Transcontinental love

Tarzan’s Tonsillitis by Alfredo Bryce-Echenique. 1999. French title: L’amygdalite de Tarzan.

Preamble: I have read it in French, translated by Jean-Marie Saint Lu. I translated the quotes into English and as often, it’s not easy to translate a Latin language into English.

A tous les deux, comme en tant d’autres occasions, la seule chose qui nous a manqué, qui nous a manqué d’emblée, certes, c’est notre Estimated Time of Arrival. Ce qui n’avait jamais dépendu de nous mais de divinités contraires et, par conséquent, notre histoire devait forcément déboucher sur un avenir souriant et meilleur, sur un optimisme effronté qui nous permettait d’affirmer, avec plus d’enthousiasme chaque fois, que le vrai miracle de l’amour, c’est que, en plus du reste, il existe. For us, like on many occasions, the only thing we never had from the start is our Estimated Time of Arrival. It didn’t depend on us but on opposite gods and as a consequence, our story HAD to lead to a smiling and better future, to a cheeky optimism that made us believe with even more enthusiasm each time that the true miracle of love is that, on top of everything, it exists.

Bryce_Echenique_tarzanPerhaps I should manage the upcoming billets list with a FIFO method. It would be rational. Only I can’t because sometimes the book I’ve just read is so vivid that I want to write about it right away, before I lose the feeling, before I’m out of its zone of influence, before I lose its melody. Tarzan’s Tonsillitis by Alfredo Bryce-Echenique is one of those books. I bought it by chance because the title and the cover appealed to me. My instincts proved right –only because I based my decision upon the French cover, though. So what’s it about?

Juan Manuel Carpio is Peruvian and from Indian origins. He went to university in Lima. Fernanda María de la Trinidad del Monte Montes is Salvadorian and from a bourgeois family. She went to school in California and in Switzerland in private schools. They meet in Paris where Juan Manuel Carpio plays the guitar and sings in the metro while Fernanda María works for the UNESCO. At the time, Juan Manuel Carpio is married to Luisa who left him and went back to Lima because he wouldn’t give up his dreams about becoming a musician. He’s still healing from this pain.

Chacun se débat comme il peut sur son terrain. Les séparations ne sont pas faciles, comme tu le sais. Et les amours ne s’enlèvent pas avec de l’eau et du savon. Each of us fights on their grounds. Breakups aren’t easy, as you know. And love doesn’t go away with water and soap.

Juan Manuel and Fernanda María fall in love but Luisa is still in the picture, legally and in Juan Manuel’s mind. Fernanda María goes back to El Savador, leaving Juan Manuel behind in Paris with a pile of regrets. She comes back for a while, only now she’s married to Chilean would-be photographer Enrique. They will have two children, Rodrigo and Mariana.

Juan Manuel will pursue his career as a songwriter and a singer and will stay in Europe, living between Paris and Majorca. Fernanda María will be in El Salvador, California, Santiago, London…pushed by the wind of dictatorships, guerillas and family troubles.

It’s a semi-epistolary novel. Juan Manuel tells us their story. His point of view is a classic narrative and Fernanda María’s voice is heard through her letters. Juan Manuel’s letters were stolen when Fernanda María was assaulted once.

Juan Manuel doesn’t complain about his life or his career but we can guess that he was lonely sometimes and that his path to fame and success wasn’t paved with flowers and soft and green lawns. He spent a lot of time on tours and the rest writing songs. His unconventional relationship with Fernanda María nourishes his art.

Fernanda María doesn’t complain either but her life was difficult and made of exile, a drinking husband who doesn’t know what to do with his gift as a photographer and odd jobs to survive and take care of the children. And the pain to come from a little country destroyed by civil war.

Nous marchons tous sur des sables mouvants ces temps-ci. Pour les raisons les plus diverses, le monde est inhabitable. We all walk on quicksand, these days. For the most diverse reasons, the world is uninhabitable.

Friends who disappear. Threats on their lives. Family split in different foreign countries to escape destruction and poverty. Fear for the future. That’s part of Fernanda María’s quotidian in El Salvador.

They will write to each other during thirty years and more. They will meet sometimes. They will nurture their love for each other. They will support each other from afar. They will have other people in their lives but these persons will have to accept they are second best.

Mais comme tu le dis si bien, c’est Dame réalité qui est la vraie triomphatrice de toutes nos batailles.Et peut-être qu’elle se venge de nous parce que nous ne lui avons pas rendu le culte qu’elle exige des personnes réalistes. Comme si nous lui avions tiré la langue, et elle est tellement, tellement orgueilleuse, cette Dame réalité. But as you say it so well, Lady reality is the real victor of all our battles.And maybe she takes revenge because we haven’t worshipped her the way she expects it from realistic people. As if we had stuck our tongue at her and she’s so, so conceited, this Lady reality.

Neither Fernanda María nor Juan Manuel is Argentinean but their story sounds like a tango. They move towards each other, then move away without losing touch and always with amazing grace. Everything in this novel is graceful, from the rhythm of the prose to the acceptance of the characters to move with the music score of their lives. It’s never corny and they embark you on the journey of their lives. The novel is also a reminder of how difficult it was to stay in touch with a loved one from a non-Western country before the internet age. Letters had difficulties to reach Juan Manuel because of war, poor post office service. Phone calls were awfully expensive. And there wasn’t anything else.

“So why Tarzan’s tonsillitis?” you may wonder. Fernanda María is like Tarzan, fearless and jumping in the jungle of her life. Confident in her walk into the jungle except when her throat is clogged with worries and angst. Her mental tonsillitis leaves her unable to yell and jump into the unknown. And Juan Manuel is a distant but concerned witness of her struggles.

I had a lovely reading time and I’ll leave the last word to Juan Manuel and Fernanda María:

– On se revoit dans notre prochaine lettre, Juan Manuel.- Sûr, mon amour. La lettre doit être comme un portrait de l’âme ou quelque chose comme ça, parce que toi et moi nous sommes tout ce qu’il y a de plus photogénique, épistolairement parlant. – We’ll see each other in our next letter, Juan Manuel.– Sure, my love. Letters must be like a portrait of our souls, or something like this because you and me are the most photogenic people ever, from an epistolary point of view.

PS: This is my contribution to Spanish Language Literature Month, hosted by Richard at Caravana de Recuerdos and Stu at Winstonsdad’s Blog

 

  1. July 4, 2015 at 4:08 pm

    What an unusual book – glad your intuition about it proved right! I remember those days of staying in touch via letters and unreliable phone calls all too well… and losing touch.

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    • July 4, 2015 at 4:36 pm

      I think it’s unusual because it avoids corny. And Juan Manuel has a great sense of humour, especially at the beginning.

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  2. July 4, 2015 at 4:23 pm

    I read the description of this on Goodreads and considered it too romantic for me–I just gave up Rendezvous in Venice for that reason. I was suffocating in Romance.

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    • July 4, 2015 at 4:39 pm

      I don’t agree with you on this one or we don’t have the same definition of “romance”.

      There was too much romance in Labor Day, that’s for sure.

      I don’t think this one qualifies for the “romance” category, otherwise Journey into the Past must be in it too.

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      • July 5, 2015 at 5:08 pm

        The set up sounds romantic: two people who meet but are then parted and tracked over several decades, but if you say it’s over Romantic (and you read it, I didn’t) then I take your word for it.

        I just came down from trying Rendezvous in Venice which I know you are scheduled to read later on, and this book reminded me of R in V for several reasons. I’ll be interested to see if you have the same allergic reaction.

        I tried watching Labor Day and again too much sticky romance.

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        • July 6, 2015 at 10:08 pm

          Ah, so we don’t have the same definition of romance.
          For me, a book that can be tagged as romance tells a love story whose ending is a sure thing: you know from the start that they will have their happily-ever-after.

          That’s not the case here: you don’t know where it will lead them.

          So for me it’s not romance.
          I’ll see what I think about Rendez-vous in Venice. I wonder about the link to Proust and Swann.

          As I said to Nino, Labor Day turned cheesy when it should have turned Chabrol. There was a real potential there, imagine if the kid had called the police, or his father or…

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  3. July 5, 2015 at 8:48 am

    It sounds as if the characters really drew you into the story. And I like your tango analogy – it paints a very effective picture.

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  4. July 8, 2015 at 1:22 am

    So glad to hear you enjoyed this, Emma! I’ve only read one novel–Un mundo para Julius a/k/a A World for Julius–and a few short stories by Bryce Echenique, but I’d agree that “graceful” is a good description of his writing style. I think he’s particularly strong at conveying complex emotions and talking about class issues with a surprising degree of subtlety. I hope to read much more by him, so I’ll keep this title in mind. Merci!

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    • July 10, 2015 at 3:08 pm

      Thanks for the recommendations, I want to read more by him and he’s available in French.

      I know that the “pitch” of the book sounds basic romance but he writes so beautifully! It seems to translate well into French.
      You’re right. He conveys very well the difference of social class between Fernanda Maria and Juan Manuel. He speaks of his Indian origins several times too.

      One funny detail: she decided to cut her name short in France because hers didn’t fit in the boxes of the forms of the French administration!

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