Saturday, April 9, 2011

Book 54, Bolivia: "The Matter of Desire" by Edmundo Paz Soldán

This is a freaking good read. It covers all your bases: literary, political, and semi-historical with a nice dose of mystery. (Did I mention the sex?)

One of the coolest things about the novel is that it's contemporary - it takes place in an age of Internet stock trading and iBooks, where the imaginary Bolivian city of Río Fugitivo is shown to have intimate links with all the other Latin American countries plus the USA.

Even the novel that the characters are obsessed with is named Berkeley, after the branch of UCLA, written by the protagonist Pedro Zabalaga's father, gunned down as a revolutionary hero, leaving a text full of cryptic clues which the scholars and rock groups alike continue to decode and encode through their papers and crosswords and music videos.

Paz Soldán is clearly writing in the shadow of the Latin American Boom (he makes reference to Cortázar and Borges a-plenty), and he's established himself as the leading spokesperson for the McOndo movement (cf. García Márquez's imaginary hick town of Macondo, cf McDonald's) which disregards the magical realist movement in favour of solid descriptions of cosmopolitan city life.

So it's quite different from the other Latin American novels we've read so far: no crazy narrative tricks here: it's a first-person past-tense narrative all the way through - though there are two plot strands in alternating chapters, one describing the Latin American Studies department at Madison University, where Pedro teaches (and sleeps with) well-meaning academically-inclined gringos; the other centred in Río Fugitivo itself where he tries to worm out information about his deceased father from his uncle David and the soon-to-be-extradited drug lord Jaime Villa.

But of course, the crossword clues and Rashomon-esque games of intrigue do monkey their way into the story, so cosmopolitanism schmosmopolitanism; we've got a tale that fits into the Latino tradition anyhow.

Thoroughly recommended! But be warned: there's enough Spanglish in here to frustrate you if you're a non-Hispanophone.

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Representative quote:
I walked home to Uncle David's. I felt as if I were walking down the streets of Berkeley, just as Dad had described them, and got lost on Telegraph only to find myself on Unzueta, while geese - six? seven of them? - flew all around me and then all of a sudden there were shots and a salamander was following me and someone was shouting "All dead" and blood was flowing on the floor and a glass eye exploded. Anguish, agony. There was also a desperate sense of unreality. The barely lit streets and I both become ghost-like, suffered from a lack of substance.

Next book: Nestor Amarilla's Saved by a Poem, from Paraguay.

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