Bolivia: fresh blood

Jimena, who suggested my Dominican Republic book, also had thoughts on Bolivia: Edmundo Paz Soldán was the most celebrated Bolivian writer around, she said. Perhaps if I emailed him and told him about my project he might be able to point me in the direction of a lesser-known Bolivian author whose work had been translated into English.

I had some reservations about this idea. In my experience, asking a writer to recommend other writers can often be the literary equivalent of wandering into McDonald’s and asking the staff if they know of any good fast-food outlets in the area. It’s not calculated to ingratiate you with them, you’re unlikely to get what you’re looking for, and you may very well find yourself asked to leave in no uncertain terms.

Still, if I did want to explore what other literature in translation might be available from South America’s poorest country, there wasn’t much else to go on. And besides, there was a big lot of water between me in London and Paz Soldán in his department at Cornell University. It was probably worth the risk.

Luckily for me, Paz Soldán turned out to be one of those exceptions that prove the rule. He wrote back enthusiastically to say that, while there was very little Bolivian literature available in English, his top recommendation was a short story collection by young writer Giovanna Rivero Santa Cruz, which had been published in a bilingual edition by Editorial La Hoguera in Bolivia.

When my copy of Sangre dulce/Sweet Blood arrived, the reasons for Paz Soldán’s enthusiasm became doubly clear: he had written the ‘Prologue’, in which he described Rivero as ‘one of the top-ranked young women writers of our time’. I was eager to see how her work stacked up.

Graphic, gripping and strange, Rivero’s stories – published here in an alternating edition where the English translation follows each Spanish piece – explore how power dynamics shift, warp and harden in relationships. Whether they focus on the child scared by a glimpse of her father’s sexuality during a telling of ‘The Pied Piper of Hamlin’, the psychiatric patient obliged to trade physical favours to win the right to shave her armpits, or the dog who eats her puppies while her owners endure the tension of house-to-house searches by the military, the way that people and animals displace and sublimate emotion in extreme circumstances is at the heart of these tales.

Much of the tension in the collection derives from opposition, particularly between the sexes. In ‘Masters of the Sand’, for example, two cousins discover how ‘enmity, love and glory are part of a perverse game’, when a childhood battle between two captive scorpions forges a destructive chain of consequences that wraps itself around both their lives. Similarly, the opening story ‘Final Countdown’, in which Macy and Alfredo battle each other in a series of sadistic sexual games opens up a mingled seam of sex and violence which runs throughout the collection.

For all their directness, though, many of the stories thrive on what Rivero leaves unwritten. The vital key to the characters’ suffering is only hinted at – as in the title story in which we can only guess at the precise nature of the abuse that Silva’s father inflicts on her – or the stories end at the moment before the decisive action takes place.

My favourite piece, ‘An Imperfect Day’, is a great example of this. Here, Rivero swirls together details – Marcelino’s mutilated hand, his loss of his job, the revolver his dad passed down from the Chaco War, his partner’s all-engulfing sexuality – which circle faster and faster, like water spiralling round a plughole, until they disappear into the inevitable conclusion, which happens just after the last line.

This subtlety means that a few of the pieces are a bit opaque. In addition, the leanness of the writing, in which nothing is wasted, requires absolute concentration from the reader to achieve its full effect. I found myself having to go over the opening paragraphs of several stories twice, so immediately did they thrust me into the midst of their action.

Such focus though is no hardship. Indeed, most of the stories are so compelling that they draw you in without you even realising. A word of warning though: commuters should consider saving this one for bedtime reading, otherwise Rivero might well make you miss your stop.

Sangre dulce/Sweet Blood by Giovanna Rivero Santa Cruz, translated from the Spanish by Kathy S Leonard (Editorial La Hoguera, 2006)

11 responses

  1. Couple of years ago, I came across this novel from Bolivia– “American Visa” by Juan de Recacechea. It is a racy novel written in the popular style of Raymod Chandler, but with the serious theme of globalization (and immigration) at its core.

  2. Congratulations for your fantastic project. It´s truly remarkable. It is just bothering that you call Bolivia the “poorest” country of South America. Actually, it is one of the richest countries in S.A. in natural resources and culture. This is the reason why Bolivia has lost half of its territory. I am sure that after reading all the wonderful books you have read, your vision of this world has changed, so you will no longer to divide our world in poor or rich countries. Doing it so is poor and patronizing.

    • Thanks. You’re absolutely right that material wealth is only one way of measuring what a country has to offer – and certainly no comment on it’s value. It can have relevance when it comes to talking about publishing, as countries with weaker economies often tend to have less thriving commercial publishing. That’s not always the case though – Oman publishes very few books each year. Thanks very much for stopping by.

  3. Pingback: Happy Independence Day, Bolivia! | The Hispanic Reader

  4. I just came across your blog and can’t wait to start reading some of these recommendations myself. As someone who moves from country to country, I like to read about the places I’m heading to next. Sangre Dulce/Swee Blood sounds intriguing (I didn’t like American Visa at all) but I can’t find a way to purchase a copy for myself. Any tips on how you ordered it and where? Thanks!

  5. As Bolivian myself I don’t see any offense in calling my country “the poorest one”, but it just feels sad whenever I read it. I guess @naradone is right when he/she refers as another ways of judging a country’s value. But you’re right, literature here in Bolivia is scarce, and people are not encouraged to read/write, which is unfortunate. I must confess that I really didn’t even know you could get bolivian literature in English, I’m glad you did. And I must confess too that this is the first time I hear of Giovanna Rivero. I’m going to try to find her stories, although our libraries and bookstores here are so limited that it’s going to be a difficult task.
    Although, there’s an scarce bolivian literature, there are really good books out there, many titles come to my head. It’s just so sad they are not translated or digitalized (ebooks) to make them more accessible to people around the world.
    Your project has encouraged me to do more for the literature in my country. I’m an aspiring author writing my first novel in English; however, I haven’t focused the theme on my country yet, but rest assure that I will explore this in my future projects.

  6. I enjoy very much your blog and suggestions. For a few years now, I have been reading more diverse literature from around the world after realizing that my bookshelf had too much north and south american literature along with other European classics. I’ve been venturing to other parts of the world and its been fascinating.
    I would like to suggest another author from Bolivia, who has received the English PEN award and his book “Affections” has been translated into 12 different languages. His name is Rodrigo Hasbun. I believe his publisher is Simon and Schuster. I hope you have a chance to review this book.

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