The OF Blog: Laura Restrepo, Delirio

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Laura Restrepo, Delirio

For multiple generations of Colombian writers, the country's violent past and uncertain present has had a strong influence on the world-views presented in their novels.  As I noted in my review of Juan Gabriel Vásquez's El ruido de las cosas al caer, the 1960s-1980s in particular, with the rise of kidnappings and assassinations in the wake of the burgeoning drug trade, has served as a catalyst for several memorable Colombian novels.  In the past decade alone, three Colombian novels, the above-reviewed Vásquez, Jorge Franco's El mundo de afuera, and Laura Restrepo's 2004 novel, Delirio, have won the prestigious Premio Alfaguara prize.  In each of them, there are references, oblique and direct alike, to these violent decades and their effects on those Colombians who never were directly (or in many cases, even indirectly) involved in the drug trade.

Restrepo's Delirio, some might argue, could be as much an allegory for Colombia's past as it is a fascinating mystery.  Told in alternating PoVs that are not divided into discrete chapters, Delirio delves into the questions surrounding the seemingly-sudden descent of a young Colombian wife into nearly inchoate madness.  Seen through the eyes of her middle-aged husband, Aguilar, an ex-lover, Midas, and a third-person look into the lives of her grandparents, Agustina's madness and its causes and manifestations becomes central to the novel's plot.  What was her life like before her marriage to Aguilar?  What childhood experiences did she have that may have triggered this mental breakdown over the four days that Aguilar was gone and before he received a phone call telling him where his wife was and her condition?

Restrepo does an excellent job in switching between the narrators, as their revelations about Agustina's past and current medical condition are given in piecemeal fashion, hinting at larger secrets without the entire affair feeling too contrived or maudlin.  The moments in which Agustina herself appears "on-screen" are doubly touching because of these tidbits of information shared by the other narrators.  For most of the first half of the novel, the narrative tension rises at a steady pace, leaving the reader to read faster in hopes that more information will be divulged shortly.

However, the second half of the novel is weaker by comparison.  Perhaps it is due to the rush of information that in this particular case serves to dilute rather than deepen the plot.  Maybe it is simply that the structure that arises here feels so familiar that the element of narrative surprise is largely lost. Whatever the main culprit may be, the conclusion feels weaker than the initial buildup.

This is not to say that Delirio/Delirum (the English translation's title) is a weak novel.  Rather, it is a strong story that falters slightly toward the end, decreasing its potential impact on readers.  However, its mixture of personal and social deliriums makes this a worthwhile reading experience, especially for those who are at least somewhat acquainted with what was occurring in 1980s Colombia.

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