I just put this book down and ran over to the computer to write the review before I lost the sense of joy it left me with. I know that this review is going to be a challenge for me though, because so much happened in this book and there were so many characters that if I focus on one thing, I’ll be leaving out multitudes of equally wonderful things that happened in a different part. This book took me longer to read than I had hoped, but that was only because life kept getting between me and this glorious piece of writing.
The best way I can describe this book is that the writing style is similar to One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez or Catch-22 by Joseph Heller. It takes place in a made up South American country that has the political strife of many real South American countries. The story follows the characters of one particular city, the army and the guerilla fighters. Each chapter is a sort of vignette that focuses on the activities of one (or a few) characters interacting and slowly moves the plot forward. This allowed De Bernieres to create rich and wonderful characters.
The plot is hard to describe, the synopsis on the back of the book only covers about the first fourth of the novel. Which is the rich, shallow Dona Constanza deciding to divert the Mula River in order to fill up her swimming pool and the citizens of the city trying to stop her by sabotaging the canal in any way possible. However, by the end of the book Dona Constanza has grown so much as a character that even she realizes how ridiculous she was being at the beginning.
Since I feel like I’m failing to do this book justice, I’ll mention a few of my favorite things in hopes that they’ll illustrate the magical qualities of this book.
-General Fuerte: He is actually one of the lesser mentioned characters in the story, but he is definitely my favorite. He is one of the few uncorrupt army officers in the book and tries to make sure his branch of the army performs honorably. However, his real passion is the taxonomy of animals, and he eventually deserts in order to follow his dream of recording the different species of hummingbirds found in the jungle. He is eventually captured by the guerillas who originally want to kill him for being in the army, but realize how naïve he is and instead keep him as a prisoner for the majority of the book. He has quite a climactic get away, from the guerillas, the army, and life in general at the end of the novel. But you’ll have to read it to find out what he does.
-Aurelio’s story: Aurelio is a Mountain Indian who finds his way into the tribes in the jungle. His story is perhaps the most heartbreaking. He and his wife cannot have children so they raise dogs in attempt to breed a dog that does not bark. While they were out in the jungle one day with their dogs they stumble upon a 4-year-old feral girl. They decide to adopt her and raise her as their own. I don’t want to give away the heartbreaking bit, but tragedy strikes Parlanchina (his daughter) and Aurelio swears revenge upon the army. What I love about his story is that he sets up his traps for the army in the middle of the book, but nothing happens with them until the end, when the reader and Aurelio has forgotten about his plan. And by the end he regrets his revenge because more people died needlessly after the war was over.
-The Plague of Cats: This part of the novel is never really explained, but is probably my favorite magical realism aspect of the book. There is also a plague of laughter that hits, but it’s not as enjoyable as the kitties. OH and De Bernieres definitely alludes to One Hundred Years of Solitude (and possible another magical realism book I have yet to read?) in one paragraph, “Around here no one seems to think such extraordinary events as plagues of cats and plagues of laughter have any significance. I have been told that before I came, there were on various places a plague of falling leaves, a plague of sleeplessness, one of invisible hailstones, a plague of amnesia, and another time there was a rainstorm for several years that reduced everything to rust and mold.” Which made me squee like a little fan girl for 5 minutes. Anyway back to the cats: One day the people of the city wake up and find that it has been invaded by hundreds of cats. And they have no desire to go anywhere and just like to be mischievous little things. They are also apparently are immortal, one of the characters got fed up with one while he was trying to pack, shot it, and it shrugged it off and kept batting at a drawstring. Eventually the cats begin to grow to the size of ocelots, then pumas, and by the end of the book they are the size of jaguars and they are intensely loyal to their people. They are just a good addition to the story.
So. There are my 3 favorite parts of the story (and it was hard to limit myself). I highly recommend you go out and find it and read it and love it. I will be tracking down the second and third part of the story (did I forget to mention it’s a trilogy yesssss) and all the other books by this author.