The previous two Argentine novels I had read this month were about middle class and rich people. But Combi is about the poor and marginalised, who travel by Combi ( minibus) from their residences in the outskirts of Buenos Aires city for more than one hour for their work in the city. This novel is about the fifteen passengers who travel in one of the Combis regularly to the city.
The novel starts with the driver Esteban whose father was also a Combi driver. His father runs away with the wife and money of the owner of the minibus company, uses the money to buy a hotel in a southern town, loses the money with poor management and dies in misery. Esteban´s happiest memories were travelling with his father, talking to him and singing together when they went to a beach town when he was a kid. Esteban is content with his job and his modest life with limited ambitions. His wife asks him to buy diapers for the baby but he forgets it and remembers only the ample breasts pushing against the tight blouse of the receptionist in the minibus company office.
- Carolina, the receptionist in the minibus company had earlier worked in an icecream shop and had a fling with a college student during his summer vacation. She struggles to tolerate her boss who smokes all the time and the irate passengers who take it out on her when the minibus is delayed or when they could not get a seat.
-America Levano, the Peruvian woman, comes to find livelihood in Buenos Aires after her husband ran away with another woman leaving her with his daughter. She lives with other Peruvians and Bolivians in a ghetto which is raided periodically by the Argentine police. She finds work as a domestic help and later an Argentine man to live with. Discovering one day that the Argentine was abusing her daughter, She kills him with a kitchen knife. After her jail term ends she resumes her work and travel by the Combi.
-Olga makes a career out of giving bath to sick and handicapped people. Her job is disgusting when she has to touch and clean the bodies of people with infections and skin diseases. But she has got used to it and the money she earns is good compensation. Her job exposes her to all kinds of people including one who wants her to wash a mannequin.
-Megumi, a woman of Japanese descent enjoys her volunteer job as a reader to sick and handicapped people. Once she is asked to read to a person in coma on the belief that the person in coma might be hearing what is read. By a miracle, the person in coma wakes up one day and remembers the stories read out to him by Megumi. When she reads out in an old peoples´home, the history professor there notices her small feet which make him recall the Chinese tradition of forcefully making women´s feet small and the erotic connotations of small feet in China.
-Bruno is an anthropologist who works as a forensic expert to identify the persons who were tortured, killed and buried by the military dictatorship. He along with other experts analyse the bones and other remains from cemetries and make out who they were and how they died. His technical job gets complicated when he works with the sad and desperate families of those who lost their fathers, brothers and sons to military repression.
- Josef Wrobleswki, of Polish origin, has a habit of telling everyone the story of his family from Poland. But while narrating the sadder parts of the story he starts speaking in Polish and sobbing uncontrollably.
-Ivo mayer is a porno film director after hhaving failed in his ventures to make political films to convey his leftist message. He gets exiled for his political beliefs and on return from exile, he is unable to relaunch his political film project and is stuck in porno films.
The remaining occupants of the fifteen seats in the Combi include a pock marked young woman struggling with the disfiguring of her face by constant eruptions and acnes, a woman who writes astrological columns in a weekly, a man who does magic and tricks and Nacho the orphan kid who is obsessed with cemetries where he spends most of his time. The precariousness of the lives of these characters and the life stories of others with whom they interact in their daily lives are poignant and moving.
On this particular day of the journey, everyone is upset and anxious because the Combi is delayed because of a roadblock by piqueteros ( picketers) on the way. The reason for blocking the road on this day is to commemorate the third anniversary of the death of two of their comrades who were killed in one of the protest marches. The minibus gets stuck in the middle of the protest demonstration. One of the passengers remark,¨we are fucked ( jodido- in spanish) by the dead besides the living Argentines¨. Especially since 2001 (December 2001 saw the worst economic and political crisis in Argentina) the piqueteros have become one of the protagonists of the Argentine society. Day in and day out there are many protest marches in the city of Buenos Aires and traffic is disrupted along with the work and lives of people. Sometimes the piqueteros block the main highways connecting the cities causing traffic jam for miles together. The reasons for such protests could be local or national causes, serious or trivial. But they have become a force to reckon with and part of everyday life in Argentina to the chagrin of middle class and working people. Roadblocks and protests have become instituitionalised. There are many professional piqueteros who have become experts in organisation and media management. They are used by political parties too.
This is the third book I have read in the original Spanish. The author Angela Pradelli has given a vivid account of the lives of poor people who work as domestic help and bus drivers. She has captured their emotions and struggles and made a powerful impact on the readers. The novel is based on her personal experience of travel in Combis and her interaction with all kinds of fellow passengers. Angela works as a teacher
Combi is not a fiction. It is a reality of Argentina. It exists along with the elegant theaters, cafes, bars and restaurants of Buenos Aires and the Country Clubs which have high walls to block the unpleasant reality of slums around them. But the people who live in high-rise apartments and high-walled country clubs cannot avoid the piqueteros and the reality of Argentina....