Feast of the Innocents (Evelio Rosero)
This was a challenging book for me to read. I kept putting it down and not wanting to pick it up again. Some of that might have to do with the chaotic, rambling style, in which sentences are very long and we jump frequently from viewpoint to viewpoint. It wasn’t until after page 150 or so (so more than halfway through) that I really started to “get” it. So this might not be the best introduction to Evelio Rosero’s work (the unrelentingly bleak yet monumental The Armies still takes the cake, followed closely by the darkly satirical Good Offices). But if you’re interested in Colombian literature or Latin American history, then this is definitely a worthwhile read.
I found the themes of this book moving and compelling, especially the deeper I got into the book. The book opens with a doctor dressing up in an ape suit in preparation for the famous Carnaval de Blancos y Negros in Pasto, a scene that reminded me of the opening sentence of Rosero’s Good Offices (“He has a terrible fear of being an animal, especially on Thursdays, at lunchtime.” What a hell of an opening sentence, right? Themes of human vs. animals, civilization vs. barbarity seem to be common in Rosero). Anyway, with this scene we meet the doctor, who is a bit of an unlikeable character. His marriage has basically descended into mutual loathing, and he’s obsessed with writing a book that exposes Simón Bolívar as a tyrant and a coward, a book he’s gotten nowhere near close to completing. However, he is presented with the opportunity to build a carnival float that will depict Simón Bolívar’s atrocities in the Pasto region, both the massacres and the sex scandals. However, the building of this float catches the attention of local Marxist students, to whom Bolívar is an important revolutionary icon… As their leader puts it (in reference to a massacre directed by Bolívar), “If Bolívar shot them or used sabres or pikes on them, it was because they deserved it. Bolívar cannot be called into question.” (183)
It was fascinating to read this book shortly after reading One Hundred Years of Solitude, another book concerned with representations of Colombian history (intriguingly, Feast is set the year before Solitude was published, in 1966). The doctor’s justification as to why he wants to tarnish Bolívar’s reputation in so public a fashion are eerily reminiscent of the insomnia plague that descends upon Macondo:
It’s the memory of the truth, which struggles to prevail sooner or later. By correcting the error of the past, speaking out against it, you correct the absence of memory, which is one of the main causes of our social and political present, founded on lies and murder… it’s our duty to dot the i’s if we don’t want to sin by omission. (98)
García Márquez also often writes about carnivals and festivals, and it would be interesting to contrast him with Rosero’s depiction, in which the festival is frequently emphasized as an event where people are disguised and hidden, the carnivalesque as a drunken and dizzying force of life (they’re also dizzying sections to read, at times overwhelmingly so!!).
If life was a vale of tears, as his grandparents had maintained, he did not want to live in it, and if life was a macabre circus enjoyed only by a few madmen–as they had also maintained–he intended to go mad the years remaining to him, who knew how many there would be. (208)
The parts of the book discussing the perception of Simón Bolívar as a cowardly tyrant were also extremely interesting to read, at times disturbing. However, there were a lot of names and battles listed in these sections, and I kind of wish I’d been reading this book with wikipedia on hand (I read most of it on a train) so that I could look them up. I wouldn’t be surprised if other readers found themselves feeling a bit lost and overwhelmed during these sections. I wonder if the confusion was intentional, to emphasize to murkiness of history, or something. I also wish there’d been an author’s note at the end discussing the research he’d used (specifically, I’d love to know if the oral testimonies shared by certain characters in the book true or fictional). Because while reading them, I was definitely like, is this TRUE? I just looked at wikipedia, and apparently, YES: Karl Marx apparently DID wrote a highly critical biography of Bolívar, which I find astonishing (Marx’s book is a big plot point in this novel).
In a way, I’m almost proving the book’s main point, which is that the perception of Bolívar as anything other than a liberator and hero is NOT a mainstream view in Colombia. As another character puts it (a university professor who shares the doctor’s views), “Upon this dreadful error the building of our nations began: a lie is worth more than the truth; a gimmick, a stab in the back: the end justifies the crimes.” (111) Hell, my school was named after him. Anyway, I sure wish I knew more about the Latin American wars for Independence after reading this. And it was fascinating to be presented with a view of Bolívar completely different than the one I was raised with.
So after we get these long sections discussing these negative views of Bolívar in history, that’s when the book really started to pick up for me, specifically with the introduction of Rodolfo Puelles, my favorite character (is his shared name with Rodolfo Walsh a coincidence?), a young wannabe poet who wouldn’t be out of place in Bolaño’s universe. Puelles belongs to a group of young people who are shaken by the recent death of revolutionary priest Padre Camilo Torres, students who are now “considering abandoning their degrees and heading off into the mountains of Colombia, to the guerrilla war, which had not yet officially begun but was already a great hope.” (123) As Puelles puts it, “Was it so important to finish your degree, or better to take up arms, go into the mountains and educate the rural masses?” (186)
There was a terrible sense of dramatic irony–almost brutally so–reading about the poet and his student friends and their obsession with Cuba, in light of everything we know now about what resulted from so many years of civil war. The doctor sees them merely as “faddish revolutionaries,” (215) but with the benefit of present-day history we know better. Or as Puelles later realizes, “Revolutionary enthusiasm was a powerful force, the elation was immense, but the muffled messages issuing from the mountains gave rise to doubt; something bad could be going on, Puelles thought, something harmful about the way things were advancing, in how devotion and effort were being used or abused.” (189)
This section of Feast emphatically reinforced to me how key the intersection between politics and literature was to a specific generation of young Latin Americans, almost tragically so. The way Rosero uses the young poet character was deeply compelling to me: basically, without giving anything away, Rosero introduces someone who ends up being one of the most important characters more than halfway through the book, a very risky move. What ends up happening to this poet evoked SO much for me in terms of Colombia’s history with violence and youth that I found it personally very moving, almost difficult to endure.
As if invoking otherworldly forces, Rodolfo Puelles took refuge in poetry and from the whole of his memory chose the words of William Blake, clung to them as if they were a plank floating on the ocean: “Drive your cart and your plow over the bones of the dead.” What’s more, hadn’t he read in some great Russian novel that you can kill and rob and, nevertheless, be happy? Where had he read that? And he repeated to himself over and over that he was a poet, above all and in spite of it all, and that no matter what, he was light years away from those pigs, I’m a poet, that’s what I am, come what may. (202)
Another provocative aspect of the book is its depiction of women and sex. I’m sure some people would find it offensive. Personally, I found it liberating. The wife and daughter characters (Primavera and Florencia) were, to me, very clearly the strongest and most determined characters in the book, the ones who are most capable of enacting agency (I especially liked the way the daughter took revenge on the little prat that threw flour on her). IDK, maybe I’m completely misunderstanding it, and they’re actually, like, oppressed by their sexuality, or sociopaths in the making. But what impressed me was their bad-assness, especially after frequent depictions of women on the receiving end of violence and oppression (not just in this novel, but in The Armies–that brutal ending!!). It felt to me like Rosero was compensating for that, somewhat. It also can’t be a coincidence, surely, that the doctor’s specific branch of medicine is gynecology? A job where you’re “looking” at women in the most intimate of ways? In some ways the fact that the main character is a doctor is key to the novel’s plot: how does the doctor diagnose the sickness of Colombia, the violence that plagues it, and its treatment of history?
Overall, I’m glad to see Rosero’s work continue to get translated. I really want his early books to get translated (I’ve only read Señor que no conoce la luna, and it was a trip). It would be fascinating to discuss this novel alongside García Márquez’s The General in His Labyrinth, or even Chronicle of a death foretold. This book has made me rethink certain things I’ve always taken for granted, which is a terrific thing for a novel to have accomplished.