Books Film slider — 14 July 2015

review by

Aug Stone

Chilean director, author, and mystic Alejandro Jodorowsky imaginatively rids himself of his family demons in his latest memoir/novel, ‘Where The Bird Sings Best’.

When visionary filmmaker/writer/healer Alejandro Jodorowsky’s mother’s mother was eight months pregnant, he writes in his autobiography, The Dance Of Reality, his grandfather ‘climbed on top of a barrel full of alcohol to light a lamp. The lid broke, he fell into the flammable liquid, and it began to burn. The family legend was that he ran down the street, enveloped in flames, leaping up in the air as much as two meters high, and died dancing.’

This ‘family legend’ has now been transfigured and surpassed one thousandfold. In Where The Bird Sings Best, Jodorowsky’s maternal grandfather’s death is of his own making. But instead of suicide, his living funeral pyre is a glorious sacrifice in order for ‘an immortal Art to be born.’ Alejandro Prullansky’s life (both of the author’s grandfathers share his first name) is shown from its bizarre beginnings in a deranged isolated Belarusian estate to the position he held as first dancer of the Imperial Russian Ballet. In this role he meets his wife Jashe and we’re taken through their great efforts to make a new life together in South America, all leading up to this illuminated act of death. Jodorowsky lingers over the details of his dance and the long preparations leading up to it, as he so lovingly does with everything, and those details resonate widely, making the whole, well, sing.

As for the veracity of those details? Jodorowsky’s mother is not in the womb in this new version, but is in fact a child celebrating her birthday. What to believe? It hardly matters. The work testifies to itself – the very act of its own creation gives all it contains, and that scope seems boundless, its own truth.

With Where The Bird Sings Best, almost every conceivable detail pertaining to Jodorowsky’s grandparents, parents, aunts and uncles has been spun, with both grace and bitter travail, into monumental myth. This, after all, was the point. The main tenet of Jodorowsky’s therapeutic technique, Psychomagic, is that through poetic acts we can transform and thus heal ourselves. He has written much on the subject beginning with Psychomagic: The Transformative Power Of Shamanic Psychotherapy, and both Metageneaology: Self-Discovery Through Psychomagic and the Family Tree and Manual of Psychomagic: The Practice of Shamanic Psychotherapy have been released this past year. The vast 640-page Metagenealogy deals with the role our ancestors play in the make-up of our individual psyches. Those familiar with the master’s fictional work will see copious examples throughout, perhaps most noticeably in that imposing graphic novel The Metabarons, that takes on how fathers pass down extreme difficulties to their sons generation after generation. But now Jodorowsky publicly applies his method to himself and in a great act of self-healing produces a wondrous book of fictional nonfiction. Not that one need know any of this in order to appreciate Where The Bird Sings Best as a novel. As Jodorowsky has stated many times, the true purpose of art is to heal and Alejandro gives his great-grandmother these lines which perhaps sum up the book best – “Yes…the lions learned to speak Hebrew. If you want to draw some advantage from your history, you must accept not only this miracle but also many others. In memory, everything can become miraculous…the past is not fixed and unalterable. With faith and will we can change it, not erasing its darkness but adding lights to it to make it more and more beautiful, the way a diamond is cut.”

And so we’re given many fantastical stories, outlandish but at the same time deeply meaningful and poetic. Those same lions take part in Hebrew services and in their midst an old dying Rabbi conceives the beginnings of the Tarot whilst also bringing peace between the Jewish, Muslim, and Christian faiths. The lion tamers wear red shoes that get passed down to Jodorowsky’s dancer grandfather. The red shoes being a nice allusion to the Hans Christian Anderson myth and also to those Tarot characters wearing them on the cards. Jodorowsky has written extensively on the Tarot and for many years held Tarot readings in Paris, the only payment he would accept being the recipient tracing ‘thank you’ on his palm. For Jodorowsky, red represents the earth and our material natures whilst blue indicates the sky and more spiritual matters. And sure enough, as Alejandro Prullansky’s life moves along, these shoes turn blue of their own accord (and finally white).

Jodorowsky shows the feet playing an important role in his other grandfather’s life as well. They are after all, like the family that came before us, what we ground ourselves on. Newly relocated to Chile, defying his wife Teresa’s insistence that he make more money for them and their four children, Alejandro Jodorowsky the elder becomes a shoemaker. Much to his wife’s chagrin, he firmly believes this to be spiritual work and shares his business equally with his workers, all together turning out fine quality product. There is much discussion of socialist and anarchist politics, reflective of early 20th century South America. We’re given accounts of Argentine and Chilean protests, including the ‘Red Week’ of 1909, with historical figures such as Simón Radovitsky and Roberto Falcón making appearances. Always showing the personal within the larger movements of society, this unrest is a backdrop to Teresa running off with a (highly sympathetic) deformed circus performer known as Monkey Man and conceiving a child believed to be the Savior by a significant part of the population. And before all this, with both families on the move to a new continent, we see – through much backhandedness and prejudice – the difficulties Jews faced fleeing Europe at that time. Jodorowsky introduces the reader to further historical elements they might not have been aware of such as the Jewish Colonization Association in Buenos Aires and the philanthropy of Baron de Hirsch.

Despite all Teresa’s heartbreak and heresy, it is her drive that really carries much of the novel. And we come to see that she is so full of despair because she is so full of love. The novel begins with the death of her son. And Death – dramatic departures, grandiose statements paying homage to the lives lived, and the devastation brought to those still living – abounds throughout. There is much poignancy here, and a palpable sense of sadness to almost all the characters. This ambitious story is not only captivating but also attests to – if we can pull ourselves away from it for a moment to consider – Jodorowsky’s strength and compassion. How much it must have taken to dive in and face his ancestral pain like this, fictional or otherwise. It is in fact a tribute to Life, of which Death is only a part. That Death is not the end is seen over and over again throughout the novel. Indeed Jodo himself keeps popping up in previous incarnations linked to his family in various ways (as does a snake charmer deeply connected to one of his aunts). Life is shown to be an unending transformative process.

And there’s much more besides – the Rabbi from the Interworld who guides both Alejandro Jodorowskys, his great-grandfather the magical beekeeper whose swarm provides an actual coat of armor, magic and wisdom are present on every page. We see the Jodorowsky family newly arrived in Chile surfing down a mountainside on an iron bench after an earthquake causes an avalanche, Alejandro’s father Jaime as a boy joyously at the helm. And his mother, Sara, becoming the personal maid of a statue of the Virgin in an isolated church out in the desert, “alone, without food, water, or a place to sleep” for three months. There is a Kabbalistic notion that we choose our own parents, knowing that they will provide the perfect set of circumstances for us to correct the faults in our souls. Childhood was by no accounts easy for Alejandro Jodorowsky – with an intolerant father projecting his own insecurities onto his son and a mother never recovered from the loss of her own father – but in Where The Bird Sings Best his compassion for his parents is enormous as he wills himself to understand how and why they treated him as they did growing up, and what led him to become the man he is today.

Looking at his The Dance Of Reality again, there is a wonderful scene at a family party where a young Alejandro, filled with rage at his parents’ social shame, takes an ax and, much to his relatives’ horror, chops down the only tree in his grandmother Jashe’s garden. “I knew this atrocious act had marked the beginning of a new life for me.” With Where The Bird Sings Best a new, more beautiful, tree – full of wonders, hope, and forgiveness – has grown in its place. Highly recommended as not only a work of art but a testament to the healing creative powers of the imagination.

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