Rubrics and Tendrils of Richard Gehr

3 January 1994


William Morrow, $22


William Morrow, $21


William Morrow, $25

More than one review of Gabriel Garcia Marquez's recent collection has suggested that this might be a good time to reconsider whether or not magical realism has run out of gas. And an era has certainly stespped on by if this peculiar confluence of animistic symbolics with the nineteenth-century English novel has lost its tropical fizz. And perhaps it has. With Marquéz adrift in Macondo, and realism weighing down the magic for politically engaged Mario Vargas Llosa and Carlos Fuentes, who's left to fly the MR banner?

Strangely enough, most of the intoxicating jungle juice that remains in the subgenre can be found in this remarkably witty, erudite, and sexy trilogy of novels by Louis de Bernières, a prizewinning Brit whose writing "is so fucking pukka I could fucking spunk myself" (to cop a memorable phrase from the autobiographical essay he wrote for an issue of Granta dedicated to young British novelists). Why, then, do copies of The War of Don Emmanuel's Nether Parts and the following year's Señor Vivo and the Coca Lord --still occupy valuable shelf space in the Strand's basement (hint, hint) without a paperback sale in sight? I sincerely hope the release of his new book will end this apalling neglect.

A parodist and devotee to equal extents, Louis de Bernières sneaks up on Latin America turf with an outsider's detached regard (his surname's romantic vowels notwithstanding). "After four disastrous months in the British Army," reads de Bernières's bio, "he left for a village in Colombia, where he worked as a teacher in the morning and a cowboy in the afternoon. Since then he has been employed as a car mechanic, a landscape gardner, and a teacher of truants." Colombia offered symbolic set and setting for these books, which actually draw upon the entire warp and woof of the Latin American experience

De Bernières takes the organizing archetypes of Latin fabulism--church, government, military; peasantry, middle class, aristocracy; sorceror, scholar, priest; Indian, mestizo, Hispanic--and mutates the whimsical and sentimental MR conventions into something very different yet strangely familiar. His books read like elegant Gregory Rabassa translations, until you notice that everything has been exaggerated just so, beginning on the cover. Just compare the title of his latest novel, The Troublesome Children of Cardinal Guzman --and how could a priest's progeny not be troublesome?--with Marquéz's The Incredible and Sad Tale of Innocent Eréndira and Her Heartless Grandmother. At bottom, de Bernières is just a lot more fun and a lot less concerned over his public image than most of his Latin literary kin.

More a single epic saga than separate novels, de Bernières's narratives split, reconfigure, and proliferate like mountain streams merging into an Amazon. He often takes the time to assemble a sarcastic sociology, as when he analyzes the appeal of prostitutes' skin tones to different classes of consumer in Don Emmanuel , or eloquently explains the appeal of communism to a peasantry unacquainted with the works of Karl Marx. De Bernière's central theme, simply put, is that a tremendous struggle waged between good and evil will ultimately liberate the righteous. Evil, however, never fails to get its licks in.

The literal battle in The War of Don Emmanuel's Nether Parts concerns a village's efforts to prevent a bored rich woman from diverting their water supply into her swimming pool. But that's just the absurd manifestation of a much larger war being waged by the country's corrupt military against the people. It attains its absurd and grisly apotheosis in the systematic torture, rape, and murder of thousands of randomly inflicted innocents. In Señor Vivo and the Coca Lord, a fun-loving young philosophy professor, Dionisio Vivo, wages a war of letters in the editorial pages against a cocaine kingpin modeled mockingly on Colombia's recently eradicated exemplar of evil incarnate, Pablo Escobar. Vivo's fiancée and best friend are murdered before justice is served. And a renegade priest undertakes a violent, cross-country inquisition, a "new Albigensian Crusade" (226), to rid the country of sin in The Troublesome Children of Cardinal Guzman .

De Bernières juggles gruesome infamy with satire and ribaldry. The military, clerical, and pharmacological forces of fascism don't stand a chance against such characters as a priest who levitates while preaching his glum gnostic gospel, happy whores who live together as "a huge contented family with a thousand generous fathers" (emmanuel, 16), a cowboy so macho he smokes in his sleep, a nuclear family of ghosts, and ayahuasca-slurping jungle Indians who love to visit New York via hyperspace, and many other equally odd persons and subcultures.

At the center of de Bernières's trilogy is a magical exodus, an ascent from the plains and jungle into a mythical place called Cochadebajo de los Gatos, "city of cats beneath a lake" (emmanuel, 341). In Don Emmanuel , the village of Valledupar defeats the reprehensible Capitan Rodrigo Figueras after an epic battle fought in the shadow of Catch 22 (among other tactics, the townspeople hire a gonorrhea-infected whore to infect the troops). Fearing reprisals, the entire population migrates to the mountains. The villagers establish their utopian community amid Incan ruins with the help of fifty Spanish soldiers Aurelio the Indian magically defrosts from the avalanche that had buried them five centuries earlier. Cats, grown into huge black jaguars, serve as community familiars.

De Bernières doesn't pussyfoot around with his magical realism; he takes it straight. Magic is the country's most powerful force. Even the country's president succumbs to a virus that smacks both of Groucho Marx and Rabelais, as the opening lines of Señor Vivo demonstrate:

Ever since his young wife had given birth to a cat as an unexpected consequence of his experiments in sexual alchemy, and ever since his accidental invention of a novel explosive that confounded Newtonian physics by loosing its force at the precise distance of 6.56 feet from the source of its blast, President Veracruz had thought of himself not only as an adept by also as an intellectual. His speeches became peppered with obscure and recondite quotations from Paracelsus and Basil Valentine; he joined the Rosicrucians, considering himself to be a worthy successor to Doctor John Dee, Hermes Trismegistus, Sir Francis Bacon, Christian Rosencreuz, and Éliphas Levi. He gave up reading his wife's women's magazines, from which he had previously derived most of his opinions, and took up reading La Prensa . (11)

The people of Cachodebajo de los Gatos sanctify their city with a grand syncretic Candomblé ceremony linking their Hispanic heritage to their African origins. The military, drug lord, and clergy are all overcome by magical forces. Evil reigns where magic is not. "But it was also a superstitious country, a country where it was possible to believe every religion all at once, where devout Catholics could pray to Oaxala, practice santéria , and attend spiritualist séances with a clear conscience" (vivo, 68). Magic becomes the precondition for freedom.

De Bernières reinvigorates magical realism by taking each part of this apparent oxymoron literally, pushing it to its limits (The only other author in my experience to write about magic(k) with as much feeling and innate intelligence is John Crowley). When it comes to choosing between fantasy and fact, the author opts for the sensual pleasures of the former over the limiting nature of the latter. The world, he knows is all too much a part of his beautiful made-up country. As in Rio de Janeiro, The river that runs throught he capitol reeks of the decomposing bodies of homeless boys murdered by off-duty police and vigilantes. A man of the people, although he claims to have disembarrassed himself of the notion that "working-class people were the repository of all that is authentic and good", de Bernières still entertains the fantasy that generals, cardinals, and aristocrats can see the error of their ways when magic is afoot.