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Alfredo Bryce Echenique: Las obras infames de Pancho Marambio [The Infamous Works of Pancho Marambio]

Our hero is the amusingly named Bienvenido Salvador Buenaventura. He has been a successful lawyer in Lima and is now fifty-four. He has decided to give up his job and go and live in Europe, specifically Barcelona. His parents and his two older brothers have both died and he has inherited money. His father and brothers all died from alcoholism-related illnesses. Is this something inherited or is it, as his middle brother said before dying, simply the family curse? Bienvenido has so far resisted the temptation of the demon drink.

Neither Bienvenido nor his brothers ever married. Bienvenido was in love with his middle brother’s girlfriend, Mariana, but, even after his brother’s death, nothing much happened, so Bienvenido is free to come and go as he pleases.

Bienvenido has a few friends in Barcelona, though he admits the business acquaintances he had are just that, acquaintances but not friends. His best friend there is Gérard, a Frenchman whom he has known since childhood, who tends to speak a mixture of Catalan, Spanish and French. On arrival, Bienvenido phones him up and Gérard suggests he stays in his flat till Bienvenido can find somewhere of his own. Bienvenido readily agrees. Gérard, like most of Bienvenido’s friends, is a bachelor.

It is Gérard who tells him not to bother going to agencies to find a flat but to look out for announcements stuck to trees or lamp-posts and, indeed, it is Gérard who finds a suitable one. The flat is owned by a couple who are eager to sell up and Bienvenido gets a good deal. However, the flat clearly requires some work. Gérard has brought along a friend – the eponymous Pancho Marambio – who claims to know about such things. Gérard warns Bienvenido to be wary of Pancho Marambio. Pancho is a notorious liar, full of himself and more concerned with flash cars and his appearance than anything else. He claims to be an architect but, despite his claims and the fact that he has even written two books on architecture, he has no qualifications in the area whatsoever.

Pancho gets involved in the buying/selling negotiations but, in particular, he offers to do the work needed in the flat. By this time, Bienvenido has decided that he is going to carry out a lifelong dream and travel around Europe, while Pancho works on his flat. He even pays Pancho in advance. When Gérard finds out he tells Bienvenido that he has been foolish on both counts. Pancho needs close supervision and should not be paid in advance. Nevertheless, Bienvenido sets out on his travels.

After two months of travel, he returns and goes to visit his flat. It looks as though someone has thrown a bomb into it. It is in a terrible state. Bienvenido is furious and berates Pancho and threatens him. He again sets off but, instead of going from cultural site to cultural site, he goes from bar to bar, steadily drinking and drowning his sorrows. When he returns, the news is not much better. Pancho has not quite finished but what he has done is not impressive. The colours are horrible as is the layout. Sub-contractors come round to do work and make it worse. For example, a North African, whose name is something like Rafael comes to install the boiler and ends up flooding the kitchen and the water seeps into the flat below. Bienvenido drowns his sorrows in drink.

He does manage to find a better contractor, a Colombian, but there is a lot of work to make good Pancho’s infamous works and Bienvenido spends his time in the bar across the road, while the work is going on. When Mariana turns up unexpectedly, Bienvenido is in bed, unshaven, unshowered and recovering from a hangover. He initially refuses to see her but his housekeeper, Vicky, persuades him to do so. He tells Mariana that he is no good for her and urges her to leave. She initially refuses but then, reluctantly, she does go back to Peru.

The book continues with Bienvenido sliding down the slippery slope of alcoholism. He goes out on bar crawls, trying to avoid his own neighbourhood. He often does not return home for days and, when he does, he stays in bed for day, to Vicky’s chagrin. During this period, he even manages a brief affair. This is with Palmira, a woman whom he knew in Lima and who taunts him about his family’s alcoholism and about how his brother was aware that he loved Mariana. However, the rest of the time he does nothing except drink and sleep. He listens to his music, which he used to love, but does not hear it. He flips through books but does not read them. Eventually, he ends up in a clinic.

I do not think that this is as good a book as the other two of his I have read. It has a good reputation in Latin America but has not been translated into any other language. Alcoholism and its harmful effects has been a key theme of the novel for along time. Indeed, Zola was just one writer who implied that it was genetic, which we now know to be untrue. Bryce Echenique certainly gives a colourful portrait of Bienvenido’s downfall and the two causes of it: the family curse and Pancho Marambio and his works, and we can only sympathise with Bienvenido in his plight. Perhaps if you have been touched by alcoholism or by an awful contractor, you might feel more involvement in the book but it did not fully work for me.

Publishing history

First published in 2007 by Planeta
No English translation