With January in Japan over for another year, it’s time to get back to business as normal. Of course, round these parts, that just means a slightly more varied diet of fiction in translation, so we’re straight off on another literary journey. Today’s book sees us visiting Colombia, where we’ll be taking part in an impressive celebration – albeit one with a tragic ending…
Evelio Rosero’s Feast of the Innocents (translated by Anne McLean and Anna Milsom, review copy courtesy of MacLehose Press) takes place over the course of about ten years at the turn of 1968. On the dawn of Innocents’ Day on the 28th of December, Doctor Justo Pastor Proceso López, a respected gynaecologist of the city of Pasto, stands staring at himself in the mirror. Or rather, not quite at himself – he’s actually dressed up in a full gorilla costume, ready to surprise the unwary on a day set aside for juvenile pranks.
In truth, however, the good doctor has very little to laugh about. His marriage to the beautiful Primavera Pinzón has descended into mutual loathing, and his lifelong ambition of writing a book uncovering the dark truth about the famous South American liberator Simón Bolívar seems fated to come to nothing. Little does he know, though, that he has far more important matters to worry about. The upcoming festive season will bring a time of release and enjoyment – but it will also end with his death…
This is the first time I’ve encountered Rosero’s writing, but he’s a well-known writer in English, as well as in Spanish, having won the 2009 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize with his novel The Armies. In The Feast of the Innocents, he’s certainly created a fascinating novel, one whose confused style, swinging from place to place and viewpoint to viewpoint, echoes the hedonistic happenings of the final days of the holiday season described. It’s definitely a very un-Anglo-Saxon event 😉
The book is set in the late sixties, and this is important because it was a time of revolution, and with Marxist students planning (largely imaginary) revolutions against strict regimes, Bolívar was a rather important icon. The doctor’s loathing of the Liberator, then, while based in fact, is bound to bring him into conflict with people for whom any word against Bolívar is blasphemy. Even the doctor’s closest friends, while sharing his views, attempt to dissuade him from his crazy plan to unmask the legend:
The bishop, who had barely spoken, joined in impatiently, as if he wanted to clear the matter up once and for all: “Sañudo pointed out conclusively that Bolívar was made into a myth, such that the common conception of him bears no relation to reality. But so what, Justo Pastor? The people need their hero – what reason is there to topple Bolívar now?”
p.98 (MacLehose Press, 2015)
It’s a fair point, but not one the doctor is likely to listen to – he’s gone much too far to pull out now.
But if his book is unlikely to ever see the light of day, just what is it that the doctor is planning to do? Well, it all has to do with the parade that takes place through the town each year on the last day of the festival. After discovering a giant float constructed by a local artisan, Justo Pastor decides to adapt it for his own purposes, with a giant Bolívar (pulled along by the virgins he frequently deflowered) atop a float adorned with scenes of his ‘crimes’. It’s little wonder that the local Marxists want his head…
The more the book progresses, though, the more the reader senses that this all has less to do with the doctor’s sense of history than with the lack of focus in his own life:
“…he and his wife had nothing to do with one another, either in bed or out of it, on earth or in heaven: the most excruciating boredom, heavy with hatred, had hovered over them for ages.” (p.12)
True, the doctor has plenty of other women to keep him company (and his wife isn’t afraid of seeking comfort elsewhere either), but it’s his failing marriage to the young beauty which is the impetus behind his political intrigues.
Strangely enough, once he throws himself into the Bolívar project, the energy he exudes attracts his wife’s attention, and very soon the old sexual chemistry begins to come back. On several occasions, the doctor curses his enigmatic wife:
“Primavera Pinzón, who would not one day wish to become your murderer?” (p.62)
However, there’s a fine line between loathing and desire, and the unhappy couple tap-dance on it right up until the finale.
If it all sounds a little bizarre and unsettling, it can be at times. The Feast of the Innocents is a novel which requires a slight leap of faith, asking its Anglophone readers to leave some of their traditions at the doorstep. The historical side is an obvious issue, but Rosero actually solves this one nicely by having the doctor relate two eye witness accounts, anecdotes about the atrocities committed by Bolívar and his men. While a little background reading would be helpful, with a little patience, the average reader will come through none the worse for wear.
More disturbing for many readers might be the rather twisted relationship between the doctor and his wife. Primavera certainly gives just as good as she gets in terms of sexual gratification, but The Feast of the Innocents, as is the case with many South American books I’ve read, takes place in a man’s world, and there are some scenes which show the doctor in a rather unflattering light. It’s all done for a purpose – just be aware that not everyone will appreciate the way in which Rosero has his ‘hero’ behave…
Still, it’s an absorbing read, a chaotic ramble through a time of drink, sex, giant statues and people roaming the streets in animal costumes, all told in an entertaining (at times, crude) style. Like the central character of Gabriel García Márquez’s Chronicle of a Death Foretold, another Colombian tale of small-town violence and honour, the doctor is doomed from the very start of the novel. Unlike that poor soul, Justo Pastor goes on to make the most of his remaining days, enjoying his final fiesta immensely. The Feast of the Innocents is always destined to finish off with a bang…
…I’m still not sure about the gorilla suit, though…