Herscu’s debut novel tells the adventurous history of the Mandez family, particularly their most unique member.
The story opens with Arturo de Lorenzo, an Argentine sports reporter, reminiscing on the career and achievements of Chico Mandez, a talented and charismatic soccer player. De Lorenzo interviews Maria Louisa, Chico’s mother, about the superstar’s life. She tells the story of Chico’s father Julio, an Italian émigré who arrived in South America with the Italian Navy and stayed behind to avoid his wartime duties. In Argentina, he gets a job in the furniture business, then woos and marries the boss’ beautiful daughter. Chico is their first son, and from early on they can tell that he is different, mad for the game, obsessive and talented. Chico almost drowns in the Amazon River while trying to retrieve a lost ball, and when he revives—and here the novel jumps what were already rickety rails—Chico is thoroughly lost, and, in order to survive, is forced to live side-by-side with a group of apes. Chico is rescued and rises to soccer stardom, even being selected to play for Argentina in the World Cup, although a final betrayal complicates Chico’s later achievements. Herscu does a competent job of pacing the novel, slipping between recounting the interview and the story itself. But the characters and their motivations are too simple. The protagonists are multitalented and thoughtlessly virtuous; the bad guys are all bullies, betrayers and general no-goodniks. Other than the awkwardly deployed language markers—“Permiso senorita,” “Muchas gracias”—much of the book could easily have taken place anywhere one can imagine an earnest, hardworking man making a life for himself and his family so his children can have a shot at a better life than he had, which is the clichéd reality that the book insists exists.
A novel of personal triumph and public tragedy, but readers searching for depth should keep looking.