Wednesday, 25 December 2013

The Lieutenant of San Porfirio by Joel D Hirst

Something is afoul in the Revolutionary Socialist Republic of Venezuela. Despite food shortages, blackouts and the terrible violence, El Comandante's iron grip is stronger than ever. Newly decorated Lieutenant Juan Marco Machado lovingly caresses his shiny AK-103 as he thinks about his promotion and what he would be willing to do to defend his revolution, and his position. He is about to find out it's more than he ever would have believed. Doña Esmeralda is in trouble. Ordered to demonstrate her solidarity for the revolution and open her colonial mansion (in which she carefully protects her dead husband's ghost) to the barrio dwellers, she decides she is left with no choice but to plot a counterrevolution. Meanwhile, Freddy, an American high school student is propelled by his parents to attend a socialist youth summit in Venezuela, pitting him against Pancho Randelli, a freedom activist and leader of the struggling student movement. And so the fates of four people are about to be intertwined within a country plunged into revolution. The Lieutenant of San Porfirio is the compelling story about four people seeking to find themselves under the chilling pall of socialism. People from different backgrounds and across the hemisphere will find something to love, as well as something deeply disturbing, in this new magical realism twist on a South American classic genre, the dictator novel.
 Amazon Description

This book combines comedy with serious political commentary. In Latin America, which Joel Hirst is familiar with and which he clearly loves and cares passionately about, that is the reality, a reality which is mixes with magic in this excellent novel. 

The comedic is always close to a serious, even tragic, consequence, as exemplified in the character of Lieutenant Machado, who at first appears to be a bumbling drunken fool, but morphs into Porfirio's Head of Security, recruiting a sadistic interrogator. That that interrogator is said to have been the child of a magical being shows how the magic works in this novel. Further examples are Machado's spies - a man who seems able to turn himself into an owl, or the servants at Dona Esmerelda's country club who were specially bred to be invisible. The magic in this book is not on the side of the freedom activists. 

Reading the book blurb I was not sure whether I would enjoy the book, fearing that it would be too politically right-wing for me. This is a shame as I was pleased to see that the book shows an understanding of the motivation of all the main characters, nor does it portray the opponents of the revolution in a universally good light - Dona Esmerelda, the old oligarch, is a selfish elitist, but: each had been searching in their own way for freedom and for meaning. All in different places and by different means.  The book is very good at showing how the most laudable of aspirations can be perverted.  On a minor point Mr Hirst and his publisher should note that democratic socialism has many supporters in the UK and other European countries, where it does not mean the same as it does in the Americas, so references in the description to the chilling pall of socialism will put off potential buyers.

The book weaves together the story of the four characters - the naive American youth Freddy, Lieutenant Machado, the activist student leader Pancho and Dona Esmerelda - as they move to the inevitable violent showdown. If I were to make a criticism of this book it is of how this happens. The story is told by an omniscient narrator, who allows us to see that the Lieutenant knows about the others' plans. This reduces the dramatic suspense to that of watching a slow-motion car crash. At the end it seems that the book is the first in a series and that more will be revealed in future books. I look forward to reading them. 

I recommend this book to you. 

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