Booktrotting Log: Oceania

Another continent, another stage of my Booktrotting journey completed. Compared with the previous leg in Latin America, this literary trip across the island nations of Oceania has felt all too brief, having only three stops along the way—and yet those stops could hardly have been more diverse, beginning in self-imposed exile on Kiribati, moving through to New Zealand’s 19th century gold rush, and ending with a twisted coming-of-age story on the Australian coast.

Carte de L’Océanie, J.G. Barbie du Bocage, 1852

I always knew I would struggle to find a wide spread of literature from this part of the world, and so all things considered I’m glad I managed to read what I did. But of course, it’s not all about quantity: what’s more important is how well the few books I did choose fit with my Booktrotting goal of filling in some of those blank edges on my world map.

I mentioned before how J. Maarten Troost’s The Sex Lives of Cannibals was an especially good find in this regard, given how comprehensive his account was of Kiribati’s history, geography and social minutiae, and how Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries likewise introduced me to an entire period of New Zealand’s past about which I previously knew nothing.

Even Tim Winton’s Breath, which I didn’t much enjoy as a novel, was immense fun to explore as a window onto Australian adolescence and its relationship with masculinity.

Maris Pacifici, Abraham Ortelius, 1589

Fortunately, even with a smaller set of books to work from, it was still easy to notice several common themes emerging as I read my way across Oceania, just as it was in Latin America.

One of the first themes I noticed (largely because of its striking contrast to the violence encountered from Jamaica through to Argentina) was openness. Whether it was Troost in Kiribati, Walter Moody in New Zealand or Pikelet’s Kent-born family in Australia, the narrators of each of these novels were by strange coincidence connected by their origins overseas, and by the way that seemingly didn’t matter beyond providing a little backstory. Perhaps I’m just looking at this with a little too much zeitgeist, but I couldn’t help wondering that if these books were written by British authors, how many pages would be dedicated to the simple fact that the characters came from Somewhere Else?

It’s interesting to consider the role Oceania’s geography might play in this. In the British Isles, spurning the company of strangers is something of a luxury, packed in as tight as we are to our neighbours both domestic and across the Channel.

But in the countries of Oceania—especially in the vast, open spaces of Australia—that same luxury doesn’t really exist. I’d always heard friends and family in Australia and New Zealand say that it’s a much friendlier world down in the South Pacific, but I’d never thought until now how that might stem from a sense of international loneliness, cut off from the rest of the world as these countries are by the bounds of the Indian and Pacific Oceans—alone, if you will, at what once really was the edge of the world.

Australasia, John Pinkerton, 1818

From Australia my Booktrotting journey now heads across the South China Sea to continue on through Asia, working from Malaysia in the east around to Turkey in the west. But although I’m moving on from Oceania, I am determined to discover more authors and books from this region, starting with Australia’s Kate Grenville and Miles Franklin, as well as Eleanor Catton’s much-lauded first novel The Rehearsal.

Booktrotting in Australia: Breath

After departing 19th century New Zealand, my Booktrotting tour comes to the final stop on its Oceania leg, Australia—more specifically, the southwest coast of Tim Winton’s Breath.

Rising sharply from the seabed the shoal at Old Smoky was like a sunken building, windows open, teeming with blue morwongs, harlequins and boarfish. In the water column above, schools of buffalo bream churned restless circles; in the mouths of caves were lobsters the size of cattle dogs.


In a small mill town on the Australian west coast, eleven-year-old Bruce Pike grows up exhausted by the stillness of his surroundings. Together with town wild boy Loonie, he is drawn out to the booming ocean on his doorstep, and falls under the spell of the power of the waves and the mythical knot of men who surf them. Soon the boys have boards of their own—and spurred on by their own young courage and the awe of their peers, Pikelet and Loonie enter into an intoxicating world of exhilaration, immortality and fear.

I changed my mind a lot when looking for an Australian Booktrotting read; pretty much everywhere I looked turned up something that caught my eye, from The Secret River and The Narrow Road to the Deep North to anything by Miles Franklin.

But when I found Tim Winton’s “love letter to the sea” Breath, I settled on it straight away. Granted, my own stretch of the Somerset coast is a far cry from the bluffs and bomboras of Western Australia, but nevertheless I, like young Pikelet, have grown up beside and in reverence of the ocean, and I always love authors who can put that feeling into better words than I’ve ever managed. Add in Pike’s small town upbringing and love of literature, and I thought he would be a character that was achingly familiar, despite our being separated by some 9,000 miles.

Surfers at Paradise Beach, Queensland, P.J. Robertson / CC-BY-SA-2.0
And yet, in spite of the many similarities, I struggled to find much relation with Pike’s story. Obviously surfing is a major part of Breath, and, although Winton keeps the jargon to an understandable minimum, there were plenty of times when I felt too far removed from Pike’s experiences to really engage with them. In particular, Winton’s depictions of the act of surfing itself (“the huge body-rush we got flying down the line with the wind in our ears”) often lost clarity amidst the breathless adrenaline of the moment.

(I did however find an affinity with Pikelet when he confessed he could get no more than a few chapters into Moby Dick—I wondered if he, like I, had fallen for Melville’s opening poetry about the allure of the ocean, only to be turned off by all the whaling gore and narrative tangents that followed.)

Coolum Beach, Queensland, Vanderven / CC-BY-SA-2.5
But to treat Breath as just a surfing novel would be to ignore its greatest attribute. This is, above all, a coming-of-age story, a terrific (and no doubt autobiographical) snapshot of life on the cusp of manhood in 1970s Australia. It’s as much about the ocean as it is about family, masculinity, and finding one’s place in the world.

The surfing is just an extension of that. Thanks to the likes of Home and Away, it’s easy for us in Britain to see surfing as nothing more than an Aussie cliché—but to Loonie and Pikelet, under the tutelage of their hippy mentor Sando, it’s a rite of passage, their personal bridge from innocence to adulthood.

To Pike, his time on the waves is also a means of vital self-expression. During his first encounters with Sando and the other surfers, he is enthralled by the elegance of what they can do, by “how strange it was to see men do something beautiful,” and later notes how his own style of surfing has a grace and finesse that Loonie’s blind bravado lacks. He regards surfing as a kind of physical poetry, something “pointless and beautiful” that exists beyond the ideas of masculinity his traditional, agricultural hometown has to offer. It seems strange to say, given surfing’s modern day image, but for Bruce Pike—and perhaps for Tim Winton too—taking on the ocean was not about the death-defying thrill, but about finding his own interpretation of what it is to be a man.

The Twelve Apostles, Victoria, Richard Mikalsen / CC-BY-SA-3.0
From Australia my Booktrotting tour now leaves Oceania behind and begins its third leg, in Asia—beginning with The Garden of Evening Mists by Malaysia’s Tan Twan Eng.

Booktrotting in New Zealand: The Luminaries

Continuing on from the remote Republic of Kiribati, my South Pacific journey has taken a turn back in time to the New Zealand gold rush of Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries.

He found that he was disappointed: the West Coast Times read like a parish gazette. But what had he expected? That a goldfield would be an exotic phantasm, made of glitter and promise? That the diggers would be notorious and sly—every man a murderer, every man a thief?

In 1866, Scotsman Walter Moody lands in New Zealand, ready to make his fortune on the South Island goldfields. But when he arrives in the middle of the night, he stumbles instead across a secret meeting of twelve local men, and is drawn into their confidence as they discuss a series of unsolved mysteries—the disappearance of a wealthy man, the attempted suicide of a whore, and a fortune found in a dead man’s home.

It was easy for me to empathise with Moody. Not knowing anything about The Luminaries beforehand, I was as adrift as he was upon entering Eleanor Catton’s world and finding what felt like a play I was seeing from the interval onwards. The incidents described in the blurb had already taken place, their consequences were already underway, and around me were a dozen characters whose roles in the story were already established, and who were now obliged to fill Moody and myself in on everything we’d missed.

But if that sounds confusing or tedious, it was far from it—Eleanor Catton is much too masterful a storyteller for that. Hers is a plot built with finesse, its revelations deployed with the exactitude of one who knows just when to illuminate and when to remain cryptic. As the truth unfurls it does so seductively—helped along in no small way by Catton’s charming pastiche of the Victorian theatric, blending sex, murder and buried treasure behind a fog of opium smoke. If you enjoy getting lost in the likes of Anna Karenina or The Count of Monte Cristo, then this is definitely the book for you.

Hokitika River and Hokitika Gorge, Pseudopanax / Wikimedia Commons (public domain)

Luckily I loved both of those novels, and so The Luminaries was a perfect fit for my reading taste. But when I was first planning my Booktrotting itinerary, I was reluctant to include it as my New Zealand stop; for one reason or another, I thought my literary world tour would be better served by a setting more contemporary than 1866.

But on the other hand, I was also drawn irresistibly to the backdrop of the West Coast Gold Rush. For all my knowledge of New Zealand’s vineyards and film locations, I know next to nothing about the country’s past, and had no idea it had even had a gold rush—I’d always thought prospectors were exclusive to the American west.

And so with a history lesson in mind, I could hardly have asked any more of The Luminaries. Its plot may be intentionally fanciful to the extreme, but the framework beneath is rife with historical detail: from characters’ names and clothes, to the hierarchy of township society, even to the fine print of shipping insurance, the meticulousness of Catton’s research deserves at least as much praise as the novel itself. She doesn’t so much construct the 19th century West Coast as resurrect it; so tangibly authentic is her depiction of Hokitika’s streets that they feel like a period drama set just waiting for the crew to start filming (which, incidentally, shouldn’t be long now).

Hokitika Township ca 1870s, James Ring / National Library of New Zealand (public domain)

But of all the elements of historical accuracy, the one Catton captures best is the diversity found at what was, in 1866, the effective end of the world.

To call her ensemble cast of characters “diverse” wouldn’t quite do it justice—”motley” would probably come closer. In the first scene alone, Scottish-born Moody rubs shoulders not just with émigrés from his own British Isles, but also from Norway, France, Germany and China; there’s surely no irony lost in the character of Te Rau Tauwhare, the only native Maori presence in The Luminaries‘ 832 pages.

Catton uses this kaleidoscope of different perspectives to paint Hokitika in the abstract, as something exotic, elusive and ever-changing, a scene distorted by the expectations of it. Depending on the character, New Zealand means riches, revenge, adventure, anonymity: to some it is the start of a new life, to others it’s just a different place to die.

The paths that lead these characters across the Pacific sound veritably swashbuckling when read together. But I can’t help wondering if that is in fact the point; if, in borrowing from the playbook of the penny dreadful, Catton is also poking fun at our romantic, “greener grass” view of life in this far corner of the world. It’s certainly not hard to see how the modern attraction of New Zealand has grown in part from its goldfield past, and from the tales of glory and wild wonder that would have reached Britain from the West Coast in 1866.

But that being said, it’s clear Catton isn’t trying to debunk New Zealand’s reputation as an idyllic escape—The Luminaries merely presents a tickled new perspective on where that might have originated. And of course, even if our impression of the country has been inflated somewhat by the lens of time and distance, there’s no denying that there is some truth to New Zealand’s allure. It is, after all, still a truly breathtaking country…

Lake Matheson, Mrogex / CC-BY-SA

Next up is the final stop on my Oceania leg—Australia, for which my guide will be Tim Winton’s story of surfing and boyhood, Breath.

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.