Where the Bird Sings Best
by Alejandro Jodorowsky
Reviewed by Galen Strickland
Posted March 6, 2021
Buy from Bookshop or Amazon. A purchase through our links may earn us a commission.
I've had Where the Bird Sings Best on my Kindle for nearly two years. It's an ARC from Edelweiss, but when I downloaded it I didn't realize it was not an upcoming book, but rather a much older one. The ARC wasn't even a promotion for a new edition. As far as I've been able to determine, the most recent printing was 2016, so I set it aside for other books. It initially got my attention because of the author, whom you may know as a filmmaker (El Topo, The Holy Mountain, Santa Sangre), or for his comics, none of which I've ever seen. You may have heard of him concerning his aborted attempt to adapt Frank Herbert's Dune in the mid-70s, which was the subject of a documentary film. The films I have seen (although I can't recall if I finished watching any of them) are full of religious imagery and symbolism, also a lot of violence and blood. The same can be said of this book, which is part family history, part epic surrealism. The only things that may be true about it are the names of Jodorowsky's ancestors, where they came from, and where they were at the time of his birth. However, his date of birth in the book is different than in real life, off by eight months. I don't know for sure, but I'd bet everyone mentioned was deceased at the time this was originally published in 1992, or else he may have been sued for libel.
Both sides of his family tree have Polish roots, but both also eventually ended up in Ukraine, before both emigrated to South America. The Jodorowskys were Jewish. The author's paternal grandfather and grandmother fled Ukraine due to pogroms. Their intention was to emigrate to the U.S., but they were rejected for visas there, eventually ending up in Chile. His maternal ancestors had similar adventures, one branch Jewish, the other goyim. The Jewish branch was driven out of Catalonia, fled to Italy, then to Constantinople, then to Ukraine, eventually to Argentina. Some of the events may be true, most could be outlandish stories told to the young Alejandro, or they're products of his prodigious imagination. The Catalonia branch of the family worked in a circus, inheriting a lion taming act, and supposedly they had taught their lions to speak Hebrew. A ghost of a rabbi has possessed multiple generations of the paternal branch, handed down from father to son. Some visualize the rabbi on a daily basis, following his direction, others are able to keep him at bay. Both of the author's grandfathers were also named Alejandro, as was his maternal great-great-grandfater, if the family trees at the beginning of chapters are accurate that is. It got confusing in parts since the narrative skips back generations and family branches several times.
Recurring themes are the patriarchy, religious bigotry, classism, colonialism, and socialism/communism in the fight for worker's rights. There are very few sympathetic characters, the majority are not. A lot of sexual violence, during the pogroms in Ukraine, on the ships sailing to the Americas, and in Chile and Argentina. Those scenes disgusted me, then later I would be impressed with evocative passages about family, love, compassion, bravery, and political optimism. I don't doubt the violence is realistic, the way men have dominated women throughout history, but it was still disturbing. Even when a woman raped a man. For that reason I can't recommend this, although I'm not sorry I read it, even though those negatives made it hard to read for long periods. Another thing I didn't like was the very long chapters. I don't like stopping in the middle of a chapter, but I had to multiple times, since there only five chapters in more than four hundred pages. It's not hard to believe Jodorowsky is a misogynist himself, with an obession with violence and rape, which he has used in most of his films. If he could divorce himself from those themes, if those could be edited out of this book, I could recommend it. But since they suffuse it, I can't.
We would appreciate your support for this site with your purchases from Amazon.com, Bookshop.org, and ReAnimusPress.