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Reviews, Recipes, Rides… and some other things, too.


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Gioconda Belli: El país de las mujeres (2010)

el_pas_de_las_mujeresI started reading El país de las mujeres (I don’t think it’s been translated) because I was intrigued by its premise and because I remembered having read and enjoyed La mujer habitada (The Inhabited Woman). Gioconda Belli is a Nicaraguan feminist writer, and this novel is no exception from her feminist literature. In a fictional Central American country called Faguas, Viviana Sansón and her friends decide to launch a radical feminist party, the Partido de la Izquierda Erótica (which abbreviates to PIE, meaning “foot” in Spanish, and so the party’s symbol is a woman’s foot), “Party of the Erotic Left”.

Viviana is a highly successful TV presenter who is on a mission to change the highly corrupt politics of her country. Initially a group of outsiders that relies on political actions mostly designed to attract a lot of attention, they suddenly get help from mother nature: a volcano erupts and its gasses leave the men of Faguas without testosterone. As a result, they become weak, malleable, and lose their will to keep power. Suddenly, the PIE finds itself in power and Viviana is President. She instals a series of measures to change her country, the most radical of which is the removal of all men from government positions.

Men are relegated to the household, while women staff all the ministries, police, the army, and all public services. Of course, some are not happy. As their testosterone levels return to normal, those who have been ousted from power start plotting. The novel opens with their plot coming to fruition: Viviana is shot in the chest at a public rally and falls into a coma. El país de las mujeres runs in two parallel strands of narration, a first in which we witness Viviana’s colleagues and allies dealing with the extraordinary situation, and a second that consists of Viviana’s memories of how she came to power and the developments that led there. She’s stuck in a kind of limbo between life and death in which she remembers all the significant moments in her and her party comrades up until the shooting.

Intriguing, right? And I did enjoy parts of El país de las mujeres quite a lot. But on the whole, I have to confess that this book left me a bit cold. I wasn’t in the right mindset when I started: I expected a novel, but this is a thought experiment. A lot of the political ideas expressed seemed not just far-fetched, as they would have to with this kind of premise, but more than naive and completely unrealistic. Don’t get me wrong, there are many important ideas in this book I wholeheartedly agree with, starting with the premise that the value society attaches to “typically female” tasks such as housekeeping and care-giving needs to be placed on a par with the value of “typically male” tasks. But as a thought experiment I found El país de las mujeres to be a bit simplistic.


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Edgard Telles Ribeiro: His Own Man (2010)

his_own_manI first came across His Own Man (original title: O punho e a renda) through Guy’s great review at His Futile Preoccupations. A novel about the involvement of a Brazilian diplomat in the dark times of Latin America’s military dictatorship in the 60s-80s? My Latin-America-and-International-Relations-loving heart jumped. And His Own Man did not disappoint.

Brazil, 1968: a young diplomat is approached by Marcílio Xavier Andrade (Max) and asked to lunch. He’s honoured by this more senior figure’s assessment of him as one of few “luncheable colleagues” and quickly joins his social circle. Max has a penchant for surrounding himself with interesting figures, writers, artists, actors etc., and inviting them to listen to jazz. Things take a sinister turn very quickly though and slowly but surely, those with oppositional views disappear from Max’s circle of “friends” as the political environment becomes ever more oppressive.

Max, it turns out, is a careerist chamaeleon, able to adapt himself quickly to any situation and any new “master”. He becomes increasingly involved in the dark manoeuvres of the Brazilian state in Uruguay and Chile, where the country was heavily involved in supporting the military regimes’ rise to power. But Max isn’t just a chamaeleon, he also seems to have a highly efficient non-stick coating. No matter how deeply involved he becomes, nothing sticks, and he’s able to swiftly shift his allegiances post-democratisation:

“There were few among us like him, so readily adapting to the ever-changing conditions of that time with such charm and competence, swiftly scaling the ranks of our hierarchy over the twenty years of military rule, and then going on to achieve further triumphs after the return to political normalcy”

The narrator, who has been following Max’s career, is eager to finally unearth all there is to be known about Max’s real actions during the dark chapters of Brazil’s recent history. As he goes along, he discovers the real extent of Max’s ruthlessness.

His Own Man is an excellent exploration of the inner workings of Brazilian diplomacy over several decades. The issues it addresses affect everyone working in a diplomatic service – mostly to a lesser degree though: to what extent is it possible or impossible to remain true to political, ethical or personal beliefs if your job is to represent your government (no matter what)? What role does your conscience play and when do you have to act on its calls? In other words, is it possible to remain “your own man (person)” as a diplomat? To some degree, a good diplomat is one who is able to make his own judgement fade into the background in favour of his country’s interests. But in the case of this novel’s title, the answer to these questions is ironic, since Max is nothing but “his own man” – everything he does, every acquaintance he makes, even his marriage, has only one goal: to further Max’s own advancement. To achieve his goals, he sheds every morsel of morality and ethics, and seemingly every aspect of whatever personal values he may have held at some point.

The narrator ponders these issues as they pertain also to himself:

“I knew full well that I’d been no hero. I hadn’t criticised my superiors out loud; I hadn’t resigned […] nor had I taken up arms. On the contrary, I’d become part of an orchestra – in which Max was the soloist.”

What’s more, the narrator addresses the responsibilities of any diplomat dispatched to a country under a dictatorial regime. To what extent is it your duty to try and take action against the regime, and if so, how? In what ways are you able to influence the government of a country that isn’t yours and where you’ve been sent as a representative of your own government?

“During my year and a half in Central America, I hadn’t hesitated to dutifully socialise with known tyrants of the region, to whom I was introduced at dinners and receptions.”

His Own Man sent shiver after shiver down my spine. The fact that Telles Ribeiro himself is a former diplomat means that he can explore these issues in an extremely thorough way, drawing on his own experience. This is an excellent political novel.


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Books not reviewed in 2013

Happy new year everyone! I hope you’re all as full of delicious food and relaxed as I am. Before we launch into a new reading year, I just wanted to do a little bit of housekeeping by telling you quickly about some of the books I read but did not review in 2013. There aren’t that many… mainly because I didn’t read that much, but I also may have forgotten a few because I’m notoriously poor at keeping a record of what I’ve been reading. So there were several more than made this list, but these are the some that I at least wanted to briefly mention.

Virginia Woolf: A Room of One’s Own (1929)

Room_Own_Woolf_smallThe reason this book never got reviewed was because I wanted to post on it so thoughtfully that I just never got around to writing said thoughtful post (talk about setting too high expectations). What struck me about A Room of One’s Own, as far as I can remember, was how much of it still applies to women’s position in society almost a century later. This is why we need feminism. I also remember that there were parts I disagreed with, but have sadly forgotten what exactly they were and now do not have my annotated copy with me. This must be the most underwhelming paragraph ever written about A Room of One’s Own, as well as the complete antithesis of the post I so much wanted to write when I’d just finished it. I can only recommend that you go and read it yourselves, right now.

Carl Bernstein & Bob Woodward: All the President’s Men (1974)

presidents_menKim of Sophisticated Dorkiness got me interested in the classic account of the Watergate scandal with this post. When I was younger, I very much wanted to be a journalist, and it’s no secret I’m a bit of a politics junkie, so this book was likely to be a big success with me. And it was, to the point that I got so captivated by the story I couldn’t sleep for sheer excitement. I’m not totally sure why I never wrote about it, but All the President’s Men turned me into a Watergate obsessive for about a week. This is much, much better than most political thriller’s I’ve read.

Katie Kitamura: Gone to the Forest (2012)

GoneToTheForestAnd now for something completely different: Gone to the Forest is a novel about the end of colonialism in Africa. A white family based on a farm witnesses the decline and downfall of their lifestyle as what they came to see as “their” land is slowly taken and the country descends into civil war. Before this background, the family’s own struggle – Tom, the son, versus his elderly but tyrannic father – unfolds, with a love triangle mixed in. This book had a lot of potential, but it somehow missed the mark for me. I didn’t like the style, which seemed very tedious to me, and that made it impossible for me to get drawn into the storyline. I think this may work for other people, it just didn’t work for me.

Carlos Fuentes: La muerte de Artemio Cruz (1962)

ArtemioCruz_smallThe reason I never blogged about this is that I think I read this book the wrong way. It somehow turned into a staple on my bedside table and it took me months to read it. Which, given the way the novel is constructed, made for an extremely confusing reading experience interspersed with moments of lucidity that made me think “this is bloody brilliant”. Come to think of it, that’s possibly a very fitting reading experience for a novel based on the perspective of a man on his deathbed who is slowly descending into confusion and reliving different scenes of his life. However, I think a reader may get more out of it than I did if they read it in larger chunks than I did.


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Two Books about Chile (1) – Roberto Ampuero: El último tango de Salvador Allende (2012)

This slightly lengthy title to say that I read two books dealing with the Chilean military dictatorship, and while I loved one, I didn’t like the other. I’m not entirely sure how much sense it makes to write about them together, because they’re so fundamentally different and the only thing that really connects them is the theme, and even that only if your working definition of “theme” is a wide one. I’ve decided to do it anyway, because for me the thematic connection and the timing were close enough to keep thinking back to the first book while I was reading the second one, and progressively realising how flawed the first one really was. Reading great literature is like eating great food: it puts you off the mediocre stuff. I’ve split this into two posts, but am publishing them together. The second part is here.

But what did I actually read? First, I read Roberto Ampuero’s El último tango de Salvador Allende (2012), then Arturo Fontaine’s La vida doble (2010).

ultimo_tango_salvador-allendeAmpuero’s novel is narrated by David Kurtz, an American CIA agent who was posted to Chile during the 1970s and involved in the orchestration of the coup that toppled the Allende government and brought General Pinochet into power, thus opening the darkest chapter of recent Chilean history. Kurtz had a daughter, Victoria, who went to university while he was stationed in Santiago and apparently got herself involved precisely in those activities Kurtz was helping the military regime fight. She had a boyfriend who was active in the opposition and got involved herself. But Kurtz only learns of this many years later, when Victoria, now married to a nice American man, dies of cancer and her last wish is for her father to take her ashes to Chile and find her ex boyfriend, the love of her life. She gives him a notebook, written in Spanish, and a picture of the young man. And so, Kurtz goes to Santiago, where little by little, he starts piecing together his daughter’s past. This is more difficult than he initially expects, involves a trip to former East Germany and rubbing his own previous employer the wrong way. This strand of the narrative has all the hallmarks of a typical thriller, including dark tunnels, secretive meetings, and getting beaten up by strangers in the middle of the night.

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Two Books about Chile (2) – Arturo Fontaine: La vida doble (2010)

This is part two of my thoughts on two novels I read almost successively and that deal with a similar theme. One was brilliant, the other one… not so much. Part one, on the not-so-brilliant El último tango de Salvador Allende is here. I then went on to read La vida doble. This novel was amazing, and it will definitely make my list of favourite reads in 2013, if not even top it.

La vida doble is the story of Irene, or Lorena (we never learn her real name). She starts out as a member of Hacha roja, a militant opposition group in Chile during the dictatorship. She’s devoted, takes part in missions, and almost – almost sends her little daughter Anita off to be educated in Cuba, so Anita is protected and the government can’t use threats against the little girl to blackmail her mother. But she can’t bring herself to do it. La vida doble begins with her narrating how she was tortured after she was arrested during a mission gone wrong. This narration plunges you right into the cruel reality of the military dictatorship’s prisons, the absolute humiliation, the descent from human being to object. There are no cheesy adornments, no song texts like in El último tango de Salvador Allende, there’s no filter, just absolute cruelty, and a highly conflicted main character.

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Fernando Vallejo: La virgen de los sicarios (1994)

Virgen_Sicarios_smallFernando Vallejo’s novel, set in Medellín in the 1990s, during the height of the drug war in Colombia, is not for the faint-hearted. Reading Vallejo’s description of a city drawn into a seemingly endless spiral of violence, chaos, and lawlessness, it seems hard to believe that Medellín has nowadays made giant steps towards recovering from this period.

The novel’s protagonist, Fernando – the novel has autobiographical streaks – is a well-to-do, gay writer who has been witnessing his home city’s decline from a distance for years. Now he returns, and what he finds leaves him disillusioned and cynical: he doesn’t trust anyone, seems to hate everyone, especially “los pobres” (the poor), and analyses the downfall of Medellín and the entire country from the vantage point of an observer who pretends to still be distant, even though he is now physically there, in the midst of all the chaos. Fernando passes cynical and truthful judgement on politics and politicians, the press, law enforcement, and his fellow Colombians:

El “presunto” asesino, como diría la prensa hablada y escrita, muy respetuosa ella con los derechos humanos. Con eso de que aquí, en este país de leyes y constituciones, democrático, no es culpable nadie hasta que no lo condenen, y no lo condenan si no lo juzgan, y no lo juzgan si no lo agarran, y si lo agarran lo sueltan… La ley de Colombia es la impunidad y nuestro primer delincuente impune es el presidente.

 The “presumed” killer, as the written and spoken press would say, very respectful of human rights. Because here, in this democratic country of laws and constitutions, nobody is guilty until he has been condemned, and he isn’t condemned if he isn’t tried, and he isn’t tried if he isn’t caught, and if he is caught, he’s let go… impunity is the law in Colombia and our first unpunished delinquent is the President.*

However, it’s clear that deep down, he loves his country and his people and his cynicism is just a defence mechanism. Fernando is capable of loving and needs love, which, however, he’s not ashamed to buy by showering his lovers with presents.

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Santiago Roncagliolo: Abril rojo (2006)

Abril_rojo_smallI read Abril rojo ages ago, some time in the early autumn last year, I think Update: upon checking my Goodreads account, I realised it was in the summer. Just now it came back to me like a flash: I’d actually really wanted to review it when I read it, but somehow never got around to it, you know how it is. 

Well, this gem has spent enough time languishing on my “to review” list, because I think it really deserves having its praises sung (the Premio Alfaguara jury was onto something there). Abril Rojo is set in Peru in 2000, towards the end of the Shining Path (Sendero Luminoso)‘s terrorist activities in the country.  But in Ayacucho, during Semana Santa (the week before Easter), a number of horrific murders are being committed. The person in charge of handling the crimes is Félix Chacaltana, a prosecutor originally from Ayacucho, but who has spent a long time in Lima and come back. He has moved back into his late mother’s house and kept her room as it was when she was alive, and he constantly talks to her. Chacaltana is a true thorough bureaucrat who believes in the power of institutions, and so he sits down dutifully and writes his reports on the murders. Perhaps, he concludes, the Shining Path has something to do with them?

But Chacaltana’s report doesn’t fall on fruitful ground. His investigative advances are blocked by high-level officials and he runs into a wall of complicity with the perpetrators. But Chacaltana doesn’t give up. With a mixture of obstinacy and daredevil naivety, he digs deeper and deeper into events. Elements of indigenous magic mix with crime and having spent a lot of time in the worldly city, Chacaltana has problems wrapping his head around the Andean infusion of catholic and indigenous traditions that surrounds the events. As he descends into the depths of a world where terrorism, corruption and political ambition mix, both Chacaltana and the reader become more and more confused. Never quite knowing who is who and on whose side people stand, his quest becomes lonelier and more dangerous.

I don’t really want to say more, because I don’t want to spoil  Abril rojo for you. I really enjoyed this excellent and easy-to-read thriller with a lot of tension. If, on top of it, you’re interested in Peru, this is most definitely your book (in which case, you may also be interested in this one). And even if you don’t have a Latin American or Peruvian predilection, if you’re European or North American, prepare to be immersed in a culture that is so close to our own in some ways, yet so fascinatingly different in others. Roncagliolo manages to treat an issue that is still quite thorny in his home country without too much pathos, and he’s really, really good at creating the corresponding ambience. Get ready to be sucked in.

English title: Red April
German title: Roter April