If you don’t know who Alejandro Jodorowsky is, the first thing to know about him is that you probably already know his work. His 1973 cult classic, The Holy Mountain, was being projected onto a brick wall at that one party you went to at that tumbledown Victorian at the edge of your college town. The main things you remember about it — the movie, not that party — are the scene where the toads are dressed up in little conquistador outfits and the part where the plaster Jesus’ face turns into birthday cake. As one friend of mine, himself an avowed Jodorowsky fan, put it: “I’ve seen this movie a lot of times, but rarely straight through, or with the sound on.”
In addition to his work as a filmmaker, Jodorowsky is also a “playwright, actor, author, musician, comics writer and spiritual guru.” That’s just from the first line of his Wikipedia page. Elsewhere I’ve heard him described as a surrealist, a shaman, the inventor of the concept of the midnight movie, the inventor of a field of therapy called psychomagic, an anarchist, a mime, a Parisian, a Chilean, and a Jew.
As with yoga, the Grateful Dead, and the city of Portland, Oregon, the path to productive engagement with this complex, unique, unwieldy, and sometimes exasperating artist is to put aside all preconceptions — your own and the culture’s, of course, but also his. I, for instance, don’t have much interest in surrealists, still less in mimes and shamans, and exactly none in tarot, yet in the past couple weeks I’ve managed to watch or re-watch all Jodorowsky’s major works without recourse to pharmacology (unless you count a bourbon rocks). I find myself impressed by his dilatory imagination, love of pure spectacle, and puckish sense of humor.
Sober, dressed, and with all the lights on, I ripped through Where the Bird Sings Best — the first of Jodorowsky’s many novels to appear in English translation — in just a few enraptured days. The trick is to eschew caricature and give yourself over to the experience, at which point the wondrous strange takes over. The mind — and, god help me, the spirit — finds itself traveling in realms it could not have otherwise explored, or even dreamed exist.
Where the Bird Sings Best is an autobiographical novel, epic family saga, and psychomagical origin myth. In the first chapter, “My Father’s Roots,” we meet Jodorowsky’s paternal grandfather, likewise named Alejandro, still a young man living in his native Ukraine. Alejandro’s travels in “the Interworld” result in his hosting the disembodied soul of a rabbi who becomes his invisible consiglieri. Alejandro’s wife, Teresa, turns against Judaism after their son Jose drowns in a flood. She loses her faith not in God’s existence but in His goodness. “For her, the world was a prison, a charnel house, the sick dream of the monstrous Creator. But what annoyed her most . . . was knowing, without wanting to confess it, that this hate disguised an excess of love.” The family emigrates from Ukraine, passing as Poles — the name Jodorowsky comes from a set of forged papers — and hoping to go to America. A series of hardships and frauds, compounded by the pious Alejandro’s pathological charity, leaves them adrift and on the verge of annihilation. At which point, their Jewishness resurfaces and saves them. The irony is cruel, but leavened by a poignant mercy: that which you cannot rid yourself of is also that which can never be taken away, because it is not just yours, but you.
Reading over the preceding paragraph, I’m astounded by how much has been left out of my account of “My Father’s Roots.” And “My Mother’s Roots” is, if anything, denser, encompassing a thousand years of European history, the creation of the tarot deck, internecine feuds within the Lithuanian Jewish community, a pair of lion tamers on such intimate terms with their animals that they nurse each others’ offspring without regard to species, and a Russian imperial ballerina (male).
Line by line and story by story, Where the Bird Sings Best is electrifying. It is also relentless, and therefore occasionally exhausting. There are no section breaks within the five novella-length chapters, and because every image and vision and episode is given equal attention, it’s nearly impossible to distinguish meaningfully between major and minor plot points, motifs, or even characters. A different critic might have glossed over the ghost rabbi and focused instead on the aforementioned ballerina; or the monkey-faced man named Seraphim who eventually seduces Teresa away from Alejandro; or the depiction of workers’ rights movements in early-twentieth-century Latin America; or any of the 10,000 other people, places, saints, angels, ideas, and things crowding the turbulent streets of this anarchist Shambhala.
Eventually both families make it to Chile, where in the fullness of time Jodorowsky’s father (Jaime) and mother (Sara Felicidad) will chance to find each other, though chance turns out to have little to do with it. With winking narcissism, Jodorowsky insists that his own genealogy was a trans-historical supernatural conspiracy to produce him, and that he himself was the chief conspirator. He claims to have chosen his parents for the richness of their respective lineages, though lineage too turns out to be an inside job. Jodorowsky himself, in a previous life, apparently created tarot and introduced it to his maternal ancestors, as a way of curating the family history and mystical inheritance that he would later want. “[T]he past is not fixed and unalterable,” his great-grandmother Sara Luz tells his grandmother Jashe. “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 Jodorowsky plots his parents’ meet-cute from the secret purgatorial lair where he hides out between incarnations, coterminous on this plane of reality with his father’s balls.
As in Jodorowsky’s films, the orgy of surrealism and aquarian hoodoo can seem at first like a naive — and frankly reactionary — rejection of the world, but its true purpose is rather to revitalize and inflame it. When Alejandro grandpère returns from military service to his wife and young family, the first thing he does is fall to his knees and sob. The second thing he does is kick the ghost rabbi out of his psyche for the afternoon, and his children out of the house. He rips Teresa’s dress and underwear to pieces. Their passion for each other breaks their bed and knocks over a brazier full of burning coals:
Enormous flames devoured furniture and walls. My grandparents noticed nothing. Not for an instant did they interrupt their caresses. Perhaps because the sweat that ran over their bodies soaked the sheets, perhaps because of a divine miracle, the fire never touched the bed. After the explosion of the final orgasm, they returned to reality and found themselves resting in a house reduced to smoking ruins.
“No regrets,” said Teresa to my grandfather. “Things happen when it’s time for them to happen.”
You can say that again. Where the Bird Sings Best is deeply invested in human emotion, and downright reverent of human bodies, in ecstasy as well as in suffering, in perfection as well as in deformation. Though Jodorowsky may remark, casually as a fortune cookie, that “there is no world but the world of dreams,” his work insists that said dreamland, in all its splendor and terror and grit, is not some other realm beyond the blue. It is here and now. He revels in the earthiness of life on earth.