Book Review: Aristotle & Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Saenz

A beautiful cover for a beautiful book.

Aristotle Mendoza stands on the edge of adolescence and manhood. He lives in his own ecotone in El Paso, Texas. His father is distant, his mother loving, his sisters far away. His older brother is in prison. Aristotle ‘Ari’ Mendoza is an angry child. Angry and lonely with a whole universe inside him.

Dante Quintana shines like anything. Brilliant and eccentric, he wears his heart on his proverbial sleeve. Passionate, honest, and boyish even after he graduates from boyhood – Dante is everything Ari does not think he could ever be. Dante is funny. Everyone likes Dante.

One day, Dante teaches Ari how to swim.

There’s something about Benjamin Alire Sáenz’s style that captures the soul. Prose is stripped of pretense and sentences come short, as easy as breathing. This is a book to be savored, but also a book that runs fast. You look down and up again – before long, you’re done. It was a huge pity, but compact is good. Too much of Sáenz’s reflective writing, bringing to the forefront the rawness of earnest human interaction, may come off as pompous. At the same time, he is able to utilize the sparse words to their fullest, reaching into the depths of the emotions that plague us. The prose may feel empty in structure, but Sáenz fills up that gap with the profound feelings of his characters.

Ari opens the book being a miserable fifteen year old. There’s always something eating away at his heart, even when he’s laughing and having a good time. Ari is the silent, brooding teenager who is clumsy with his own feelings and clumsier with people. He reflects what I believe to be the universal loneliness and inadequacy present in those who find themselves unable to reach out to others. Ari is a paradox, as people often are – he values contact but shies away from it.

“I want people to tell me how they feel. But I’m not so sure I want to return that favor.”

Yet for all his inability to express himself, Ari loves so much. He loves the quiet and the view of the starry night from the desert. He loves his dog, Legs. He loves his parents so goddamn much, despite the pain of his solitude and stunted relationship with them. He loves Dante. Ari’s immense pain would not have been possible if he did not love just as much, and that is why I am in awe of this book. It has no need for long descriptions to convey the complexities of love, its multiple facets, and the often contradictory points of human behavior. Sáenz speaks of discovering the secrets of the universe. Indeed, as unknowable as they are, these secrets are still found amongst people.

“The problem is not that I don’t love my mother and father. The problem is that I don’t know how to love them.”

Family is one site where Ari’s love and pain collide. Ari has been living with ghosts all his life. He can’t forget his older brother, and how he had never known him before his family started pretending his brother never existed. His father still has dreams of the Vietnam War. Ari loves his mother’s kindness and his family, yet he’s never been able to truly talk to them. Everyone is fighting a war deep inside themselves. Ari learns to hide his feelings, pushing them deep inside him, becoming angry and hurt by his own loneliness.

Ari hurts because he loves his brother, and wishes someone would talk to him about what happened. He hurts because he wants his father to not be so far away. “I’m always looking for you,” Ari tells him. He gets so upset at his mother, but it is always accompanied by another sentence or paragraph of him thinking how beautiful she is, and how impossibly much he loves her. It’s wonderful how Ari’s confusing swirl of feelings can make him so human.

Then there’s Dante.

The book is told from Ari’s point of view, so I am unable to explore Dante from his own perspective. In Ari’s eyes, he’s the picture of intelligence, artistry and fun. Dante dreams of being an artist. Dante gets him into poetry and reading. Dante talks to him about birds. They play games with their tennis shoes.

Dante’s own fragility and conflicts make him feel real. He struggles with learning the mysteries of life, his identity, his sexuality and his fear of disappointing his parents. The relationship between him and Ari forms a focal point of the book. Like glimpsing snapshots, the book walks us through their lives. Dante is able to give love openly to the world. And so, unlike Ari, he is able to be hurt in ways that he cannot hide.

There is just so much love and distance in this book. Between Ari and Dante, who push each other away just as much as they make each other laugh. Between them and their parents, whose struggles and relationships form the fabric of the narrative.

What I also appreciate about the book is how it addresses issues of identity in a particular cultural time-space. Aristotle and Dante takes place in Texas, in the 1980s, in a community of Mexicans. The generation before Ari and Dante has known poverty, hunger and war. Their parents’ hopes for their children to grow up good, educated and provided-for resound throughout the book. Ari’s mother is particularly passionate about her identity as a Mexican, and what it means to not grow up poor despite being one.

Dante is referred to as being ‘too American’. It’s not something he feels comfortable talking about. Perhaps he feels just as lost and isolated as Ari in different ways. Not only does he prefer kissing boys instead of girls, Dante Quintana is a Mexican-American who isn’t Mexican enough, yet he can never be all-American.

The characters also grow through their relationships with each other, becoming increasingly complicated. They share with the reader their fears, their hopes, their dreams. They talk about the monsters inside their hearts.

Maybe this is how you go about discovering the secrets of the universe – you do so with others, and you may even find those secrets in them.

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