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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Novices of Lerna

Ángel Bonomini

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To purchase The Novices of Lerna

Title: The Novices of Lerna
Author: Ángel Bonomini
Genre: Stories
Written: 1972 (Eng. 2024)
Length: 159 pages
Original in: Spanish
Availability: The Novices of Lerna - US
in: Todos parecían soñar - US
The Novices of Lerna - UK
The Novices of Lerna - Canada
I novizi di Lerna - Italia
in: Todos parecían soñar - España
from: Bookshop.org (US)
  • Spanish title: Los novicios de Lerna
  • Translated by Jordan Landsman

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Our Assessment:

B+ : intriguing and appealing stories

See our review for fuller assessment.

The complete review's Review:

       The Novices of Lerna collects the longer title story and fifteen shorter ones, Ángel Bonomini's first collection of fiction, published in 1972.
       'The Novices of Lerna' is narrated by Argentine Ramón Beltra. A recent law school graduate, age twenty-four, he is surprised to receive an offer for a six-month fellowship at the University of Lerna in Switzerland. The fellowship itself sounds almost too good to be true, beginning with the amount of money involved; it also sounds like a great opportunity -- and would be a chance to see a bit of the world. Nevertheless, Beltra isn't entirely comfortable with this offer from afar -- not least because: "the tone aroused my suspicion due to how cloying, cautious, and bland it was". Still, it's just too great an opportunity to pass up.
       Puzzlingly and disturbingly, while they don't ask for much additional information in making the arrangements, they do require: "a frankly disconcerting report of my physical characteristics". The seven-page report he has to fill out includes measurements: "so detailed and varied that someone could have easily reproduced my body down to the millimeter" .....
       The University of Lerna is a small institution, generally with some two hundred students in residence:

But every five years, the university went into recess for a year and the students abandoned the premises while the majority of the professors traveled to other centers of study. Only a few teachers remained at Lerna and continued their research linked to the old House: Theology, Mathematics, and Law. This was a recess year and the university had invited twenty-four professionals from different parts of the world.
       Beltra is one of the twenty-four and, upon his arrival, comes to understand exactly what quality earned him his spot there. On the one hand, the two dozen 'novices' are: "surrounded by luxury and attended to like kings", on the other ... they find themselves in a pretty creepy situation. And there are rules to follow -- not exactly onerous ("Avoid introductions when meeting with two or more fellows", or: don't offer anyone alcohol or tobacco (though anyone who wants to consume either is perfectly free to)), but certainly complicating social interaction. And the objective of this experiment was "kept completely secret" by the university:
Everyone was allowed to consider, judge, assess, and interpret the fact in any way they pleased, but the university reserved the right not to communicate the objective of the "project" to any individual fellow or group.
       Beltra settles in and he and his fellow novices go about life there more or less normally -- even as the situation is hardly normal. And, ultimately, things do not go well. It's an interesting social-philosophical exercise Bonomini plays out here; with the physical as a starting point, it nevertheless is above all metaphysical, addressing questions of identity and the individual.
       'The Novices of Lerna' reminds of the works of Borges and Bioy Casares, and not just because of the Argentine connection, and Bonomini was surely influenced by these writers, as is also suggested by the similarly philosophical-speculative stories that complete the collection.
       These stories include 'The Model', which begins with a brief 'Introduction'-section before getting to 'The Facts' -- with an explanatory 'Note' appended to it, which begins: "I have only been truthful about one thing" ..... The brief 'Index Card' summarizes the life and career(s) of Joachin Despines, who published six books of poetry which don't get the attention and acclaim he feels they deserve; he reïnvents himself as 'Paul Beranger', dedicating himself to praising: "France's greatest poet, Joachin Despines", and achieves great success as a critic -- yet without achieving his actual goal. 'The Report' is that of a revolutionary leader who has just successfully overthrown the previous government and is explaining the new governmental theory his regime means to implement -- reactionary as much as revolutionary ("The path of the people is a backward path that goes forward, in a time that comes from the future and will end in the past") --, a clever spin on the claims and promises of revolution.
       It's a neat little mix of stories -- though apparently only a fairly small selection of Bonomini's writing. Cleverly imagined, Bonomini spins fascinating philosophical and theoretical ideas out in his tales; fortunately, too, he's a talented writer and the stories -- in a variety of styles -- read very well as well.
       With practically nothing of his work previously available in English, it's good to see this collection of his fiction; hopefully, more will follow.

- M.A.Orthofer, 21 April 2024

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The Novices of Lerna: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Argentine author Ángel Bonomini lived 1929 to 1994.

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© 2024 the complete review

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