When Eléazard Von Wogau dusts off the stuffed bird spider that he keeps on his desk he accidentally damages it, unleashing dozens of baby spiders from its womb, which will wreak havoc on his house in the months to come and this on the day when his housekeeper is leaving him for good. It is a negligible incident, but it is an example of the unintended consequences that abound in Là où les tigres sont chez eux (Where Tigers Are At Home), the kaleidoscopic novel by the French author Jean-Marie Blas de Roblès.
Where Tigers Are At Home tells the story of Eléazard von Wogau, a foreign correspondent in the northern regions of Brazil, who is working on an annotated translation of a 17th century biography of the maverick German Jesuit scholar Athanasius Kircher (1602-1680); his ex-wife Elaine, who is on a jungle expedition in Mato Grosso in search of some rare fossils; his drug-addict daughter Moéma; Moreira the corrupt governor of Maranhao and his alcoholic wife; Loredana, an Italian journalist who ends up befriending Eléazard; Roetgen, a student who falls in love with Moéma; and Nelson, a legless boy from the favelas on a mission to avenge his father’s death.
In alternating chapters and paragraphs we learn of the fortunes and misfortunes of each of the novel's main characters. Much of the novel consists in a retelling of the biography of Athanasius Kircher that Eléazard von Wogau is translating. During his life Kircher was a celebrated scholar who devoted his considerable intellectual energy to everything that aroused his interest, from hieroglyphs to geology, biology and medicine. He was also an inventor of numerous machines and automatons. His attempt to construct a flying machine is one of the motifs that will return in a rather surprising fashion towards the end of the novel.
While Von Wogau is working on his book we learn that the ship on which Elaine and her companions are traveling is attacked by cocaine smugglers. One of the expedition members is killed during the attack and another is mortally wounded. The ship is heavily damaged and the members of the expedition are forced to continue on foot through the jungle looking for help. They are taken hostage by an Indian tribe who recognize the messiah in one of the scientists.
Moéma, in the meantime, descends into an orgy of sex and drugs. Blas de Roblès accurately captures the delusions of an addict who constantly promises herself to get her life back on track but betrays everyone around her to get another dose of cocaine. As a consequence I felt at once empathy and anger with her.
I admit that some of the passages about Athanasius Kircher are a bit hardgoing, also because the storylines about Moéma and the expedition in Mato Grosso are so compelling. Of course, if you want to, you can just skip the parts about Kircher, but then you would miss the parallels that Blas de Roblès has woven into the novel.
In case you're wondering, since there are no tigers in Brazil, the title is taken from a passage by Goethe: "Es wandelt niemand ungestraft unter Palmen, und die Gesinnungen ändern sich gewiß in einem Lande, wo Elefanten und Tiger zu Hause sind." (French: Ce n'est pas impunément qu'on erre sous les palmiers et les idées changent nécessairement dans un pays où les éléphants et les tigres sont chez eux. English: “No one can walk beneath palm trees with impunity, and ideas are sure to change in a land where elephants and tigers are at home.”).
Where Tigers Are At Home has won several literary awards in France, including the Prix Medicis. It's a great read and if you love the work of Umberto Eco and David Mitchell you'll like Where Tigers Are At Home.