Sitting on a shelf
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.