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Madness And A Search For Healing In 'Albina And The Dog-Men'

In a telling 2014 interview, Alejandro Jodorowsky opens up about — among other things — losing his son ("It destroyed me") and the healing power of art. "If I cannot heal my son who died," he says, "I will heal the other son. My goal for art now is to heal." One gets the feeling that, through his many books and films, a vision of healing has always been part of the plan.

In his latest novel, Jodorowsky builds on his multi-decade long assault of the public imagination. Translated by Alfred MacAdam, the story begins — as do virtually all of Jodorowsky's works — not yet with healing but a measure of madness.

Set in Peru and in the author's birthplace Chile, it follows the journey of Crabby, a bearded, Lithuanian recluse, and Albina, a voluptuous goddess with milk-white skin who falls into Crabby's arms while being attacked by mysterious fighting monks. The setting is fertile ground for Jodorowsky to unleash a fantastical and genre-defying parable of love and friendship.

After the initial violent episode, the two women strike an instant bond. Crabby becomes Albina's caretaker, washing, feeding, and teaching her to walk again after the attack. Having no memory of her past or her origins, Albina casually goes about her days, the months flying by "with the charm of a babbling brook." She swims and dances and in time attracts the attention of the men of this bone dry Chilean town; her hypnotizing beauty is like nothing they've ever seen. It's not long before her sensuality takes hold of them and becomes their obsession.

But Albina's happiness only lasts a little while; Drumfoot, the city inspector, soon threatens to take her as his possession. A ravenous Albina drugs him and bites him, changing him into a blood-thirsty dog-man. From there, all hell breaks loose, and the women are on the run, heading north on a bicycle built for two.

Pursued by Drumfoot — who has no other purpose but to devour Albina — they seek refuge anywhere they can. Albina's allure starts to literally transform men into rabid dogs who chase her flesh with violence, summoning her in a mix of barks and human words.

But the women, as the author makes clear from the jump, are animals in their own right: Albina is a lost creature who never eats more than a few grains of rice per day, surviving mostly on the flesh of her attackers, and Crabby breaks men's noses and has always thought herself an aggressive crab "separated from others like a hard shell."

There is an early passage that seems to encapsulate much of what Jodorowsky's art aims to accomplish. While the women are driving along the coast seeking safety, Crabby speaks candidly: "Albina," she says, "there must be a place that isn't infected by the smell of rot, a place where the miraculous can flourish."

Anyone familiar with Jodorowsky's creative output might see that as fitting language with which to describe his power. His novels, however imperfect, are still universes unto themselves, where the beautiful and the grotesque coexist and the miraculous can flourish freely. It is all a constant search for meaning, and a kind of healing.

Crabby and Albina journey north in search of a rare cactus plant which blossoms every hundred years. Consuming its floral syrup is Albina's only hope of being cured of the monster she has become — but there's also the possibility that it can kill her, a risk she's willing to take.

Throughout this dark dream of a novel, Jodorowsky's writing is comic and occasionally mesmerizing. It is also ripe with horror and philosophical questions about what it means to belong, everywhere and nowhere. And while some of the subject matter is disturbing, it often carries the air of something ancient that you read children by a fire.

For years Jodorowsky has proven the intensity of his imagination, and how far he is willing to go to present his singular vision to the world. He is a fully realized artist whose tales demand attention. At its core, Albina and the Dog-men is a love story about two people committed to one another's survival and to discovering their potential. And, as with life, it is sometimes only through the weathering of a storm that our true capacities are made clear.

Juan Vidal is a writer and critic for NPR Books. He's on Twitter: @itsjuanlove

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Juan Vidal