The OF Blog: Hernán Rivera Letelier, El arte de la resurrección

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Hernán Rivera Letelier, El arte de la resurrección

The past century is littered with examples of men who considered themselves to be either the reincarnation of the Christ or the prophet of apocalypse.  Jim Jones.  David Koresh.  The Reverend Sun Myung Moon.  Marshall Applewhite.  Each of these men, some more than others, managed to gain large followings, with only the Moonies managing to gain even a smidgen of mass popularity.  Yet there was something in their doom-laden messages that attracted attention.  What was it in them that convinced them (or at least their followers) that they were the reincarnation of the Messiah or a prophet meant to fulfill Jesus's mission?

To this list can be added an early 20th century Chilean, Domingo Zárate Vega, who in the 1930s and 1940s in the region of Elqui went around proclaiming himself the reincarnation of Christ.  This Cristo de Elqui, as he became known, attracted a numerous following and in particular his attempts to find his "Magalena," led to several newspaper accounts of his carnal message.  In his 2010 Premio Alfaguara-winning novel, El arte de la resurrección, Chilean writer Hernán Rivera Letelier takes a moment from el Cristo de Elqui's wild career and examines his singular message in a humorous yet occasionally quite serious novel on the types of personalities associated with such an act.

El arte de la resurrección depends heavily upon its characters in order to drive the story.  Fortunately, Vega/el Cristo de Elqui is such a complex, fascinating personality that the narrative needs in order for it to be effective.  A purveyor of carnal delights who is also an ardent supporter of worker's rights, el Cristo de Elqui easily could be portrayed as a buffoon, a charlatan whose bumbling mistakes should have quickly made his socio-religious movement an easily-dismissed sham.  Rivera Letelier, however, plays up the historical el Cristo de Elqui's complexities in a way that is both satirical of religious duplicities and sympathetic toward those who seek redemption for their flawed lives.

The core plot revolves around el Cristo de Elqui's attempts in 1942 to woo a prostitute, soon named by him Magalena (Magdalene), to become his disciple and lover, and united the two would proclaim the eminent end of the world.  This would-be Christ and his ridiculous behavior toward his would-be Magdalene makes for several amusing episodes in El arte de la resurrección and it serves to carry the plot through several weaker moments.  If it weren't for these two well-developed characters, it would be easy to dismiss this novel as a failed exercise in portraying the dichotomies present in charismatic/possibly mentally unhinged messianic leaders.  The humor, which is amusing for parts of the novel, fails to amuse for roughly equal stretches.  El Cristo de Elqui and Magalena, who have had well-developed characters for the majority of the novel, falter near the novel's end.

Yet despite this unevenness in characterization and plot development, on the whole El arte de la resurrección was an enjoyable read.  There were moments in which I wanted to laugh from the absurdity of this would-be Christ's message and actions, but the times in which the comic qualities were played up too much dampened those reactions.  Nevertheless, El arte de la resurrección had more good moments than bad and while I do believe it is one of the weakest Premio Alfaguara winners, it at least was a flawed but mostly solid work.

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