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Edmundo Paz Soldán: El delirio de Turing (Turing’s Delirium)

Code-breaking seems more the province of spy novels and, perhaps, of science fiction novels. Paz Soldán’s most recent novel to date, Iris, is in fact a science fiction but, as he says, the sort of science fiction he likes is political science fiction, along the lines of Orwell and Huxley. The book under review is not a spy novel or science fiction but it is a political novel. The book shows the political situation in Bolivia under President Montenegro. He is clearly based on Hugo Banzer. Like Banzer, he was a dictator but has now been elected to power. Like Banzer, he is facing widespread protests. In Banzer’s case, it is because of the privatisation of water supply in Cochabamba and the resultant massive price increases. In Montenegro’s case, it is because of the privatisation of electricity supply in the (fictitious) Río Fugitivo and the resultant massive price increases. We follow the story essentially through four perspectives.

The first is the Black Chamber. This is a spy agency along the lines of the NSA in the US and GCHQ in the UK. It was set up by Albert, who does not appear to have surname. It appears that he might be a former Nazi. He certainly has a dubious background. He worked for the CIA before coming to Bolivia. He set it up to deal with low-level code-breaking and, in particular, to assist Montenegro during his dictatorship. At that time, he recruited people who were good linguists rather than computer experts, as the level of codes they had to break were not sophisticated. Albert has now gone and suffers from dementia. He is in a home and we follow his thoughts as he remembers the days when he was running the operation but also recalls the history of code-breaking and identifies with various historical code-breakers.

Two of the people he recruited were Miguel and Ruth Sáenz. Ruth had become a code-breaker, following in her father’s footsteps. It was she who taught Miguel, who had been studying biology. Ruth did not last long, not least because of her conscience. She now teaches the history of code-breaking at the university and hates the job. Miguel went on to become a top code-breaker. He was so good at his job, that Albert gave him the nickname of Turing. (It is to him that the title refers, rather than the real Turing.) His approach was totally amoral. He enjoyed the challenge and broke the codes. He did not care that the people using the codes were left-wing opponents of Montenegro and his actions would result in their being captured, tortured and murdered, which happened on several occasions.

However, things changed. The old-fashioned ways worked well for a long time. But then it was realised that the best way to crack codes was to use computers. When Albert retired, he was replaced by Ramírez-Graham. Just as Albert appeared to have no surname, Ramírez-Graham appears to have no first name. His father was Bolivian but he had met his wife in Kansas, an American, and Ramírez-Graham was born in Arlington, Virginia and had grown up in the United States. He had worked for the CIA. He was recruited when it was felt that someone with a knowledge of modern methods was needed. The problem was that codes were now created by computer and these codes were virtually unbreakable, even with the most sophisticated computers. Fortunately for the Black Chamber, most of the people whose codes they were cracking did not have access to such sophisticated technology and computers could still break their codes. Miguel has been kicked upstairs or, more accurately, downstairs. He is not a computer expert and has been put in charge of the archive, nominally a promotion. However, it is located in the basement and is gradually being digitised.

One of their main enemies is the opposition to Montenegro and, in particular, a group called simply The Resistance. This is run by someone with the code-name of Kandinsky. We meet him as a child, coming from a poor background and very much envious of the rich whose houses he sees (and steals from) when he accompanies his mother who is cleaning them. He becomes a computer expert and it is he whom the Black Chamber fear. Indeed, early in the book, there is massive attack on the government computers and they are sure that he is to blame.

The third person involved is Flavia, seventeen-year old daughter of Miguel and Ruth Sáenz. She is studying but also has an online newspaper about hacking and knows a lot about the subject. She still lives at home with her parents and is close to them. As well as her journalism activities, she is obsessed with Playground (the English word is used in Spanish), a massively multiplayer online role-playing game, Finnish in origin but now very popular in Bolivia. She spends all her money on it (and all the money she can scrounge from her father.)

Finally, there is Judge Cardona. He has a very personal reason for hating Montenegro. Despite this, he had been Minister of Justice under Montenegro (where, despite his reputation as an honest man, he had taken bribes). However, he is now preparing a detailed dossier on Montenegro’s crimes and he hopes to have him indicted when his term of office is over in seven months time. He is worried that there are rumours of Montenegro’s ill health and that he might die before his term of office finishes. Early in the novel he elicits Ruth Sáenz’s help. She is glad to help, not only because she is bitter towards Montenegro but also because she is bitter towards her husband, who may well be implicated in the Judge’s investigation.

The background to the novel is the protests in Cochabamba against the increase in water prices, following privatisation, which, in this novel, has become the protests against the increase in electricity prices, following privatisation in Río Fugitivo. We follow the protests, which become violent and cause problems for several of the main characters. However, Paz Soldán comes up with a convoluted plot, involving all the main characters, with two of them behaving seemingly completely out of character, several deaths, personal revenge on the part of several of the characters and lots of revelations. While the plot is certainly well done, it tends to detract from both the main protests, which seem to function more as a way to drive the plot than to raise serious issues of globalisation, corruption and abuse of power. Whether that matters depends on whether you see the function of this novel to be just a clever plot or to raise serious issues about the situation in Bolivia. Of course, there are other issues. Paz Soldán seems to favour code-breaking using old-fashioned methods of detective work rather than just relying on computers. However, he also seems to think that the revolution can be fomented within the massively multiplayer online role-playing game Playground, despite the fact that we know, as he tells us, it is heavily policed, when such revolutionaries would also certainly have used Tor and the Dark Web.

Overall I did enjoy the book as it has a clever plot and it does introduce us to the politics of a country most of us will know little about but, overall, I felt that Paz Soldán was too obsessed with the minutiae of his clever plot and tended to bring in the big picture – the Bolivian political situation – only to abandon it when it was no longer directly relevant to the plot. We know, historically, that Banzer died soon after these events but Montenegro seems to keep going. We also know that Evo Morales will be elected which Paz Soldán would not have known when he wrote this book. Maybe Paz Soldán feels that things will just continue for the worse in Bolivia and has resigned himself to the situation. And maybe I should just take this novel for what is and not expect more of it.

First published 2003 by Alfaguara
First English publication by Houghton Mifflin in 2006