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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


House of the Fortunate Buddhas

João Ubaldo Ribeiro

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Title: House of the Fortunate Buddhas
Author: João Ubaldo Ribeiro
Genre: Novel
Written: 1999 (Eng. 2011)
Length: 147 pages
Original in: Portuguese
Availability: House of the Fortunate Buddhas - US
House of the Fortunate Buddhas - UK
House of the Fortunate Buddhas - Canada
House of the Fortunate Buddhas - India
Ô luxure - France
La casa de los budas dichosos - España
  • Portuguese title: A Casa dos Budas Ditosos
  • Translated by Clifford E. Landers

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Our Assessment:

B- : fine for what it is, but too limited a narrative

See our review for fuller assessment.

The complete review's Review:

       House of the Fortunate Buddhas is novel that was commissioned as part of publisher Objetiva's Plenos Pecados-series -- works of fiction on the seven deadly sins, with Ribeiro writing about lust. (One other novel in the series has been translated, Luis Fernando Verissimo's The Club of Angels, on gluttony.)
       A brief Introduction has Ribeiro claim that the text he presents is, in fact, based on material by a sixty-eight-year-old woman that he has simply edited a bit. Appropriately enough, her record is an oral one, transcribed; first she claims this is, among other reasons, because she has arthritis which makes writing difficult -- but then she admits it's simply because:

it's impossible to write about sex, at least in Portuguese, without coming off like a prostitute who's just been asked to "talk dirty" for the twentieth time in the same day ... or else you try and get away with using clinical or romantic language ... "vulva," "vagina," "her grotto of pleasure," "his tumescent member," and how about "abruptly, he entered her" ? It's just more natural when you say it out loud.
       (Suggesting, of course, that the narrative also then be read aloud ....)
       The now older woman is a possibly promising guide, making clear early on: "Let's just say that being offensive is my general philosophy", but offensiveness can really only get you so far (in story-telling). From growing up in Bahia to Rio, where she moved after the military coup of 1964, to the near-present-day where she occasionally resorts to her computer, she describes sex in these changing times.
       As warned, she's very forthright:
I can't take on the timorous attitude of the censors of Joyce, Lawrence, Henry Miller, etc.
       Indeed, ambitiously:
I only want to write a crazy book, in which words can detonate, explode in every kind of meaning, provoke reactions of all types. I'd like to liberate all words, which I know sounds like the raving of some hack adolescent poet but what can I do, it's what I feel like, I'd like to liberate words.
       But writing about sex in this way isn't easy, and though Ribeiro, through his narrator, offers a fair amount of explicit and intimate descriptions of sex acts (though reluctantly admitting, for example: "I'm weak in bestiality; I was born without any great knack for it and never evolved further") House of the Fortunate Buddhas doesn't rise to much more than a mess of descriptions of such activity. In part, that's also presumably an issue of place and time: the narrator writes against a very staid tradition, just as she fucked against a staid tradition when she was younger. So, for example, in this religious country the young lusting women of her time liked to get in on with the men but needed to preserve their virginity -- leading to quite a bit of description of the alternative open to them (and, with some effort, to the men); the narrator points out the ridiculous hypocrisy, but that doesn't make much of this any sexier or more appealing.
       In ascribing such great openness to sexual experimentation and an embrace of lust in general to women, House of the Fortunate Buddhas sits a bit awkwardly between feminist idealism and male wishful thinking -- awkwardly because it just doesn't ring entirely true: whatever his narrator claims, it's still hard not to see Ribeiro acting out wish-fulfillment rather than honestly documenting female sexual desire.
       The narrator's hope that her book has a liberating effect on women, that they see that others feels similarly, has its appeal:
I want frightened husbands, boyfriends, and parents to forbid them to read it; I want people to be ashamed to read it in public or even ask for it at the bookstore
       But it's hard for a book to achieve that, and even harder nowadays (the book was first published in 1999), and if Ribeiro thinks he can still get away simply with writing against the social mores his narrator grew up with, well, it feels mighty thin in the current climate.
       There are some amusing observations and asides:
In the United States there's a manual and a course for everything, and I don't doubt lots of people there screw according to some handbook.
       But too often it feels like more or less random thoughts and observations, as they occur to the narrator; appropriate, in a sense, for a free-wheeling explorer of all things sexual, but not necessarily engaging reading.
       Early on the narrator explains:
My original title was Memoirs of a Libertine, but no, I changed my mind, that's just too good for my audience -- it would be lost on people who have never read Choderlos de Laclos. I'm not going to waste that kind of title on you.
       So she offers: "some mysterious Buddhas" instead. It's a shame that more of this ambivalence -- of cultures clashing, as much as mores, and of politics, and of personalities -- isn't able to rise to the fore in her account. And while the book really does amount to 'memoirs of a libertine' she's right in not taking that title, because her account can't live up to the far more refined complexity of Laclos.
       In fact, the occasional references to high(er) culture are also at odds with the rest of the text -- and not simply in the way she means it:
I've never been taken in by any of those con games that confuse unintelligibility and boringness with profundity -- not by Lacan, not by Godard, not by Robbe-Grillet, none of that shit, which is all bull and a bore, and whoever likes it has to have been blackmailed into it and deep down feels stupid.
       In passages such as that one, too much of Ribeiro's wagging head seems to be in the frame -- and House of the Fortunate Buddhas feels too much like a similar con game (where he thinks he can more easily get away with it with the promise of sex to prevent boredom).
       As is, House of the Fortunate Buddhas is mainly of interest in its limited cultural and historical context. Sure, there's lots of sex -- and quite a bit of philosophizing about it -- but the narrator's case against inhibition remains too much a very personal one to shake very much up, and her personal story isn't compelling enough to make for a convincing novel.

- M.A.Orthofer, 12 July 2012

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House of the Fortunate Buddhas: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Brazilian author João Ubaldo Ribeiro was born in 1941

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© 2012 the complete review

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