Sunday, July 15, 2007

The Troublesome Offspring of Cardinal Guzman (Louis de Bernieres)

de Bernieres' South American trilogy is best read in the following order: Senor Vivo and the Coca Lord; The War Of Don Emmanuel's Nether Parts; The Troublesome Offspring of Cardinal Guzman. Because I bought it in London and unexpectedly finished the genuinely unputdownable Captain Corelli's Mandolin, this was the only book to hand for the train journey home. de bernieres is either quite mad or a genius or possibly both simultaneously, making this practically impossible to review due to the array of equally mad-genius characters, their quirks and New World indigenous magic that pervades the region.

Set in a South American country after the defeat of a notorious cocaine baron (whose killer's car is a shrine and flowers are strewn behind it whenever he drives it), the multiple threads include a Cardinal fighting his own demons and who has fathered children on his maid; a musicologist collecting traditional music; a president more concerned with sexually satisfying his wife than with running his country (leaving that to his clueless cabinet); an incorruptible army general; a town where everyone seems to have pet black jaguars that act like overgrown housecats and a false priest whose "blessings" are scurrilous passages of Latin.

Cathlolicism comes into conflict with local beliefs with the result that multiple religions have been assimilated into a relatively harmonious belief system .... until Catholic priests go out to try to re-educate the local people. The Virgin Mary has asked worshippers not to do Hail Marys as they are giving her a headache. 300 year old conquistadors have been raised from the dead and live among them. Lost property magically appears in Velvet Luisa's hammock at the end of the day. One village has a severe outbreak of literacy and spend days reading and discussing the one book they have been able to obtain (albeit dozens of copies). People routinely speak to the dead and the dead even compete in the vilalge games, but graciously decline to accept first prize as "weightlessness" is an unfair advantage.

It's not all joyful. There are murdered street children, raped women, military coups and summary justice. There is, quite possibly, reincarnation in blatant defiance of the Catholic priests' teachings.

This is a wild fiesta of a book in a culture that turns many of our values on their head and pokes fun at attempts to enforce religious dogma on an interpretation that actually works. But they are probably best read in the correct order.