SPERANZA by Sven Delblanc

SPERANZA

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KIRKUS REVIEW

Swedish writer Delblanc, last seen here with the scatological/grotesque effusion Homunculus (1969), now offers a short, feverish nightmare-fable--as 19-year-old Malte Moritz von Putbus floridly narrates his 1794 voyage to the New World aboard the three-masted barque Speranza. Exiled by his father (""a gross and selfish aristo"") for the combined sins of radicalism and sexual dalliance, ""Mignon"" is traveling to the West Indies with his timid old tutor and his Moorish servant Roustam, ""a spoiled little niggerboy, corrupted by kisses and candy."" And the rather unpleasant trip starts becoming a moral/psychological ordeal once Mignon realizes that the Speranza is a slave ship, that the vessel's mysterious stench comes from the dysentery-infected cargo. At first Mignon is determined to take a stand: ""Shall I, a brother of the Order of Liberty, accept without a word of protest this barbarous oppression, against which my whole nature revolts? . . . No, my loathing for the slave trade must never weaken! Never shall I betray liberty's high ideal, or compromise with Power! Never!"" Then, however, when Mignon tries to pay for the ship to turn back, he is unsettled by the forceful arguments of the materialist ship's-doctor and fellow-passenger AbbÉ Marcello--who insists that the Speranza is engaged in ""missionary work,"" that the slaves are being rescued from the jungle, not oppressed. So, as the shipboard nightmare escalates (bodies thrown to sharks, etc.), Mignon's confusion mounts: he's plagued by imaginary voices, by lust for a ""black enchantress"" among the slaves; he's shaken by revelations about his mother's sex-life; he fights off the idea that the Speranza's goal of ""a better world"" justifies the cruelty and suffering. But by the time Roustam plans to lead the slaves in revolt, Mignon is unable to choose sides. And after the revolt fails, with many deaths (including one reflexive killing by Mignon himself), the tortured narrator has been won over to Speranza-ism: ""When they revolt against us they act in the last resort against their own interests, and in the name of the general welfare must be punished with exemplary brutality. . . . Now I see it all so clearly. Complete submission, relief, and joy. Peace at last."" Despite some phrases that suggest a Speranza/Marxism parallel: a less-than-persuasive parable of dehumanization and indoctrination-via-misery, occasionally vivid but repetitious and predictable.

Pub Date: Sept. 1st, 1983
Publisher: Viking