Colombia: the crazy truth

When it comes to South American literature, Colombia is definitely one of the hot spots. Birthplace and stomping ground of the great Gabo (Gabriel García Márquez to you and me), the country boasts a talented crop of writers, despite a tradition of rigorous government censorship – according to the File Room100 Years of Solitude was itself banned by the Colombian authorities in the 1970s.

Among this group of authors, Laura Restrepo caught my eye. An outspoken political journalist, Restrepo spent six years in exile in Mexico after receiving death threats because of her work. Her novels, which have won numerous awards, are known for mixing the insights she gained into Colombia’s criminal underworld as a reporter with elements of the fantastic or uncanny. It sounded like a compelling combination.

Restrepo’s 2004 novel Delirium starts with a bang. Middle-aged lecturer-turned-dog-food-delivery man Aguilar arrives home from a short trip to see his children to find that his young wife Agustina has gone mad. The rest of the novel – which weaves together four narratives and draws the reader through a involving in Bogota’s drug-trafficking network, clairvoyance, sadism, murder, and a tortuous family history stretching back two generations – pieces together the reasons why.

If you want an example of lean, powerful storytelling, then Restrepo is the writer for you. Working dramatic irony, time shifts, character voice and objective correlatives the way a gymnast moves through positions on the parallel bars, she delivers a mesmerising performance that will have you gripped right from the realisation that ‘something irreparable had happened’ in the first sentence to the breathtaking dismount of the final chapters.

Restrepo couples this narratological agility with a dexterous empathy that enables her to present both the inner workings of mental breakdown and the toll such events take on those closest to the sufferers. Whether she is leading us through the dark lair of Agustina’s childhood demons or Aguilar’s uneasiness about her sudden unpredictability and sense of ‘not knowing what bubbles are bursting inside her, what poisonous fish are swimming the channels of her brain’, the writer is committed to finding new routes by which to bring us close to the experiences she portrays. Her description of Aguilar’s fears about how Agustina’s illness has affected her feelings for him is particularly vivid and inventive:

‘I was afraid that if I could enter into her head, like a doll’s house, and walk through the compressed space of the various rooms, the first thing I’d see, in the main room, would be candles the size of matches lit around a little coffin holding my own corpse, me dead, forgotten, faded, stiff, a Ken-size doll in Barbie’s all-pink house, a ridiculous Ken abandoned in his tiny moss-green living room, I myself moss-green, too, because I’ve been dead for a while.’

The author’s talent for presenting thoughts and emotions in striking ways pays dividends when it comes to tracing the twisted strands of family history that have led to the tangle of the present. What might be an unwieldy and dry chronicle in the hands of another writer is immediate, troubling and strange in Restrepo’s work, with each character, no matter how peripheral, picked out in arresting detail. There is the obsessive musician grandfather who goes out walking wearing two hats and the mother who speaks to Aguilar on the phone as if he is a care assistant rather than her daughter’s partner.

The result is a compelling novel about consequence; about the way what we think of as our private quirks and imperfections can bounce and ricochet off others sending them careening down a giddy slope to their ruin. It is a gripping and haunting piece of work. Oh, and it’s a jolly good yarn too…

Delirium (Delirio) by Laura Restrepo, translated from the Spanish by Natasha Wimmer (Vintage, 2008)

Ukraine: killer punchlines

This was one of those books that you hear about and want to read. Not only was the premise of the novel – about an obituary writer who shares his flat with a king penguin – intriguing, but the story of Andrey Kurkov’s rise to become one of Ukraine’s most celebrated writers was pretty gripping in its own right: having to deal with more than 500 rejections from publishers, Kurkov self-published his early works and sold them on the streets of Kiev. Clearly, this was one dedicated writer.

The unlikely hero of Kurkov’s most famous work, which bears the Ronseal-style title Death and the Penguin, is Viktor, a novelist manqué who strikes it lucky when a newspaper hires him to write advance obituaries of some of the country’s great, good and not so good. All seems to be going well and Viktor looks set to break out of the lonely, frugal existence he has shared with Misha, a king penguin he adopted when the zoo closed down, until the subjects of his obituaries start to die in suspicious circumstances. As it becomes clear that his ‘vital images of the future departed’ carry more significance than he could ever have imagined, Viktor finds himself embroiled in an increasingly sinister plot, and realises he will need to use all his powers of invention to escape with his life.

Funny, dark and spare, Kurkov’s prose evokes complex situations in a handful of words. The writer does this by using small details to reveal the humanity of his characters: a militiaman’s wish for a quiet shift, a cartoon on TV, a gangster’s pride about his car.

He combines this with razor-sharp perception to produce striking and often touching reflections on death, loneliness, friendship and love. In particular, Viktor’s meditations on the strange alchemy that is the obituary writer’s craft – creating something fixed and definitive out of a mass of memories, half-truths and anecdotes – are fascinating:

‘The past believed in dates. And everyone’s life consisted of dates, giving life a rhythm and sense of gradation, as if from the eminence of a date one could look back and down, and see the past itself. A clear, comprehensible past, divided up into square of events, lines of paths taken.’

Similar to Vatanen’s hare in Arto Paasilinna’s The Year of the Hare (my Finnish book), Misha the penguin acts as a kind of barometer for his master, reflecting his mental and emotional state. He also humanises Viktor, giving him the vulnerability necessary to enable Kurkov to steer him through the moral hinterland the plot demands without losing the reader’s sympathy.

The result is that rarest of beasts: a novel that is every bit as gripping as it is well-written. I read it in virtually one sitting – and not merely because I had to keep up with the schedule. Great.

Death and the Penguin (Smert’postoronnego) by Andrey Kurkov, translated from the Russian by George Bird (Melville International Crime, 2011)