The OF Blog: Edmundo Paz Soldán, Iris

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Edmundo Paz Soldán, Iris

Xavier no tardó en descubrir que ella creía en la religión irisina.  A veces mencionaba a Xlött con convicción, otras a Malacosa y a algunos dioses menores.  Él los conocía por los templos diseminados en las calles de Iris; los shanz tenían prohibido entrar a ellos, pero desde la puerta él podía atisbar esos monumentos que adoraban los irisinos, salpicados de flores y envueltos en incienso:  dioses con cara de animales o forma de plantas.  El templo al Dios Boxelder, en un distrito comercial cerca del centro, lo convenció de que no debía ser fácil vivir con las secuelas de explosiones nucleares.  Te hacían erigir un templo a un insecto. ("Xavier," Ch. 5, p. 45 iPad iBooks e-edition)

Xavier quickly discovered that she believed in the Irisian religion. Sometimes she mentioned  Xlött with conviction, other times Malacosa and some of the minor gods. He knew them by the temples scattered in the streets of Iris; the Shanz were forbidden to enter them, but through the door he could glimpse these statues that the Irisians worshipped, dotted with flowers and enveloped with incense: gods with the faces of animals or in the shape of plants. The temple to God Boxelder, in a commercial district near downtown, convinced him that it would not be easy to live with the aftermath of nuclear explosions. They made you erect a temple to an insect.

Bolivian writer Edmundo Paz Soldán is one of the more well-known writers that emerged from the loose 1990s South American literary movement called McOndo after an anthology of that name.  Although he has resided in the US for over twenty years and is a professor at Cornell University, many of his previous novels occupy a precarious space between belonging and being an outsider.  He is a good stylist, mixing colloquial Spanish and English to great effect in his novels.  However, his latest novel, Iris, is a departure for him.  It is a science fiction novel, set on a different world with different religions, yet even with this shift in setting, Paz Soldán still manages to address key social issues in a very effective fashion.

Iris is set in an eponymous city on a desert world that has recently suffered a nuclear attack.  Occupied by a foreign force, the Shanz, the novel explores the reactions of five individuals, Irisian and Shanz alike, who are trying to come to terms with the violence that has been unleashed.  Readers familiar with recent international history will see certain parallels with events in Iraq and Afghanistan, while others might see certain resemblances to Frank Herbert's Dune.  The former certainly is an influence, as Paz Soldán mentioned in an interview that Iris originally was conceived as the concluding part of a trilogy of realist novels that included Los vivos y los muertos (2009) and Norte (2011) and that he wanted to address the issue of cultural clashes leading to psychopathic behavior among occupying soldiers, before deciding that creating a science fiction setting for this conflict would work better for the issues that he wanted to address.  The Dune similarities are more in way that language and geography shapes the narrative, rather than any plot details in particular.  Despite the inspirational sources, Iris is very much its own tale.

The use of five narrators to explore facets of the Shanz occupation allows Paz Soldán to explore his created setting in more detail.  The five characters possess strong views, which color their impressions, making for interesting shifts in perspective when one PoV section ends and another begins.  There are contrasts in how each views the scenes of violence and devastation around them and each section builds upon the other.  Yet there is little plot connection between the two; the sections serve more as semi-independent short stories in which other characters might make a fleeting appearance but otherwise have little direct influence on the action contained in their respective sections.

Paz Soldán utilizes many informal word constructions, such as abbreviations like "q'el" and "dun" or words imported from English ("fokin –") and other languages, to add local color to his setting.  This allows for Iris to feel less like an Iraq or Afghanistan setting exported to a sci-fi milieu and more like a fully realized fictional setting.  This is also very important in establishing how well these characters fit in with their environs.  The Shanz often display a fundamental confusion over the role of the Irisian gods in their society and this confusion, mixed in with occasional contempt, helps explain the sources of some of the violence seen.  The Irisian views, natural to them, can be difficult for readers to grasp as well, but by novel's end, they become much clearer.

Paz Soldán eschews giving only lip service to the issue of religion here.  The Irisian gods, especially Xlött, or rather the Irisian beliefs regarding them, play an important role in the development of certain characters and their scenes.  There is a realism to religious belief and practice, even for an invented one, that makes the Iris setting feel "lived in" and less foreign to readers.

There are few structural weaknesses.  While some readers may find the shifts in PoV perspectives to be difficult at occasions, for the most part Iris unfolds at a steady pace, with Paz Soldán's devotion to examining the effects of place on character mindsets deepening the description-rich narrative.  While there are a few occasions where there is too much "info-dumping" taking place, on the whole Iris manages to balance character and setting development, leading to a very solid, enjoyable SF read.  Iris is one of the better SF novels that I've read in some time and hopefully it will be translated into English at some point in the future.

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