Delirium, Restrepo's sixth novel to be published in English
(the translation is by Natasha Wimmer who also translated
The Savage Detectives), has already
won the 2004 Premio Alfaguara in Spain, the 2006 Grinzane Cavour Prize in Italy,
and was short listed for the French Prix du Meilleur Livre Etranger (best
translated fiction). The story is told from various points of view; we
hear from Aguila, Agustina's mild-mannered "husband", who returns home to find
his wife deranged; we also hear from the gangster Midas, Agustina's former
lover; we travel back two generations to see through the eyes of Agustina's
German grandfather, Nicolás; and, of course, we hear Agustina's story, sometimes
told in the first
person, sometimes in the third, as she drifts between the past and present.
The setting is Bogota, capital of Colombia, in the early 1980s, during the "reign" of drug trafficker Pablo Escobar. At the start it can be difficult to distinguish who is narrating the various segments of the story, as they chop and change frequently without introduction. This gives the novel an intangible quality that threatens to be hard work, but quite quickly the reader learns to recognize the individual voices, and the threat of the ephemeral gives way to solidly told streams of narrative that reveal, if not the whole, at least enough to see and understand the cause of Agustina's breakdown.
As the author is clearly making a parallel between Agustina's madness and the mental health of Colombia itself, it's interesting to note that Agustina's current breakdown is not the first instance in her family's history or, for that matter, the first time that she has become delusional. That it is impossible to point to a single event in her childhood, or her family's past, where things first became unhinged highlights the difficulty of finding a solution to the problems that beset Colombia, a country that has arguably gone off the rails into what some might consider generational, collective insanity.
As the skeleton's in Agustina's family's cupboard are slowly revealed to us we can all too clearly see the damage wrought by fear and madness at the individual level and, by extrapolation, to an entire country where behind every falsehood lurk more lies, where insanity is the norm and to have integrity is to be insane.
About Pablo Escobar (1949 - 1993)
Drug lord Pablo Escobar began his life of crime while still in school; by the early 1970s he was involved in the cocaine trade. Together with a half dozen other "entrepreneurs", Escobar formed the infamous Medellin Cartel that eventually controlled 80% of the cocaine shipped to the USA. This made him one of the wealthiest, most powerful, and most violent criminals of all-time (Fortune magazine named him one of the ten richest people on earth). According to Biography.com, "his rise to infamy cost the lives of three Colombian presidential candidates, an attorney general, a justice minister, more than 200 judges, dozens of journalists, and over 1,000 police officers". Escobar was shot to death by members of a special police unit in 1993.
This review was originally published in June 2007, and has been updated for the March 2008 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.
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