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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction



Demetrio Aguilera-Malta

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To purchase Babelandia

Title: Babelandia
Author: Demetrio Aguilera-Malta
Genre: Novel
Written: 1973 (Eng. 1985)
Length: 375 pages
Original in: Spanish
Availability: Babelandia - US
El secuestro del general - US
Babelandia - UK
Babelandia - Canada
El secuestro del general - España
  • Spanish title: El secuestro del general
  • Translated and with an Afterword by Peter Earle
  • Illustrated by George Bartko

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Our Assessment:

B+ : appealingly (if also by now over-familiar) fantastic spin on the dictator-novel

See our review for fuller assessment.

The complete review's Review:

       Babelandia is set in the eponymous nation, an any-nation (mis)ruled by a corrupt and greedy elite, sycophants fawning around and toadying up to the (power- and by now more generally-)mad dictator -- but always on the look-out for cracks in the armor which might allow them to ascend to the top position in his stead. Typically, what opposition there is has formed a party whose resignation is evident already in its name, understanding that they will and can only be the 'Perpetual Opposition Party': "The party of all those who want this regime and all its successors to fail" (because it's unimaginable that a regime that reflects the voice and will of the people, and that isn't corrupt, could ever come to power). Though avoiding the familiarly geo-political -- all is invention here -- Babelandia is very much of the South American dictator-school of novels (coming, in 1973, already near its tail end), but its universality has allowed it to age better than some.
       Aguilera Malta's fantasy also appeals because of how wildly imagined it is, beginning (if also too often practically also ending there ...) with the character-names and attributes. The dictator, busy: "transforming the country into my own hacienda and its inhabitants into chained peons", is certainly an inspired figure: Holofernes Verbophile, who has long been reduced to the literally skeletal, a "Skeleton-disguised-as-a-man", the "most lizard-like of all the chameleons", whose every breath is: "like the wheezings of a perforated bladder". His state makes him elusive: at one point, when some get a bit too forward in reaching out to, and at, him:

He took the initiative. And dispersed himself like a floating jigsaw puzzle in the air. When they tried to pick up the pieces of the puzzle, he commenced to reassemble his scattered self and soon stood integrated atop his desk, dominating them.
       Holofernes Verbophile stores all information on tape, and relies on pre-recorded cassettes for communication, prepared speeches for (almost) every circumstance that he pops in and plays -- and is flummoxed when he does not have an appropriate one for an occasion:
Without a cassette, how could I speak ? What could I say ? He searched for self-confidence, began to come to life. Reacted. behave yourself ! But who am I ? Who am I really ?
       His over-reliance on these cassettes is one of his few weak points, as he defines himself by these pre-prepared words: "Without speeches life would cease. It would be like tearing out his heart".
       Other notable characters include the Secretary of Defense, Wiley Warhorse, who not only defers to General Jonas Pithecanthropus but, at his command ("On all fours !") transforms and functions as the general's mount, a metamorphosis he fights but finds himself helpless against:
     Warhorse slumped. What a disgrace ! Helpless. His jawbone was already elongating. Hard as he tried, it was useless. His feet and hands were being transformed into horseshoes. Slavery -- miserable horse slavery -- tightened its chains around him. An undulating tail began to grow. Futile ! Everything was futile ! I can feel myself bending. An invisible force crushes me like tissue paper. My ears grow straight and pointed. In my humiliation, short hair sprouts from my skin. I'm turning a dull reddish brown. I'm on all fours. My back, saddled. Belly straps, tightened. The crazy swing of his stirrups degrades me. The trappings -- especially the reins and the bit -- hold me at the ape's mercy. I feel his weight. The savage horseman has mounted -- spurs me on.
       Physical transformation manifests itself not only as a bowing to greater authority in some of the characters: so also there is the priest Polygamo, whose penis keeps growing out of all proportion, eventually becoming a ten-meter long organ that becomes more the dominant of the two ("The Organ continued to drag Polygamo about"). When he is finally bludgeoned to death a second casket is required to bury his appendage -- and it's not one that likes to stay down ... though at that point: "it was no longer flesh. It had become a plant", and if no longer part of a representative of the church it attaches itself to the Church-building proper, forming: "strange intertwined crowns of thorns".
       The basic plot of Babelandia is fairly simple: the nation's military leader, General Jonas Pithecanthropus -- "his government's backbone. His skeleton's prop. Everyone depends on him" -- is kidnapped, the day before his fiftieth birthday, for which grand state celebrations have been planned, with a long list of important guests, domestic and foreign. He is kidnapped by guerillas calling themselves Amautas ("ancient Incan sages who possessed great moral authority in their villages", a translator's note explains), and their three ransom demands are: "the release of all political prisoners. Two-hundred first-class funerals designated by us. And one pound of Holofernes' bones".
       There are considerable debates about whether to give in to the demands -- and also as to which of them are sticking points. The members of the government are concerned about the two hundred funerals -- essentially a free pass for the guerillas to designate two hundred people to be executed, with those in positions of power naturally concerned that they'd be the ones selected to be terminated. (They suggest going along with the demand, with the proviso that all of them not qualify for the fancy funerals ....) There's not too much debate about freeing the political prisoners -- some see it as a great opportunity for then just killing them, for example -- snd, surprisingly, Holofernes Verbophile isn't too bothered about losing a pound of bones here or there:
a pound of bones more or less, could scarcely affect his fortune. In any case, they could easily be replaced by plastic, platinum, or whatever fits. As simple as that ! Moreover, the bone quota being demanded of him, with all its implications, signified that his life was out of danger: the guerillas, for the moment, were not including him among those marked for the two hundred first-class burials.
       Of course, it also occurs to some that maybe it wouldn't be so inconvenient if the General were not released. The power vacuum would allow another to fill it -- an easy stepping stone to possibly taking over the government and country entirely.
       The story moves between various characters and events, including looking back to the General's kidnapping, and then how he is treated in captivity (his weakness for bananas used to torture him, for example). Efforts to save him also lead to the discovery of one of his secrets, a family -- wife and five sets of triplet-daughters -- on a very isolated island. Meanwhile, there are ongoing debates as to how to handle the ransom demands, while guests already begin to arrive for the grand birthday activities.
       A variety of other characters' actions also come into play, notably Captain Gleam -- an admirable figure, though also distracted by his passionate love for the unreachable Maria. Secondary characters are also involved in vivid and memorable scenes -- not least Holofernes' wife, Harpitune, wrapped up in her constant companion boa constrictor.
       Babelandia is a Latin American grotesque, using -- effectively and often quite impressively -- the usual tricks of the magical realist school, the language inflated, even baroque, but with enough quick variety to avoid getting bogged down in its own ornateness. It's all quite over the top -- as the amusing names (Placido Hotwheels, Secretary of Public Works; Narcissus Vaselino, Chief of Protocol) already make clear -- but at least it is not solely over the top, and though at this point it can't help but come across as just another variation on an all too familiar theme and story, it's a vivid and solidly entertaining one.

- M.A.Orthofer, 28 September 2019

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Babelandia: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Ecuadorian author Demetrio Aguilera Malta lived 1909 to 1981.

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© 2019 the complete review

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