Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Wild Tales (relatos selvajes) - Argentine movie

The Argentine movie "wild tales" (Relatos Selvajes), which I saw last week, was a new and different experience from all the other Latin American films I have seen. It has had the most powerful impact on me with its vivid portrayal of human character. The film has six different and unrelated stories but have a common theme of people going out of control with violence and vengeance. Some people contain their emotions at the frustrations faced in the daily life situations but others especially the Argentines tend to explode and go berserk. This movie is about such Argentine characters and their 'pleasures of losing control' in a funny and scary manner.

The six stories of the film are: "Pasternak", "Las Ratas" ("The Rats"), "El más fuerte" ("The Strongest"), "La Bombita" ("Little Bomb"), "La Propuesta" ("The Proposal") and "Hasta que la muerte nos separe" ("Till Death Do Us Part"). While the characters and themes of each story is fascinating and memorable, the ones I enjoyed the most are the following:

-The cook in the "Rats" story, who explains coolly, logically and clinically her suggestion to kill with rat poison the loan shark client in the restaurant. 
-The explosives expert (Ricardo Darin) in La Bombita, who explodes in anger at the traffic fine collectors and bombs their office. Ricardo Darin, my favorite Argentine actor, is a master in portraying the typical Argentine character.

-The unscrupulous lawyer in the story "La propuesta" who negotiates the deal to save the boy whose drunken driving kills a pregnant woman and her baby. 
- Romina, the bride who goes berserk during the wedding celebration when she finds out about the affair between her husband and his coworker. 

The film, released in 2014, has been directed by Damian Szifron, the director who wrote twelve short stories of which he has included six in the film. I hope he will make another film with the other six stories. In an interview to New York Times, Damian said,  “Society is full of people who repress themselves, and thereby become depressed. We fantasize about what we could have done, what we should have said, and we argue to ourselves with an imaginary enemy who is no longer there. But some people explode. This is a movie about those who explode, and we can all understand why they explode.” Some of his stories have been based on his own experience ( his car was towed away many times for parking in places not clearly marked as No Parking area) and those of his friends.

The Spanish film director Pedro Almodóvar, known for his off-beat films, is a coproducer of this film. The themes and characters in the film are natural fits to Almovadar's own signature style.

The music, composed by the Argentine music director Gustavo Santaolalla, enhances the sensation of following the roller coaster ride of the stories and the suspense of building up of the momentum before the ride.  Gustavo (who has won two Oscars) has composed music for Aamir Khan's film" Dhobi Ghatbesides Hollywood hits such as ' Brokeback mountain' and 'Babel'.

The film brought back memories of my experience of living in Buenos Aires for over four years. What I like specially about my Argentine friends is their character to be perfectly natural and spontaneous without trying to hide or block their emotions. The Argentine character is unique and distinct from that of other Latinos. They are far more intense and loud in complaining, criticizing, and analyzing everything. While articulating their feelings, the Argentines are satiric, cynical and  inventive with sophisticated black humour. There are many jokes about the famous 'Argentine ego' in Latin America. The Argentines themselves admit it with a sense of humor and even Pope Francis has joked about it. They are the Champions in swearing with the richest and most colorful vocabulary. I had seen so much of it during golf games in Argentina. They cannot complete a sentence without cursing  'Boludo'. (asshole) and 'Pelotudo'(stupid). I have, in my collection, a book titled " El Pelotudo Argentino – manual para identification e uso" ( Stupid Argentine- manual for identification and use). 

This book contains hilarious classifications and descriptions of pelotudos Argentinos, such as pelotudos Portenos (residents of Buenos Aires city) and provincial kind, bureaucratic, romantic and Peronist types and New Age pelotudos wearing traditional Hindu dress sitting in yoga position pretending to be like Gurus. There is a mirror in the front cover of the book to help the reader to be introduced to the pelotudo !!!The Argentine film " me case con Boludo" ( I have married an asshole) portrays a typical Argentine with a huge ego who admits at the end, " yo no soy un persona..soy un personaje" ( I am not a person..I am a charater). It is, therefore, no surprise that Buenos Aires has one of the highest number of psychiatrics per capita in the world.

The Argentines complicate even the simplest things by too much complex and critical analysis. Once when I explained how India is a complicated country due to people speaking different languages and unable to understand each other, an Argentine commented, " In Argentina we speak only one language but we still don't understand each other. In India you know at least the reason for not understanding each other but here we don't know why. That’s why Argentina is more complicated than India". For Argentines, every little thing is like the Aleph ( a point in space that contains all other points and reveals everything in the universe from every angle simultaneously) in the famous story of Borges. 

I have seen a number of Latin American films. I would dare to say that the Argentines are the best film makers in the region. They are more profound than their Mexican, Brazilian and Colombian counterparts. The Argentine movies are thought provoking besides offering entertainment.  The Indians will have a taste of this in the forthcoming Argentine film " Thinking of him", directed and produced by Pablo Cesar with the story of the romance between Tagore and Victoria Ocampo, an Argentine literary socialite. 

Tuesday, November 08, 2016

Narcos - a serial deception in the name of the War on Drugs

I have watched the twenty episodes of the Netflix serial " Narcos " and enjoyed it thoroughly. I found it absorbing and hmm.. addictive too. The story of Pablo Escobar is colorful and has all the ingredients for entertainment. I liked the dialogues in Colombian Spanish, the best in Latin America. 

The story of Escobar is part of the larger story involving the politics of Colombia; the social divide between the oligarchic ruling establishment in Bogota and the poor people in the interior; the leftist guerrilla wars; corruption and violence in the Colombian society; the interference in the internal affairs of Colombia by US in the name of the war on drugs and the war on communism; and the US military-industry-intelligence complex which plunged into Colombia, looking for a new playing field after the end of the 'cold war'. 

Interestingly, there are some Brazilian elements in this Colombian serial. Brazilian actor Wagnor Mora has done justice to Escobar's character by his superb acting. He had learnt Spanish specially for acting in the serial. Jose Padilha, the Brazilian who was famous for his film 'Elite Squad" directed the Narcos serial in the beginning. The title song of the serial is composed and sung by Rodrigo Amarante, another Brazilian.

Narcos is based on the real life story of Pablo Escobar, the Medellin drug king and the hunt for him by Colombian and American forces.  Escobar, who starts life as a small time smuggler of cigarettes and electronics, discovers the Big Business of cocaine supply to US and goes up in the value chain. With the power of money, he starts buying, fighting and bullying politicians, media,security forces and rivals with his 'plata o plomo' (money or bullets) approach. The Colombian politicians did not care much initially about the drug business which they considered  an easy way for some enterprising Colombians to make quick dollars from the decadent Yankee drug addicts. But the Colombian government is forced by the heavy hand of American administration to act against drug production and trafficking. Caught between the Devils of the Empires of Consumption and Supply, the Colombian administration and security forces get into enforcement reluctantly. Escobar retaliates with bombings, assassinations and kidnappings. When the public opinion and government pressure become overwhelming, Escobar makes an incredible deal with the government under which he self-imprisons himself in his custom made jail cum resort 'La catedral'. Unable to tolerate his continuation of business of drugs and killings from the jail, the government sends special forces to transfer him to another jail. But Escobar escapes and is on the run. Realizing that the security forces are not a match to Escobar, the American and the Colombian security agencies conspire and create Los Pepes, a right wing militia which kills Escobar's associates and destroys his businesses one after another, in collusion with the rival Cali cartel. Escobar tries to send his family abroad to a safe place but the government stops it and makes his family a hostage. Escobar's phone conversations with his captive family provides the opportunity for the security forces to trace his calls and kill him.

After watching Narcos, I read the book " Killing Pablo- the true story behind the hit series Narcos" written by Mark Bowden.  The author has interviewed  the main American and Colombian officials and political leaders involved in the hunt for Escobar and has had access to a number of US documents. He has given a detailed account of the 'turf war' between the US spying and enforcement agencies who compete with each other for one upmanship, resources and credit.

According to Bowden, Escobar became an ideal trophy target for the CIA, NSA, FBI, Army, Navy, Airforce, Marines, and special forces, who were looking for a new role in the world after the end of the cold war. They  jumped joyfully into the 'war on drugs' with their spy equipments, budget and Rambo confidence. At one time there were about 17 spy planes flying over Medellin to track Escobar and they had to assign an AWACS (airborne warning and control centre), to keep track of the planes.  

While I enjoyed watching the serial and reading the book, I ended up feeling sad and angry, like my Colombian and Latin American friends. The Narcos story has been narrated narrowly from an American point of view distorting the facts with false and misleading propaganda.  Colombians are portrayed as the bad guys while the DEA agents come out as 'good guys'. But the truth is that the real villains are the American consumers of drugs. Colombia had to bear the extreme pain and shed blood for the sake of those Americans who enjoy the pleasure of illegal drugs. The drug business is basically demand-driven and consumer-driven from US. The drugs are continuing to be consumed even now by Hollywood actors, politicians and pop stars besides the students and other sections of the American society. So long as this continues and the US consumers are willing to pay top dollars, there will always be suppliers. Even President Nixon, who declared the war on drugs, admitted in his June 1971 address to the Congress, “as long as there is a demand, there will be those willing to take the risks of meeting the demand.”  In this statement, he publicly proclaimed that all efforts of interdiction and eradication are destined to fail. But the Narcos serial as well as the American media and administration have succeeded in demonizing Pablo Escobar as 'the most powerful criminal in history' and giving a bad name to Colombia while covering up the real consumer culprits in US and and misleading and distorting the global discourse on drugs. The killing of Escobar has not stopped or reduced drug consumption in US. The Cali cartel took over where it was left by the Medellin gangs and is now run by Mexican cartels. 

The US market for illegal drugs was over 100 billion dollars in 2012 , according to a Rand Corporation report (file://localhost/Users/rengaraj-viswanathan/Documents/RAND_RB9770.pdf)  which included 40 billion dollars of Marijuana, 28 billion of Cocaine, 27 billion of Heroine and 13 bn of Meth. According to a 2012 study by the Organisation of American States ( http://www.cicad.oas.org/drogas/elinforme/informeDrogas2013/laEconomicaNarcotrafico_ENG.pdf ) the Andean cocoa leaf producers get only 1% of the retail value of cocaine in US, while the traffickers get 20-25% and the remaining stays within the US retail businessSo, the illegal drugs are just a business in which the US "Customer is the King". The Colombians and Mexicans simply serve the King and receive just the crumb. 

The business of 'war on drugs' is also equally huge. It is said that US spends around 50 billion dollars a year. DEA has its own fleet of planes, boats and secret cash. No wonder that the DEA chief is called as the Drug Czar. The corporations, contractors and equipment suppliers to DEA want the continuation of this profitable war and successfully lobby the Congress and administration for its perpetuation.

In the name of the 'war on drugs', the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) and other intelligence agencies of the US have infiltrated the security forces of many countries of Latin America. The US forces these countries to militarize their anti drug operations as a priority and devote more of their resources to the drug war at the expense of all other law and order issues. Through such interference the US creates and cultivates future military dictators. The classic case was Manuel Noriega who became the Panamanian president. CIA had used him for their covert operations and helped him with drug trafficking and money laundering.  But when he became too hot to handle, the US invaded Panama and took him away as prisoner.  There is evidence that CIA itself had got into the drug business to generate money to aid the 'contras' against the Sandinistas of Nicaragua. This has been brought out in the Hollywood fim "Kill the messenger", based on the true story of an American journalist who uncovered the scam.

The US had tried very hard to prevent the election of Evo Morales as President of Bolivia by branding him as a coca-leaf producer. US has airsprayed harmful chemicals in Colombia, Peru, Ecuador and Bolivia to destroy coca fields, damaging agricultural land and the ecosystem. The US needs to respect the Andean tradition of using coca leaves for religious, food and medicinal purposes and separate the sacred leaf issue from the profane cocaine snorting in US for recreation.

Drug trafficking is not just one way business. Drug goes into US for which the American dollars and illegal guns are smuggled to Latin America. This reverse trafficking is even more dangerous than the drug flow  since guns kill instantly and takes many victims at one go unlike the drugs which kill only the consumer and that too slowly . According to a US report (The Way of the Gun: Estimating Firearms Traffic Across the U.S.-Mexico Border.” study by University of San Diego’s Trans-Border Institute http://catcher.sandiego.edu/items/peacestudies/way_of_the_gun.pdf )over 200,000 guns are smuggled from US to Mexico every year. On average, there are more than three US gun dealers for every mile of the 1,970-mile border between the countries. Mexico has just one gun shop for the whole country while there are 51300 retail gun sellers in US. A significant proportion of the US gun sellers depend on the illegal demand from Mexico. It has been reported that over three fourth of the guns used in the fights between the gangs in El Salvador are of US origin. Thousands of people die in Mexico, Central America and Colombia from the illegal guns smuggled from US, the largest manufacturer and supplier of fire arms in the world. If we use the American logic that eradication of production is the solution for drug problem, isn't it logical to extend this argument and say that the gun production in US needs to be eradicated to prevent the killings in Mexico and Central America? Probably more people in Latin America have been killed with American guns than the number of Americans killed by Latin American drugs.

According to a 2010 Homeland Security study ( https://www.dhs.gov/xlibrary/assets/cne-criminalproceedsstudy.pdf), between $19 billion and $29 billion dollars of cash had been smuggled from the United States to drug trafficking organizations and other organized criminal groups in Mexico each year. Western Banks like HSBC have been caught for drug money laundering in Mexico. But HSBC got away with payment of simple fine to US justice Department. 

Many even in the US admit the failure of the American drug war. Clearly, illegal drug consumption is a social problem within the US which needs domestic solutions such as legalization. The drug wars in Latin America is just a ploy to blame others and mislead the world  to cover up a purely domestic problem. US could learn from Uruguay which has shown the way to legalize production, distribution and consumption of marijuana. The US states of Washington and Colorado have already taken the lead to liberalize sale and consumption in a limited way. Many Latin American presidents have called for drug legalization but the US would not let them.  

Like the Netflix serials, the military-industrial-intelligence complex of US has been inventing its own versions of real life serial wars for profit as well as to destabilize and interfere in the affairs of Latin American countries. They started off with the "war on communism"during which they overthrew many democracies and propped up military dictatorships. Then they moved on to "War on Drugs" and messed up Colombia. The US sent hundreds of agents, soldiers and contractors to Colombia with diplomatic passports and made the embassy in Bogota as the largest in the world. The Americans were interfering freely in the Colombian police, armed forces, judiciary, Congress and administration ordering them what to do and what not to do.  They corrupted the Colombians with 'visa and asylum for collusion and collaboration'. The Americans are now vitiating Mexico and Central America with the same drug wars. The third serial was the "War on Terrorism" since 9/11. But this did not find much traction in the region, although 'terrorists' were invented before the Rio Olympics and spotted earlier in Paragauay and Mexico in the same way as nuclear weapons were 'found' in Iraq. Fortunately Latin America did not suffer in the terrorism war since the neocons have had their hands full in the Middle East. 

The fourth and the latest serial is the "war on corruption". The US intelligence has spied on Petrobras, the Brazilian firm which is now at the centre of the ongoing corruption investigation in Brazil as well as President Dilma Rouseff, among others, as revealed by the papers leaked by Snowden. The Brazilians suspect that the US had passed on information against selected targets to a Brazilian judge who had been to Harvard and participated in exchange programmes with US agencies. The judge, according to some Brazilians, started a selective crusade against the Workers Party, President Dilma and ex-President Lula who had stood against the hemispheric hegemony of US and successfully killed the US initiative to sign a Free Trade Area of the Americas. Outraged by the US espionage, President Dilma cancelled her state visit to Washington DC in 2013. President Lula had directly challenged US by his audacious rescue of President Chavez when he was briefly overthrown in a coup in 2002 and his attempt (unsuccessful) to undo the US-supported coup in Honduras in 2009. So the US wants to teach a lesson to Lula. The corruption war has already yielded commercial dividends to US. The unelected right wing Brazilian President Michel Temer has put an end to the "Resource Nationalism policy" by cutting down the monopoly of Petrobras in the pre-salt oil production and breaking the company into pieces which are being picked up by US corporations at rock bottom prices. 

Another Latin American victim of the 'war on corruption' is the Guatemalan President Otto Perez Molina, who seemed to have got on the wrong side of the Big Brother, like Noriega. The Latin Americans believe that the leakage of Panama Papers with information on selected targets and the aggressive investigation into Latin American FIFA officials  are also part of the destabilization of the region in the name of the 'war on corruption'. It is no surprise to find from recent US media reports that many Venezuelans have been named as corrupt or alleged to be involved in narco trafficking. This is just preparation for the 'regime change' in Venezuela. The war on corruption could claim more Latin American leaders who dare to disobey the Washington Consensus. 

While I am looking forward to see more episodes of 'Narcos' in the forthcoming third and fourth seasons, the Latin Americans fear that the Warlords of Washington DC might also be planning their own next real war serials in the name of something or other. 

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Malayali adventures in the land of Marquez and Maradona

"Latin America is my favorite destination for travel", says Dr Natarajan Pillai, the ENT surgeon from Kochi, who has made six trips to the region. He 'feels at home' there and describes his experience as 'adventures'. I saw  a lustrous Latino shine in his eyes and an enigmatic Ipanema smile whenever the word Latin America came up during my encounter with him in his Kochi home in January this year. He is yet another proof of my saying, " Indian visitors to Latin America come back happier and younger.."

Dr Pillai has been to Brazil, Argentina, Chile, Paraguay, Uruguay, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, Mexico, Costa Rica and Nicaragua. He has spent a total of around 130 days in the region. He has plans to visit the remaining eight Latin Americans in the future, to match my record..!

He has written three books in Malayalam on his Latin American journeys: 

1. Dakshinaayana Kaalam ( Southward Bound ') - about his trip to Sao Paulo and Santos in Brazil. Published in December 2010.

2 Samkrama sooryante Nizhal (The shadow of Transiting Sun), March 2012. It covers Rio and Foz de Iguazu in Brazil besides Ciudad del Este and a Guarani village in Paraguay

3.Ven Samkholikalude Pranaya Theeram ( echoes from the white conch in the shore of love) -  about his journey through Chile and his 'love affair with poems of Pablo Neruda and Hispanic literature'. Published in July 2014, this book got him the ' KV Surendranath ' Award of C.Achutha Menon Foundation for the Best Travelogue published in Malayalam in the last five years.

He has written another book  'Mekkongile Malsyam' ( Mekong Fish)- March 2008, on his experience in Laos. He has a passion for travel and has visited 57 countries. He takes off every six months or  year since 1984 on travel to different destinations in India and and the world. Once he spent nine months traveling in northern India, staying in temples, ashrams and monasteries. Dr Pillai's next book, 'Shadow of Winter Solstice', about his Antarctica trip is coming out soon  in English. He writes a regular column for Mathrubhumi Yathra Travel Magazine. The June 2016 issue carries his article on La Paz , the Capital of Bolivia.

I had requested Ambassador Sajeev Babu ( speaks Malayalam and is posted in Guatemala at present) to review the three books on Latin America. Here is what he wrote: 
"There are three aspects in Dr. Natrajan’s travel writing. First, there is well researched background information; from history, geography and anthropology to contemporary economics, politics, education, arts, sports, cuisine and culture of the places.  Second, there are his observations and comments on what he witnesses during the journey. The reader is taken as his fellow traveller, accompanying him to the cities, monuments and museums; enjoying art,music and sports, tasting the typical food and drinks and living the experience. Here too, details do not escape the eyes of Dr. Natarajan; be it the presentation of the Carnival in Rio or just the preparation of a local drink in a bar. Third, he gives us yet another dimension of the adventure through his informative conversations with people whom he meets. They include Guaresi of Sao Paulo and Alfonos in Chile with whom the author gets to spend considerable time. Then there are others with whom he enjoys brief interactions, like Amelio, the hotel boy in Sao Paulo, Eloy the moto taxi driver and Abdullah Khuri, the Lebanese settler in Ciudad del Este, Pauline from Belgium in Paraguay and Matias and Leonor in Santiago. The simplicity he adopts in his travel also reflects in his narration. His passages through history and description of art and interpretation of literature are more like story telling. He has used easy-to-read language for the ordinary Malayalees to understand and appreciate. He has sprinkled humor here and there to make the reading more interesting such his description of the Café de las Piernas ( coffee with legs !!) in Chile. He has made an effort to expose the reader to the Spanish and Portuguese languages by including some words and sentences in them". 
Dr. Pillai is a backpacker, uses public transport and stays in budget hotels when he is not able to find local people to stay with. This approach has given him opportunities to get a real feel of the daily life of the common people and interact with them.  He says, "People are the greatest sights and all else is secondary"He does not plan and prepare everything in advance. Sometimes he lets his legs wander without a pre-planned programme. 

Latin America, in many ways, is close to Malayalee heart. Malayalees, along with Bengalis are the most knowledgeable and interested in Latin America especially in literature, Leftist politics and football. 

Latin American authors are familiar to Keralite readers thanks to prolific translations. Gabriel Garcia Marquez is a household name and his books have been in the best-seller lists in the state and had fifteen editions. When Gabo was diagnosed with cancer, about 200 people in Kozhikode had held a prayer meeting.  When Marquez died,  the Keralite media paid homage saying," Marquez leaves an indelible mark in Malayalee hearts". Some even claim that "Magical Realism was invented by O V Vijayan in ‘Khasakkinte Itihasam’, much before Garcia Marquez had published a word". Khasak in Vijyan's novel is similar to the mythical place Maconde in Marquez's works. Dr Pillai had started reading Latino literature since his college days.

Posters of Fidel Castro, Che Guavara and Chavez are the sacred trinities adorning the Marxist party conferences even now in the interior of Kerala. The adoration is so much that the Trivandrum audience in my lecture last year were not amused when I described the destruction of Venezuela by Chavistas. Dr Pillai was himself a leftist in his youth.

The Maradona-Pele rivalry plays out and flags of Brazil and Argentina go up in rooftops across Kerala during World Cups. Maradona had visited Kerala in 2012 at the invitation of Bobby Chemmanur Group of Kannur which has made him as their brand ambassador. The Chemmanur Jewellery released a gold coin with Maradona’s picture on one side and his signature on the other.The suite no. 399 of Hotel Blue Nile in Kannur, where Mardaona had stayed, has become so famous that the management has converted it into a museum.  

There is a spice connection too. The Keralite cardamom growers make long distance calls to Ambassador Babu asking him to report on the Guatemalan production which determines the global prices. Guatemala has become the largest exporter of cardamom in the world, overtaking India in the last three decades. The variety grown in Guatemala was originally taken from the Malabar coast.

Despite the political, literary and sporting inspirations, Malayalees have not ventured out to the region except for about a hundred catholic priests who connect the Latin Americans to Jesus in fluent Portuguese and Spanish across the region. There are a few professionals married to Latinas and settled there. The most prominent is Mathew Kodath, who has become a leading producer of Honduran films. He has married a Honduran and settled there. I liked his film "Amor y frijoles"( love and beans).
Dr Pillai's books, the first-ever comprehensive travelogues on contemporary Latin America in Malayalam language, have become popular.  Latin America can expect more Mallu travelers to come greeting 'Hola' and 'Ola'.

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

The Japanese Lover

The latest novel of  Isabel Allende, "the Japanese lover" is a different kind of romantic love story. It is not her usual recipe of Latino love and magical realism. She has brought together a free-spirited Californian girl with a disciplined and traditional Japanese man. 

Alma Belasco, from a rich San Francisco family, falls in love with Ichimei Fakuda, son of the Japanese gardener working in the mansion of her grand father. But it was a wrong time. It was after the Japanese declaration of war against the US during the Second World War. The Americans round up the Japanese in the country including the family of Ichimei and detain them in internment camps. Having been separated without any communication, the two get on with their own separate lives. After the release from the camp, Ichimei gets married to a woman from Japan. Alma also gets married and ends up in the old-age home Lark House as a grand mother. 

There is the second love story of Irina, the employee in Lark House, with Seth the grand son of Alma. Irina takes to the challenging old age home job enthusiastically to escape from her traumatic past of an abused victim. To supplement her modest salary, she does part time work of washing and grooming dogs and becomes the secretary to Alma. Irina and Seth are intrigued by the weekly delivery of flowers and letters received by Alma at the old-age home and her frequent disappearances. They investigate and discover the secret romantic story of Alma. 

Allende has given a fascinating account of life in retirement homes and the way old people deal with memories, loneliness, pain and diseases while waiting for death to come. The Lark House residents have lots of stories and affairs. There is Jacques Devine, the in-house Casanova who continues his old habit of flirtation and enjoys being the heartthrob for the old ladies. He had fallen in love sixty seven times. During his earlier days as businessman in Venezuela and Puerto Rico, he had learnt the Latino art of 'appreciating women from the rear'. He falls in platonic love with the young Irina too and bequeathes his property to her.

Allende has contrasted the colorful Californian culture with the sober and sensitive Japanese value system. She has given a glimpse of Japanese culture and character. The book reminded me of the Brazilians of Japanese origin ( there are about a million of them living mostly in Sao Paulo state) who dance samba crazily and at the same time bow respectfully before the elders. It is a remarkable blend of Brazilian ecstatic exuberance and Japanese subdued sobriety.The Japanese golf club in Arauja, Sao Paulo reverberates with raunchy jokes and loud laughter, unimaginable in any club in Japan. 

After having read many of Allende's novels, I enjoyed reading this one too, even when my favorite Latino flavor was missing. It was a different dish.. not a spicy Bahian Moqueca but a tasty Californian sushi roll.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

The Great Novel of Central America

" Divine Punishment is on the way". This was the message received in my mobile phone the other day. I did not open it, thinking that it could be a spam from one of the evangelical preachers. Later in the evening, there was another message saying that Divine Punishment has already been delivered at my residence. Alarmed, I opened it quickly to find  that Divine Punishment was actually the name of the book I had ordered from Amazon, two weeks earlier. 

It was Carlos Fuentes, the Mexican writer who had described the book ' Divine Punishment' written by Sergio Ramirez as the great novel of Central America. Having read many books of Carlos Fuentes and developed an admiration for him, I ordered 'Divine Punishment' immediately.  The novel is set in Leon, the second largest city of Nicaragua but covers Guatemala and Costa Rica too, giving a feel of Central America to the readers.  The protagonist Oliverio Castaneda is a Guatemalan living in Nicaragua. Another character in the novel Dona Flora, wife of the Nicaraguan Don Contreras is from Costa Rica. The ladies of Leon, jealous of Flora's sophistication and progressive and liberal lifestyle, calls he disparagingly as 'that Costa Rican woman'. Even now, Costa Rica is the envy of the other Central Americans for its political maturity, economic prosperity and social stability.

Having known about Ramirez as a Sandinista leader, I expected the book to be about revolution, Marxism, Contra War and other such issues of Nicaragua and Central America. Ramirez, who was part of the Sandinista Revolution, later got disenchanted and turned into an opponent of Daniel Ortega. He had written Divine Punishment in the period 1985-87, when he was Vice President under President Ortega and when the government was in the middle of a deadly war with the Contras supported by US . With this background, Ramirez is in the best position to write about the story of the country. But Ramirez had consciously decided against writing on a contemporary theme, with this candid explanation,' Since I myself was part of the revolution, I would have run the risk of taking sides and turning the narrative into a discourse tainted by ideological convictions and political propaganda. From a position of power, it is impossible to place oneself above events, as a novelist should always do"

 A newly-married Guatemalan Oliverio Castenada arrives with his wife at Leon for legal studies and takes up residence in a hotel. He is soon invited to shift to the residence of  Don Contreras, a businessman living opposite to the hotel. The two daughters of Contreras as well as his wife ( more beautiful than the two daughters put together) fall in love with Castenada, who also gets involved in the business of Contreras. The sudden and untimely death of Castenada's wife is followed soon by the death of the elder daughter of Contreras  and the businessman himself. While the doctors have certified these deaths as due to backwater fever, there is suspicion that Castenada is the one who murdered all the three by poisoning. The rumour starts at the 'accursed' table in a bar where a group of friends meet regularly to exchange gossip. The group includes a doctor, who starts the rumor about poisoning and a journalist who writes about it as well as about the affairs of the Contreras ladies with the accused. The scandal shocks the society and the church of Leon. Much of the story is in the form of newspaper stories, courtroom trials and letters exchanged between the characters. The innocent and pure romance of the daughters of Contreras  is juxtaposed with the cruel manipulation of their emotions by Castaneda for his criminal motives. The story goes like an Agatha Christie detective novel with mystery and suspense till the very end, but with an authentic Central American feel.  Once I started, I could not stop till I finished the 500 plus pages book. 

The novel is based on a real life story of murders which took place in the 1930s in Nicaragua during the time of the Somoza, the military strongman who was controlling the government, before becoming a full fledged dictator. Ramirez had done thorough research of the case before fictionalizing what had happened and letting his imagination run. 

The author gives an insight into the political and social situation of Nicaragua and Central America in the first part of the last century. The US, which had invaded and occupied Nicaragua from 1912 to 1933 had just left, paving the way for the military dictatorship of Somoza. The National Guards trained by the US had started calling the shots, running roughshod over the judiciary and democratic institutions. Ramirez has used many colors and shades to paint the complex personality of the protagonist Castaneda who is a Casanova-like charmer who seduces women with a vast repertoire of jokes, wit and playfulness. At the same time, he is a sociopath who executes his criminal intentions with evil machinations, cruel pranks and ruthless manipulations. The readers are amazed by the ingenious way in which Castaneda plans the poisoning and influences the doctors as well as family and friends making them believe that the deaths were caused by blackwater fever. Ramirez has given vivid, colorful and humorous descriptions of the characters of journalists, doctors, businessmen, domestic servants, clergy and police. The way Ramirez portrays the people in his book reminds me of such memorable and lively characters I found in the novels of the Brazilian writer Jorge Amado. 

The story is enriched by the poetic characters of Judge Fiallos and court clerk Vanegas. The judge is a narrator of homely tales with love for the homeland of scorched Pacific plains and of volcanos whose ancient haughty peaks interrupt the landscape, "raw with age and solemn with myth" as Ruben Dario says. Dario is the famous Nicaraguan writer, born in Leon. Salman Rushdie, in his book ¨The jaguar smile", quotes a saying that there are poets and writers in every street of Nicaragua and that everybody is considered to be a poet until proved to the contrary. Daniel Ortega, the President is a poet and his wife Rosario Murillo is also a writer.  More on this in my blogpost 

Ramirez is the second Central American writer, I have read after Miguel Angel Asturias of Guatemala who won Nobel prize for his book " The President". I am looking forward to read Ramirez's book " Adios Muchachos: a memoir the Sandinista revolution" which has already arrived in my iPad Kindle.