America’s Prisoner: The Memoirs of Manuel Noriega by Manuel Noriega and Peter Eisner

Political memoirs should probably always be approached with a healthy scepticism. This one was written by a man in prison for drug-trafficking, so I approached it with a lot of uncertainty; especially since I don’t know enough about the politics of Central America in the 80s.

The book does provide some help in the form of Peter Eisner, the American journalist who ghost-wrote the main text, based on interviews with Noriega, and added an introduction, footnotes and endnotes which (as agreed in advance) Noriega did not have any say over. So that provides some useful context.

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Noriega’s version of events is that he was nothing but a patriot, working for the good of the people of Panama, trying to avoid getting caught up in the shitshow of Nicaragua and Honduras, and trying to keep on the good side of both the Americans and the Cubans. He also says that the US invasion of Panama was based on nothing but political expediency, that the drug charges against him were trumped up, and that the Americans were up to their eyeballs in every nasty, dirty, shady thing that happened in Central America, including drug-running.

Now a lot of his accusations are clearly true; but of course that doesn’t mean it’s all true. So, for example, given the stuff we know the CIA and the DoD were getting up to in Central America — most famously, but not only, Iran-Contra — pretty much any accusation against them starts sounding plausible. And of course the invasion was political: the fact that they ousted an uncooperative government 12 days before the Canal Zone was due to be handed over to Panamanian control doesn’t seem like a coincidence. And the idea that they did it because Noriega was a Bad Man? Well, given the kinds of regimes the US propped up in Latin America, they clearly had a very high tolerance for brutal dictatorships when it was convenient. But then you can say the same about, say, Saudi Arabia and Iraq: support for the Saudis undermines any claim to a foreign policy designed to spread democracy, freedom and human rights; but whatever the real motivations for invading Iraq, that doesn’t alter the fact that Saddam Hussein was a genuinely terrible figure.

For what it’s worth, Eisner’s conclusion is that Noriega was clearly guilty of a lot of things — like rigging elections and intimidating the opposition — but that Panama was still comparatively stable and peaceful compared to most of its neighbours. And that if Noriega was running drugs, the trial did a poor job of proving it; it relied on testimony from informants within the US prison system who were rewarded for their testimony with reduced sentences, and potentially damning evidence about American government involvement was ruled either secret or inadmissible.

Who knows. I mean, somebody probably does, and if I did the research I might have a clearer idea; but I found the book interesting, even without knowing what to make of it. The tangled politics of the region, and the extent to which the US government was caught up in it, is fascinating. Presumably, now we’ve moved on from the Cold War to the War on Terror, the CIA is less involved in Central America than it used to be, but who knows what they’re now getting up to in, say, Yemen. Or Egypt, Indonesia, Pakistan, Turkey…

[Oh, yeah, I forgot to say: this is my book from Panama for the Read The World challenge.]

Down the Rabbit Hole by Juan Pablo Villalobos

I picked this up because it was around the house and I was looking for something to read, but it turns out the author is from Mexico, so I guess it’s my book from Mexico for the Read The World challenge.

Pórtico_Hacienda_Nápoles copy

This is a very short novel — 67 pages — narrated by Tochtli*, the young son of a drug dealer. He lives entirely surrounded by adults — a maid, a cook, two armed guards and a tutor — all of whom indulge his eccentricities out of fear of his terrifying violent father. He has a collection of hats and a desire to own a pygmy hippopotamus to go with his father’s various exotic animals, including two tigers.† The story really is of a child’s mind being warped by his surroundings; by his father’s lessons about how to be macho, and above all to avoid being ‘a faggot’, by his conversations with his father about how many shots it would take a to kill a man in different parts of the body, and by the evidence of corruption and sex and violence around him.

So at the start, although it’s disturbing the way he parrots his father, he still seems rather innocent; by the end you are wondering if it’s already too late for him, if he’s damaged beyond repair.

Having this horrible situation told in a child’s voice is an effective and creepy device. It’s also genuinely funny in a dark grotesque way. I enjoyed it.

*‘Tochtli’ is the word for rabbit in Nahuatl, and all the Mexican characters have Nahuatl animal names; so the father is called Yolcaut, ‘rattlesnake’, and so on.

† Hippopotamus is, somewhat famously, now an invasive species in Colombia after some escaped from the ranch of the drug baron Pablo Escobar.

» The photo is of the original entrance to Pablo Escobar’s hacienda. The plane is a replica of the one Escobar used to carry his first shipment of cocaine to the US. The hacienda is now a theme park; you can see the entrance in the background. “Pórtico Hacienda Nápoles” by XalD – Own work. Licensed under CC BY 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Complete Works and Other Stories by Augusto Monterroso

Complete Works and Other Stories by Augusto Monterroso is my book from Honduras* for the Read The World challenge. It is a book of playful, idea-heavy short stories; the influence of Borges is mentioned in the introduction, but I think I would have made the connection even without that.†

It’s actually a translation of two books, Complete Works and Other Stories (1959) and Perpetual Motion (1972) which are somewhat different in character; the ‘stories’ in Complete Works are indeed actual narratives, however short, elliptical or open-ended, whereas many of those in Perpetual Motion are more like essays or aphorisms.

I’d got a bit stuck on reading my way around the world, basically because I had two or three books waiting to be read which didn’t appeal to me: I think I’m going to need a plane journey to Australia before I can face the enormous fat modernist novel, and I need a break from Very Serious post-colonial novels from Africa.‡ On that basis, the Monterroso was an excellent choice: well written, intelligent, serious enough but with a sense of humour and, let’s be honest, short. A nice easy tick to get the list moving again.

And since that’s a bit damning-with-faint-praise: I did enjoy this book. To make the invidious comparison, I think there’s a reason that he’s much less famous than Borges; he doesn’t have quite the distinctiveness or surprisingness. But if you like that kind of thing, you will probably like these too.

* As is so often the case, my boring pedantic soul requires me to clarify on nationality: Augusto Monterroso is usually described as a Guatemalan writer. But he was born in Honduras to a Honduran mother and spent his childhood up to the age of 15 moving between the two countries. And spent most of his adult life in exile in Mexico.

† And indeed before reading Monterroso’s essay about reading Borges.

‡ Not that I necessarily dislike serious post-colonial African novels, you understand. I’m just not currently very excited about picking up another one.

» Monterroso’s most famous story is ‘The Dinosaur’, supposedly the shortest ever written. The photo of an origami triceratops is © Emre Ayaroglu and used under a CC attribution licence.

The Country Under My Skin by Gioconda Belli

The Country Under My Skin is a memoir of the Nicaraguan revolution. Belli grew up in a wealthy family but joined the Sandinistas, working secretly for the resistance until she had to flee the country and live in exile until the Sandinistas took power and she could return to Nicaragua. It’s not just a political memoir, though; it is also the story of her marriages and love affairs.

She is clearly a remarkable woman — an award-winning poet, incidentally, as well as everything else — and it is fascinating to read an insiders view of a revolution. She became a prominent figure for the Sandinistas in a PR role, and so she met with people like Fidel Castro, and her portrayals of these powerful men are interesting as well. And it is well-written, which makes all the difference.

I think it’s particularly good when it’s actually in Nicaragua: her life as a disaffected young woman who got married too young to the wrong person, the story of her political awakening, the process by which you join a clandestine organisation, and all the secret meetings and codewords and being followed by the police. Then the period is exile is rather less interesting, before it picks up again with the actual revolution and the immediate aftermath.

I do have some slight reservations, though. These are mainly about her particular perspective. When I got to the end of the book, I realised that it was a book about a revolution and a war which didn’t actually feature any fighting: she was in exile during the revolution itself and she was a bureaucrat in the capital during the war against the Contras. Obviously an autobiography can only tell one person’s story, and this is hers; but it does create the image of a revolution which was all discussing ideas, giving press conferences, writing pamphlets, and delegations to foreign conferences. There is plenty of death in the book, as one after another of her friends, colleagues and lovers get killed, but it all happens offstage.

Similarly, she may be passionately committed to relieving poverty in Nicaragua, but she is never poor herself and she doesn’t spend much time in contact with the poor. I don’t blame her for being from a privileged background, but it is a rather atypical perspective. At one stage when she is working with the resistance, the police clearly suspect or know that she is working for the Sandinistas, but they don’t arrest her and take her away to be tortured as they do so many other people, because, she thinks, of her wealthy family and her society connections.

That’s the nature of books, though: they tend to be written by the kind of people who write books. It’s certainly worth reading, though.

The Country Under My Skin is my book from Nicaragua for the Read The World challenge.

» Un pueblo unido jamás será vencido! is © Burkhard Schröder and used under a CC by-nc-nd licence.

Beka Lamb by Zee Edgell

Beka Lamb tells the story of a few months in the life of a fourteen-year-old girl — Beka — and her slightly older friend Toycie, who both attend a convent school in Belize. It’s published as part of the Heinemann Caribbean Writers Series, and so it has one of those rather off-puttingly institutional covers that makes me feel like I’m back in school. And indeed I’m sure it works well as a GCSE set text: it’s short, it’s about a teenager, it has lots of themes that would provide material for classroom discussion (race, class, politics, colonialism, teenage pregnancy) and it has lots of local colour.

Saturday, pay day for many families, was the biggest marketing, house-cleaning, and cooking day of the week. women and girls, whether they lived in a ‘good house’ or a ‘dawg-siddown’ scrubbed, dusted, polished and cooked in order that they might do as they pleased Saturday night and Sunday afternoon, satisfied that their duty, as best as could be managed with what was available, had been done.

Lunch on a Saturday was mostly crushed avocado or potted meat sandwiches, with perhaps pounded calves’ liver fried with lots of onions and creole bread for six o’clock tea. But the intense activity, and the smells of what was to come on Sunday noon, assuaged the need for bigger meals. In the houses of even the poorest, at the very least red kidney beans and bits of salty pigtails stewed on outdoor fire hearths waiting for the addition of raw rice, assiduously picked over for stones, and washed several times until the water ran clear. And in the houses of those that could better afford it, chickens, pork, or beef roasted in ovens; great pots of grey-black relleno soup thickened on stoves with a dozen hard-boild eggs per pot bobbing up and down like dumplings, and the corn mills of the town ground busily in preparation for the mounds of tortillas that would be needed the following day. Seafood and groundfood were rarely cooked on Sundays: fish, crayfish, conch, yams, cocoa, sweet potatoes, breadfruit and the like were everyday fare.

In fact I think it’s a quirk of a certain kind of post-colonial novel to almost overdo the local colour. The book is absolutely full of references to foodstuffs, flowers and trees, bits of local tradition, references to history; it’s like one long assertion of Belizeyness. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing; in fact I enjoy all that stuff (particularly the food!). It’s just an observation of a phase that, perhaps, national literatures tend to go through.

I did enjoy this book, btw, so I hope my comments don’t across as negative. I enjoyed all the descriptive stuff, found the story engaging, and learn at least slightly more about Belize than I knew before. So that’s all good.

Beka Lamb is my book from Belize for the Read The World challenge, and is also my fifth book for the Caribbean Reading Challenge.

» The picture, ‘Relleno Negro‘, is © moviesandcheese. I don’t think it was taken in Belize, but it’s clearly much the same dish.

The President by Miguel Angel Asturias

The President is my book from Guatemala for the Read The World challenge. I’m probably going to count it it towards Scavella’s Caribbean Reading Challenge as well, although I haven’t really worked out my list for that yet. It comes with one high recommendation: Asturias was, as it says on the cover, ‘Winner! Nobel Prize for Literature’.

It is a book about life under a dictatorship; at the beginning a Colonel is murdered under slightly freakish circumstances, and the repercussions spread out from there, starting with the President using the murder as a pretext to target other politicians. The President isn’t particularly about the president himself, but the psychological and social impact on other people of the arbitrary and ruthless exercise of power.

I have to say I was left slightly cold by it. I don’t know if I would have read it any differently if I’d checked to see when it was written before reading it (d’oh!). It turns out it was actually written between 1922 and 1933 (though not published until 1946), which makes some of the stylistic quirks seem rather more radical and others more forgivable.

The things I might need to forgive – i.e. what I found irritating – is a certain overwrought quality to the prose, typified by the plentiful use of ellipses… and exclamation marks! Knowing that the book was written at least four decades earlier than I thought provides a degree of context for that, I think; quite a lot of books from the interwar period have a hint of intellectual melodrama to them. When I was reading it, though, I just thought it might be a very dodgy translation.

And on the other hand, the surreal aspect to the writing – the narrative slips into almost dream-sequence passages, and the action and characterization is sometimes slightly grotesque – is clearly not, as I vaguely thought, a pale imitation of Marquez. Rather, Asturias is probably an important influence on a writer like GGM.

Still, this is all post facto stuff, and when I was reading it I was rather less charitable. It was sporadically brilliant – after reading the first chapter I really thought I was in for a treat – but it never quite gripped me. It follows various intertwined characters, which meant no strong central narrative to pull me back in once my attention started wandering.

Anyway, here’s an extract:

Nothing was visible ahead. Behind them crept the track like a long silent snake unrolling its fluid, smooth, frozen coils. The ribs of the earth could be counted in the meagre dried-up marshlands, untouched by winter. The trees raised themselves to the full height of their thick, sappy branches in order to breathe. The bonfires dazzled the eyes of the tired horses. A man turned his back to urinate. His legs were invisible. The time had come for his companions to take stock of their situation, but they were too busy cleaning their rifles with grease and bits of cotton that still smelt of woman. Death had been carrying them off one by one, withering them as they lay in their beds, with no advantage to their children  or anyone else. It was better to risk their lives and see what would come of that. Bullets feel nothing when they pierce a man’s body; to them flesh is like sweet warm air—air with a certain substance. And they whistle like birds. the time had come to take stock, but they were too busy sharpening the machetes the leaders of the revolution had brought from an ironmonger whose shop had been burned down. The sharpened edge was like the smile on a negro’s face.

 I think this is a good book which, for whatever reasons, didn’t grab me. Shrug.

» The picture is of José María Orellana, president of Guatemala when Asturias started writing the novel, as he appears on the one quetzal banknote. It is © Oscar Mota and used under a CC attribution licence.

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