Coming to grief

Harriet Paterson greets a stunning debut; Rasero by Francisco Rebolledo, trans. by Helen R Lane Weidenfeld, pounds 16.99
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The Independent Culture
Francisco Rebolledo is a Mexican chemistry teacher who threw it all in to write the book he had been dreaming of for ten years. In his delight at leaving the laboratory for the wilder shores of literature, Rebolledo has produced a huge, bursting novel, filled with life and ideas, with philosophy, science, art, sex and death.

No other time and place is more suitable to such an undertaking than 18th-century Paris; Rasero takes us on an extraordinary journey through the years of the Enlightenment and beyond, from Louis Quinze to Bonaparte. Everyone seems to be in it, at least all who most perfectly incarnate the spirit of the age: Diderot, d'Alembert, Mozart and Madame de Pompadour, Danton and Desmoulins.

Rebolledo offers intimate encounters with each of these figures. Voltaire shuffles around in his slippers, a bright red woolly cap perched on his wig, La Pompadour is ageing badly, with swollen eyelids and puffy cheeks. Each portrait resonates with historical and political fact, yet is alive with gossipy detail.

In the manner of Perfume, the book plunges straight into the viscera of the age; sweat, blood and pus smear the opening phrases. Diderot lies submerged in one of his endless baths, trying to remove the stench of Vincennes prison, "an odor or urine and burned turds, of garlic and cooking oil, of scorched lime and rancid fish". Only Fausto Rasero can bring him relief, a strange young emigre from Spain with a bald head and impenetrable black eyes. Ageless, magnetic and visionary, he is a thoroughly unusual protagonist. His presence refreshes the mind and body of everyone he meets, a revitalising influence who unlocks hopes and desires. He is a polymath, whose ceaseless intellect is matched only by his sensuality. His perfect day consists of a stimulating debate with Voltaire followed by extended lovemaking with a new paramour. Hard to quarrel with that. But there's a hitch: at the moment of sexual climax, Rasero invariably experiences horrifying visions of the 20th century. Not only does this mar the moment critique, it also inhibits his intellectual discussions with friends as they conjecture about the future. They expect the progress of knowledge to herald in a brave new world. Rasero knows better, or rather, worse.

Along the way, Rebolledo furnishes his setting with exquisite attention to objets d'art and canvases from Boucher to Goya: the frivolous rococo chez Madame de Pompadour; the dark, frightening paintings and heavy furniture of Rasero's Malagan home. There is plenty of good conversation. The vocabulary is energetic and wide ranging Indeed, his writing is so fluent and confident, it is hard to remember this is a first novel. He seduces the senses and invigorates the intellect. He conducts experiments with time which create a giant puzzle around his protagonist, until memory and prophecy become fused. Equally at home with Rousseau or a street collector of excrement, he has what all historical writers need, the ability not just to study a subject but to assimilate it completely, so as to move with ease amongst the dead.