Sunday, November 4, 2018

Cora Siré's Behold Things Beautiful (#CanBookChallenge)

Alma Álvarez left Luscano in 1991; she had been rounded up with other 'subversives,' i.e., college students and intellectuals, and held in the notorious La Cuarenta prison; she was tortured there; she narrowly escaped becoming another one of Luscano's los desaparecidos. The junta in Luscano fell in 1995, but there's been no reckoning. It's now 2003, Alma is living in Montreal, teaching Spanish literature to undergraduates, and trying to forget. But her mother back home is dying, and her friend Flaco arranges for Alma to give a talk on her field of expertise at the university in Luscano. Alma's feelings about returning home are complex to say the least.

If you haven't heard of Luscano, don't worry, you're not meant to; Cora Siré made up the country, like Ruritania, Orsinia, or most particularly the Costaguana of Conrad's Nostromo. It's nestled in somewhere between Argentina, Uruguay, and Paraguay.

Like Nostromo, the novel blends the personal and the political in a small society; and, while it doesn't have the boys' own adventure quality of Nostromo, there is tension and danger. The psychological after-effects of torture feature in both novels. Flaco has more in mind that just giving Alma an opportunity to see her mother. Retribution and protest is in the air and Alma feels her life threatened, not unreasonably. There's also the possibility of romance; Alma (and others) have had their emotional life curtailed, damaged by the terrors of the junta in the early 90s. Can they trust again?

I thought it a very strong novel. It made me want to reread Conrad, and possibly Vassilikos' Z or Puig' Kiss of the Spider Woman, the better to place it in their company.

I did have an issue, though. It's clear that Siré is very interested in the poetry of Delmira Agustini. Agustini--I'd never heard of her--is a real Uruguayan poet, born in 1886 and dead in 1914, murdered (by her estranged husband) probably, though possibly as part of a dual suicide. The title, Behold Things Beautiful, comes from a poem of Agustini's:
Turn out the lights and behold things beautiful;
Close all doors and enter illusion;
Uproot from mystery a handful of stars
And cover with flowers, like a triumphal vase, your heart...
Agustini is Alma's field of expertise, the reason she returns to Luscano. As such, she's the McGuffin that sets the story in motion, and can't be disposed of entirely. But she occupies an indeterminate place in the novel. She's treated at too much length to be just a McGuffin, but Agustini's themes are insufficiently integrated into the novel as a whole to warrant the space given to her. I wanted either more or less, and I can't say which of those would have been correct: I just felt the way it was wasn't quite right.

But still. Agustini's an interesting enough find, and the novel as a whole is powerful.

The novel ends ambiguously, uncertainly, with the possibilities of both hope and new dangers. Correctly, I thought.

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