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Gustavo Faverón Patriau: Vivir abajo [Living in the Basement]

The blurb on the back cover of my copy (the Spanish edition, not the Peruvian one) states that this novel is a key novel of twenty-first century Latin American literature. They may well be right.

It actually starts off with two biographies from reference works, The Encyclopedia of American Underground Filmmakers and The Encyclopedia of American Romantic Killers (sic), both, of course fictitious and both edited by the equally fictitious Gus Fowley Partridge. The biographies are of, respectively, George Walker Bennett and George W. Bennett. The similarity in names with a recent US president and his son, also president, is fairly obvious. However, the Bennetts are no father and son. Indeed, they seem to have been born a year apart. Both were born in Maine. (Neither Bush was born in Maine.) In both cases, the father was a military/CIA man but, again unlike the Bushes, Bennett 1 had a Bolivian mother and Bennett 2 had a Paraguayan mother. Bennett 1 was a film-maker and seemed to have disappeared. Bennett 2 had a more colourful life, involved in various dirty deeds in Latin America and a ten year stay in a Paraguayan prison. He also disappeared. Our narrator wrote to Gus Fowley Partridge asking if the two were in fact the same man and if he was in touch with the man. Fowley Partridge confirmed that they were in fact the same man but he was not in touch with him.

Our narrator lives in Lima and is attracted to Ariadna. They meet as both go to late-night cinema performances at a local cinema. However, also going to the performances is our George Bennett. He has turned up in Lima, clearly up to no good. Our narrator will eventually follow him and learn of his habits. He reads and he wanders around, filming (he has four cameras). he seems to be having an affair with the receptionist at the cheap hostel where he is trying. She is known as Rita Moreno. presumably because she looks like the actress. He is also dating Ariadna but, as we learn from Ariadna, it does not seem to be sexual. More particularly, he is planning some crime,as the narrator tells us.

Near Ariadna’s house, there is a burned-out house. Bennett is clearly using it for some nefarious plan. One day, he finds a man, Hildegardo, sleeping in the basement. This man had been kidnapped by Shining Path guerrillas. Hildegardo tells Bennett some of the horrors they committed. Bennett decides to film him (a sort of interview) and the narrator has a copy of the film. Bennett says that all good films start in a prison and end in a cemetery. Bennett allegedly was in prison and filmed there.

Ariadna is the daughter of Rainer Enzensberger, a German who fled the Nazis and got to Latin America, where he has lived since. We are warned that there is more to him than meets the eye. Rainer has a few reproductions of paintings and all feature the stone of madness, (a hypothetical stone located in a patient’s head, thought to be the cause of madness, idiocy or dementia). Like a lot of oddities in this book, this will have significance later. Rainer will not fare well and George now disappears.

We next jump back to 1971, where we will meet the young George, though we also meet a couple – Clay Richards and his second wife (we later learn her maiden name is Laura Trujillo though she even refers to herself as Mrs Richards). She teaches George Spanish and we learn something of his difficult childhood but both the Richards have, inevitably, dark events in their past lives. Clay, indeed, has several.

One interesting story about Clay involves a large amount of novels in manuscript, written in Spanish (he specialises in birds of Latin America, Laura is Peruvian, so both speak good Spanish). These are sent regularly to him from Santiago but there is no indication who is sending them to him or why. We get summaries of them and they are all… unusual.

He does track down the man he thinks is the sender, a Bosnian bookseller who lives in Chile, and even goes to see him but the two men seem to be in different space-time continuuums and cannot meet. This is not the only time in this book that characters seem to be in different space-time continuuums. George, for example, will meet a Chilean poet and George comments on one of his works of poetry, though the author has yet to write this work.

George’s father, as we know from the two biographies mentioned above, works for the CIA. For much of George’s childhood, the father, also called George Bennett (several characters in this book have the same name as other characters, just to confuse us) has been a mysterious presence coming and going, spending much time in Latin America. We gradually learn what he was doing there. Eventually, he seems to give that up and spend most of his time at home though George frequently hears strange noises in the basement. As with many of the events on this book, there is a climax, which ends badly for the Bennett family and George disappearing.

George next appears in Paraguay where he meets the very real Bolivian poète maudit Jaime Sáenz. Sáenz allegedly worked for the CIA/US Secret Service and in this book he works not only or them but for the communists. George is trying to track down what his father did in Paraguay and he meets two men, former police officers but now live-in guards at the zoo, both of whom are called Carlos Fuentes, who apparently worked for Bennett Sr. He also meets Raymunda Walsh, allegedly related to the writer Rodolfo Walsh.

As we know from his biography, he spends some time in jail in Paraguay, because he was trying to find a hidden jail that his father had built and while there he imagines films and works as a cook for Stroessner. When he comes out, he tries to find Raymunda.

This is a very simplified summary of what happens in this book. We follow the stories of around a dozen main characters, Each one has something in their past which is decidedly grim, sometimes caused by them and sometimes where they are the victim. Some of them have several such events. The stories all link to one another, directly and indirectly. More particularly, characters in one story suddenly turn up in the most unexpected ways in another story.

The point is to give a picture of the grim events that have happened in the world and in Latin America in particular. We get the horrors of the Pinochet regime in Chile, the Stroessner regime in Paraguay, Che Guevara, the Shining Path guerrillas and the associated repression in Peru, the activities of the CIA in Latin America, the Korean War and World War II. In every case, one or more of our characters is somehow caught up in one or more of these events and is often a contributor to the horror.

However, this is a not straightforward anti-war, anti-violence, anti-political repression novel, far from it. Faverón is skilfully showing firstly the interlinking of the the various cultural aspects of Latin America and the United States and how these have created the situation where human rights abuses and other aspects of repression follow from that. Secondly, it is something of a romp through contemporary culture. We learn about obscure writers such as F. A. Nettelbeck and Jaime Sáenz to Bernard DeVoto and Katharine Lee Bates and many more US and Latin American writers. Relatively obscure film-maker such as Dimitri Kirsanoff and Elem Klimov as well as artists and musicians, both classical and rock, fill the pages.

A whole slew of the characters have names the same as famous writers and others: Donoso, Enzensberger, Yáñez, Trujillo, Fuentes, Schiller, and Attanasio. This is presumably deliberate. Indeed, the entire book is a cultural cornucopia.

In all good novels, everything is connected and everything is certainly connected in this book. Characters appear and disappear and reappear in another story, so that plot lines we think are different turn out to be closely linked in ways we had not imagined. Characters that seem to be the bad guys turn out to the good guys and vice versa. Characters that seem to be fairly straightforward ordinary people, turn out to have a hidden past, which we had not begun to suspect. As mentioned, some of them have more than one past. Many of the characters have killed someone and it is clear that this fact does not make them bad, at least as far as this book is concerned.

Except perhaps for the unnamed narrator, no-one lives happily ever after. All who survive – and many of them do not – have the burden of their past to carry.

I mentioned above that this novel is considered a key novel of twenty-first century Latin American literature by some critics and I can only agree. It is brilliantly plotted, covers a whole range of important ideas, particularly those relating to politics, violence and US involvement in Latin America as well as many cultural issues, particularly those concerning artistes maudits. It is a stunning achievement and I can only hope that some brave publisher publishes it in English. Grove Press did publish his superb previous novel but, I suspect, they did not make much money out of it, though it was fairly well reviewed. I can only hope this one gets the publicity it deserves.

Publishing history

First published in 2018 by Peisa
No English translation