Friday, November 22, 2013

Book Review of Juan Alfredo Pinto's novel "Atalaya XXI – when Nature Hits back "

"Atalaya XXI – when Nature Hits back" is the novel of Juan Alfredo Pinto Saavedra, Colombia's ambassador to India for six years till mid- November 2013. The book was launched on 23 October 2013 in New Delhi. The book belongs to the new genre " environmental thriller". There is, of course, "magical realism" in the book, in the style of Gabriel Garcia Marquez and other writers of this genre from Colombia. Amb Pinto wrote the book originally in Spanish with the title " cuna marina" which has been translated by Alka Jaspal of India.

The story is about the rescue of nine environmental experts trapped in the debris of the collapsed convention and commercial centre called as Atalaya XXI in Lima, Peru. The experts were participating in a conference on " climate change and coastal cities". The building collapses due to the climate change factors and particularly "marine wedge" caused by the incessant crashing of waves on the coast in which the building is located.  The survivors are rescued through a lateral tunnel made from the sea side. The whole operation is shown on live TV and thereafter the survivors are interviewed on the core environment issues as well on their personal experience and feelings while buried under the debris for ten days. 

The experts include an Indian philologist Dilip Vandrewalh from JNU (Jawaharlal Nehru University) Delhi, an Argentine environmental activist, a Gringo (American ) specialist in carbon bonds, green economy and financing of projects, a Peruvian mining engineer, a microfinance expert (of British and Costa Rican origin) from a multilateral organisation, a Colombian environmental consultant, a Vietnamese woman from the Communist party cadre and a Spanish professor. They are found to be alive sixteen meters under the ground four days after the collapse and rescued after ten days . During the time of their entrapment and trauma they interact with each other on their personal affairs and environmental issues and cheer and support each other physically and emotionally. 

Part two of the novel is the love story of Hipolito a Honduran, born of a Boilivian Mestizo and his Cuban wife. He comes t to study MBA in the National Agricultural University of Molina in Peru, after graduation in veterinary studies from Colombia. He falls in love with Maria Mimi, a classmate from one of the traditional oligarchy of Peru. After a long romance, they marry. While Hipolito is occupied with business, Maria has an affair with another man Norman with whom she starts a new business of establishment of a school of gastronomy, restaurants and jewellery chains based on the theme of asparagus in the Peruvian province famous for its cultivation. Hipolito disocovers the affair and poisons the lovers to death with a venom from the golden frog found in the jungles of Colombia. He disposes the bodies in the water next to the conference building, making it look like part of the tragedy of the building collapse.

The most moving part of the novel is the interactions and exchanges between the nine people from the different countries during the ten days of their entrapment under the ground. It is a discourse of multiculturalism and dialogue between societies with diverse value systems and mindsets. This is where Juan Alfredo Pinto displays his deep understanding of the Asian and Latin American cultures, besides others. 

The Indian explains to the others, in the manner of Gurus, the Indian philosophy, culture and traditions such as arranged marriage, karma,chakras, agni, third eye and even what does Sixer mean in cricket. He  claims that he has extra flexibility in fingers thanks to the habit of eating with hands. The Argentine does all kinds of profound psychological analysis taking his audience through labyrinths of fantasies like Jorge Luis Borges, the famous Argentine writer does in his books. The Peruvian mining engineer sees the world through rocks and fossils and says, "Stones show their age on their own surface unlike the human beings who pretend or tell lies".

Picture- Ambassador Pinto speaks at the launch of his book at Teen Murti Bhavan New Delhi on 23 October 2013

The author elaborates myths and parables from different cultures such as how bats are perceived in Central America, Mexico, Colombia, US, China and Indo-China. His little story of " operation thump" in which the angry termites eat away the desk of the environment minister and make him lose his job as well as the story of birds and sage of Jodhpur are amusing and educative. In the subplot of Hipolito-Maria romance, the author gives us the flavor of Peru's famous cuisine and pisco traditions. In the conversations between the environmental experts as well as in their TV debates after the tragedy, the author brings out many facts, lies, conflicts and contradictions in the approaches to environment and climate change by scientists, vested interests, business and governments.

Atalaya XXI is the second book authored by Ambassador Pinto during his six year stay in India. He had earlier published a book " Lotus Flower- stories from Asia" in 2010. Each story takes place in a different Asian country including India, Cambodia, Indonesia and Kazhakstan but the main character in the stories are Latin Americans. In these stories also he brings out the culture of the different countries of Asia and weaves a magic carpet by blending them with Latin American culture. This book has been translated into Hindi and English by the Sahitya Academy.

Ambassador Pinto's books have been enriched by his multidimensional personality as a diplomat, academic, politician, economist and entrepreneur.They reflect the perceptive experience of his extensive travels in Asia and knowledge of the cultures of many parts of the world. He has an abiding affection for India and is specially fascinated by the Indian cultural, ethnic, religious and linguistic diversity. In his farewell interview to media on 29 October 2013, he says " I have lived for 2200 days in India and each one of them gave me special memories". His books bridge the millennial cultures of Asia with the magical realism of Latin America.

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