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Jorge Franco: El mundo de afuera [The World Outside]

Don Diego Echavarría Misas is a rich Colombian who lives in Medellín. He has always been a great lover of Germany and things German and has spent much time in Germany. He loves Wagner. He also seems to think that Hitler’s death was not a good thing and that the Nazis had a lot to offer. Indeed (in the 1950s) he joined with other like-minded people of various nationalities to promote German reunification as it was before World War II, though nothing seems to come of this. While in Berlin, he and a friend are invited to party which he wants to go to, as there is a chance he will meet Thomas Mann. However, before the party, he suggests to the friend that they wait in the lobby of the hotel as there is a chance that Maria Callas, who is singing in Tristan and Isolde, might walk through it. She does not appear, so they go to the party, where he does see a striking woman. She is Benedikta Zur Nieden but everyone calls her Dita. As this occurs well into the book, we know that they will get together. As they are leaving the party, it is raining. He gets an umbrella but, as they are about to leave, a car pulls up and a woman gets out, without an umbrella. He offers her the umbrella to use to come into the hotel. The woman, of course, is Maria Callas. However, his relationship with Dita continue and develops. She seduces him and, as we know from the beginning of the book, they end up in Medellín, with a daughter, Isolda. Before heading off to Colombia, Diego contacts an architect. He wants to build a castle in Medellín. The architect tries to dissuade him but, eventually, they decide to model the castle on La Rochefoucauld Castle. This is where they are living when the book opens, many years later, in 1969.

Isolda has been very well protected. She is generally kept in the castle and its extensive grounds, has her own (German) tutor, who is not at all happy in Colombia, a country of savages, as she says, and is treated as a princess. There is a wood behind the castle and she sometimes ventures there, where she has been spied by some of the locals, unknown both to Isolda herself and to her family. At the start of the novel, Diego, on returning home, is set upon and kidnapped by a group of men. Much of the novel, as well as telling about Diego’s early life and the life in the castle, is about his relationship with his kidnappers, the kidnappers’ own lives and what Dita and the police ar doing (or not doing) to get Diego back. The kidnappers are led by a man called Mono Riascos. Mono is a nickname. It is the normal Spanish word for monkey – Mono claims he got the nickname from his ability to climb trees – but it is also a Colombian slang word for someone who is fair-haired and his fellow kidnappers think this is the origin of the name. The whole gang seems somewhat inefficient – on one occasion, Diego, who is seventy-six, almost manages to just walk away – and they are in perpetual fear of being caught, even though the police seem to be as incompetent as the gang. They make no attempt to conceal themselves from Diego, who sees them and even hears their names. He also overhears their discussions about him and the police. The other members seem to be just common petty crooks though there is one who is different. This is a woman, nicknamed Twiggy, as she has short hair and wears mini-skirts. She thinks that she is Mono’s girlfriend but is unaware that he is gay. Mono has a younger boyfriend, who tries to get as much money as he can out of Mono – he persuades Mono to buy him a motorcycle – but is not in the gang. Mono lives with his doting mother, who is unaware of her son’s other life. Though Mono is gay, he clearly has a crush on Isolda. He is one of the locals who has spied on Isolda and, indeed, it is seeing her and the castle that led him to the idea of the kidnapping. He continually wants to discuss Isolda with Diego who, for his part, is naturally reluctant to discuss his precious daughter with a kidnapper but is surprised what Mono knows.

The kidnappers do not treat Diego badly, though his toilet visits are limited. He eats very little, partially because he does not like their food. He is upset that he is not only not allowed to shower but is not even given any soap and a towel to wash. However, there is, initially, no ill-treatment. They, for their part, are upset that Dita does not seem to be coming forth with any ransom. Indeed, she seems to refuse to speak to them any more. They want to take a photo of Diego to show Dita that he is still alive but he refuses and they are restricted, as they only have an ordinary camera and no access to a darkroom, so do not know how they can get a photo developed without anyone seeing the pictures. As things start to go badly for the kidnapper and Mono loses his temper not only with Diego but also with his gang, we follow Diego’s time in Germany, his early life with Dita and his construction of the castle as well as Isolda’s life in Medellín. She likes the Beatles and wants to be like a modern girl but, at the same time, is something of a princess. Mono continues spying on her and teases Diego about this. (Usted y yo dependíamos de Isolda, en situaciones muy diferentes. [You and I depend on Isolda, but in very different situations], Mono says). The gang is also getting impatient with the situation. They have been living off the proceeds of petty theft but they are all looking for a big payout. Gradually and inevitably, things start to go wrong, though the incompetence of the police helps them a bit. The arrival of a Belgian psychic to help Dita also changes things.

This is an excellent novel, with Franco playing on the tensions within the gang as well as between Mono and Diego. The complete incompetence of the gang in many ways (though they do manage to gain access to Dita in her house, even while they are holding Diego and get away with some mistakes because of police incompetence) is, at times, almost laughable, not least because Diego has not only seen all the gang but knows their names (or, at least, their nicknames). However, the story is enhanced by Isolda and her influence over both Diego and Mono and her isolation from the real world, by Mono’s relationship not only with his gang, but also with his mother, Twiggy and his unnamed boyfriend, and by the strange Belgian psychic. Are Colombian kidnap gangs and the Medellín police really so incompetent? I suspect not but it does make for an enjoyable story.

Publishing history

First published in Spanish 2014 by Santillana
No English translation
First publication in French as Le monde extérieur in 2016 by Éditions Métailié
Translated by René Solís
Also available in Danish, Dutch, Japanese and Polish