books of literary criticism.
Given this varied background and considerable writing experience, one is not surprised at this novel’s skillful presentation of a fascinating variety of human types and behavior. The story begins in an unnamed country on South America’s western coast, where a poorly paid government clerk, Felipe Gamboa, dreams of Pacific islands, a better salary, and a successful marriage for his 16-year-old daughter. But, on his way home from work, he discovers his beloved daughter in the embrace of Frederico, a poor neighbor boy. Furious, Gamboa separates them and drags the daughter home. The next day, while eating a sack lunch in a public square, he is mistakenly arrested with a group of antigovernment demonstrators and ends up adrift in the Pacific in a small boat.
The focus then shifts to Frederico, who is also a dreamer about money and Pacific islands. Immediately after the scuffle with his girlfriend’s father, he is caught up in a bizarre series of adventures involving an alleged magic amulet, numerous sexual encounters with older women, and mindless participation in an international crime syndicate.
After 18 years, Gamboa and Frederico meet again on a small Pacific island off the South American coast. Gamboa has another daughter by another woman, exactly the age of his first daughter when he was whisked away. On this barren island, the novel, marked by fantasy and surrealism throughout, comes to its peculiar, violent end, while hints of Shakespeare’s The Tempest provide ironic resonance. The island has its Prospero and Caliban, and bogus magic animates the entire story—this is no brave new world but a “dead world” of ashes, nuclear waste, and political oppression.
Despite its treatment of the appalling contrasts between wealth and poverty and, more incidentally, of the inhumane corruption of an anti- Communist military government. Figures of Enchantment is ultimately unconcerned with politics and social justice. The principal theme is human self-deception. One of the meanings of “figures” in the title is money figures. Repeatedly, the characters are calculating the freedom and self-indulgence they are sure money will provide. Their existences are caught up in the self-deceptive arithmetic of wanting more than they possess. And, with Chose, the delusions spun out of the desire for money are a manifestation of a fundamental human habit of delusion in general. At one point Gamboa glimpses mankind as “flowing impetuously, and without thought, toward another world where an intenser misery awaited it than it had known, but that in its thoughtless drive it was sustained by the belief that it proceeded toward a land of enchanting pleasures.” This bleak parable encapsulates the world of Ghose’s novel. In an essentially nihilistic vision, in which no person or endeavor warrant our sympathy, human consciousness becomes rationalization and illusion, generated by the “self’s combat with its shadow.”
The dust jacket touts “undreamed of adventures in sensuality and metaphysics.” The sensuality turns out to be abundant sexual description bordering on the pornographic, while the metaphysics translates into little more than vague, self-consciously poetic passages on self, time, magic, and dreams.
Ghose is a master at describing the human genius for deceiving itself, but he forgets that self-deception is a powerful theme only granted the possibility of its opposite.
[Figures of Enchantment, by Zulfikar Chose (New York: Harper & Row) $15.95]
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