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From issue: Young Entrepreneurs ( )

Books

In this issue:

"Things We Lost in the Fire"

Ona Russell

Tales of life on the margins in Argentine author Mariana Enríquez's new short story collection.

What terrifies more, the past or the present? The imaginary or the real? The supernatural or the self? Don’t answer. Not yet. Not until you’ve read Mariana Enríquez’s masterful, disturbing short story collection, Things We Lost in the Fire (Hogarth Press). Wait until you’ve traveled, eyes open, through her perilous terrain, where either/or categories are blurred and the real question involves the relationship of one terror to another.

Set in contemporary Argentina, each story, with a single, notable exception, is told from a female perspective. Each is unique, but thematically related. And each begins with a rather conventional hook: All is normal, relatively speaking, until X occurs. But get ready. Because X — a grimy handshake, a girl pulling fingernails off with her teeth, an amputee who coddles her stump — is anything but conventional. And things only get stranger from there.

Indeed, one could be lured into identifying these tales as horror stories, given the plethora of ghosts, witches and inhuman savagery they contain. But Enríquez dispels us of that idea with the intrusion of historical details, dates, events and names that push through the generic soil like resistant weeds: 1990, the Malvinas, Perón. Just when we believe in the monster, up pops the dictator.

Supernatural incidents occur also at the moment of personal epiphany: lesbian awakening, recognition of abuse, the sudden acknowledgement of guilt. That’s when the ghosts really strike, when it’s hard to tell which terror is more frightening: a tingling below the belly button from a young girl’s touch, or the pounding on windows by soldiers who aren’t really there.

On one level, such incidents are the bubbling up of the unconscious, a psychic fire in which characters sometimes gain more than they lose. But Enríquez won’t allow us to take full refuge in metaphor. Spirits may be representative of internal states, but as serial killers, dead children and, as in the title story, self-immolating women, they are also chillingly real.

Place is a central character here, and it too is a blend of the concrete and symbolic. Houses are more often prisons than havens, more evil than comforting. “Maybe the house didn’t let me talk,” says one of the characters. “Didn’t let me save them.” So too are cities living entities, embodiments of their inhabitants. Buenos Aires beckons with its bourgeois civility. But only in certain areas. Like the repeated power outages, degeneracy flickers everywhere else.

It is the “everywhere else,” life on the margins, that interests Enríquez most. The forgotten, the ugly, the disfigured. Cults and demons. They are inventions, but also suggestive of the actual victims of political inaction and class struggle; the human detritus of inequity. And her language and tone reflect their conditions: raw, brutal, flat, exhausted. Images of carrion, decay and rotting permeate the narratives, the stench rising from the pages. As a reader, you might turn away, hesitant to seek their source. But Enríquez provides it nonetheless — in homes devoid of love, in marriages of convenience, poverty, ignorance, unwanted children. It is the smell of history swept under the rug.

There is some unevenness in these stories, and at times the macabre descriptions seem gratuitous. Enríquez is in love with words, and that love periodically gets the better of her. But overall the collection speaks to our deepest, and darkest, concerns. Argentine and otherwise. There is little in these stories to soothe the savage beast. A moment of humor here and there (a skeleton companion, calavera, nicknamed Vera for short), and a few passages of uncompromised beauty. But these are fleeting. They stand out, like golden branches over a raging river. We can admire — but not count on them for safety.

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Russell holds a Ph.D. in American literature and is the author most recently of Rule of Capture, an award-winning novel set in 1920s Los Angeles.


"La Historia Secreta del Proceso de Paz"

Adriana La Rotta

Colombian journalist Marisol Gómez Giraldo goes behind the scenes in this early account of the country's tumultuous peace process.

In August 2010, three days into his first term as president, Colombia’s Juan Manuel Santos met for the first time with his Venezuelan counterpart, Hugo Chávez. Relations between their two countries had hit bottom during the administration of Santos’s predecessor, Álvaro Uribe. But now, in the city of Santa Marta on Colombia’s Caribbean coast, the two men seemed determined to mend ties. It was then that Santos first told Chávez he planned to start peace talks with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), which for 50 years had waged war against Colombia’s democratically elected governments. “Count on my support,” Chávez responded. “This is the best thing that could happen to Colombia.”

The next six years would put that claim to the test. Between 2010 and 2012, meetings between the government and farc leadership took place across three continents and in absolute secrecy. Santos believed that if news of the talks were to leak, a public outcry would stop the process in its tracks.

But the secret was exposed in August 2012, when Uribe got whiff of the talks and accused the Santos administration of engaging the guerrillas behind the country’s back. It was an accusation that would define opposition to the talks to the very end. One month later, Santos confirmed that the negotiations were underway and well advanced, thanks in large part to the support of outside players, including Cuba, Norway, Venezuela and Chile.

In La Historia Secreta del Proceso de Paz, a succinct account of the six-year negotiations, Colombian journalist Marisol Gómez Giraldo, who covered the talks for Colombian newspaper El Tiempo, sheds light on the hidden aspects of the process, including the surprising role played by Venezuela’s Chávez in ensuring the guerrillas did not march out of the negotiating room. Rather than a thorn in the side of regional cooperation, Chávez,  who died of cancer while in office in March 2013, comes across as a persevering conciliator with influence over veteran farc leader Rodrigo “Timochenko” Londoño.

Another key player was Santos’s older brother, Enrique, a left-wing intellectual and influential newspaper columnist, who served as a credible interlocutor with the guerrilla group. Several times when talks were at an impasse, Enrique Santos was sent to consult with Timochenko in a Havana mansion, assuming an informal role as the voice of reason.

Gómez’s book will not be the definitive account of the peace talks. While often engaging, it is a first draft of history, not least because it was released the day after a national plebiscite in which Colombians, asked to support or reject the terms of the agreement with the farc, voted against the accord by a razor-thin margin.

The book has been a remarkable bestseller in Colombia — in large part, one presumes, because it succeeds in providing some insight on a drawn-out negotiation process that was secretive by design. In his zeal to succeed, Santos was determined to avoid the circus that had surrounded prior peace attempts, in which talks between the government and guerrillas were sometimes broadcast live on national TV, allowing for outrageous grandstanding.

But the mantle of secrecy that surrounded this latest effort also sowed the seeds of mistrust among the population, prompting the rejection of the first version of the agreement and forcing the parties to return to the negotiating table. Though a final deal was approved by Colombia’s Congress on November 30, opposition to Santos’s peace process persists, and the tale told by Gómez Giraldo is far from over. Perhaps she should give her readers another chapter.

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La Rotta is senior director of media relations for AS/COA. She writes a biweekly column for Colombian newspaper El Tiempo.


"Latin America and the Asian Giants: Evolving Ties with China and India"

Margaret Myers

A new volume, edited by Riordan Roett and Guadalupe Paz, highlights Asia's growing ambitions in Latin America.

Washington’s policies toward Latin America under a Donald Trump presidency have yet to come fully into view, but many in the region wonder — with good reason — about the future of U.S. engagement. The likelihood that the U.S. will play a diminishing role in economic and political affairs in places like Brazil and Colombia has given Asian nations an opening to assert greater influence. This makes Latin America and the Asian Giants: Evolving Ties with China and India especially timely.

Though not written with a Trump presidency in mind, the new anthology, edited by Riordan Roett and Guadalupe Paz, skillfully outlines the range of economic and geopolitical opportunities that will be available to China, India and Latin America in the coming decade, and recommends policy options to ensure that the region’s engagement with these “Asian giants” is of mutual benefit.

Should U.S. appetite for multilateral trade with the region continue to slow, as it has for over a year, Latin American and Caribbean nations will be well advised to take advantage of Asian overtures, the authors write.

Xiang Lanxin of Geneva’s Graduate Institute of International Development Studies suggests that China in particular can serve as a critical counterweight to the U.S. — an argument that has been made by Chinese scholars for many years, but is strikingly applicable in the current political environment. With the U.S. rejection of the Trans-Pacific Partnership all but guaranteed, China’s proposals for an expanded Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership or Free Trade Area of the Asia-Pacific will no doubt start to look more appealing to some in the region.

India has been comparatively reserved in its engagement with Latin America, hindered in many cases by financial constraints, as Ambassador Deepak Bhojwani notes. But, as Jorge Heine, former Chilean ambassador to India (and current ambassador to China), and Hari Seshasayee of the Confederation of Indian Industry write, the India–Latin America relationship is starting to deepen through joint ventures and other forms of investment.

Nevertheless, the volume’s contributors strike a cautious note overall about Latin America’s “pivot to Asia,” pointing out that both sides of the partnership will need to do a lot more to ensure a fruitful relationship.

The lack of diversity in Chinese economic engagement with the region remains a sticking point for many Latin American countries. India fares better in this respect, although the book’s contributors suggest that Indo–Latin American economic interaction is still focused primarily on energy, mining, information and communications technology, pharmaceuticals and motor vehicles, and on a specific subset of countries. Overall, trade between India and Latin America still pales in comparison to China’s booming figures.

The contributors agree on one major point: Asian trade and engagement with Latin America is set for a boom, driven primarily by the latter’s natural resource endowments. This is especially true as China and India grapple with mounting food and energy security concerns.

Relations will also be shaped by diverse and rapidly evolving domestic conditions, not only in China and India, but also in Latin America. As Roett indicates, recent political shifts in the region have generated new opportunities for economic engagement, but they have also increased uncertainty for a variety of Asian companies.

One key factor will be what the U.S. does — or doesn’t do. If Washington adapts the economic nationalism that played such a large rhetorical role in the last campaign, or narrows its interest to specific security-related issues (such as narcotics control), Latin America’s shift to Asia may be irreversible. The first decade of the 21st century was already “Latin America’s China Decade,” according to contributors Kevin Gallagher and Rebecca Ray. The next decade could belong to the rest of Asia.

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Myers is director of the China and Latin America program at the Inter-American Dialogue.