An enjoyably dark, deliciously Herzogian and bitingly humorous story about J. and Elena, a yuppie-ish Medellín couple who move to the Caribbean coast of Colombia in order to get away from it all. At first we think it’s just for tourism (even with Elena bringing her sewing machine), but we slowly learn that they are in fact planning to settle down, start a “finca” (the Spanish word for farm), begin a new life for themselves amongst the crab stew, the sand flies and aguardiente-swilling locals.
My favorite thing about this book was the dark, dark humor. Oh, how it made me snort, and believe me I am the kind of reader who barely cracks a smile. I love the Sebaldian parrot that shows up early on in one of the houses they stay at, prowling on its perch and “racing from one side to the other in what seemed like panic.” Smart parrot–this is the most appropriate reaction we get from pretty much anybody in the entire novel. I love the sense of failure hovering over this book, the gradual descent into desperation as the cattle die, the hired help sullenly skulk and the cook’s baby never stops wailing. Elena’s mad attempt to build a wire fence around the property was probably my favorite hysterical subplot. And then there’s the similes! The language! The noonday sun bursting into the room “like an explosion.” The two cot beds next to an enormous brand-new mattress, “like flimsy sailboats next to a transatlantic liner.” A fried egg on top of a mountain of rice, “glittering like a star.” The “mummified” hand of an old rich man, with “badly sunburnt thighs thickly smeared with milk of magnesia.”
What I also relished about this book is the slow, sneaky way it drops hints throughout the narrative–not just of the darkness surrounding the characters’ past, but of what is to come. We get a throwaway reference to Elena’s brother “in his prison cell,” a brief mention of their former Medellín partying days filled with cocaine and alcohol. And then on pg 34 (in my kindle edition) we get this bombshell: “The other bedroom, where they would later open up the shop and where, later still, the corpse would be bathed…” WHAT. Talk about getting your reader’s attention! This kind of moment happens again and again as the book progresses, but never reaches the point of being heavy-handed. Rather, it creates a deeply unsettling experience as a reader: you realize the narrator knows more than you, but is deliberately not telling. And you realize that time in this book is not unfolding in the typical way you expect it to when you read (as in one thing happens, then the next, then the next). Everything in this book is being narrated from a retrospective, inevitable perspective, which in the end casts an aura of melancholy around everything that ultimately happens.
There is a lot of social commentary going on in this book, a lot to unpack here in terms of Colombian social history: the relationship between locals and landlords, the city and the country, rich vs. poor, intellectuals vs. farmers. You could easily see the final moment of violence at the end as a sad parable for the country’s long bloody history–an inevitable consequence that comes from the refusal (inability?) to understand another so different from you, the complete and utter failure to communicate. As characters, J. and Elena are consistently dislikable yet compelling–we understand better than them why they act like they do, and despite all their flaws we can’t help but sympathize.
My one problem with this book was the ending–it had been built up so much, I couldn’t help but be a bit disappointed/underwhelmed in the way that it unfolded. I feel absolutely terrible writing that, especially having just read online that apparently this novel is based on something that actually happened to the author’s brother (I’m not going to provide a link because I don’t want to directly give away spoilers; if you’re deeply curious, you can ask Google yourself). Still, even with the knowledge that this is based on a factual event, as a reader of fiction I still don’t know if I actually needed to “see” it happen–for me, just seeing the aftermath would have been enough. I liked the feeling of being intrigued, of wondering and being curious throughout this novel, and I couldn’t help but be disappointed by what finally ended up happening–as though it couldn’t possibly live up to what I had imagined. It’s tricky–in a way, the mystery you imagine is always more satisfying than the final concrete answer. I’ve never seen the TV series Lost, but I’ve heard that this is something a lot of people found frustrating about it. But on the other hand, I can see other readers being annoyed about not finding out “exactly” what happened. Again, it’s tricky ground, and I seriously might change my mind about it in just a few weeks… but for now, it is what it is.
Nevertheless, I still highly recommend this book. I want to read more of this author and DEFINITELY more of him should be translated into English. ¡Viva la literatura colombiana!!!