‘We lead many lives, nurse more identities than we care to admit, are given all manner of names, when in fact one, and one only, is good enough.
And which identity is that?’
-André Aciman, Enigma Variations
Enigma Variations picks at the scabs of our own lonely longing for love, exploring fully the human tendency towards irrationality and the fickle sway between despair and hope that defines many blossoming relationships. Aciman scoops romanticism and idealism in his hands, delicately juggling them with an underlying, melancholic realism throughout the novel; namely exploring the long littleness of life and a fear of wasted time, the subsequent sense of restlessness, jealousy and desire to find the ultimate love.
Both fluid and pacy, Aciman’s delicate, sensory prose feels breathy and intimate throughout, expertly navigating the disparity between the tormented, inner voice and the outward reality portrayed in human interactions with those that pique our interest. And yet, despite its lightness and heat, the novel also offers a heaviness which builds as it progresses, manifesting in the implications for the protagonist. We begin to identify his contempt for domestic, comfortable love, a perpetual longing and enigmatic view of what it means to be in a relationship. As we become increasingly aware of his own flaws and conflicted wants, we are left questioning – what is enough? How is he ever supposed to know? And what is it he, or perhaps we, as the reader, are searching for?
Structured chronologically with a chapter dedicated to each love of his life, Aciman explores the inner workings of desire, self-discovery and self-awareness – or lack of it, as sexuality shifts from an unexplored, shameful wisp in childhood, to a titillating, lustful and sometimes lonely fire stoked in adulthood. Detailing experiences of bisexuality, the beauty and questions that come with it, Aciman offers intricate depictions of arousal and pens carnal thoughts so wonderfully that you will linger over his descriptions with a bit-lip:
‘I’m shrouded in silence, like a beggar hooded in burlap, skulking in a cellar. I am a cellar. My passion feeds on everything but air, curdles like bad milk that never goes bad enough. It just sits there. And it wastes the heart a tick per day, still, anything that touches the heart is good for the heart, is like feeling, becomes feeling. When I do not speak to you I hope that you will, which you never do, because I never do, because we’ve stopped talking even before we’ve started speaking’.
The novel leaves you with a pang of sadness, as you realise the protagonist’s romantic, all-encompassing hope is the very thing that wears away the loyalty and charm held by long-term partners that he so openly agonised over at its start. Perhaps, Enigma Variations is thus, an exploration of self-sabotage disguised as romance. Or, merely an acknowledgement that love manifests in many forms and that we are compelled, wholeheartedly, to taste them, no matter whether they nourish or destroy us.
Written by Georgia Adsett.
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