Sunday, 30 August 2009

Book Review: La chica del trombón

La chica del trombón (The Trombone Girl), by Antonio Skármeta

I have previously professed my love for the Chilean author Antonio Skármeta in this blog. Now, like a true devotee, I will prove my love for him, despite it being put to the test with this, one of his later novels (published in 2001). Who said love was blind?

Let me just start by saying I did actually enjoy reading this. In many ways, it is similar to El cartero de Neruda. Set in the pre-Pinochet era, a view of provincial Chile is provided through the experiences of an ordinary character, a marginalised individual who touches and interacts with real historical figures, but ultimately has little historical influence. As a novel, it was perfectly readable, with a decent structure, credible language, and a good plot. Nevertheless, I felt disappointed by it for a number of reasons.

First, Skármeta's choice of protagonist, the titular trombone girl, is nowhere near as likeable as Mario Jiménez or Pablo Neruda. Written in the first person, it is interesting to read the thoughts and feelings of a female character through the pen of a male author, but it is also worth noting the way Alia Emar speaks about the other few female characters in the story. he first is her unlikeable step-grandmother, Jovana, a cynical prude who turns socialist upon meeting Salvador Allende. Charged with taking care of Alia after the death of her grandfather, Jovana reluctantly provides her ward with food and a roof, yet spitefully attempts to destroy the legacy left to her by her adored grandfather. The women Alia admires are the film stars of Holloywood's Golden Age, while her own childhood friend grows into a beautiful aspiring film actress who is duped into the "meeting a film director" trap, and ends up pregnant and married.

Next, is the issue of Alia's own sense of displacement. The story of her heritage is complex, to say the least, given that she does not know anything about her parents and instead grows up with her grandfather, a relationship which is heavily hinted to not be one based more on love than blood. This blend of bildungsroman and tabula rasa works perfectly for the purposes of enforcing the "nurture over nature" debate, since Alia creates her identity; an identity which develops and evolves over the course of the novel. Even her name is questionable: Magdalena is the name her grandfather uses, and with which she is registered, while she chooses to call herself Alia Emar in honour of her deceased grandmother, yet both names are of ambiguous origin. The novel also takes place in Skármeta's own home city of Antofagasta, and knowing as I do that his parents are of Chezch origin, the idea of immigration and displacement is clearly one which concerns the writer on a more personal level. However, although it is dealt with very well, I'm not sure Skármeta needed to include it, or rather, he should have made more of it. There is a very funny scene in which Alia is denied a tourist visa for the United States due to her murky family history, but it feels like a half-effort.

Finally, we have the historical and political context of the novel. Judging by the short stories I have read and El cartero de Neruda, it is pretty clear that pre-Pinochet and the coup d'etat of 1973 is Skármeta's main forte, but it would be nice to read about another time period in Chile's history, or maybe even - and wouldn't this be a revolucionary idea - set in Chile's stable present. This time, the novel ends with Allende's eventual election in 1970, but the story ends happily. This ironic ending, full of hope is masterfully written, but it feels like more of the same, rather than something new or interesting.

I'll repeat: I like this book, but I don't love it; certainly not to the same level as El cartero de Neruda, and maybe it's wrong of me to compare. They were written twenty years apart, for a start, and are two different creations. However, the former novel is so witty, so ngaging, andso life-affirming, despite its tragic end, that once one has read Skármeta's best, one can only think "could do better" after reading this work. Good, but not good enough, I say.

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