DISTANT EXPLOSIONS make the crystal chandeliers tinkle, but the two lovers on the big pink rug don't look up. We are in the declining luxury of a parlor -- faded damask, golden velvet -- where someone called Abel and his perfect mistress meet repeatedly in this lush, ecstatic novel by an already dead Brazilian master. The plump, impossible she, whom Abel found after a life-time's search and scarring liaisons with other women, has hair the color of honey and steel, is several women in one, and may also be imaginary, dead, or divein. Abel never says her name, but mentions her only through the ideogram O, which cannot be pronounced.
Yet, in the other sense of that last word, she sticks out: less a character in Lin's novel than the novel is part of the universe she embodies. In every sense, she is Abel's new-foundland, physically, of course, but also mentally and cosmologically; and for Lins' narrator, openly trying to write the allegorical novel of paradise found -- "several women and one man . . . a trajectory of which the protagonist is ignorant" -- she becomes the source and symbol of all he cannot say, a liter for his thimble, a rune his linear ruler cannot measure. In a word, she is life, not just Dante's Beatrice, La Belle Dame Avec Merci and Garbo rolled into one, but everything -- erotica, mystery, soul and by mathematical extension an infinite spiral which the narrator can't capture in his grid of pages. A nap or two apart, his dot-faced lady with the fuse-wire ears is inexhaustible in every way.
If all this sounds high-flown ("Avalovara" is a bird whose name seems to mean a Drinker Up of Eggs), Lins gets it across with sensuous, irresistible vividness, driving nonstop -- almost as if it were a new idea -- at the romatic yearning for an ideal Other, but also for the unknown as the scientist, the astronaut, the mystic know it. Avalovara is a novel of secular bliss, and O (to use a phrase of Hemingway's) is what Abel has "instead of God." Maybe vice versa too, except that she can say his name and in that is earthier than he, as goddesses usually are. On the rug, but sometimes on a sofa or the concrete of a balcony, she and Abel adore each other, dawdlingly, fiercely, dreamily, stashing the past into a little summary (a "summula") and shutting out the life to come. She accepts him as he is, though with increasingly ritual ingenuity, but he is always trying to figure her out; after all, he's the narrator's proxy, and she is not. The narrator seems a man.
This narrator shapes his novel after an expression culled from Pompeii: "Sator Arepo Tenet Opera Rotas," which means both "The plowman carefully sustains his plow in the furrows" and, more cosmically, "sustains the world in its orbit." The Latin saying he inscribes across a square divided into 25 equal sections, ending up with a two-way palindrome centered two "Tenet"s crossed. With this diagram he plays his own variety of hopscotch in, as the book's last page reveals, Sao Paulo, from September 22, 1969 to December 1, 1972. Is Lins' dating the nararator's too? One cares because the cabalistic determinism of the square, printed right after an opening bouquet of five complex epigraphs, mocks the calendar of simple time (yet another grid), but also because it's over-printed on a spiral echoed in the narrative by carousels, bedsprings, wheels, clocks and galaxies. Meanwhile Abel and O (you guessed it) are trapped in one right-angled shape or another -- a room, a rug, a bed, a plaza -- almost like Keats' lovers on the Grecian urn except that Keats flash-freezes them and Lins keeps them moving in fixed orbit, like the heavenly bodies they are.
Offered under such auspices, in prose at once deep and spectacular, this love story becomes an engrossing and haunting analogue for human maneuver in the face of the truly unknowable Unknown. What are we? she and Abel ask. Humans: but what are they? Things unfathomable, for which we invent sometimes unknown names such as "Yolyp". The scheme, of expressing creation's spiral in the humdrum square, is meant to fail and, in failing, to evince the superior magic of the universe, through whose spotty void we float, whether on "half-soiled" pink magic carpets or not. Lins' erotic novel of candid yet flawless good taste, full of saturated crescendos and rhapsodic rests, works on every other level as well: a divine yet profane comedy, a tragety in which the lovers are the cosmic spiral's sacrifical offering to itself, a hymn of celebration in which the brain runs riot, and a continuum of freely-sculpted prose that sometimes feels like an auroral display pent up in a bell jar.
"I won't even live a thousand years," she says, "my life is quick, a scratch on time, just as one day a fish leaps up over the vastness of the sea and sees the Sun and archipelago where goats are moving among the crags, that's how I leap out of eternity." So, says she, "Come, Abel. Penetrate me and make me grow. I am obsessed with sponges . . ." Off her pour the aromas of ripe oranges, burnt lavender and sulfur. The crocodile and the rabbit in the rug's pattern come alive and join in the love-play as if ravished by Scriabin. There are scores of such moments.
Two of Abel's other women, aloof Roos and bisexual Cecilia, drift in and out of this walk to the paradise garden, figures who might be dominant in any other novel, but here are subordinate and minor, almost noises offstage (like the Orff music that plays in the parlor), and less real than that mythic unmockable bird of contentment, Avalovara, which flies and cries "Raah!" during human climax, only to vanish, or the long-historied grandfather clock which chimes Scarlatti.
Osman Lins, a banker turned professor and novelist, died at 54 in 1978, known only in his native Brazil, Germany and Spain, yet surely, on this showing of his third out of five novels, one of the most majestic prose stylists Latin America has ever produced, sumptuous, original, impenitent, and gravid with mellow power: the Villa-Lobos of the novel. I hope Gregory Rabassa will translate more of Lins, whom he's rendered here superbly. As well as the novels (the fifth of which is unfinished), there are books of stories, books of essays, plays and travel-pieces and, not least interesting-looking, a TV script about Shirley Temple.