Sunday, August 1, 2010

Book 17, Ecuador: "The Old Man Who Read Love Stories" by Luis Sepúlveda

Couldn't find an Ecuadorian writer at the National Library. Who've we got instead? A Chilean living in Germany. He'll do!

This book is a real treat to read - 131 pages of easily swallowable, widely spaced print: a novella really. And such a beautiful tale - a man who loses his wife in the attempt to settle the Amazon jungle, and ends up going native with the Shuar tribe instead, learning all the secrets of the animals, and then betrayed by old age, the creeping advance of civilisation and a spate of mysterious ocelot attacks...

To tell the truth, I'm not sure if the love stories take centrestage enough in the novel - yet the fact that the man finds solace in reading purple romances set in exotic European cities is the one thing that problematises the anti-urbanisation idyll of co-existence with nature. There's surprisingly little revealed about the novel he's reading - something involving gondoliers kissing maidens in Venice, when he's unfamiliar with gondoliers, Venice and the act of kissing itself.

But then there's journey of self-discovery as he realises he can read, the way these substitute fantasies of love make up for his widowerhood, the way that love is paralleled in the figure of the man-eating female ocelot he hunts (barely any other female figures appear in the book: there's reference to the black prostitute who recommends the romances via the dentist and a schoolmistress with a library and the dead wife and a temporary Shuar wife and a Jibaro lady who vomits at being kissed by a white prospector... but no direct speech from any of these).

Rather sudden ending, too. But I shouldn't give too much away. Shades of Hemingway's "The Old Man and the Sea", quite obviously.

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Representative quote: Sometimes the snake was quicker than Antonio José Bolívar, but that didn't worry him. He knew he would swell up like a toad and be delirious with fever for a few days, but then his moment of revenge would come. He was immune, and liked to swagger about in front of the settlers showing off his scar-covered arms.

Next book: Laura Restrepo's Delirium from Colombia.


Pat said...

I have lived in Quito for over 16 years, I am happy to help with any questions you might have about the country. Patrick-

Ng Yi-Sheng said...

Thanks Pat! I do have one question - what book from/about Ecuador would you recommend for people to read if they're doing a reading journey like mine?