Reading Round the World: B is for Bolivia

The Matter of Desire by Edmundo Paz Soldan

Soldan’s novel begins with a wonderful passage about returning. And there’s a lot about that restlessness here. Pedro Zabalaga is a native of Bolivia, and periodically returns home to Río Fugitivo from his teaching gig in Madison, a fictional University in upstate New York.

This is my city, but I would still feel like a stranger if there were no familiar face to help me, a glance to save me from my frequent forays into the depths of solitude at the slightest blunder into reality. This is my city, but the airport is new, recently inaugurated, smelling of fresh paint and plastic covers, and the view outside changes and is ever more distant from me. This is the price you pay for leaving: objects don’t stay where you left them, friends forget you as soon as you turn your back, relatives don’t come to meet you because the fragile bonds have stretched with the distance and broken.The mapof Treasure Island is lost. It happens to everyone because everyone, sooner or later, leaves for someplace else.

Throughout the course of the novel, Pedro flees back to Bolivia only to become restless and return to the States. The cycle repeats itself. In Bolivia, he investigates his father’s life,  a radical who was killed when Pedro was still a youngster, betrayed by one of his comrades. His father’s demise is the mystery of the novel that Pedro is drawn into. His quest for the truth is the background frame for contemplating the rapid changes happening in Bolivia. Poverty, economic collapse, and the rampant drug trade also add context.

The Madison thread is an odd love story, teacher-student affair.  But there’s plenty of campus politics, one of the novels strengths. There’s the young Turk (Pedro) who has little interest in research, and pedantic journal publishing. He finds his niche in pop commentary: magazines, the tv talking head – the go to guy on Latin America. This does not put him in a good light with the old school, traditional academics. He does have a protector though in the head of the department, so he skates by.

Then there’s the migraines. You can always tell when a writer really does suffer from  migraines: the descriptions are painfully vivid. I take as my touchstone a famous essay from Joan Didion.

The restless trigeminal nerve, the neuropeptides, the pressure behind the right eye: the Migraine, that mythical animal I only just domesticate with Immitrex.

The central mystery – who betrayed Pedro’s father – is answered. With a twist. A satisfying twist. Soldan’s The Matter Of Desire is a very good mystery, a torrid love story, and a thoughtful book all in one.

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