[Henry is playing the part of the President in a touring production]
Meanwhile, Henry put on the presidential riding pants, the ruffled shirt and long coat, the leather boots, the white gloves and sash, and went down to the market once more. “Everyone stared at me,” he reported. “They stopped me, and asked where I’d come from. It was wonderful.”
[Later in the tour, making a phone-call in a small town] It took them more than twenty minutes to make the six-minute walk. Segura was just closing up [his shop], but he seemed happy to have company. Noelia went in to call and Nelson waited outside with Mrs. Anabel. He and Segura lowered her delicately onto the steps so she could sit. “It’s like I’m a queen,” she said. Nelson had never been with Mrs. Anabel outside the house. Her eyes darted about the plaza, marveling at everything she saw. The heat of the day had passed, and a few locals were out for a stroll. Mrs. Anabel seemed happy to watch them go by. The shawl around her shoulders slipped, and Nelson helped her rearrange it.
observations: This is an easy-going relaxed book, ambling along for the first two-thirds – there is plenty of foreshadowing, and you know something bad is going to happen at the end, but up till then there are great jokes and slightly irrelevant but very funny scenes. The plot is complex, as is the reporting structure: you slowly find out more about who is telling the story. In an unnamed country (which we are taking as Peru – the author is Peruvian-American) a group of three men get together to tour with an absurdist play called The Idiot President: one of them wrote it many years ago, and was put in jail for doing so. During the tour, he realizes he is close to the town where his cell-mate, friend and lover came from: he decides they must visit his family. The calamitous results of this kindly impulse are unforeseeable and far-reaching.
It’s an immensely well-written book, highly enjoyable and thought-provoking, it does a brilliant job of making you picture Peru, and you just want to quote from it endlessly.
They travel by bus – ‘no one was immune to the allure of travel. Even a night bus has some glamour, if only you let yourself see it’ – and someone videos the passengers before they leave, in case the bus falls into a ravine. They are up in the highlands:
Everything got stranger once you rose beyond an altitude of four thousand meters, that supernatural threshold after which all life becomes theater, and all theater Beckettian. The thin air is magical. Everything you do is a riddle.
[The food is dull, but] occasionally, guinea pig, a welcome change, but which too often involved the unpleasant ritual of having to choose your lunch from among a pen of furry little animals. (“The fat one,” said Henry, every time, without deigning to bend his head over the beasts.)
It is a strange and wonderful book, and one that leaves you considering afterwards – the ending is satisfyingly open.
The top picture is of Mariano Ignacio Prado, a 19th century President of Peru.
The photograph of a Peruvian woman is from Wikimedia Commons.