The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman by Angela Carter

Penguin, 1982, 219 p.

The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman  cover

In a South American city possibly modelled on Manaus which at one time the “diabolical” Doctor Hoffman filled with mirages – nothing was what it seemed, “nothing at all” – in order to drive the inhabitants mad, an old man named Desiderio, too sardonic, too disaffected to be influenced by the mirages, is writing down his memories because he became a hero by surviving. The manifestations of Doctor Hoffman’s depredations included a dollop of synaesthesia and inspired the creation of the Determination Police, a seemingly fearsome body endowed with the duty of deciding whether something is real or not, though the name also implies a degree of tenacity.

Through Desiderio we are party to a conversation between Doctor Hoffman’s ambassador to the city (sent to demand surrender) and Desiderio’s employer, the Minister, where the ambassador says, “What if I told you we were engaged in uncovering the infinite potentiality of phenomena?” a get-out for describing any number of impossible things. The Minister refuses the surrender demand and sends Desiderio as a special agent to assassinate Hoffman “as inconspicuously as possible.” Complicating his mission is the fact that Desiderio is in love with Albertina, Hoffman’s daughter.

We follow Desiderio as he spends time at a peep-show, goes on a sojourn with river people, falls in with a troupe of acrobats (Carter seems to have had a thing about circuses – I suppose because they present illusions of various types,) meets a mysterious Count, and is captured by centaurs, before finally encountering the Doctor himself.

Carter indulges in various philosophical musings, “The introduction of cinematography enabled us to corral time past,” while the motion picture, “offers us nothing less than the present tense experience of time irrefutably past.” “Even if it is the dream made flesh, the real, once it becomes real, can be no more than real.” Desiderio tells us, “The habit of sardonic contemplation is the hardest habit of all to break.” She also makes an aside to the reader, “Those are the dreary ends of the plot. Shall I tie them up or leave them unravelled?” In this regard Desiderio’s encounter with the Doctor reminded me of the film of The Wizard of Oz even down to “clanking, dull stage machinery” – this is not a spoiler as a clue to this – desire machines – lies in the book’s title, though their power source eroto-energy doesn’t.

Imagine a series of surrealist paintings rendered in prose, mashed up with a picaresque adventure chronicle somewhat akin to Gulliver’s Travels – though Desiderio meets those centaurs rather than Houynhnhmns – then throw in a smidgin of James Bondery at the end and that is pretty much this novel.

Pedant’s corner:- “all they could do to make a living was to sell to the credulous charms and talismans against domestic spectres” (‘make a living was to sell the credulous charms’ makes more sense,) tetrahydron (tetrahedron?) statis, (stasis,) In ‘Dr Hoffman will make metaphysics your business’ the emphasis ought to be on ‘make’ rather than ‘your’.) “They gilded their finger and toenails” (finger- and toenails,) focussed (focused,) “teeth in a maw” (a maw is a stomach, not a mouth,) colossi (colossus is from Greek not Latin, its plural will be colossodes,) shantys (shanties,) unharmonious (I prefer inharmonious,) “the shape of tears laid on their sides” (laid what on their sides? Oh; ‘lay on their sides’,) ensorcellating (ensorcelling,) “I thought the military were roused at last” (was roused.)

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