Alfredo Bryce Echenique
Pantheon Books ($23)
by Jay Miskowiec
Like many other Latin American writers, Alfredo Bryce Echenique has divided his life between his homeland and Paris, sometimes referred to as the second capital of the Americas. In his latest novel, Tarzan's Tonsillitis, he passes between the old and the new world through the letters of two lovers caught between the continents.
Set against the political strife of the 1960s and '70s in Latin America and the exile of artists and intellectuals, the story centers on the relationship between Juan Manuel Carpio, a vagabond composer and singer from Peru, and Fernanda Marķa de la Trinidad del Monte, a bourgeois Salvadoran married to an exiled alcoholic Chilean (yes, it sounds like a soap opera, but so do half the plots in contemporary Latin American novels). While every once in a while they make a furtive rendezvous somewhere in the world, from the California beaches to the streets of Paris, they mostly experience each other through their letters, which often delay in catching up with their wandering recipients.
Bryce Echenique shows a bit too much faith in the efficacy of written language here; the straightforward recounting of feelings and experiences of the lovers in their letters (which alternates with first-person ruminations) is supposed to convey their lives more directly to the reader. The author, though, often comes up on the wrong side of that dichotomy described by Henry James: that is, he tells as often as he shows, starting from the very first pages, when Fernanda writes to Juan Manuel apologizing for her apparent silence: "First, your letters were stolen. Stolen because I keep the entire collection in a huge bag, and some horrible gorillas attacked me on the street, grabbing the bag"
In a story where these letters will be prized possessions, messengers of the muses and the soul, this robbery should carry tremendous symbolic value, especially so early in the novel: this is the very theft of memory and being for these characters. But here the event comes off without the weight it needs, and the weakness of the epistolary description is telling. It's hard to speak with tonsillitis, but this depiction of writing as a way of knowing oneself and the other--of sharing something even while far apart--still doesn't show how it ever approaches lived experience.
The best passages seem precisely those when the main characters actually manage to be physically together. Juan Manuel meets up with Fernanda and her family in California. With no qualms of decorum, they spend all their time together, with her even sleeping at his hotel. Walking on the beach, they run into "that huge man with pitch-black hair walking in the opposite direction tightly holding the hand of a little girl and a little boy in each of his savage paws." That man, Fernanda's husband Enrique, forcefully emerges here as that figure which has always hovered over them, isolated and lost while still maintaining a grip on their lives.