Laura Restrepo’s Delerium

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As many of you know, the Voyage Out is a regional book group. This means we pick groups of books, usually three to a group, and read them one after the other. Last meeting we chose a new region: Latin American Literature. We chose our first book: Roberto Bolano’s By Night in Chile. We will choose our next two books at this month’s meeting. Throughout the month, I will be highlighting possible choices.  If you want to highlight something, email me at thevoyageoutbookgroup@gmail.com or just write your thoughts in the comments section.

At this month’s meeting we will be discussing the third book in our Contemporary Female Novelists of England. The book is Jeanette Winterson’s Written on the Body. The meeting will be May 26th at 5pm. All are welcome!

Book Info:

Laura Restrepo

Delerium

Vintage International

336 pages

 

Author bio:

 

Laura Restrepo was born in Bogota, Colombia and is the bestselling author of several prizewinning novels published in over twenty languages, including Leopard in the Sun, which won the Arzobispo San Clemente Prize, and The Angel of Galilea, which won the Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz Prize in Mexico and the Prix France Culture in France. She was also awarded the 2004 Alfaguara Prize and the 2006 Grinzane Cavour Prize in Italy for Delirium. A recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, Restrepo lives in Mexico City.

 

About the Book:

 

Internationally acclaimed for the virtuosity and power of her fiction, Laura Restrepo has created in Delirium a passionate, lyrical, devastating tale of eros and insanity.

Aguilar, an unemployed literature professor who has resorted to selling dog food for a living, returns home from a short trip to discover that his wife, Agustina, has gone mad. He doesn’t know what has happened during his absence, and in his search for answers, he gradually unearths profound and shadowy secrets about her past.

On one level, Delirium reads like a detective story, as the reader pieces together information to discover the roots of Agustina’s madness. But it is also a remarkably nuanced novel whose currents run much deeper, delving into the minds of four characters: Aguilar, a husband passionately in love with his wife and determined to rescue her from insanity: Agustina, a beautiful woman from an upper-class Colombian family who is caught in the throes of madness; Midas, a drug-trafficker and money-launderer, who is Agustina’s former lover; and Nicolás, Agustina’s grandfather. Through the mixing of these distinct voices, Laura Restrepo creates a searing portrait of a society battered by war and corruption as well as an intimate look at the daily lives of people struggling to stay sane in an unstable country.

Delirium already has been awarded the 2004 Premio Alfaguara, the 2006 Grinzane Cavour Prize in Italy, and was shortlisted for the prestigious Prix du Meilleur Livre Etranger in France for best translated fiction. It is an ambitious and deeply affecting masterwork by one of Latin America’s most important contemporary voices.

Review that interested me:

Like many writers in Latin America who address political violence and corruption, the prize-winning Colombian novelist Laura Restrepo owes a great debt to detective fiction. The set-up of Delirium comes straight from the pages of a hard-boiled thriller: Aguilar returns home from a business trip to discover that his beautiful young wife, Agustina, has disappeared. A series of mysterious answering machine messages gives her whereabouts but when he finds her in a luxurious Bogota hotel she has gone completely mad.

Restrepo’s twist comes in the narration of the novel. She employs a series of voices that intertwine and overlap as Aguilar delves deeper into the domestic and political mysteries that lie at the root of Agustina’s collapse. Aguilar, a grizzled former academic turned dogfood salesman, takes on the gumshoe role, searching the battered city for clues. We hear the voices of Agustina, a fragile heiress with psychic tendencies, whose disturbing childhood memories offer an insight into the violence and falsehood of her early life; of her aunt Sofi, her father’s former lover, estranged from the family for years but now unexpectedly returned to care for her niece; and of Agustina’s grandfather, Nicolas, a piano maestro from Germany, whose own unhinged obsessions and sudden disappearance late in life foreshadow Agustina’s fate.

The clearest thread, and the most compelling narrative, comes from Midas McAllister, a money launderer, part-time pimp and business associate of drug lord Pablo Escobar. McAllister, a social climber from the humblest of backgrounds, is both a common cynic and an acute analyst of Colombia in the age of narco-capitalism. His strand of the story echoes Restrepo’s own work as an investigative journalist and representative on the Colombian ceasefire commissions of the Eighties, and provides a sharp portrait of the links between a centuries-old class system, international politics and drug-dealing. It is also a memorable depiction of the excess of the Eighties, now making a comeback in the lives of the super-rich. In particular, Midas reveals the convenient pantomime by which Colombia’s oligarchy feigns ignorance of its reliance on the money made by Escobar’s cartel.

Midas also offers the most astute assessment of the novel itself. Stories, he argues, are like a big cake; everyone keeps an eye on his own slice, but only the baker sees the whole thing. The baker, in this case, is both the reader, reconstructing Agustina’s fate from the distinct slices, and Restrepo. Elsewhere, it is the Latin American heirs of William Faulkner, such as Juan Carlos Onetti and Jose Donoso, and their tales of dark family secrets and barely hidden madness, that are most clearly present in this novel.

Natasha Wimmer’s accomplished American-English translation irons out some of the shifts in person and perspective, a shortcut that makes the novel easier to follow but underplays the ambiguity and uncertainty of some passages. Fundamentally, this is a novel about madness, and Restrepo’s achievement is to portray both the pathological and social aspects of delirium with her story and her style.

Restrepo leaves many questions unanswered, including that of Agustina’s eventual sanity. The novel ends on a hopeful but not necessarily happy note. If there is a cure, then it is as a form of group therapy that takes the shape of a communal search for the truth. Delirium is a compelling and unnerving novel that offers profound insights into the deep scars that violence leaves on the individual and society.

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