The latest addition to my website is Juan Cárdenas‘ Ornamento (Ornamental). This is another dystopian novel from Latin America, this one from Colombia. Our unnamed narrator is testing a new drug on four women (it only works on women) and while three sleep through the test but later report a pleasurable sensation, one, known only as no 4, remains awake and talks throughout. Her ramblings, about her rebuilt mother, her son, her father and stepfather and others topics, will continue to interrupt throughout the book. Our narrator is married to a not very talented but highly successful cocaine-sniffing artist and No 4 is brought into the relationship. Indeed, our dilatory narrator had considered leaving his wife for her. It is all ornamentation, “good taste”, cheap thrills. This is what the world is coming to.
The latest addition to my website is Héctor Abad Faciolince‘s Basura [Rubbish]. The unnamed narrator moves into a flat and sees that one of his fellow residents is Bernardo Davanzati, who published a couple of novels some time ago but has now seemingly disappeared. While looking in the rubbish for a magazine he mistakenly threw away, he comes across pages full of handwritten text, clearly those of Davanzati. He takes these pages and thereafter checks every day, collecting a mass of pages. In these pages, Davanzati seems to be writing what may be a novel, or stories or his autobiography, the narrator is not sure which. Some of the writing is nonsensical, while other sections seem to tell something of the often sad story of Davanzati’s life. Eventually, he takes it further, breaking into his flat and contacting people who may know or have known Davanzati. The book raises issues of truth vs fiction, the unreliable narrator and investigation becoming obsession. Who is mad: the narrator, Davanzati or both? Sadly, the book has only been translated into Italian.
The latest addition to my website is Germán Espinosa‘s Sinfonía desde el nuevo mundo [Symphony from the New World]. It tells the story of Victorien Fontenier, a French army officer who has fled from Waterloo after the defeat and, at the suggestion of his prospective father-in-law, goes off to Jamaica to deliver guns to Haiti. When he gets there, he finds that he is to give them to the wrong side (not the ordinary people but the well-off who want to restore slavery) so he refuses. He is introduced to Simón Bolívar who is, of course, the right side, and joins up to help the Latin Americans rid themselves of Spanish oppression. Exciting adventures, a mulatto girlfriend called Marie Antoinette and betrayal and the struggle for liberty are all part and parcel of this book, with an independent Colombia the aim.
The latest addition to my website is Santiago Gamboa‘s Necrópolis (Necropolis). This is one of the two of his novels that has been translated into English. The narrator, known only as EH, is a Colombian writer just recovering from a long, serious illness, who is invited to a conference held by the International Congress on Biography and Memory in Jerusalem. The conference features other writers, though mainly non-fiction writers, whose biographies, he says, seem straight out of a Tennessee Williams play. Various writers present either what are essentially their own autobiographies or the stories of other people. One man, José Maturana, tells a story of how he was in prison when he was essentially rescued by a man called Walter de la Salle, a former drug user who had inherited money and started running a mission, often helping prisoners. José joined his mission and worked with him but it all went badly, ending in a shoot-out with the police, Walter disappearing and José and Jessica, the other key member, moving on. The day after his talk, José is found in his hotel room, his wrists slashed. EH does not believe it is suicide and, together with an Icelandic journalist, he investigates. Meanwhile, the situation in Jerusalem – the necropolis of the title – is becoming untenable with bomb attacks, rockets and so on battering the city and battering the hotel. It is both a grim but highly complex novel, dealing with literature, death, finding meaning in life, politics, religion and, of course, sex and drugs.
The latest addition to my website is Santiago Gamboa‘s Vida feliz de un joven llamado Esteban [Happy Life of a Young Man Called Esteban]. This is a quasi-autobiographical novel (i.e. told in an autobiographical style, with some autobiographical references). We follow the life of Esteban Hinestroza, a young man who is currently working as journalist for the French government in Paris, but who tells us of his life in Colombia (with stops in Rome and Madrid). What makes it somewhat different are the extensive stories of others, who have a perhaps more colourful life than Esteban, with one joining the Colombian guerrillas and another involved in reincarnation. However, we also follow Colombian history, from the assassination of Jorge Eliécer Gaitán, well before Esteban was born, to the fall-out from that event, which eventually led to the guerilla war in Colombia. Esteban generally has a happy life, as the title tells us, with the usual ups and downs, so, while Gamboa tells the story well, I felt that this book lacked that certain je ne sais quoi, despite its reputation in Latin America and the fact that it has been translated into French, German and Italian (but not, of course, into English).
The latest addition to my website is Santiago Gamboa‘s Perder es cuestión de método [Losing is a Question of Method]. This is a detective novel, set in Bogota. Our hero is Victor Silanpa, a journalist. He learns of a body being found outside of Bogotá. The victim has been impaled. The police seem to be incompetent and it is Silanpa, aided by the brother of the possible victim, who investigates, uncovering a plot involving a complicated land deal, which certain powerful people stand to make a lot of money out of. Silanpa becomes totally obsessed with the case, neglecting his job, his girlfriend and, indeed, his whole life, to uncover the truth. He runs around Bogotá, pursued by thugs, caught up in a car chase wearing only a towel, drinking heavily, hiding out wherever he can, while the police seem indifferent. While many of the standard detective novel clichés are there, it is not a bad novel, as we follow Silanpa’s obsession, even as his life seems to be falling apart. The book has been translated into nine languages, including Basque and Czech, but not English.
The latest addition to my website is Jorge Franco‘s El mundo de afuera [The World Outside], the winner of the prestigious Spanish Alfaguara Prize this year. This is an excellent novel, mainly set in Franco’s home town of Medellín, Colombia and mainly involving the kidnapping of a rich man, Don Diego Echavarría Misa. Don Diego is a keen lover of Germany and all things German. This love includes the country, Wagner but also Hitler’s way of doing things. When visiting Germany in the 1950s, he meets and falls in love with Benedikta Zur Nieden, whom everyone calls Dita. They return to Colombia (via an expensive European shopping trip) and Diego has a fairytale castle built in Medellín, based on La Rochefoucauld Castle. They have a daughter, Isolda, who is treated like and behaves like a princess. She is generally kept in the castle and its grounds, with her own (German) governess. However, she has been seen in the woods next to the castle by some of the locals. One of the locals is an older man, Mono, who has fallen in love with her. He plans to kidnap both father and daughter but this goes wrong and he ends up kidnapping only Diego. Much of the novel is about his relationship with Diego – he makes no attempt to conceal himself – and the activities of his fairly incompetent gang. Fortunately for them the police are equally incompetent. To the surprise of the gang, no ransom is forthcoming and they are starting to get worried. While this is going on, we are following Mono’s external life – his love for Isolda, his young, gay lover and Twiggy, a young woman who thinks she is Mono’s girlfriend. He also still lives with his mother, who seems to be blissfully ignorant of her son’s full but haphazard life. Dita then brings in a Belgian psychic who thinks that he can determine whether Diego is alive or dead and track down where he is kept. It certainly is an enjoyable novel. While it has not been translated into English, two of Franco’s earlier novels have been, so there is some hope that this one might be.
The latest addition to my website is Efraim Medina Reyes‘ Técnicas de masturbación entre Batman y Robin [Techniques of Masturbation between Batman and Robin]. Having just read La vita erotica dei superuomini (Erotic Lives of the Superheroes), this book seemed a natural follow-up. However, masturbation, Batman and Robin barely feature in this novel and the two superheroes are merely two women in disguise at an imagined fancy dress party. Efraim Medina Reyes has been hailed as one of the new voices of Colombian literature but, on the basis of this novel, García Márquez has nothing to fear. It tells what would appear to be a semi-autobiographical story about a novelist known as Sergio Bocafloja (=Loose Mouth) who tries and fails to put his difficult childhood behind him, find himself, find true love and become a successful novelist. He starts off in Cartagena, with a group of friends, where he meets and falls in love with Marianne but she eventually moves away. He heads off to Bogota but is called back when his mother becomes ill and he returns to his former life but sans Marianne. Medina Reyes throws in a guide to seducing woman, a few mini-screenplays, including one called Técnicas de masturbación entre Batman y Robin [Techniques of Masturbation between Batman and Robin], Instructions for Training Mammals and other non-narrative asides, none of which really work. I really hope that this not the future of the Colombian novel. They have shown that they can do well at football (for those not following, this is a reference to the World Cup) and I am sure that they can write better novels.