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Rodolfo Arias Formoso: Guirnaldas (bajo tierra) [Garlands (Underground)]

Arias has had a high reputation in Costa Rica and this novel was garlanded (pun intended) with prizes. It is easy to see why, as it is quite a fun novel. Its basic structure is a tube line. There are seven lines, named after colours: green, red, yellow, blue, pink, brown and purple. (I do not know whether it is based on an actual metro system. San José does not have a metro system but there are several in the world that do use colours to name their lines, such as Chicago, Los Angeles, Washington, DC, New Delhi and, doubtless, others). Each chapter is either the name of a station, usually a place in San José where the action takes place, or the name of a station which is an intersection of two lines. Each chapter tends to feature the story of one character, though will invariably have other characters appearing in that story. The characters are the residents of San José and may be rich or poor, male or female, Costa Rican born or immigrants, good or bad. Though Arias generally simply tells their story, he is not averse to the odd tongue-in-cheek comment about his characters and their foibles. The basis of the novel is that everyone is somehow connected and the butterfly effect. Many of the characters appear and reappear in minor roles in the stories of others and their often minor acts can have an effect on the lives of others. Nearly all of the characters have nicknames, in many cases, multiple nicknames, some of which are explained, while others are not.

Take the first story. This is nominally about the wonderfully named Greivin Josué Trigueros Hidalgo. Greivin is an eight-year old boy. He has told his parents that is feeling unwell and he has been left at home with the maid/nanny. However, his real reason for absenting himself from school is to play with a toy helicopter, which his father surprisingly bought him the previous evening. He sneaks out into the garden but, while playing with it, it flies over the wall. Fortunately for him, Pumilla (we later learn that his real name is José Luis Rodríguez but he is always called Pumilla) is walking by. He recovers the helicopter and sends it flying back over the wall. As a result of this minor delay, the driver of a passing car sees him. It is Eric Sánchez, someone he knew at school ten years ago, though they have lost touch. Pumilla was down on his luck. He had no real job and his marriage had broken up. Eric is working in IT and Pumilla asks him about a job. Eric tells him that there is a possibility. Pumilla, however, has no decent clothes for an interview and his mother, a widow, is broke. However, she does the lottery every week. She goes to the lottery seller and asks for the number seventy-four. He mishears her and gives her sixty-four by mistake. He is going to correct it but she takes it as sign and accepts sixty-four. Of course, sixty-four wins and she is able to buy her son some decent clothes, which helps him get the job. Two chance occurrences – the helicopter flying over the wall and the mishearing of the lottery ticket seller – have landed Pumilla a job. Of course, we have not finished with Pumilla.

Not all the characters are straightforward, ordinary people. We have one character whose pleasure in life is disrupting other people’s lives. He loves complaining about the food at restaurants or pointing out a defective package in the supermarket, making the assistant go and find a better one and holding up the queue. His greatest pleasure is to cause car accidents. He fakes accidents, particularly ones where there is some sort of collision, and then extorts money from the other person, so that their insurance premiums are not affected. Then there is the innocent airline baggage handler who gambles all his earnings away and is taken up by an attractive woman. He thinks that she likes him for his charms but she eventually tricks him into placing a package, clearly containing drugs, in a case being loaded onto a plane bound for Miami. (Last time I was in Miami, there were sniffer dogs in the airport but Arias presumably had not thought of that.) This, like several of the other stories, carries on through the other chapters and, also like some of the other stories, ends badly.

One of the joys of this novel is the rich array of characters and events. We get not only fake accidents and drug dealers, but also the pink E-type Jaguar which a character saw in a James Bond film and which she wants for herself. We get a fair amount of science and technology, too. Someone debugs a computer programme; we get the super hadron collider, genetic engineering and machine translation. But we also get a young neo-Nazi thug, a couple of unwanted pregnancies (and the their consequences), problems with the tax office over the pink E-type (the computer programme for which is written by the firm Pumilla gets the job with), police investigations… In short, Arias gives us a full range of Costa Rican activity, a host of colourful and varied characters and lots of interesting, intersecting stories. Sadly, as this book is from Costa Rica, it has not been translated into any other language and is unlikely to be translated.

Publishing history

First published in 2013 by Ediciones Lanzallamas
No English translation