El Unicorno or The Wandering Unicorn is one of the most bizarre books I have ever read. It was written by the Argentinean author Manuel Mujica Láinez in 1964 and translated by Mary Sitton into English. The only copy I could get was a battered Berkley edition from 1984 so I don’t think it has recently been reprinted.
The story begins with the infamous medieval romance about Melusine the fairy, who marries Raimondin of Lusignan until their marriage disintegrates when he sees her half serpent body in the bath and she is compelled to go screaming around one of the many castles she has built. The tale then follows Melusine watching her family branching out across Medieval France and across to Palestine during the crusades.
I haven’t seen mythology this rich and archaic since I studied Arthurian literature at university. Fairies, unicorn horns, heraldic banners, knight’s templar, Jerusalem and angels living like monks in castle towers.
“From my retreat in the church tower I could see across to his cell and watch him pacing up and down, reading his devotions by the feeble light of a taper; but though we were neighbours, and the only non-human inhabitants of Lusignan, we never exchanged a word.”
The main thread of this story is Melusine falling in love with her very distant descendant, Aoil, who has no personality to speak of. Melusine’s endless resentment and jealousy of other women bored me to tears and I found her stalking of a fifteen year old boy and lusting after him deeply disturbing especially when he was in the bath or sleeping. The only character I could have liked was Aoil’s half sister (who has some peculiar issues herself) but I strangely found her the only one I could feel empathy with
This is not a story to read in big sections; it takes concentration. Mainez goes off into tangents about the history of everything. The dry humour and lushness of imagination saved this from being tedious but authors like Susanne Clarke in Jonathon Strange and Mr Norrell managed to do this with more success. The story definitely picks up halfway through and I didn’t have to force myself to read anymore especially when there is an utterly briliant twist I did not see coming.
Since this story follows the medieval tradition of the crusades there is a lot of Orientalism, Islamaphobia, anti-blackness and general western superiority. There are some people who would excuse this with being “a thing of its time” but it is never fun to read about. Nevertheless this is a very odd yet beautiful book and like Jorge Luis Borges said in his introduction: “a glowing dream of the past”