Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Lies (Mentira) by Enrique de Hériz

In Newman and Mittelmark's hilarious How Not To Write A Novel the opening chapter on setup blunders kicks off with The Lost Sock...where plot is too slight.

Enrique de Hériz's setup in Lies looks as if it has indeed the necessary oomph to avoid the kind of criticism one might have to level at novels "where the main conflict is barely adequate to sustain a Partridge Family episode"!

A prominent Spanish anthropologist called Isabel Azuera is the sole occupant of the Posada del Caribe on Lake Petexbatún in Guatemala. One morning while out swimming she collides with a floating corpse.

There has been an accident involving a lancha on the lake and a woman has drowned after having her features eradicated by the boat's propeller. Add to this circumstance, a mix-up involving Isabel's backpack and and you have a situation in which this academic, celebrated for her studies of tribal death rituals, is considered to have expired in Central America.

Unfortunately de Hériz doesn't make consistent good use of this rather promising scenario.

Once the basic confusion has been established, the novel alternates between the notebook scribblings of Isabel and her daughter Serena; apparently a real stickler for truth. We learn that Isabel's husband, an artist come ship's captain suffering from dementia, has been an inveterate mythomaniac, and that all of their children have been brought up to believe a possibly fallacious family history involving an abuelo named Simón.

This character and his astounding story of survival are related with flashes of the sensibility which runs through that other recent Catalan bestseller: Carlos Ruiz Zafón's La Sombra del Viento. It sure sells books, but I found it rather slight myself. But my real concern here was that by isolating these matters of truth and falsehood within a single rather self-obsessed Spanish family, de Hériz left me constantly struggling to expand the broader appeal of his plot.

There are interesting factual asides deriving from Isabel's anthroplogical papers and some less interesting ones, such as an over-laboured retelling of the naval battle of Les Formigues in 1285. You can add to these a nested Chinese legend, but all feel a bit tacked on, and suffer from being contained within the shut off world of Azuera storyland. (This is a family group who appear not to be able to hang on to serious relationships outside of the tribe.)

It's the kind of novel that reviewers tend to describe as "a powerful meditation", which tends to mean, if not the kind of book that leaves the reader in a state of lowered consciousness, then the kind that isn't entirely successful as a piece of storytelling — often because the characters turn out to be less inherently fascinating than the themes their interactions are designed to explore.

Isabel is certainly a more intriguing creation than her offspring, in part because she has apparently seen through some of the untruths which underly her family mythology, but also because we see her reaching certain conclusions which, however logical, turn out to be wrong.

However, I'm not quite sure that the author provides enough psychological detail for us to fully understand why she briefly flirts with living her own death, other than the fact that her fieldwork has constantly exposed her to the distressing notion that life always seems to go on without the deceased. (Except, as we are told in one of the novel's more striking passages, amongst the Wari of the Amazon, a tribe which really shakes things up every time one of its own passes. )

Disappointingly, Guatemala is a purely incidental location here : any other remote location with incompetent officials could have stood in.

Anyway, I can't say I didn't enjoy this book — it has its captivating moments — it's just that in the back of my mind I often had this strange sensation of something misplaced. A sock perhaps...

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