Monday, August 9, 2010

Book 18, Colombia: "Delirium" by Laura Restrepo

Lesson learned: do not read a stream-of-consciousness book about desperate insanity when you are feeling sick and headachey and depressed yourself. It can only end badly.

But even though this book made me feel like dung, I'll have to acknowledge it's a masterpiece - three or four different parallel tales describing the psychosis of the aristocratic Agustina Londoño and her extended family and in turn the whole rotten oligarchy/kleptocracy that's poisoned Colombian society in total. Even though the blurb talks about how delirium becomes a metaphor for love itself, I think it's far more powerful as a description of the social illogic of the decadent upper classes and the entrepreneurial middle classes who try to exploit them and occasionally go nuts and blow them up with bombs in the most chi-chi of restaurants, and the good-natured helpless Marxism of our intellectual protagonist, Aguilar, who tries to control his wife's delusions to no avail.

You're going to ask why I'm not reading Gabriel García Márquez, of course. Here are my reasons:

1) I've read everything he's written except maybe Leaf Storm, which doesn't sound super-thrilling to me. (My fave is Autumn of the Patriarch, which you'll understand if you know something about Singapore.)

2) I haven't read a single other Colombian writer other than him.

3) I want to move out of the period of the Latin American boom (1960s to '80s), which didn't involve any women writers, thank you very much, although you can make a case for Clarice Lispector and Jean Rhys.

4) Restrepo's won crazy awards. What's not to like?

She even has the rational Aguilar cast disdain on magical realism and Gabo's novels, which the crazy Agustina adores together with feng shui and batik and palmistry and annoying the hell out of her dead father.

There's no clear break between Restrepo's writing and magical realism, however - she's still using the same Faulknerian techniques, still incorporating magic ritual and hyperbole and epic family sagas and madness, madness, madness. But this, unlike Gabo's writing, is urban and contemporary, making reference to student riots of the late 20th century and actually being specific about which city this is taking place in - not the steamy semi-rural Macondo, but the gloomy city with the twelve steeples that Fernanda del Carpio came from in One Hundred Years of Solitude, Bogotá itself.

I'm also rather happy that there's a queer character in here: Bicho, Agustina's beautiful but abused little brother who sets off the psychological bomb that breaks up the Londoño family and leaves triumphantly for Mexico with his Aunt Sofia, where he gets a boyfriend, and never comes back home till a few pages after the end.

Come to think of it, Gabo and Restrepo both live in Mexico City too. One of the world's intellectual and cultural capitals, I guess. When will Singapore get there?

View Around the World in 80 Books in a larger map

Representative quote: My father tries to explain that my mother didn’t want my little brother and me to be upset, and that’s why she wouldn’t let me see the students running between the cars, bleeding, with their heads smashed. But I know it isn’t true, I know that the lepers have come at last. Thousands of lepers have left Agua de Dios and invaded Bogotá; Sacred Hand of my Father, protect me from the invasion of the lepers.

Next book: John LeCarré’s The Tailor of Panama from (well actually, set in) Panama.

No comments: