Wednesday, July 25, 2012


Well, this was a strange one! I wanted a book set in the Galapagos islands, but after "The Last Flight of the Scarlet Macaw", I didn't think I needed another non-fiction book quite yet. I did some research, but couldn't find a novel that fit the bill. When I realized that Margaret Wittmer's memoir "Floreana" would also fit in nicely with my Goodreads Rainbow Challenge, I decided to ignore my mostly-novels guidelines that I set up at the start of the challenge, and went ahead and ordered a used copy. I thought about getting a copy of the original German memoir--"Trauminseln Floreana", but I couldn't bear to spend more money; besides, all the available copies were in the UK or in Germany, and since I'm cramming in yet more titles I'm in a bit of a hurry. Just by coincidence, I started the book on July 12th, Margaret's birthday.

Part of me does wish that I had read this book in German. The style is rather remote, almost blank; it can be a bit off-putting. I hunted around the Internet to see if I could find an example of Wittmer's  original writing, but I could find her previous book, penned to explain that she and her husband weren't really guilty of murder (!) as had been accused, only in English; even the excerpts "Floreana" available on her family website are only in English and not in German or even Spanish. I don't think, ultimately, that it matters much; the content as well as the manner in which it is written is quite odd indeed; that of an intelligent, yet guarded amateur who was persuaded to write down her incredible tale that involves giving birth alone in a pirate cave and yes, murder.

Margaret Wittmer and her much older husband Heinz arrived in Floreana in 1932, after Heinz, who was Dr. Adenauer's (yes, the Adenauer) private secretary in Cologne. She's a little vague on why they went, save that her husband had been enchanted by the writings of a mad dentist-nudists who was then living on Floreana; there was somehow also some business that living on a remote island would improve the eyesight of her mostly blind stepson. It was cheaper than a sanatorium, they reasoned. So close did they keep their plans to their vest that they didn't even bother to tell their close family member in Cologne of their intentions, but cooly told them that they would see them, as usual, for Sunday dinner the following week. So right now you know you have on your hands not the most reliable of narrators, which is fine and fun in fiction, but not so comfortable in real life.

The cave where Greta gave birth

Wittmer was pregnant when they landed on the island with only the eccentric Dr Ritter and his acolyte to keep them company. This seems so mind-blowingly foolish to me that at the beginning I could only think that her husband had talked her into such a mad scheme. She must, I thought, have been incredibly weak-minded. As I continued the book, however, it occurred to me that I had it all wrong; perhaps she was so strong-minded that I just couldn't see it. She often uses a rather impersonal "we" instead of "I"; maybe her husband and she were really a team, and she didn't have to be persuaded to do anything.

Or maybe she was just obtuse. I don't know. There's a curious lack of introspection in most of the book, as is noted by Publisher'sWeekly (oddly enough this fairly critical review is featured prominently on the website), combined with a lot of fault-finding. But you really can't blame her: if hell is other people, being trapped on an island five miles long with other couldn't-find-their-place-in-the-world eccentrics must be the 9th circle of the inferno.

While reading this book, my mind keep turning to the history of the United States and the frontier mentality. I don't care what kind of Laura Ingalls Wilder tale of we're all in this together coziness (she glossed over a great many things, anyway) some people have of making a new life on the edge of society. Many of the people who left the confines of the normal world did leave because they couldn't fit in; in short, they were misfits or just plain weird. I kept thinking of this when I read about the first several years on the island, when the Wittmers, besides dealing with scratching out a survival existence with a newborn and a half-blind kid, were also dealing with a small group of odd, even dangerous people.

I won't go into details with the ersatz baroness and the spoiled chicken, but it is quite a tale. (Odd, too, that I read two books in a row where rotten meant played a prominent part in the story.) In the end, the Wittmers were alone for several years, maybe the best time they had on the island. As there fame grew, however, many people dropped by for a visit--even famous ones like Franklin Roosevelt (whom they missed) and Thor Heyerdahl. World War II changed their idyll for good as the Americans leased the island from Ecuador to build  a small base. Wittmer is very frank about how she felt about the changing political climate in Germany, and her conflicted views; it is the most emotionally honest she is in the book. You never get a clear picture of her husband's personality, or of her stepson and her own boy; most of her preoccupation is with her daughter FloreanitaWittmer children have paid for their parents's decision.

This is a book I never would have picked up if it hadn't been for the double combination of my 52-Country Challenge and my Rainbow Challenge. I can see why this is a favorite of some people; it's as strange and compelling as any science fiction, and it all happened not so long ago. It certainly made me want to travel to the Galapagos Islands myself, though Margaret makes it clear that the islands have suffered man's predations for centuries, and though personalities and survival, and not the natural world, were her primary preoccupation. You don't get much of a sense of the majesty of the islands--a brisk practicality permeates the pages, so I guess I will have to check it out myself one day. Maybe I will--someday. Until then I can dream: 

Floreana--Margaret Wittmer
Translated by Olive Coburn
                                                                  Three and a half Stars

Tuesday, July 24, 2012


A few times, while constructing my list for the 52 Country Challenge, I've added a book out of duty and not joy. The last time was for my book selection for Thailand, "Monsoon Country." Yes, it was a serious novel written by a Thai on the social conditions on his country, yes, it was one of the few books I could find in English that didn't have more to do with sexcapades on Pattaya, blah, blah, blah. I read it as I picked it: dutifully, and without joy. It doesn't necessarily have to be that way. My very next book, "From the Land of Green Ghosts" has turned out to be one of the surprise hits of the year. I think that's because Thweee's details on life in Burma as a member of the ****tribe were so particular, yet he also managed to find the univesral (the imperious grandfather, the embittered, disillusioned father) in his memoir of finding himself almost by chance a rebel against the government. There was also a subtle thread of humor in the story; he finds the absurd in how he, the most clumsy of dissidents, found himself with a rifle in his hand.

I knew when I started reading my books for South America, that I was missing a big piece of the puzzle; the story of the many indigenous people of the continent. It's touched upon in "The Disappearance of Irene dos Santos" and in "Un Mundo para Julius", but it's a sidebar and not really the focus of either of these novels. And so I decided to read "Huasipungo", since it's considered one of the great protest novels of the early part of the twentieth century, an example of "Indigenist" literature, the novels of brutal social realism that preceded the novels of magical realism that became so popular later in the century. I was hoping that this novel, considered one of Ecuador's great classics, would transcend the genre of proletarian literature and offer me something more.

I was disappointed. I should have known better, since I read continual comparisons of Icaza to Steinbeck and "The Grapes of Wrath." Well, I don't care much for Steinbeck, not even for the "Grapes of Wrath." It's worthy--very worthy. And like Steinbeck's classic, it's clunkily written, devoid of humor, and so intent on describing the horrors of the people being crushed by the gears of social change that they cease being people at all, but are reduced to mere archtypes.

That doesn't mean the novel is without interest or merit. It's the story of Don Alfonso Pereira who, in debt to his uncle, decides to attract an American business to his country holdings by clearing the huasipungos--the villagers huts--out of his land and using the enslaved labor of these people to build a road for a proposed timber deal.

The beginning was promising. The reader feels a bit sorry for the don; he's trapped by the loans that his uncle is pressing him on, and his daughter is pregnant by one of the villagers, though she won't say reveal the name of the father. He's got a bit of a personality, even though it seems more inept and put-upon than anything else. Then there's the porter, Andres, who loves his wife and son, and rebels from the landlord's demands to the extent of running away from the work gang each night to sleep in his own bed. Unfortunately, the don soon is soon reduced to a whip-cracking caricature, and Andres is either noble--or very, very stupid. The most interesting part of the book is when Icaza enters into the collective thoughts of the Indians, or has pages long almost stream of conscious conversations, which  reveal the mixture of callous disregard and fatalism, mixed with a spark of exhausted pity, that represent the villagers reactions when half of the village is swept away by a river or poisoned by the spoiled meat of an oxen disinterred and eaten by the starving villagers. In this respect, "Huasipungo" reminds me very much of "The Grapes of Wrath", particularly in the interim chapters that Steinbeck intersperses with his tale of the Joad  family, where Steinbeck strives to gives a more sweeping portrait of the plight of the Oakies. Some people love that. I find it more than a bit self-conscious and earnest and ultimately, maybe a bit condescending.

So I don't know. Should an author, however worthy his purpose, enter into the minds of an oppressed minority? At the time, there were very few Indian novelists in Ecuador; even now I found it difficult to find a Ecuadorian novelist with a non-Spanish background. Should an author attempt to speak for those who have no voice? Again, I don't have an answer. I do know that this novel stirred up a great deal of protest, by those who felt that it was either an incomplete picture, or revelled in the harsh brutalities described. Izaca's depiction of a callous Catholic Church-- complete with rapist priests who would squeeze every last coin out of an impoverished people even during the cold fiscal transaction to bury them--also caused an outcry. This proletarian novel was particularly popular in Russia; Icaza was later honored as Ecuador's ambassador to the Soviet Union. Though the conditions Icaza excoriated still exist in many parts of the world, including Latin America, it's more of a period piece than a a work of literature.


Huasipungo--Jorge Icaza
Translator--Bernard Dulsey

N.B> There's a fascinating forward by Dulsey on the difficulties of translating the book in English, which wass not attempted until the early 1960's.

Saturday, July 21, 2012


The majority of my books I picked originally for South American ended up being historical fiction. It wasn't what I wanted or planned; it was certainly part of my original goal for the challenge, which was to have no more than half of my books being set in the past. I don't know why the offerings from this part of the world--or at least the books I could access easily--seemed to be either novels of dreamy magic realism or of edgy narco violence. I was also short on women writers. I picked Laura Restrepo's "Delirium", set in Colombia during the time of Escobar (who has a key walk-on part in the novel) since my book group has read two of her books during the years before I joined, and it seemed to balance out my reading list. I didn't download it in Spanish as an ebook, since I could get it from the library in English, and the challenge is costing me enough money as it is!

I don't know if not reading the book in Spanish was a mistake or not. Natasha Wimmer's translation seemed more than capable, but the one narrator who I was really interested in, Midas McAlister (Augustina's old boyfriend and money-launderer-on-the run) had a slangy, run-on style full of endearments and vulgarities that I found rather interesting. I would have loved to have read his story in Spanish. Come to think of it, I wish Restrepo would have dispensed with her labored (oh, so very labored) metaphor of Augustina's madness being symbolic of poor, crazed Colombia and just focused on the second-tier drug distributor. Because in the end, I didn't give a damn about the spoiled princess Augustina, or her sad-sack communist professor husband who is reduced to delivering Purina dog-chow to the rich. I just didn't care for so many reasons.

Where to begin? Well, to begin with, Restrepo makes her main character a vacant little high-strung little prima donna without a thought in her head, a person who prides herself on never picking up a newspaper. She makes the rest of Augustina's family into monsters (with the exception of the ever so sensitive little brother--who turns out to be gay, of course) that the reader can neither sympathize nor identify with. Even then, Restrepo doesn't have enough confidence in her painfully delineated construct that Colombia has caused Augustina's madness, so she must had a completely unnecessary back-story of Augustina's manic-depressive grandfather, her remote mother, etc. etc. C'mon lady, which one is it? And Aguilar, Augustina's dull husband who comes come from a short trip to find his wife has completely flipped out? Nope, I don't believe the two of them would have been together for a moment.

I've said before that I tend to dislike magic realism since a second-rate author tends to use it as a crutch. Well, what did cause the pampered Augustina to go around the bend? Well, Restrepo finally answers that question, in a you've-got-to-be-kidding-me-it-fell-from-the-sky denouement that has all to do with Augustina's psychic powers. Or something. It was all so obvious and heavy handed and just plain dumb.

This book has won many rewards, and has garnered many respectful reviews. I think a great deal of it has to do with the run-on style, which echos the fevered ramblings of the crazed woman's brain, which does have a certain attraction, but ultimately says very little. It seemed to me a self-congratulatory writing exercise, a salon stunt, the sort of writing that Ms. Restrepo's literary friends would discuss at a high-class cocktail party. Ultimately it is both empty and unsatisfying.

Delirium  Laura Restrepo
Translator  Natasha Wimmer
                                                                   Two Stars

Thursday, July 19, 2012

The Last Flight of the Scarlet Macaw--Review

What did I get myself into? This was supposed to be a straightforward non-fiction selection as a break between head-spinning magic-realism novels. I ended up being equally overwhelmed by Bruce Barcott's non-fiction account of the fight to stop the Chalillo Dam in Belize, as the international struggle over the plan to block the Macal river in inland Central America sent me running to check websites in  London, Newfoundland, Washington, D.C., and even Sierra Leone. It also left me pondering the best way to approach such a complicated tale. Do you inject yourself into the narrative? Adopt a dispassionate omniscient tone? What do you do if half of the players in such a complex case--in this case the proponents of the dam and the leaders of the Belizean government--refuse to be interviewed for their side of the story? How do you lay out the facts without having your objectivity being distorted by the very strong personalities that you end up being forced to rely upon?

I picked up "The Last Flight of the Scarlet Macaw" as a Central American choice that would also fit nicely into my "Rainbow Challenge" on Goodreads.Web Slice Gallery. I knew very little about Belize; indeed, according to Barcott, I could have just as easily added the nation to my Caribbean choices for, as he puts it, "it's firmly attached to Central America but considers itself to be a Caribbean island, like a chicken that thinks its a duck." I ended up learning a great deal about the history of Belize, of the for-profit politics that seems to drive the movers and shakers there, and of the nature of international conglomerates in general. About the Scarlet Macaw itself there was less than I would have liked: the author does make a few excursions into the Belizean interior and catches a few glimpses of the birds; this was a bit of a disappointment. There was less of the majesty of still mostly unspoiled wilderness--two thirds of the country is still jungle--and more about the machinations of men.

It's a complicated tale. To my surprise, my old pal Joey Smallwood from my Canada choice "The Colony of Unrequited Dreams" turned up at the beginning of this book, and what's more, Smallwood's vague glossing-over about his inept or corrupt handling of the various contracts that he agreed  to turned out to be important in how Belize ended up getting a dam. Or maybe it wasn't that important; Barcotti seems so enamored of all the facts that he dug up that he can't resist throwing them all in, and maybe since I was thrilled to have Smallwood unexpectedly take a turn onto the stage that I can't help placing a bit more importance to him, too.  Well, how is Newfoundland's first Prime Minister so important? Well, according to Barcotti, Smallwood's inept handling of the Churchill Falls project handing most of the money--and power--over to the province of Quebec; the resulting "I'll never be hungry again" Scarlett O'Hara outcry ended up creating the Fortis Power Company,  a huge New Foundland based international organization determined never to be taken advantage of again. Or, ironically, determined to drive the same hard bargains--which to others might seem to be a callous steamrolling--that resulted in its birth to begin with.

But back to the beginning--Fortis power company doesn't even make an appearance until a quarter of the way through this book. In the attempt to untangle this international web, Barcotti decides to use the founder of the  Belize Zoo,  American born Sharon Matola, as his framework to keep his story on track. Web Slice Gallery

It's a delicate situation for a writer to be in. Despite Barcott's attempts to broaden his research base and include lawyers and authors who are supportive of Sharon's cause to stop the dam that will flood the nesting places of the Belizean Scarlet Macaw, he's still very much dependent on Ms. Matola's aid to write his book. And let's face it: for all of Sharon's good qualities, and her devotion to the animals of Belize, it can't be denied that she is a "ahem" strong personality--coming off in the book at least as being rather aggressive and capricious, with a reputation among certain Belize circles as being a bit of a crank. I don't know when Barcotti really came to realize this; for me, my perception of the zookeeper really shifted at the end of the tale, when the Privy Council Chamber of the British government was about to rule on whether the dam should go forward and Sharon, though in London with Barcotti for the ruling, seemed to lose interest in the whole matter and instead became obsessed with having the town of Dartford recognize the childhood homes of  Mick Jagger and Keith Richards.

But it's a long way coming to the end, though as one can see by reading Sharon Matola's postscript on the website of the Belize zoo, there is no real end to the story. There's many excursions along the way, from how being a refugee from Sierra Leone influenced Judge Abdulai Conteh's

To help me sort it all out and to keep all the characters in my head, I composed a key:

1) Colorado. University of Colorado gave the author a grant to write his book. A Denver company was flown in by the anti-dam group to contradict the findings of Fortis, the second holder of the Chalillo dam.
2) North Carolina. Duke Power, first holder of the dam site, dropped it like a hot potato when political pressure against it grew too strong.
3)Churchill Falls dam in Labrador. Source of Fortis discontent and Quebec-Newfoundland friction.
4)DC. IDBMatola.
   Headquarters of NRDC; legal environmental firm intrumental in Duke Power backing down.
5)Montreal. Legal headquarters of Fortis Power; proposed Canadian taxpayers should foot legal bills in battle of the dam.
6) Privy Council Chamber in London.( As the queen is still head of state in Belize, the government appealed to the Lords Privy Council to overturn Judge Conteh's ruling.)
7)  Natural History Museum. Hired by Fortis for support; ended up contradicting the environmental impact report.

8) Cambridge. Headquarters of Birdlife International. Belize agreed to follow their guidelines.
9) Sino-Hydro Corp. Ultimate winner of the bid to build the dam after Fortis declined to bid; won as they were able to import cheap Chinese workers. Worked on the Three Gorges Dam.
10) Mexico. Source of most of Belize's power due to tensions between Guatemala and Belize.
11) Sierra Leone. Judge Conteh's homeland. The judge made the final Belize--though not last judicial ruling--on the dam.
12) St. John's, Newfoundland. Home of the Fortis Company, second holder of the proposed dam site.

Whew! Just flipping through the highlighted parts of the book gave me a headache, but I believe I have the story straight now.

But how did it hand together as a book? I finished "The Last Flight of the Scarlet Macaw" feeling rather nonplussed .In some ways the book felt a bit too episodic in nature, and there were so many details crammed in. Sometimes it read more like a series of magazine articles, and the author was handicapped by writing the story from a geographical and cultural distance. The author never answers the question lying at the heart of the book: How much should outside sources interfere in what should be, perhaps, an internal matter? He's clearly uncomfortable with how much the outside world interfered with the matter of the Chalillo dam; perhaps that is a question that the reader must answer for himself I did have a few style issues with the book. Barcott's writing was competent and engaging, but the viewpoint often wavered between first person and omniscient in an annoying manner. I wavered between three and a half and four stars, but decided to grade upwards, as I did learn quite a bit from this book. Recommended for anyone who wants to feel more than mildly depressed over the state of the environment, or to see once again how interconnected the world is.

                                               Four Stars

Sunday, July 15, 2012

The Secret History of Costaguana--Review

I happen to like books with unreliable narrators, and this region of the world has certainly offered up enough shifting story-tellers for me to enjoy. Juan Gabriel Vasquez is a Colombian writer, but his novel deals with the history of the northernmost region of that land and the canal that was built (with much machinations amongst the Colombians, Panamanians, French, and the Americans) within its borders, so I am counting this book as my Panama selection.

So what is this book about? Well, it's the tale of how the French and American quest to build a canal across the narrowest part of the isthmus of Central America and how Colombia lost its northernmost region; about Jose Altamirano, who seems to have wandered into the story of his own life, almost by mistake; and about Joseph Conrad, who appropriates Jose's life to build a framework for his own novel, "Nostromo". Sly storytellers? I was in heaven here, as nobody seems quite concerned about the truth in Vasquez's novel--it was like "The Long Song", but infinitely more twisted. No one can be trusted, not Altamirano's mother and father, who recount entirely different stories of their son's conception, and who seem vague on his actual date of birth--indeed, the mother refuses to be nailed down on such an unimportant particular and celebrates her son's natal day on three different dates. Jose's father earns his living by writing the most fulsome of propaganda for the Panamanian papers on the French progress on the canal; he's certainly a man to have no confidence in; he's terribly vague on how he mislaid his Jose's mother. And the Americans? Well, they can't be trusted either as they scheme to pull Panama free of Colombian control in order to take over the failed
plan to build a great ditch to link the Atlantic and the Pacific. Above all, Joseph Conrad cannot be trusted, as he pumps Altamirano for information on his country, and then cavalierly decides to write him out of his own life story. Enrages, Altamirano decides on revenging himself on the Great Man by transcribing his own history called "Costaguana".

I've never read Nostromo, which would have been of great help in reading Vasquez's novel; I'm sure that I missed many references to Conrad's work.  Reading this book was an exercise in mental acrobatics; the storyline leaps forward, loops back, shifts sideways to Conrad's life, and then circles back again. As I've said, there is a plot about the building of the Panama canal, but it's more about the nature of historical truth, and the "profitable profession of lying." Vasquez is less concerned about narrative cohesion (or even, sometimes, about coherence). There are big gaps in the story, and many plot lines left dangling, particularly with Altamirano's relationships with his daughter and mother. I really enjoyed the novel, but I could see why many readers would find this book frustrating. It's enough to make me pull out a biography on Joseph Conrad, or to read David McCullough's "The Path Between the Seas". I was tempted to add Nostromo to my reading list, but I have "Heart of Darkness" waiting for me in Africa.

Writing this review was difficult; it was chasing down a wispy cloud to describe exactly what "The Secret History of Costaguana" was about. I'm glad I added it in at the last moment, but I am just as relieved to move onto my next book, also another last-minute addition. Surely a non-fiction work on an international struggle to build a dam in Belize would be more straightforward? Or perhaps...not.

                                                               Four Stars

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Our Lives are the Rivers--Review

I  had really wanted to read a book dealing with South America in the early part of the nineteenth century, and I really did not want to read "The General in His Labyrinth" by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Friends who had read the book hadn't been enthusiastic, and I was thought that Marquez's novel, which mostly depicts the nightmarish voyage of the dying Bolivar's attempted voyage home, would be more soporific than illuminating. Surprisingly, there isn't that much available--either in English or in Spanish--and this novel by Jaime Manrique had mostly positive reviews.

Bolivar, of course, was one of the great figures of the 19th century. Born in a wealthy Venezuelan family which had been established in the New World for two centuries, he was inspired by the revolutions in the United States and in France to break free of Spanish control. His training at a military academy was instrumental in his success in liberating most of the northern part of South America from Spanish rule; he then established a new country which he called Gran Colombia, with Bogota as its capital. Within a fairly short time, the various countries under the new regime became restive under the Liberator's control, particularly as Bolivar did not believe that the people of South America were ready for democracy. Bolivar attempted to tighten his grip by declaring himself dictator; was eventually overthrown, and died of tuberculosis on his way back home to Caracas.

Manuela Saenz was his principle mistress for many years. Born in Ecuador as the illegitimate daughter of a Spanish nobleman, she was acknowledged as his offspring, endured the convent education typical of her class and station, ran off and was "ruined" by a young military officer while still in her teens, and was then sequestered into an unsatisfactory marriage to an English merchant. She met Bolivar after a triumphal victory procession, promptly became his mistress, and followed him in several military campaigns. In Bogota, she foiled an attempted assassination on her lover's life, thus earning her the nickname the "Liberator of the Liberator". Bolivar made no provisions for Manuela, and after his death she spent a quarter of a century in miserable destitution before dying in Peru.

Sounds like a great story--with much potential for action and  thoughtful commentary on the nature of politics and power, right? I should have known better. True, one of my friends on GR had read the book, and tried to ward me off, but I was determined to read a great, sweeping novel of the Liberator. Of course, the author, Jaime Manrique, had also written a book called "Eminent Maricones: Arena, Lorca, Puig, and Me", which seemed the brashest (and most pathetic) of self-promotions, but what did I have to lose?

More than a few hours and more than a few brain cells, apparently. I'm not going to waste any more time on this book, so here is my review, taken directly from Goodreads:

"Is there anything more annoying than a man writing a romance novel...without being aware that he has, in fact, written a bodice ripper? This is a profoundly silly book that takes the lives of Bolivar and his mistress, Manuela Saenz, and reduces it to a few confused battle scenes, some chaotic political infighting, and a few frolics in the bathtub. Manrique never seems to understand his characters, or to provide them with psychological depth; Manuela comes off as the typical foot-stomping feisty heroine, devoid of introspection (or common sense), and Bolivar a wooden figure whose actions, so critical to the development of South America, are left unexplained. The two slave women's narratives, who might have added some well-needed perspective, are completely interchangeable, and serve as nothing more than a thin Greek chorus. A melancholy coda (though marred with some confused timeline shifts), when Manuela is exiled in Peru, is very well-written, and saves this from a one star. Even that is wrecked by a ridiculous ending (an homage to Carpentier, whom I discovered I don't really care for) that Manrique just can't pull off. Pity--there was--and is--a great novel to be written in the lives of the Liberator and La Saenz, but the reader won't find it here.

And yup, the sex scenes are really overwrought!"

I am going to go a bit further here. After reading the novel, I went onto HarperCollins web site and read an interview with Manrique. I was rather horrified to discover that (not surprisingly) Alejo Carpentier is his hero and model for good historical writing, and that he's writing a new historical novel, since he has caught "the bug". Most perplexing of all, he views Manuela as a true heroine. Now, there's a very disturbing scene in which Manuela authorizes the execution of a young innocent boy. We see through the reactions of her slaves that this is a poorly thought-out and despotic decision, but Manrique doesn't have the moral courage to explore this action further; he'd rather talk about Manuela's hair-tossing hotness and Bolivar's palo santo.  It irks me no end when authors (I am including Julia Alvarez here, too) refuse to really explore the issues they've raised, but back away from these thorny problems and get soft-focused and vague. No, I'm more than irked; I'm outraged. Bah!

So much for falling for a pretty cover (love that Carrie Fisher Star-Wars-do!) and a poetical title; they'll get you every time. Won't someone write a good novel about this era? Please? On to the next country!


When I read this book, I was uncertain which country to attribute this novel to. Manrique was born in Colombia; the action of the novel moves from Ecuador, Peru, Colombia, Panama, and even Jamaica. I'm not going to dignify this bit of nonsense by counting this for any country in my challenge; let's just file it under Gran Colombia and leave it at that.

Our Lives are the Rivers--title taken from a poem by Jorge Manrique (1440-1479)
Translator--Juan Fernando Merino.

                                                                                  Two Stars

Friday, July 13, 2012

The Disappearance of Irene dos Santos--Review

This selection for Venezuela might be one of the most difficult books for me to review for the challenge. I think, for most readers, that they've pretty much decided what kind of a review they are going to give a book before the first fifty pages are out; the author's skill with words, characterization, and pace are evident, and unless there's a plot twist (usually not for the better) the book's fate is pretty much sealed. "The Disappearance of Irene dos Santos" broke that rule for me; the reservations I had with the book were all explained in a tricky (yet completely satisfying) plot twist at the very end of the novel that made me rethink the entire book.

Even the title of the novel can be read in two ways. It can be translated as "Irene of the Saints" in Spanish, or "Irene Two Saints" in Portuguese--the latter is what I subconsciously thought it must be since the author's name is Portuguese. (Margaret Mascahrenas is actually of Goan descent and was raised internationally in Venezuela, India, and the United States). Everything is slippery in this story; even the principal saint of Venezuela, Maria Lionza, whose statue fractures at the start of the story (a true-life occurrence which was one of the author's inspirations for her novel) adopts many different shapes, according to the worshiper's needs: sometimes she is the orthodox Mother of God according to the Catholic canon; sometimes she is a mestiza riding a jungle cat. The story is told by a handful of people, who take turns with the narrative. Some of them don't seem to connect at all, until they do at the end.

Ostensibly this is the story of Lily, a young Venezuelan woman who is awaiting her first child. Lily's life seems mostly perfect; her father and mother are famous artists and activists, her husband writes for a well-known telenovela. True, they are all struggling in the economy, as the corruption endemic in Venezuela complicates making a living precarious, but a strong bond exists between the family members. When Lily slips and falls on a puddle of milk (a bit of a strange accident but hold that thought) everyone is happy to tuck her up in a bed made up in the middle of the kitchen to tell her stories. There seems to be only one flaw in Lily's perfect life--what ever happened to Irene, the school friend who disappeared when she was on vacation with Lily's family? Was she kidnapped by someone? Did she drown? Or what? Over a decade later everyone is still wondering.

As people gather around the pregnant woman's bedside, they tell her stories to entertain the waiting woman; a kaleidoscope of modern Venezuelan society emerges. In particular, Mascarenhas focuses on the oppression of the groups of non-Spanish peoples who live on the edges of Venezuelan society. The intimidation, corruption, and violence that people with more resources and power fall victim to is also a theme of the novel.

As I said, though, something in the book left me unsatisfied. The prose is only mediocre, but that wasn't what really bothered me. Lily seemed too perfect. Some of the plot twists seemed a bit unreal, and almost too neat. The pacing seemed off. Yes, the sub-plots with Maria Lionza and Lily's father were fascinating, but it wasn't quite enough. And why did that kid show up at the end? And where was Irene, anyway? It was all a bit weird. And then...

As I said, it all gets explained. I still didn't care for the author's prose style, and some readers might think the plot resolution was a cheap sleight-of-hand, but I sort of liked it. Tricky, tricky.

                                                       Three and a half Stars