I’m not quite sure how to begin or where to respond to this book. The issues are complex, though they would have felt a bit simpler a year or two ago.
To begin at the beginning, this book was what I read for Challenge #4 “Read a book set in Central or South America, written by a Central or South American author.” My first impulse was to read something by Jorge Luis Borges, but it turns out most of his fiction isn’t actually set in South America. So I looked over Book Riot’s list of 100 Must-Read Latin American Books, and somehow I decided on this one.
(Unlike in my previous posts, that cover image is not the cover of the edition I read. I got it out of the university library, and it’s an old edition — first English edition (1978), as far as I can tell — unlike the one above, which seems to have gone to press in 1990. But since the dust jacket isn’t on it, I don’t know what the cover looked like, so I just went with this one.) Since it’s what I was consulting to decide which book to read, let me quote to you the blurb from the book’s Goodreads page:
This delightful farce opens as the prim and proper Captain Pantoja learns he is to be sent to Peru’s Amazon frontier on a secret mission for the army—to provide females for the amorous recruits. Side-splitting complications arise as world of Captain Pantoja’s remarkable achievements start to spread.
There’s nothing strictly incorrect (other than “world” instead of “word”) about the summary — though I think it fails to qualify as “a delightful farce” no matter how you look at it — but the tone it suggests is not the tone of the book.
First off, this isn’t an entertainment novel: this is literature. Which is fine and dandy, as long as you go in knowing that. (And I freely admit that I didn’t actually read any of the reviews on the Goodreads page, just the summary. Which somewhat defeats the purpose of the site, I suppose.) I didn’t know, so I was immediately taken by surprise when the first chapter was written in a style that…well, if there’s a name for it, I don’t know what the name is. It’s not stream-of-consciousness, because you’re not inside anybody’s head, but you keep jumping about through time and space (though not too much time jumping, not more than a few days). It’s more like stream-of-conversation. You’re getting snippets from as many as four or five conversations, some of which you’re actively intended to follow, and some of which are just there to give depth, illustration or counterpoint to the ones you’re following. It’s confusing at first blush, though you wrap your head around it pretty quickly, but it’s hard to get back into the flow of the thing if you have to leave off mid-chapter. (Which can be a problem if you’re reading it during your lunch break!) About a third of the chapters are in that style, whatever it’s called. The others are nightmares (literally the only time you’re ever really in anyone’s head), military dispatches, newspaper articles and such.
Moving on, let me give you my summary of what the plot is:
All throughout the Peruvian section of the Amazon basin, complaints are being registered against the army for the myriad sexual assaults and rapes being perpetrated by the soldiers, causing the Army considerable irritation and anger. For his logical and stiff-shirted military nature, they select Captan Pantaleón Pantoja to create and run the Special Service for Garrisons, Frontier and Related Installations (SSGFRI). The purpose of the SSGFRI is to bring prostitutes to the prostitute-free regions of the Amazon so that the soldiers can safely relieve their sexual tensions without assaulting the civilians. This, of course, must be performed with the utmost secrecy, forcing Pantoja to lie to his wife and mother (who lives with them), and to dress as a civilian the entire time he’s in Iquitos, his base of operations. As the Secret Service begins its duty, a cult led by the mysterious Brother Francisco is sweeping through the Amazon basin, causing great worry to the church leadership, as the cult has a tendency to crucify small animals and has definite overtones of blood worship.
Women are at the heart of the story, but we never get to see inside their hearts, not really. (Though for the most part we don’t see inside anyone else’s heart, either, to be fair.) The novel starts out in 1956, and there’s much discussion of proper conduct, both for women and for the military, but it keeps circling back and showing that basically no matter what a woman does, someone insists she’s doing the wrong thing. (To the extent that at one point, one of the prostitutes decides to get married, but she is censured and kicked out of the Special Service, and the only time anyone praises her for deciding to change her ways to live a more upright life is after she’s changed her mind and is trying to get back into the Special Service, so she’s still doing the wrong thing.) Now, to my mind, this is part of the point of the novel. The women in the Special Service have been literally commodified (and are at several times in the book compared to cattle) but they actually feel better about themselves than ever before, because they were already commodities, and now they’re at least being protected and run with military regularity, as opposed to being helpless in the hands of pimps and madams. Things are no better for the women outside the Special Service. Pantoja’s wife and mother are constantly complaining about each other, and his wife has lengthy speeches about the immorality of the women of Iquitos. (Speeches that could only come in the 1950s; the only part of that behavior that would raise any eyebrow by the 1970s is the part where one woman (who turned out to be a prostitute anyway) was having sex with a policeman in a movie theater.)
For the most part, everything about women comes back to the cliche of “the Madonna and the whore.” Either a woman is supposed to be a pure, virtuous and pious mother, or a prostitute. That’s how society clearly wants it to be, but that’s not what they’re getting: thanks to Brother Francisco’s cult, piety and impiety are becoming mixed and confused, and thousands of women are being pious in sacrilegious ways, and the ‘specialists’ in the SSGRFI are just as enthusiastic about the new cult as the other women. As the novel progresses, working in the Special Service becomes equated with regular Army work, so that it becomes — at least in the mind of Pantoja and/or some of his colleagues — expected that a woman’s duty will eventually be to work as a specialist, so that when there’s talk of a particular woman being removed from active duty because she’s the girlfriend of an officer, it’s a discussion of her ‘being exempted from service,’ just as it would be if a man was being exempted from his military service. More telling, when Pantoja’s wife becomes pregnant, he starts talking about the future baby as ‘the little cadet,’ prompting the former madam who’s helping him run the SSGRFI to ask “And if instead of a cadet a little specialist is born, Mr. Pantoja?” Naturally, Pantoja is horrified by her ‘joke.’ I don’t think it was intended as a joke. Not, at least, by the author.
One point that I’m curious about is how one of the characters’ speech was handled in the original Spanish. The man is a Chinese immigrant, and given an offensive stereotype of an accent, which — along with various typical grammatical issues — includes turning all his ‘r’s into ‘l’s. (Which is typically something in offensive stereotypes of Japanese accents, rather than Chinese…) That has the effect of turning both “brother” and “brothel” into “blothel.” I have to wonder if that was done intentionally, in order to mimic however his accent was done in Spanish to make him render one masculine and ‘honorable’ word into the same as a feminine and ‘dishonorable’ word. (Can’t be “brother” and “brothel,” though; those are nothing like each other in Spanish.) It is probably significant that most — if not all — the times that character used the word “brother,” it was in discussing the cult and its cultists, who called themselves “brothers” and “sisters.”
Backing away from details of the book and back onto my reactions, like I said, it’s hard to know how to react. I didn’t give it as careful a reading as I would have if I’d been, say, reading it for a literature class. Likewise, I wasn’t taking notes on the treatment of and attitude towards women, either, so to a certain extent I can only generalize. The impression I got — and I have no idea if it’s accurate — is that the author was pointing out the fallacies of Peruvian culture in the 1950s (and the 1970s? I’ve no idea what it was like in either decade, beyond a certain amount of assumed influence from social and cultural trends in the rest of the world) by illustrating them in an over-exaggerated way. If that’s the case, then the implication is that he doesn’t agree with the sentiments behind those fallacies. And that should make up for a lot. But the book still leaves me feeling unsettled. And maybe that’s the point of it. I don’t know.
I dislike ending a review with the sentiment “I don’t know quite how I feel about this book,” but what else can I say about it? It’s excellently crafted; the overlapping threads are woven together with considerable care, and the sections that could (and probably should) be very confusing manage to make perfect sense. But in the end, I just don’t know what to think.