Sitting on a shelf

Most book-lovers will have had the same experience. You know the one I mean. You buy a book because you've recently read something by the same author that you enjoyed, so you buy something else of his / hers, but the new book just sits there. Or you're given a present of a book, sometimes you get into it straight away, other times it's just consigned to the shelf, and the years pass.....And then there's the book (usually of the first kind - something else by the same author) that you start to read, but you just can't get into it, but neither do you have the heart to give it away. If you out-and-out hated it that would be easier, at least then you could consign it conscience-free to a charity shop or the church bazaar, but you don't like it enough to read it properly, and you don't hate it enough to get rid of it. Books can stay on your shelves for years, decades even, in a sort of bookish limbo, neither assigned to Heaven or Hell (or should that be Purgatory? -at least with a charity shop there is the hope that the book will be adopted into a happier afterlife).

This sadly was the case with The war of Don Emmanuel's nether parts. I must have bought it in the late '90s, having recently read and loved Captain Corelli's mandolin. A colleague had read Louis de Bernieres' Latin American sequence, and heartily recommended it. So I bought a copy, read a few pages, and didn't take to it. It has sat on my bookshelf ever since, lonely and unloved.

Then the other day I happened to notice it, was in the mood for something Latin American, and picked it up. And I loved it. Absolutely adored it. Proving that books, like people, have the hope of redemption. My reaction to it now was, I think, odd, because I certainly had problems with it when I first tried to tackle the novel 15 years ago.What's so strange is that reading reviews of Don Emmanuel, it's fairly clear that critics either tended to love it or loath it. You either get it, and respond to it, or it's just too way out. Something in me as a reader must presumably have changed in the interim.

The novel is set in an imaginary Latin American country (probably most closely modelled on Colombia, with a hint of Argentina, and Chile's Pinochet regime), sometime probably in the 1970s/80s. Trouble erupts when the selfish Dona Constanza decides to divert the course of a river to fill her swimming pool. As the villagers protest the army marches in determined to make a crisis out of a relatively minor drama. Meanwhile in the jungle magical things are happening, a young Indian girl is killed, along with her pet jaguar, by a landmine; and soon the villagers are beset with a plague of friendly cats, and persistent hilarity.

The hilarity is needed, because life generally is pretty grim. A corrupt regime bolstered by the dregs of the army turns on its own people; and life becomes more and more violent, as innocent victims are tortured and "disappeared" by an increasingly evil military regime.

The novel is quite astonishing mixing a great deal of humour, eroticism, a huge dose of magic realism (which seems to find Latin America a natural homeland) and some quite stunning violence. The
realistic violence set against such a background is disconcerting, but I think works all the better for that, portraying the regimes that dominated South America in an earlier time for the abhorrence that they were.

It's not going to be everyone's cup of tea. Some will find the juxtaposition of realism and magic realism a decidedly uncomfortable mix; but I adored this novel and heartily recommend it to anyone. I just hope that the other two novels in the sequence - Senor Vivo and the Coca Lord and The troublesome offspring of Cardinal Guzman are every bit as good.


Aarti said…
Oh, I know exactly what you mean about letting a book sit for years without picking it up. I do that all the time! I justify it by telling myself that books won't really CHANGE over time, though I might, and so if I end up reading it later, then there's no real harm done.

Popular Posts