Off late, I am discovering a universe of words outside the English speaking world. I have crossed seas and time to a Nazi Germany (‘The Book Thief‘), a war torn Nigeria (‘Half of a Yellow Sun’ and ‘The Purple Hibiscus’) and 13th century Persia of Sufis(‘The Forty Rules of Love‘). The latest was to a time before Television in a far away place in South America. This one was again an ‘on the spur of the moment’ pick. The ‘New Statesman’ review on the back cover was what did it in for me:
“A comic novel on the grand scale, written with tremendous confidence and verve. Mario , 18-year old law student and radio news-editor, falls scandalously for his Aunt Julia, the 32 -year old divorced wife of a cousin, and the progressively lunatic story of this affair is interwoven with episodes from a series of radio soap-operas written by his friend Pedro Camacho.”
Sure enough, the beginning is hilarious. Mario, the protagonist,is a law student. He has a job, “with a pompous sounding title, a modest salary, duties as a plagiarist, and flexible working hours: News Director of Panamericana”. To his fairly uncomplicated life comes in two characters in succession- Julia, his aunt’s divorced sister and Pedro Camacho, the crazy writer of radio soap operas at Radio Central, a sister concern of Panamericana. The story goes up and down between Mario’s growing affection with ‘Aunt’ Julia that turns into an affair and the unbelievable success of Pedro’s serials.
The main story is interspersed with the serial stories, each of which ends in a host of old world movie notice kind of questions, “Would he go through with it? Would he thus deprive himself, in one stroke, of his integrity? Would he sacrifice his body, his youth, his honor, as an ethico-abstract demonstration?”. Pedro, the author is a fifty year old and truly believes that men reach their prime at this age. Unsurprisingly all the stories take place when his heroes reach that magical age in their lives – fifty!
The anecdotes in the radio station, Mario’s large family who interferes in each other’s lives albeit with love and affection, the easy going camaraderie between Mario and his friends , all these take you into an era that is resplendent in its old world charm. As the tale progresses, Pedro’s serials gets more and more bizarre with the characters jumping from one story to another, a dead person in one serial miraculously ressurected in another, the plots getting murkier and then all the stories moving towards a totally confusing, yet similar end. Marios’s life also gets complicated along with Pedro’s serials, both culminating in a climax at the same time.
Pedro loses grip of his plots towards the end, and you get a feeling that the book also loses it progressively. I was confused whether it was the serials or the book itself that goes wayward until reading a review that this is somewhat an autobiographical novel. Shouldn’t have come as a surprise I suppose, when the protagonist’s name is the same as the author’s.
What I liked about the book is how deeply the characters are etched. Each of them stays with you, for a few days at least after you have finished reading it. The feeling of going back in time was also quite magical. The last chapter was like reading a documentary. The overall effect is quite interesting, to say the least. The language is brilliant and the imagery is vivid, I could actually see the scenes unfolding in front of my eyes. And the best part is the thread of humor that is embedded deep through the narrative.
Verdict – Glad that I found this author, will try out more of his books. Can’t say it is a must read for everyone, but for those who like unusual reads, do add it to your list!