Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe

Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe - Benjamin Alire Sáenz
"I mean, when do we start feeling like the world belongs to us?"

I wanted to tell him that the world would never belong to us. "I don't know," I said. "Tomorrow.”

What can I say? Sometimes my mind is hyperactive and can't order its thoughts. Sometimes it's speechless. I'm not sure what the case is this time. It blew my mind, definitely. I'll be a honest cheater and use sentences from the book for my very own benefit because I just can't find better words to describe how I feel. So if you still want to go on, forgive me in advance.

It's not a romance, yes, there is a love story, but that's not the only thing. This is a novel about someone and that someone's universe. Love. Friendship. Family. Loneliness. Confusion. Coming of age. Philosophy. Art. Life.

Behind that poetic title there is a life. A life about a fifteen-year-old surrounded by loneliness and sadness and emptiness. The process to become a man is beautiful for some, but painful for others. Ari is in pain. The reasons for feeling terrible inside keep changing. He feels his life doesn't belong to him, that it's someone else's idea. He has a feeling there is something wrong with him, but he's a mystery even for himself. He has a rule it is better to be bored by himself than to be bored with someone else. Maybe that's why he doesn't have any friends. He was born knowing how to hide what he feels. Typically he doesn't know what to say so he doesn't say anything. He is hard, he doesn't cry, he likes to fight. Guys make him uncomfortable, he feels he doesn't belong, he thinks it embarrasses him to be a guy, he feels depressed at the possibility of growing up and be an asshole. He doesn't know what to do with pieces of information, he just keeps them inside, that's what he does with everything. He wants other people to tell how they feel, but he's not sure he wants to return the favor. He wants to laugh and laugh and laugh until he laughs into becoming someone else. The story of his life: he gets an A for work, but not for talent.

Dante is the opposite. Dante's face is a map of the world, a world without any darkness, how beautiful is that? Ari doesn't understand how can Dante live in a mean world without any of that meanness rubbing off on him. Dante has tears, Ari doesn't. Dante is not hard, Ari is. Dante is not good at controlling all the laughter that lives inside of him. Dante is allergic to air. Dante can't bear birds being hurt. Dante belongs anywhere he goes, that's just how he is.

Ari wonders what is it like to hold someone's else hand, he bets you could sometimes find all of the mysteries of the universe in someone's hand.

He wants to discover all the secrets of the universe.

I loved the book, it's lame and unoriginal, saying it that way, but I loved it. If I had had more time I would have read it non-stop. But life is life. It is a very simple writing and a very simple style, but poetic and beautiful at the same time. It is a very simple life but with complex characters, complex themes, complex situations, complex feelings. We are the whole way inside Ari's head. A real teenager, he really felt like one. A teenager with insecurities and pain and sadness and that eternal feeling of wondering if he's ever going to find his place in the world, in the universe. An ordinary youth with no friends and a complicated family. A mother whose sincerity and irony go hand-by-hand. A father whose bad dreams from Vietnam keep haunting him. A big brother in prison about whom nobody talks about. Two sisters that keep telling him he has been born too late. A summer full of possibilities ahead of him but that doesn't feel like one.

There is no plot, the storyline flows during a year and a half, and nothing has a clear pattern. Like life. We have two guys who are more or less stable, and nothing really thrilling happens to them, but you want to be with them anyway. They are fascinating. Not because they've traveled worldwide and met lots of people and done interesting things. They are intriguing and enchanting for who they are. But they don't know it yet. I did. People around them knew. I think that's part of growing up, finding out you are special all by yourself. Teen years are hard and nonsense. Finding your own feet is an odyssey and finding the direction they want to head to is another one. I loved being with them in that trip, but that's only the beginning of their lives. I think the disorientation and fear and awe are all very well captured in these characters. The big question "What am I doing here?" demands an answer. But nobody can give it to you. You have to look for it somewhere else. But what about while doing so? Let's try not to drown.

Till he meets Dante. Dante knows how to swim, and Ari doesn't. They establish a strong bond immediately. Friendship at first sight. Suddenly Ari has a best friend but he doesn't know how to have one, as he doesn't know how to love, either. Dante is everything Ari is not: he's happy, he's crazy about his dad and mom, he loves reading books and poetry, he hates wearing shoes. The only thing in common is that they aren't allowed to watch TV at home. Different boys live by different rules. But that doesn't stop them from discovering all the mysteries of the universe. I loved their relationship. It was genuine and innocent. One of those you truly believe the "BFF" thing. Ari says Dante is not normal, but Dante doesn't aspire to it. Ari has mixed feelings and he has no clue how to interpret them. His body and mind and instincts tell him conflicting signals.

I loved the parents, every 4 of them. Sometimes I wonder why do I read so many books with awful parents. I don't think that's the rule. And if there is an awesome parent there is usually another one who is not. The good one tends to be too perfect, and the bad one is too absurd for words. Or one MC has great parents and the other one is not that lucky. There is always some kind of extremes I can't feel myself identified with. But here I did. They are awesome parents, to the point that they are even friends with their sons but without losing the respectable position of the ruler (o even the fascist). They were funny, and clever and they want the best for them and utterly love them. They are natural and authentic and with flaws. They are great people but imperfect, although that doesn't stop them from trying. And they are very present in the story. The author really manages to grab that abstract recipe of what being a real parent is. I want to say to Sáenz: "¡Olé!".

Another note for the author: the Spanish is not good sometimes. Generally sentences are well written but there were some mistakes in several words, like "mascota", and "Aristóteles" and "dime". Well, and accents and "¡" and "¿" are just absent.

But I learned lots of things. I didn't know a Mexican with American customs was a pocho (rotten). I got to know something about music from the 80s. I felt identified with that Hopper picture. I enjoyed the humor and the snarky dialogues. They were intelligent and funny. It was impossible to get bored.

And I discovered some of the mysteries of the universe. I'm sure love is one of the secrets of the universe.