Monday, January 22, 2018

In the Midst of Winter

In her latest novel "In the Midst of Winter”( mas alla del invierno), published in November 2017, Isabel Allende brings together a trio of tragic stories from Chile, Brazil and Guatemala. 

The three protagonists Lucia, Richard and Evelyn meet together after a minor car accident caused while driving in the snow in Brooklyn, New York. In the course of trying to solve the problem of dead body in the trunk of the car, they start telling each other their life stories which are poignant accounts of violence, dictatorship, struggles, exile and migration.

The Chilean dictatorship, disappearances and deaths are familiar themes in many novels of Allende.  Her portrayal is authentic since she herself is a victim of the Pinochet dictatorship from which she escaped to Venezuela on exile and finally migrated to the United States, where she is living since 1988. In this story, Lucia Maraz is the Chilean character, whose family is subjected to suffering by the military dictatorship. Lucia’s brother Enrique is one of the ‘disappeared’, as punishment for his left wing activism. When the secret police comes after Lucia also alleging that she is a sympathiser of guerrillas, she seeks asylum in the Venezuelan embassy. Later she goes on to live as an exile in Venezuela and Canada. She returns to Chile after the restoration of democracy. She comes as a visiting professor to New York where she gets to meet the other two characters.

Lucia is described by the author as “ blessed with the stoic character of her people, accustomed to earthquakes, floods, tsunamis and political cataclysms”. Lucia grows worried if there is no disaster within a given length of time. And disaster comes in the form of a snowstorm in the winter of 2015. Her basement apartment is freezing and it makes her feel even more lonely and insecure.  But the New York winter cannot subdue Lucia’s Latino heart which pines for the warmth of sex, romance and love. Lucia, aged sixty two, is looking for mature love, after her divorce and a few flings in her earlier life.  She fantasises about romance with her landlord Richard who lives in the house above her basement.  The car accident in the middle of winter gives her the opportunity to melt the ice cold Richard and win him over. When Richard recalls his sins and sad past, Lucia tells him, “ Enough wallowing in the sorrows of the past. The only cure for so much misfortune is love”. 

Through the story of Richard Bowmaster, the author brings out some Brazilian cultural aspects. He goes to Rio for his research work on the Brazilian dictatorship and there he falls in love with the Brazilian dance teacher Anita. Unable to adjust to Anita’s complex personality and her large extended family, he takes to drinking and drugs and runs his car over his own son killing him accidentally. He returns to US to work in the New York University as professor for Latin America studies. After Anita’s death, Richard leads an austere life in the company of his four cats named um, dois, tres and quatro in Portuguese. Lucia finds him as ‘ liviano de sangre’ a chilean expression for someone who is good natured and loveable.

Evelyn Ortega, the Guatemalan without documents, works as a nanny in the New York house of Frank Leroy who is involved in human trafficking of Latin Americans into US. Evelyn is from a small Guatemalan village Monja Blanca del Valle, which is also the name of the the national flower. Evelyn’s mother migrates to US, like many of her compatriots, to earn a safe livelihood and to escape the violence in the country. The Guatemalans who had earlier suffered the reign of terror of the right wing regimes are now traumatised by more cruelty and violence inflicted by the deadly gangs such as MS-13. Evelyn and her two brothers are brought up by their grand mother. The elder brother joins MS-13 but is killed and his body hung over a bridge when he is suspected of betrayal. In its typical way of revenge on the whole family, the gang kills the other brother also and rapes and brutalises Evelyn.  After seeing the gruesome death of her brothers and her own nightmare of rape, Evelyn loses speech and starts stammering and becoming almost like a mute. The grandmother sends her with a coyote to enter US illegally through Mexico. On the way she and her group face the Mexican gangs who torment the migrants with extortion and violence. Evelyn is lucky to reach her mother and later to get to work with the Leroy family.

The experience of the main characters in the three countries are not much different from reality. Fortunately, Chile has now become peaceful and free from violence. But Brazil has pockets of violence in major cities where drug traffickers operate. Guatemala still continues to suffer from the gang violence along with Honduras, El Salvador and Mexico. In fact, the actual violence and crime are much worse than the fictional portrayal of Allende. 

Allende uses every opportunity to compare and contrast Latino and American cultures, based on her own experience of living in US since 1982. This is one of the recurrent themes in her novels. She briefly mentions Trump whose hate speeches have hurt the feelings and image of Latin Americans. Trump ignores the fact that it is the US which is mainly responsible for the past and present tragedies of Latin America through its consumption of and demand for drugs as well as its political destabilisation of the region on the pretext of containing communism. The CIA had the lead role in the overthrow of democratically elected governments of President Arbenz of Guatemala in 1954, President Goulart of Brazil in 1964 and President Allende of Chile in 1973 and subsequent installation of military dictatorships which were responsible for death and disappearance of hundreds of thousands of people in the three countries.

Having read most of her books, I found that the main plot of this novel is somewhat thin and less complex than her previous works. But the author’s focus on the Latin American spirit,  colours and expressions takes the readers through a virtual journey of the fascinating region .
Allende is at her best when she gives voice to the female characters in her novels. They are emotional but strong enough to survive and succeed at the end. It is for this reason that she has been described as the diva of “ Magical Feminism”. Some of her novels belong to the Latin American signature genre of “ Magical Realism”.

Allende’s inspiration for the title of her book is the following quote of Albert Camus,“ In the midst of winter, I finally found there was within me an invincible summer”. In her own winter years at the age of 75, the summer of Latino love is still shining within Isabel Allende. In one of her interviews, Allende says,”I have been in love all my life, with different men, of course. Love is beautiful and melodramatic”.  In this novel as well as in her last one “The Japanese lover”, the theme is about old people falling in love. In an essay written in November 2017, she says,” I am in my seventies and I want love, passion and romance, like any teenager, but is not for me. No one online would ever be interested in a short, bossy Latina grand mother. Now, if I get to meet a guy I like in person, well that’s different. I grab him by the neck, or whatever part of him is closest to me, and he doesn’t stand a chance. We humans are sexual and sentimental creatures to the very end of our lives, a fact that makes my grandchildren cringe. This reminds me of the advice given by my Argentine friends at my retirement party in May 2012, “ Don’t stop having fun when you are old. You become old only when you stop having fun”.

Monday, January 01, 2018

தென்னமெரிக்க தமிழர்கள் - South American Tamils

I was browsing in Amazon for books to kick off new year reading yesterday. One of the titles, "தென்னமெரிக்க தமிழர்கள்" (Thennamerica Thamizhargal-South American Tamils) struck me like a lightning. It had the effect of not only intriguing me but it also challenged my self-proclaimed Latin America expertise. How come I did not know the Tamil link to South America despite having spent twelve years in the region and read so many books on Latin America. So I ordered the book on kindle and read it immediately. It did not take much time to finish reading, since it is just 174 pages. The book, published in July 2017, is in Tamil language only. 

The author, Naveena Alexander, has tried to establish a link between ancient Tamils and the Meso Americans such as Olmecs, Aztecs and Mayas. He claims that the Tamils had discovered the American continent long before the Europeans  and much before the birth of Jesus Christ.  He believes that the Tamils had the capacity to travel long distance through the oceans, with their knowledge of the winds and ocean streams. He is of the view that the Tamils had established trade settlements in Meso American ( Mexico and the northern part of Central America) region. He has identified some similarities between the Tamil and Mesoamerican cultures. Pity..He has forgotten to mention the common role of ‘chillies’ in the spicy Mexican and Tamil food.

But the book has not done justice to the audacious title it bears. The author has given flights to his fancy based on speculations and conjectures, without any credible evidence to prove his theories. However, he has given an overview of the history and culture of Mesoamericans which is educative for the readers in Tamil language. 

I called the author who lives in Chennai. His real name is David J Praveen. I told him about my feeling about the book. He told me to wait till his next book on the Incas and other South American native Indians come out. He sees Tamil connection with the Indians of the Andean region too. He is enthusiastic about his discoveries and theories.  He recalls having read a Tamil book " South American Cholas". There is, of course, proof that the Cholas had conquered south east Asia but South America? hmm..

Praveen is a prolific writer and has authored over a dozen books on diverse topics such as artifice intelligence, e-commerce giants, Magic and Magicians,the streets of the colonial city of Madras and the mystery of Egyptian pyramids. His mission is to educate and provoke the curiosity of the readers in Tamil language. 

My curiosity, triggered by his book, took me to google for information on Tamil link to South America. I was not disappointed. A historian and General Secretary of Kanyakumari Historical and Cultural Centre, Mr S Padmanabhan has found striking similarities between South Indian and Mayan culture. He claims that the ‘Padala Logo’ ruled by Mahabali, as described by the Puranas, is actually Mexico. The Professor had found evidence to this theory during his field trips in Mexico. In a lecture in 2010, he has claimed that there is influence of Dravidian culture, particularly Keralite culture in Mayan architecture, domestic equipment and social and religious practices. He has called for research into the submerged Kumari continent and the Mayans.

Am I puzzled and confused after reading these? Not at all. In fact I see a clear and solid similarity between the South Indians and Latin Americans. That similarity is ‘Magical Realism”, the signature genre of Latin American literature. Magical realism blurs the line between imagination and reality. In fact, some Malayalee scholars have claimed that magical Realism was invented by O V Vijayan in ‘Khasakkinte Itihasam’, much before Gabriel Garcia Marquez. No wonder that the book “ one hundred years of solitude” was the best seller in Kerala at one time. More on this in my earlier blog

Perhaps the theory of Magical Realism explains why the Tamils vote for actors to become chief ministers. They don’t seem to distinguish between the filmy magic and the political reality. 

In any case, the South India-South American link of Magical Realism promises to be an interesting area for research..