Booktrotting in Kiribati: The Sex Lives of Cannibals

From the shores of Latin America, I’m setting sail for Oceania and the Pacific island chain of Kiribati, in the company of journalist J. Maarten Troost and his 2004 travelogue, The Sex Lives of Cannibals.


Now this was the South Pacific of my dreams. Stunning natural beauty. Challenges to test my mettle as a manly man. Sharks! Extreme heat! The pounding surf! I would thrive here, I felt.

Amateur adventurer and perennial idler, J. Maarten Troost is unsuited to the modern world of recruitment agencies and financial responsibility. So when his partner Sylvia is offered an NGO post on Tarawa Atoll, capital of the remote Republic of Kiribati, he jumps at the opportunity to uproot himself from Washington D.C. and set up shop at the very edge of the world.

But under the glare of the Equatorial sun, his romantic notions of white surf and sandy beaches quickly pass. As the realities of life in the Pacific hinterland set in, Troost learns that paradise can be a lot harder to stomach without the luxuries of modern sanitation, reliable utilities, and regular shipments of beer…

Kiribati by Vladimir Lysenko / CC-BY-SA
Kiribati, Vladimir Lysenko / CC-BY-SA

The Republic of Kiribati (pronounced Keer-ee-BAS) is an island chain comprising over thirty atolls and coral reefs, all dotted across the Equatorial Pacific roughly halfway between Australia and Canada. It has a permanent population of little over 100,000 and covers just 310 square miles in land area (about 1/300 of the UK), but with another million square miles of ocean joining it all together.

As you can imagine, Kiribati is not the kind of place to have made much of a mark on the global literary stage. When I started mapping out this Booktrotting project last summer, I knew that I would struggle to make many stops in Oceania’s myriad island nations, where a tradition of written literature has simply never had the right soil in which to grow.

So when I discovered The Sex Lives of Cannibals, J. Maarten Troost’s memoir of two years spent amongst the Kiribati islands, I knew it had to go on the list. Although Troost is the first to break my Booktrotting pattern of indigenous authors (being the American son of a Dutch-Czech family), I knew that was a compromise I would have to make if I wanted to visit this part of the world at all—a tinted window is, after all, better than no window at all.

And in a way, Troost’s perspective as a total outsider turned out to be an advantage rather than a limitation. Considering how little I knew of Kiribati before reading Sex Lives (besides its being a good answer to most Pointless geography questions), it helped to have my crash-course in life on Tarawa Atoll conducted by someone discovering things from the same lack of foundation as myself.

Maneaba in Babaroroa, Rafael Ávila Coya / CC-BY-SA
Maneaba in Babaroroa, Rafael Ávila Coya / CC-BY-SA

For a book which weighs in at under 300 pages, Troost leaves few stones unturned. Most of Sex Lives‘ twenty-something episodes centre on Troost’s attempts to navigate the many customs, conventions and taboos of the I-Kiribati, and the ways in which they differ from and are similar to his old American lifestyle. From the importance of communal dance to the proper way to sit in the village maneaba, and even how best to confront one’s noisy neighbours—if you were ever thinking of embarking on your own Kiribati adventure, you’d be hard pressed to find a more comprehensive and practical émigré’s guide to your new home than this.

But as fascinating as those details were, what really interested me about Troost’s Pacific sojourn was the picture of the I-Kiribati which emerged between the lines.

Before starting this book, I’d expected the biggest of Troost’s difficulties on Tarawa to be in earning the trust of the cautious, conservative locals. You can hardly blame me: having lived my whole life on the British Isles, it’s difficult to shake the assumption that islanders the world over share our inherent national resistance to change and fear of “outsiders”.

But although the I-Kiribati have and are happy with their way of doing things, the locals in this book showed none of the insularity I was anticipating. As well as Troost and his partner Sylvia, the background of Sex Lives was littered with immigrants of all sorts—doctors and aid workers, government advisors, wanderers laying down roots—and, to hear Troost tell of it, all were as welcome as the next.

You might even remember the bizarre story from the late ’90s of Danny Wilson, the Northampton man who wrote to the President of Kiribati applying to be his nation’s first Poet Laureate. Expecting his request to be laughed straight into the bin, Wilson instead found himself invited out to Kiribati, received by the President himself, and given a hut overlooking the Tarawa lagoon in which to practice his art. And although the President eventually asked Wilson to leave Kiribati, their disagreement only came after the global media attention surrounding Wilson’s appointment (not to mention Wilson’s drunkenness and lack of poetic output) became too much for the I-Kiribati’s liking—had that not been the case, it’s easy to imagine the Poet Laureate would have been welcome on Tarawa as long he liked.

Air Kiribati Harbin Y-12 at Tabiteuea North Airport, Steve Bolton / CC-BY
Air Kiribati Harbin Y-12 at Tabiteuea North Airport, Steve Bolton / CC-BY

Of course, it’s all too possible that Troost may have glossed over any underlying tensions between the I-Kiribati and their foreign neighbours, but nonetheless the relaxed hospitality of Tarawa Atoll felt like a rare fresh breeze in our current climate. It’ll be interesting to see if that is a recurring theme in my following Oceania reads, or if Kiribati’s far-flung location makes its people uniquely amenable to any and all who come wandering through.

Either way, I’ll find out soon enough as I leave Tarawa Atoll and head both southwards and back in time, to the Gold Rush-era New Zealand of Eleanor Catton’s 2013 Man Booker Prize-winning The Luminaries.

Booktrotting Log: So Long, South America

At last; after four months and five novels, the first leg of my Booktrotting World Tour has come to end on the shores of Argentina. Since September I’ve run with gangland drug barons in Jamaica, cooked in a magic kitchen in Mexico, lived under the cloud of civil war in Colombia, prowled with guerrilla fighters along Brazil’s Araguaia River, and learnt what it is to grow up in an impoverished Argentine village.

Willem Jansz. Blaeu, 1630
Willem Jansz. Blaeu, 1630

Starting my journey in Latin America was a bit of a happy accident. Had I not already been partway through Marlon James’ A Brief History of Seven Killings when I decided to undertake this project, I probably would have started on more familiar European or US territory. And even then, once I finished with Jamaica I was still planning on hopping as and where I liked between countries, until I thought there might be a more cohesive bigger picture to be seen if I moved logically through each continent, as if this were a real globetrotting road trip.

But although I’d never originally planned to move southwards from Jamaica to Argentina, I’m glad I did so in the end. For starters, it meant beginning with a whole list of books and authors I’d never heard of before, and from countries I knew next to nothing about, which is of course what this project is all about.

But I also noticed pretty quickly that my hunch about the bigger picture was rather spot on. Spread out and on their own, these five novels would still have provided an interesting new perspective on their authors’ home countries, but together they also form a very consistent and very revealing picture of Latin America as a whole.

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Diego Gutiérrez, 1562

One of the most obvious themes to keep emerging from these novels was violence. Whether it came in the form of revolutionary- or civil-war, bloody gangland violence, or smaller but equally-potent episodes of domestic cruelty, violence has been one of my most constant travel companions on the road through Latin America.

That wasn’t something I was expecting when I went into this—I knew Marlon James had quite the reputation as a bloodthirsty author and that Evelio Rosero’s The Armies would inevitably feature Colombia’s ongoing civil war on centre stage, but as for the others I had no idea they would be so similar in that regard.

But even more surprising for me was how this superficial theme of violence was tied up with the idea of identity and change.

Whether by an act of providence or by sheer dumb luck, the five books I chose for this particular region each centre on an episode of historic change or upheaval for their respective countries. They show Marlon James’ Jamaica caught in the crossfire between two opposing political fronts; revolution in Laura Esquivel’s Mexico and Adriana Lisboa’s Brazil; Evelio Rosero’s Colombia losing itself in the shadow of civil war; and finally, in Manuel Puig’s Argentina, they show traditional society being shaken to its core, in the years prior to the ousting of Juan Perón in the Revolución Libertadora.revolucionarios_tabasquen%cc%83os

For each one of these periods of change, conflict is almost an integral part, either because of the nature of revolution or because such events are so inflammatory. It’s hard to tell sometimes whether the violence is a means for change or just a symptom of it. Rosero’s The Armies seemed the only exception—in that violence itself through the Colombian Conflict was the thing that needed changing—although it still shared with its peers the idea that the people needed to be stirred up and inflamed if they were going to make any difference.

And this also filters down to the smaller questions of identity in these novels, the personal journeys undertaken by the characters. Again and again, violence, tragedy and hardship seem to be the catalysts needed to set characters in motion—Tita in Like Water for Chocolate and Toto in Betrayed by Rita Hayworth are both motivated by the oppression of their families and tradition; Crow Blue‘s Vanja only goes in search of her father after the sudden death of her mother; and for Ismail in The Armies, his sense of self begins to unravel when his town is attacked and his wife is kidnapped by paramilitaries.

But thinking about it with a little hindsight, I shouldn’t have been too surprised to see conflict playing such a role in both national politics and individual lives. After all, much of the Latin America we know today was forged by conflict, thanks to the good Christian missions of sixteenth century conquistadors like Cortés and Pizarro; and when the bloody conquest of an indigenous people forms such a key foundation in a region’s past, it’s almost inevitable that violence and its capacity to bring change will endure in the national psyche. You don’t even have to add in the volatile nature of the pre-conquest tribal societies, or the numerous wars that have scarred the continent since, to wonder why bloodshed doesn’t feature even more than it already does in Latin American literature.

Pedro Lira, Fudacion de Santiago, 1888
Fudación de Santiago, Pedro Lira, 1888

In fact, it’s a little annoying that I’ve still got five more continents to Booktrot through—I’ve enjoyed this first portion so much, I’d happily spend the rest of the year reading Latin American literature and exploring further the links between violence, identity and change.

But even though I’m continuing on to Oceania now, I’ve got a few Latin American books to keep me going on the side. Obviously, Gabriel García Márquez is going to be my next port of call in Colombia, and I’m itching to have a look at Near to the Wild Heart by Clarice Lispector, who has been promisingly described to me as Brazil’s answer to Virginia Woolf. And of course, there are still nine South American countries I haven’t touched on this trip, so I shall have to dip into each of them before long—with that in mind, I guess I best get a move on.

2016 in Books: Challenges; Booktrotting; New Discoveries

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If there’s any single word to describe my 2016 reading list, it has to be “challenge”. Starting off the year with Leo Tolstoy’s infamous War and Peace I felt like I had laid down the gauntlet to myself, to really push the borders of my literary comfort zone; and naturally, with an act like Tolstoy’s to follow, I could hardly resist picking for my “Big Reads” of 2016 some of the most fiendish and formidable giants of literature – namely, Moby DickDon QuixoteAnna Karenina and Ulysses.

img_2967I must admit, part of the attraction of taking on this reading list was in the chance to smugly say I’ve read the books no one else would touch. But it was also about testing my resolve when it came to daunting tasks easily put aside – after all, if I can work through even the most constipated parts of Moby Dick, everything else should be gravy. Surprisingly, given my tendency to inhale literature, my only experience with books of this size has come from either epic fantasy or Alexandre Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo, so to have taken on these five and come out smiling is a big achievement. And, like with most challenges, now it’s over it’s hard to see why it looked so scary in the first place.

I was initially planning on carrying on this “Big Reads” mantra through 2017, perhaps with Les Misérables or even Finnegans Wake, but as much as I’ve enjoyed the challenge this year, I’m feeling pretty pooped now I’ve come to the end. In 4,051 pages, I’ve fought Napoleon, hunted the White Whale, jousted my way across Spain, scandalised Russian high society, and embarked upon the mother of all Dublin pub crawls – I think I ought to take a breather before jumping into the French Revolution or going another round with James Joyce.


img_2970Of course, I can’t talk about literary challenges without mentioning the start of my Booktrotting World Tour earlier this year. I’m definitely starting to feel the full scope of this project now – after five months of reading and writing, I’m still only just wrapping up the first leg in Latin America – but as we continue globally down the slope of ignorance and isolationism, this personal literary journey of mine feels even more important than it did in the summer.

img_2403So far, the hardest part of Booktrotting has not been reading and writing about the books themselves, but in finding them to begin with. I always said when I started that I didn’t want to settle for the “obvious” reads – no Murakami or García Márquez – but the problem with delving into obscurity is that it can make finding affordable, in-print translations a total nightmare.

Still, in a way that’s largely the point of all this: I want to be pushed into reading the books and authors you won’t stumble across on a Tesco bestsellers shelf, and if possible help others find them too. And in hindsight, I’m glad I made that decision, as it’s led to some incredible discoveries so far – not least of which my Colombian read, Evelio Rosero’s The Armies, which has to rival War and Peace for my book of the year.


img_2963Speaking of discoveries, I’ve also been taking more chances on contemporary books this year rather than just sticking to the classics I knew to be good. Anna North’s The Life and Death of Sophie Stark was easily one of my books of the summer, and Ottessa Moshfegh’s Eileen was the perfect wintry counterpart. And though not entirely new to me, the Finnish sci-fi writer Emmi Itäranta really hooked me with her sophomore novel The City of Woven Streets, and will definitely be someone I look out for in the future.

img_2959I didn’t read as many non-fiction books as I’d planned to this year (although I did read plenty of non-fiction in the sense of taking a genuine interest in the news and politics for once). Of the small number I did get round to reading, I particularly enjoyed Neil Oliver’s A History of Ancient Britain – archaeology and prehistory has somehow never managed to excite me before, but Oliver gets so enthused bringing it all to life it’s impossible not to get swept up with him.

img_2940But where my non-fiction target didn’t work out, I did end up reading a lot more graphic novels than expected, thanks to the happy combination of a sick day and a Sky 1 Supergirl marathon reviving my childhood love of comic books. At the moment, I’m just getting into the Kamala Khan Ms Marvel series and loving every page of it – but more on that here. I’d really love to explore what graphic novels can do outside of the superhero remit in the future, so if you have any recommendations on that front please do hit me up.

Booktrotting in Argentina: Betrayed by Rita Hayworth

Moving south from Adriana Lisboa’s border-hopping road-trip Crow Blue, my Booktrotting journey comes to the last stop on its Latin American leg – Argentina, home of Manuel Puig’s first novel, Betrayed by Rita Hayworth.img_3205-1


I would be satisfied with just seeing Mar del Plata, since I never saw the sea. But I think…I would simply like to stay here in Vallejos and meet a good man. I speak of a simple man…who works long hours in silence, without complaint, for my children.

With each of the books on the Latin American leg of my Booktrotting tour, a common theme has been in their presenting a unique challenge on reading: A Brief History of Seven Killings had its unflinching prose and Jamaican patois; Like Water for Chocolate, its blurred lines between reality and fantasy; The Armies was a sheer emotional wrench throughout; and Crow Blue kept time-hopping between its two adjacent plots.

And yet even with such an act to follow, Manuel Puig’s Betrayed by Rita Hayworth still manages to somehow top the lot.

Content-wise, the novel is pretty basic. There’s no real story to speak of, despite the title hinting at a cinematic love affair: Puig pretty much contents himself with just exploring the everyday lives of various interconnected characters, describing their mundanities at home and work and the fantasies they live out through the cinema, dusting them all over with themes of masculinity, patriarchy, entrapment and escape – pretty familiar territory for anyone who’s read any James Joyce or Virginia Woolf.

But right from the first page, Rita Hayworth is anything but simple. It begins with two chapters of pure dialogue – no description, no narrative, not even any attributions to point out which character is saying what – before then plunging into a succession of single-paragraph consciousness streams belonging to the residents of the fictional rural village Vallejos.scenery_at_purmamarca_-_independence_memorial_-_argentina

There’s no sense denying that at first I was completely bamboozled. For the opening two chapters at least I had to keep a pen handy, to jot down in the margin any notes as to who was speaking or what was going on.

But if my experience of reading the likes of Ulysses this year has taught me anything, it’s that with a book like this you sometimes have to put your head down and go for it, then go back and close-read the details once you’ve got the basic idea in place. And once I’d accepted that I’d need to take a little care going forward, I found it much more enjoyable – not quite the “screamingly funny masterpiece” promised by the cover testimonial, but at least not the indecipherable mess I first feared it was.

The picture that Manuel Puig paints of Argentina with this novel is an incredibly bleak one. Every one of his characters is oppressed by someone or something else: wives by their husbands, children by their parents and teachers, the aspirational by their poverty. Some of them are oppressed by nothing more than their own low ambitions, and the safety of staying right where they’ve always been. To relieve themselves they escape to the movies and pretend they are waltzing in The Great Ziegfeld or playing love scenes with Norma Shearer.

And although “mundanely oppressive” might not be quite the message Argentina’s Minister of Tourism would like to put out, it does give quite the appreciation of the kinds of everyday pressures the people of Argentina faced in the 1940s. As I mentioned above, masculinity and traditional patriarchy form a large part of the themes of Rita Hayworth: the young child Toto, for example – the closest thing this novel has to a protagonist – endures constant bullying from both his father and his peers for his close relationship with his mother, and for his aptitude for creative rather than physical tasks. I did often wonder while reading if Puig had been influenced by James Joyce in any way, or if it was just a happy coincidence that Rita Hayworth is so reminiscent of Dubliners and Portrait of the Artist.

casa-rosada-argentinaOne of the things I did notice with this novel was the lack of conflict. Conflict has had a consistent presence throughout each of my four previous Latin American books, either via actual warfare like in The Armies and Crow Blue, or the isolated gangland violence of Seven Killings – and so, given Betrayed by Rita Hayworth‘s setting during the early 1940s and Argentina’s unofficial links with Nazi Germany, I was expecting the Second World War to play a considerable part in the story, even though Argentina officially remained neutral until it finally renounced its Axis links and sided with the Allies in March 1945.

But instead, the only mention of the war was an off-hand comment about how “the Russians betrayed Hitler”. I’d quite like to read more Argentine fiction set during the ’40s to see whether this is a common attitude to Argentina’s involvement in the war; I do wonder if Puig, writing in the late 1960s, reflected a wider effort in Argentina to downplay the country’s links to the Axis powers, particularly the reputation it had post-war as a haven for Nazis fleeing the Nuremberg trials. That the sole mention of Hitler and the Nazis comes from the monologue of Héctor, who is made out to be somewhat crude and uneducated compared to the other characters, suggests that Puig isn’t making an outright denial of Argentine sympathy for Nazi Germany, but does want to make it clear that such feelings were only really held by an uncultured minority.


My next Booktrotting stop is a quick 10,000 km trip across the Pacific to the Oceania island nation of Kiribati, in the company of J. Maarten Troost’s The Sex Lives of Cannibals.

Booktrotting in Brazil: Crow Blue

After leaving Evelio Rosero’s war-torn Colombia, my Booktrotting tour takes a rather loopy road through South America to Brazil-via-Colorado, with Adriana Lisboa’s Crow Blue.


As soon as I left the well-behaved density of downtown Denver, along came that enormous solitude to crush everything in existence. A solitude imposed by the space. A solitude of disperse atoms, of things out of stock on supermarket shelves.

Reading Crow Blue by Adriana Lisboa was something of an odd experience. The story is one of two halves: on the surface it’s about the thirteen-year-old Vanja, who leaves Brazil after her mother’s death and embarks on a road trip across Colorado and New Mexico in search of her biological father. But running parallel to that, weaving in and out of each chapter, is the story of Vanja’s stepfather Fernando and his involvement in Brazil’s communist guerrilla uprising in the 1960s and ’70s.

As such, Crow Blue was a good choice of book with which to get to know Brazil, even if most of the “present” narrative takes place in the US south-west. For starters, before reading this novel I didn’t even know Brazil had a communist guerrilla past, or that the country had any claim to a chapter in the Cold War – barring the Bay of Pigs, most of my Cold War conceptions come from the gloomy Eastern Europe of John le Carré novels.

Of course, I can hardly claim to be an expert on the Araguaia Guerrilla War after reading just one book – especially one that only dedicates half of its 228 pages to the topic – but Lisboa covers enough to give even a complete novice a decent grounding. Not only does she follow Fernando through his guerrilla training in Maoist China to his desertion of the cause in the wake of the Brazilian government’s brutal crackdown on the insurgents, but she also adds in the particulars that Vanja finds out later in life – generals’ names, key dates, the government’s favoured tortures, etc – thus adding scope and detail to Fernando’s personal focus.

Image via Al Jazeera
Image via Al Jazeera

The second strand of the novel, Vanja’s search for her birth father, doesn’t focus on any particular episode of history like Fernando’s does, but Lisboa still uses it to say a lot about her home country, and especially about the ideas of national identity and “Brazilianness”.

Migration is a big theme in Crow Blue. Vanja is a migrant herself, of course, and the irony of a girl born in Albuquerque, raised in Rio de Janeiro, and looking for a place to belong in Denver, Colorado is never quite lost on her story. Nor is she the only case of her kind: her neighbour Carlos is an illegal immigrant from El Salvador who considers himself a Coloradan native, and her stepfather Fernando has obviously settled in Colorado only after passing through Brazil, China and the UK first.

With such tangled roots for everyone involved, it’s natural that Lisboa would work into her story the questionable idea of nationality. Most of Vanja’s memories of her native Brazil are tinged with feelings of pride: her mother’s insistence that Portuguese is the world’s most beautiful language, for example, or Vanja’s rapture over Pelé and Brazil’s 1970 World Cup win. She also constantly compares Brazil favourably to Colorado – where Colorado’s vast, mountainous plains are to her oppressive in their openness, she remembers Rio de Janeiro as close, intimate, a place where “people are always bumping into one another” and hugs, not handshakes, are the greeting of choice.

And yet, as proud as Vanja is of her Brazilian heritage, she freely admits throughout the novel that it is not a place she feels she can call her home. To Vanja, home is where she makes it, not where she was born or where her passport was issued, and as such she is free to admire Brazil without being blind about it. After taking Crow Blue as a taster, I’d certainly love to delve further into Brazilian literature and see if this question of national identity is a common theme or unique to Lisboa – it certainly wouldn’t surprise me at any rate to meet this theme again, given Latin America’s patchy history of conquest and conflict.copacabana_-_rio_de_janeiro_brasil


The next book on my list is the last of my Latin American leg – Betrayed by Rita Hayworth, by Argentina’s Manuel Puig.

Booktrotting in Colombia: The Armies

Leaving behind Laura Esquivel’s Mexico, my Booktrotting journey now crosses the continental border into South America – starting with the war-torn rural Colombia of Evelio Rosero’s The Armies.

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In a small town in the mountains of Colombia, Ismael, a retired teacher, discovers one morning that his wife has disappeared, and not-so-distant gunfire signals the approach of war.

This is, without any exaggeration, one of the most astonishing novels I’ve ever read. I wish I could just upload human emotions to this blog, because even after two days of digesting The Armies I’m still struggling to find any rational way of talking about it. In terms of my Booktrotting agenda, it was perfect: it’s an absolutely harrowing insight into life amidst the Colombian civil war that’s stark and relentless in its brutality yet tellingly fleeting in detail. But The Armies is so much more than just a war novel – it’s a simple human story of grief, of what it is to lose not only your loved ones and your home, but your very sense of self.

Living as I do in the comfort of the English West Country, I couldn’t even begin to imagine a life spent under the shadow of Colombia’s half-century of violence, but for Evelio Rosero’s characters that life seems to be one of denial. The war barely warrants a mention in the early chapters of the book, which instead opens with a picturesque scene of Ismael Pasos picking oranges in his garden and listening to his neighbour play guitar next door:

And this is how it was: at the Brazilian’s house the macaws laughed all the time; I heard them from the top of my garden wall, when I was up the ladder, picking my oranges; now and again I sensed the three cats behind me watching from high up in the almond trees. Further back, my wife fed the fish in the pond: this is how we grew old, she and I, the fish and the cats.

His neighbour’s wife sunbathes naked on the patio, her children play by the pool, and Rosero’s writing focuses sensually on the taste of a fresh orange or the sound of laughter “like a flock of doves exploding at the edge of the wall”. The first real mention of any violence comes with a little exposition regarding Gracielita, a child orphaned by an attack on the town church, but even then Rosero – via Ismael – moves on as soon as possible to talk about her future rather than her past.

Part of this c’est la vie denial stems from the narrator’s age: it’s unclear when The Armies is set, but in his seventies Ismael is old enough to know Colombia before the conflict, and is clearly unable to reconcile that past with the new, violent present. He clings with everything he can to his rapidly deserting youth, refusing to use a walking stick or have someone younger help pick his oranges; he even lusts vainly after every young woman he meets, as if by tapping into the thoughts and feelings of his younger self he can return to that simpler, golden past.

In that way, it’s hardly a stretch to say Ismael is a metaphor for Colombia itself: as the novel progresses, his loss of his youth, his wife, his memory and eventually his identity sounds very much like the deterioration of a country at war with itself. But at the same time, The Armies seems to hold more power if left as it appears to be, as a simple tale of a man fighting the passage of time. It’s the sort of theme you’d find Virginia Woolf at home with, and though Rosero doesn’t go so far as to use her favoured stream-of-consciousness technique, Ismael’s first-person present tense narrative is immersive to the point of heartbreaking. It’s a painful novel, it’s a wearying novel, and in its own way that makes it a beautiful novel; never before have I read something that felt so true to my own personal experience of grief.

As far as I am aware, The Armies is the only one of Evelio Rosero’s works to be translated into English; but if the rest of his novels are as good as this, I would gladly learn Spanish just to read them.


Continuing on through South America, my next stop takes me to Brazil as soon through the lens of Adriana Lisboa’s Crow Blue.

Booktrotting in Mexico: Like Water for Chocolate

After starting my Booktrotting World Tour in Jamaica, I’m now taking a short hop across the Caribbean Sea to Mexico, for a tour of love and cooking on the US border with Laura Esquivel’s Like Water for Chocolate.


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Tita de la Garza, a young girl living in rural Mexico with her mother and two sisters, longs to marry her lover Pedro, but is forbidden by an old family tradition that requires Tita to stay single and care for her mother through the latter’s old age.

This book was a strange one to read. For starters, it’s presented not as a conventional novel but as a cookbook; each chapter is dedicated to a particular recipe, starting off with the list of ingredients and using the preparation instructions as a backdrop against which the story is hung.

Then there’s the structure: as the subtitle explains, it’s a novel in monthly instalments – twelve chapters, January through to December – but where you’d expect that to mean the story takes place over a single year, it actually spans some two decades.

Now, I don’t know about you, but I love it when a novel does something different; and even though I didn’t find Like Water for Chocolate a particularly enthralling read, I came away really appreciating the way Laura Esquivel had chosen to tell her story. The recipe structure especially – it’s clear enough from the plot that Tita feels oppressed by her family’s obsolete tradition, but by writing the novel as a cookbook Esquivel underlines just how deep the entrapment goes, with Tita simply unable to separate the story of her life from the story of her domestic duties. The seismic events that fill each of the novel’s twelve chapters are not remembered by their importance so much as by the food Tita prepared for the occasion, whilst major societal events like the Mexican Revolution are largely only spoken of in passing, as if the Mexico outside Tita’s home is a whole other country to her.

But my favourite aspect of Like Water for Chocolate was the really strong sense it gave of rural Mexican life being one of stoicism. War, rape, sickness, death; Tita and the de la Garza family are subjected to some true horrors in just 250-odd pages, but Esquivel’s writing never allows them to wallow – the more painful the event, the fewer words Esquivel uses to relate it. To the characters in this novel, suffering seems more an inevitability than a tragedy, which I found to be a very sobering new perspective on life in a country more commonly known for tequila and mariachi.


Next up is a visit to civil war-torn Colombia, with The Armies by Evelio Rosero.