Un viejo que leía novelas de amor (The Old Man Who Read Love Stories)
By Luis Sepúlveda
The Amazon rainforest is a place I hold dear after several visits with Andean Trails. Luis Sepúlveda captures its contradictions perfectly with this love letter to the area, made more poignant by his untimely death this year.
This is an excellent book to read in Spanish for intermediate learners and above. While the structure and phrasing can appear simplistic at first glance, it belies the complex parable Sepúlveda weaves with lush and verdant vocabulary.
The book centres on Antonio Jose Bolivar Proano, a man who represents a clash of cultures that pumps life through the novella’s heart. Proana is originally from the Ecuadorian highlands. He and his wife flee social stigma to settle in the Amazon, hoping to make good a government promise of land to rainforest settlers.
After the death of his wife, Proana falls under the care and protection of the native Shuar people. They rescue him from a snakebite and take him under their collective wing, teaching him the ways of the forest and its creatures. The theme of belonging, ephemerally or eternally, is delicately explored as Proana is shown how the Shuar see the world. The respect for the indigenous and their way of life is palpable in Sepúlveda’s stripped-back writing, reminiscent of William Golding’s style in The Inheritors.
Proana eventually returns to something more akin to his routes, taking up station in the Amazon town of El Idilo. Here we find rambunctious characters that spice up proceedings albeit there is not enough space in the book’s 130 pages to fully develop these people. Still, Sepúlveda teases enough from them to impact the page and drive home underlying messages about greed and exploitation of South America’s forests. There is a corrupt and corpulent mayor who demeans and dominates his town and people; inept gringos who arrive with all the kit and very little know-how; and a dentist who rips folks’ teeth out at the riverbank.
Some descriptions feel a little forced and stylised; it’s scarcely believable an Emerald hunter was scouring the Amazon and not Colombia and they appear forced into the story to fit a narrative that all gringos are corrupt and inept. Proana’s struggles to read his beloved romantic novels bordered on an excess of charm at times, too.
If humans get short shrift, the animals and foliage do not. Sepúlveda clearly loved the Amazon area. He possesses a great gift in treating its occupants as equals, if not superior, to human folk, without drifting too far into gushing. My favourite is the vivacious scenes of anaconda hunting and tracking animals that pepper the pages.
It is a manhunt for a crazed ocelot that shapes the second half of the book. The beast is the best type of malignant force; hidden, mysterious, furious and deadly, driven by revenge after a man killed her cubs. Sparse details of the animal are interspersed by Proana’s intuitions of the cat, and his innate understanding of how to use the rainforest to track and survive. There’s even a heart-wrenching twist, to wet the driest of eyes.
Note: Luis Sepúlveda was a Chilean writer and a political exile. He worked in the Amazon jungle for UNESCO. He sadly passed away in Spain in April this year (2020) from COVID-19. authors,