BOOKS; Faust in the new world

RASERO by Francisco Rebolledo trs Helen Lane, Weidenfeld pounds 16.99
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The Independent Culture
THIS novel, though published as the first work by a fortysomething Mexican chemistry teacher, is none-theless an example of how authors are not simply born but made. In fact the third novel created over three years by a writer with a fascination for 18th-century France, it is set at the court of Louis XV, and offers a fictitious biography of Fausto Rasero, an Andalusian diplomat whose first name preempts his involvement with the debates of the Enlightenment, with philosophy and alchemy, the laws of physics and the role of evil in the world.

Rasero is endowed with an extraordinary gift. On achieving orgasm he encounters visions of our century, the horrors of Nazi camps and the napalming of Vietnam. This flies in the face of orderly progress as propounded by the encyclopedistes, that science would gradually replace superstition to the greater enhancement of brotherly love. On the contrary, the world seems more than ever bound to the maxim by which el hombre propone, Dios compone, el Diablo descompone (man proposes, God disposes, the Devil dissolves).

Parading through the Age of Reason are its grand exponents Diderot, d'Alembert, Rousseau and Voltaire - but also its subversive proponents, represented at either extreme by the chemist Lavoisier and the obese and dying Madame de Pompadour. And it is a woman, the fictitious Mariana, whose love alone can free Rasero from his uninvited visions. In an earlier epoch these would, perhaps, have been classified as religious trances; in our own more psychologically inclined epoch this key was suggested by a colleague of the author's whose epilepsy brought about a like experience.

The word Rasero is interpreted by the translator as a "levelling stick". Its rationale lies in the equality of vision ascribed to each main character: neither the philosopher, the scientist, the politician (that old "sea- green incorruptible", Robespierre), nor the artist has a defining voice. This is enhanced by Rasero's status as an outsider, shared at one end of his adult life with Mozart, the child prodigy who accompanied Rasero's first and fatal meeting with Mariana, and at the other with Goya, whose hallucinatory paintings illustrate the elderly Rasero's thoughts on his life. Through Goya, Rasero is rejoined to his native Spain and the narrator, who addresses him as "you", is revealed as his Mexican descendent. More is made of New/Old World connections via the erudite Mariana, whose tour of pre-Revolutionary Paris is a classic reversal of European accounts of native practices in the Americas, her view of the popular quarters providing a deft counterpoint to the pontifications of Parisian luminaries.

While the novel is ironic at the expense of intellectual pretensions, erotic decadence and elitist extravagances, it remains a novel. Rhetorical, curious and seductive, Rasero unfolds like a cinematic epic, stimulating images which mingle fantasy and history in our own imaginations. A fine choice for this year's Mobil Pegasus Prize, as the winning novel from more than 400 entrants.