Published on July 6th, 2013 | by Edgardo Cervano-Soto


Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe

A Novel by Benjamin Alire Sáenz, Reviewed by Edgardo Cervano-Soto

About the Author, Benjamin Alire Sáenz
Alire Saenz Author Picture Benjamin Alire Sáenz is an artist, poet, novelist, and author of children’s books. He has penned five books of poetry, four novels, four young adult novels, and four children’s books. His most recent collection of short stories, “Everything Begins and Ends at the Kentucky Club”, won the PEN Faulkner Award for Fiction and Lambda Literary Award. He has a former Wallace Stegner Fellow at Stanford University and is currently the chair of the Creative Writing Department at the University of Texas at El Paso.His latest Young Adult novel, “Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe”, was the winner of the Pura Belpre Award, The Stonewall Award, The Lambda Literary Award and is a Printz Honor Book.
About the Reviewer, Edgardo Cervano-Soto
Edgardo Cerbvano-Soto Bio Edgardo Cervano-Soto is a freelance journalist, filmmaker, and photographer. A graduate of Stanford University, Edgardo worked as Apuntes’ web producer and remains a regular contributor.

The problem with my life was it was someone else’s idea,” thinks 15-year-old Aristotle Mendoza, the protagonist in Benjamin Alire Sáenz’s Aristotle and Dante discover the Secrets of the Universe, published in 2012. Aristotle and Dante is currently marketed as young adult fiction. However, Sáenz’s tightly focused and realistic exploration of self identity, friendship, and family bonds is applicable to all readers, young and adult.

Aristotle and Dante is a coming-of-age tale of two teenagers, Aristotle Mendoza and Dante Quintana. The novel is unique in that it embraces family involvement in a linear tale that allows each of the characters to become fully realized. Sáenz’s sparse writing evokes emotions of love, yearning and frustration. The conflict between sons and families is the novel’s dramatic force.

Aristotle and Dante are two Mexican-American teenagers who become best friends during a summer in El Paso in 1987. The two boys meet at a swimming pool and share a laugh over their philosophical names. Aristotle, or Ari as most people call him, is a brooding, lonely, and cynical teenager. He lives alone with his parents. He has two older sisters, both with their own families, and an older brother in prison, who is rarely mentioned by the family. Ari yearns to know more about his brother and have a connection with his physically present but emotionally absent father, a veteran from the Vietnam War. Ari resembles his father in that he doesn’t reveal his emotions or allow anyone to see his vulnerability. Aristotle’s mother is a high school teacher, with whom he has a better relationship, yet she will also not discuss his imprisoned brother. Ari’s mother frequently worries over his anti-social behavior. Ari is a loner, even comfortable not having any friends.

“I had a rule that it was better to be bored by yourself than to be bored with someone else. I pretty much lived by that rule. Maybe that’s why I didn’t have any friends.”

In contrast, Dante Quintana is open, seemingly freer than Aristotle. He is a Renaissance man, loving poetry, the cosmos, drawing, sketching, and conversation. He is a philosopher. Yet, although Dante easily adapts to new environments and is social, he is frequently misunderstood and has no friends. Dante’s parents are professional, middle class, his father an English professor and his mother a psychologist.

Their household and family dynamics are inclusive, supportive and transparent. Dante is recognized as his own being, comfortably speaks with his parents and has a strong sense of self. The difference in emotional accessibility between the boys is obvious. Ari is anti-social, insecure in his observations, and feels incapable of showing sympathy. Dante is affable, socially adaptable, inquisitive and emotional. Ari is a fighter, preferring to physically beat anyone who insults him or Dante. Dante is courageous but would rather not be violent.

Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire SaenzSáenz also contrasts his two protagonists physically. Ari is a dark skinned, strong and muscular Mexican American, speaking in Spanglish, while Dante is tall, fair skinned and uneasy about his Spanish. Over the course of the summer and swimming lessons, the teenage boys realize they share the same emotional tenor. It is this relationship that anchors the story of Aristotle and Dante. 

In the first third of the novel, Sáenz develops the deep friendship between Aristotle and Dante. His scenes of interaction demonstrate the boys’ genuine enjoyment and appreciation for each other and also hints of attraction and desire. In one scene, Dante sketches Ari reading poetry. It is a quiet moment charged with homoerotic undertones. Sáenz deftly enters Aristotle’s psyche, as Ari goes from feeling uncomfortable and defensive to relaxed and appreciative as he is being drawn. However, Ari’s memory of his emotions being sketched later angers him. Intense moments like this one complicate the boys’ friendship.

After a life-threatening incident involving the two boys, the novel changes its course as Sáenz separates the protagonists for an entire year. Dante’s father takes a year-long fellowship in a distant city, moving the entire Quintana family away. While Ari and Dante maintain their friendship via mail, they mature in ways that might threaten their friendship. The characters seem to drift apart from each other, not out of any mutual and intentional malice, but simply because each is growing up in his own way. These differences are apparent in their letters. For instance, Dante reveals in one letter that he is exploring his sexuality, and feels ashamed to tell his parents of his gay identity. Ari, on the other hand, becomes more of an introvert, is angrier at his father’s and mother’s silence regarding his imprisoned brother, and is uncomfortable with Dante’s honest letters. While Dante is social, meets new friends, and experiments with sexuality and drugs in the city, Ari retreats into the rural outlands of El Paso.

Ari begins working at a burger joint, refuses to go to parties, works out his solitude at the gym, and finds solace in taking drives in his truck. He also does alcohol and drugs, but alone. Aristotle has a brief experience with Ilena, a mysterious girl from high school, yet afterwards Ari feels lonelier, again seeking solace in the desert. Sáenz portrayal of Aristotle’s internal unraveling is juxtaposed against the calm and vast desert landscapes of El Paso. The desert becomes a symbolic home for Ari. Sáenz describes the desert as vast, a harsh landscape that is also a place of personal renewal.

The two friends reunite a year later in the summer as sixteen-year-olds. Before meeting, both are apprehensive over how their growth over the past year might affect their friendship, yet they reconnect instantly. Together, they begin to take drives into the desert, watch the stars and talk about literature and the arts. The homoerotic energy is finally confronted when Ari and Dante speak about drugs and sex. They confess their desire to be sexually active. In an effort to clarify their orientation, Ari and Dante kiss each other with differing results for each young man, which causes a rift between them. Dante confesses his feelings for Ari, but Ari states he doesn’t feel anything for Dante other than friendship. After this moment, they are much more guarded around each other, and yet the attraction for each other still looms large. Dante begins to date in El Paso, making Ari concerned for his friend’s openness and visibly jealous. Dante is also concerned about telling his family about his sexual orientation, although Ari assures Dante that his parents would be very supportive and understanding.

And it seemed to me that Dante’s face was a map of the world. A world without any darkness. Wow, a world without darkness. How beautiful was that?”

It is in the last third of the novel that the family and individuals intersect. The focus moves to Ari confronting his parents about why they do not speak about his older brother, Bernardo, who is in prison for life. Ari takes aim at his father for being emotionally absent. A hate crime against Dante provides the catalyst for Ari to finally lower his emotional barriers, and become vulnerable. Ari threatens Dante’s date, who abandoned Dante during the beating, to tell him the names of the attackers. Ari tracks down one of the men and violently beats him.

Meanwhile, the hate crime against Dante exposes Dante’s secret to his parents. The Quintana parents are hurt that their son felt ashamed for being gay. When the Quintana parents learn that Ari has beat one of the attackers, they ask Ari why he did it. Ari can’t answer but says he needed to do it. The Quintana parents wish Ari to be honest with himself, and stop feeling angry. Ari’s doing terrifies his mother and father who explain that Bernardo had also killed two men with his own hands. The resurgence of anger in Ari causes them to talk about Bernardo, and the history of violence running through the family. It becomes clear why Ari’s parents decided not speak of their son, and why his father never speaks about the Vietnam War.

“I renamed myself Ari. If I switched the letter, my name was Air. I thought it might be a great thing to be the air. I could be something and nothing at the same time. I could be necessary and also invisible. Everyone would need me and no one would be able to see me.”

Ari’s dissatisfaction with life and self is palpable. He struggles with defining his life, and believing in his self worth. When he finally accepts himself, the bonds between father and son and family are re-strengthened. It is an inspiring moment, written in wonderfully concise language. After this breakthrough, Ari gains the confidence to let himself feel love and return love. Ari goes to Dante and admits his love.

The novel concludes in a romantic manner that may seem contrived to some readers. It is a fantasy ending, but its conclusion is significant in its portrayal of love between two young Latino men and of the supportive role family can play. 

Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe, and other works by Benjamin Alire Sáenz are available for purchase at Cinco Puntos Press

About the Author

Edgardo Cervano-Soto is a freelance journalist, writer and filmmaker. His reporting and special publications have appeared on KPFA 94.1 Berkeley, the Richmond Pulse, and New America Media.

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