An artist embarks on a momentous journey during turbulent times.
Though the author draws on his own experiences, this ambitious book is a novelistic work rather than a memoir. Gac-Artigas’ (Ado’s Plot of Land, 2002, etc.) hero has a view from the ground of historical movements, plying his trade as an actor, theater director, and poet in Chile during the months leading up to the 1970 election and in Colombia at the dawn of the drug trade. He immerses himself in revolutionary politics and romance in Paris and Rome in the late ’60s and, at different times, finds himself in jail and then exiled from his native Chile. He is an activist and an artist in dangerous times and places, traveling the world from South America to Europe, often fleeing one place to get to another. Along the way, he shares some observations of the countries he visits (“On entering Colombia, when you enter the hot lands—and along its borders there are no cold lands—the damp heat clings to your body; the mosquitoes cling to your body so they can slake their thirst for fresh blood; its history clings to your body and to your history”). Ultimately, he starts over with his family in Rotterdam. While based on Gac-Artigas’ life story, what the author is after here isn’t an orderly tale. It’s more evocative than informational. The prose can be beautiful and lyrical, as when he talks about the birth of the protagonist’s daughter, writing, “The lights bowed their heads before her beauty and her honey-colored skin, and nestled her among its rays.” But the narrative often doesn’t provide a grounding in a period or place, making it hard to judge where a scene is happening, who is there, or where it fits into the timeline. And as skilled as the author’s poetry can be, he is also prone to get lost in his own language. In one passage, he writes: “That was the beginning of the mirror refracting his image, reflecting both reality and the individual, torn between the anguish of other people’s suffering and the unbearable pain it inflicted on oneself.” That sentence continues for several more lines, making the meaning of the original metaphor impenetrable. There are some wonderful moments in this work, but the author’s design makes them hard to unearth.
This globe-trotting tale remains a tough read for anyone looking for linear storytelling.