All the wrong places

Chris Abani's new book, "Becoming Abigail," will be released this spring.

REVOLUTIONS are the stuff of literature. In fact, literary movements begin only when new generations of writers set to killing their forebears in an effort to find their voice. The rhetoric of iconoclasm and revolution may be fascinating, but the iconoclasm and revolution are never as total as the rhetoric would suggest. Jorge Franco is a founding member of the self-anointed McOndo School of writers from South and Central America, who opt for a harder, grittier urban reality than their magical realist forebears, such as Jorge Amado and Gabriel Garcia Marquez. (The name McOndo itself is a play on Macondo, Garcia Marquez's own Yoknapatawpha County.) But even though the characters in Franco's books fly in airplanes rather than through the air by magic, the social placements of these literary movements remain close.

"Paradise Travel" is Franco's fourth novel -- although only his second to be published in the U.S. His first, "Rosario Tijeras," was a surprising take on that familiar violent landscape of Colombia in the years since the killing of Medellin drug kingpin Pablo Escobar in 1993, a completely savage but haunting tale of a female hired killer much in the vein of "La Femme Nikita."

In "Paradise Travel," Reina, a young woman from Medellin, wants to go to America and ropes her naive but love- and lust-struck boyfriend, Marlon Cruz, into going with her. It is unclear why, exactly, the middle-class and seemingly comfortable Reina feels the need to flee Colombia, beyond a general sense of malaise and dissatisfaction with her country. The dangerous, grinding life of Colombia that Franco wrote about in "Rosario Tijeras" is completely absent here. Instead, the motivation is tied to the fact that Reina has eyes that are different colors, which symbolizes a sense of double consciousness, a split sensibility, one foot in another world.

But whatever the reason, we observe Reina doing everything she can to leave Colombia, including stealing the money she needs to pay for the trip from her aunt's new husband. She then hands over the money to the shady travel-agent-cum-coyote who runs Paradise Travel (an irony not lost when she and her boyfriend arrive to a harsh reality in the States), abandoning her elderly father in the process.

Part adventure novel, part social commentary, the story unfolds in two time frames: the past, which Marlon narrates to his friend Giovanny, and the present, which unfolds in real time. This device is handled well by Franco and is one of the better aspects of the novel. Marlon and Reina's trip up through Central America and Mexico and into the U.S. is harrowing. Franco is able to draw the full horror, and yet, set against an amazing and lush landscape, and with Reina's humor and fight, these moments transcend sentimentality.

On their first night in Queens, Marlon and Reina lose each other, marking and in fact initiating Marlon's descent not just into the underbelly of New York but also into his own darkness. Marlon leaves the hotel where he and Reina are staying. Speaking no English, when he encounters a policeman, he runs. In the subsequent chase, the policeman is hit by a car. Turned around, lost and unable to communicate and with no memory of where he stayed beyond a subway sign that read "Queens," Marlon becomes homeless. He is rescued by Patricia, the wife of a Colombian restaurant owner in a move that smacks of a clunky deus ex machina.

Still, this section of the book, the complete breakdown of Marlon from man to animal, is so beautifully drawn that it is heartbreaking. As Patricia slowly teases Marlon back to life, to speech, and then leads him inside for his first shower in weeks, there is a lack of self-awareness (both in the narrative point of view and the character of Patricia) that is wonderful. Patricia's ministrations, hesitant and frightened, are so utterly believable in those moments that we see a true sympathy for the dispossessed, regardless of who they are. This book is not really about harrowing illegal border crossings, or even about unrequited love, or about the lot of Colombians in New York, though this is all here and, for all the book's faults, powerfully rendered. The questions really asked by "Paradise Travel" are about our humanity and what it takes to lose it, and how far into darkness we can go and still return with some semblance of self.

The women in Franco's books, while central to the narrative and in a sense powerful and independent, are paradoxically problematic and often one-dimensional. This may be because Franco resorts to old stereotypes in creating his female characters, unlike say, Garcia Marquez in "Love in the Time of Cholera." The results are funny and tragic, yet ultimately shallow, women drawn in the most juvenile noir sense.

It is no different in "Paradise Travel," with Reina and her nemesis and foil, the stripper/hooker Calena, both of whom are in love with Marlon. Whatever complications Franco doesn't give Reina, he manages to give Calena. This is no hooker with a heart of gold. She is the one who helps Marlon locate Reina after they are separated, but it is not because she is good but because she knows that unless she does, she cannot have all of Marlon, and she is smart enough not to settle for less.

The other women in the book -- Patricia, drawn after the idea of the matronly saint, and Milagros, a naive, guileless lover of Marlon -- also serve to help the male protagonist find himself. This is a story similar in many ways to a traditional African oral narrative where the female (embodied as an ideal) helps the male find resolution and attain transformation, while herself remaining largely unchanged. Perhaps this is what makes the female characters in this novel seem flat.

In fact, Marlon's journey depends so much on his confused love for Reina and his desperate attempt to find her that he becomes in a way a Don Quixote and she his windmill. He has in a sense loved a shadow, a figment of his own imagination.

This experience of love and loss is the core of being human, and this book captures it. The language of the novel is sometimes ugly, and sometimes beautiful. Franco draws melancholic and clear male characters; even minor ones, such as a homicidal former Greek Orthodox priest, Father Dionysius, are rendered vividly. There is a subtle irony to the whole novel, from the choice of names to the way the humor plays, that is wonderfully captured by Katherine Silver in this translation. "Paradise Travel" may not be magical realism, but it is picaresque and romantic, reminding one of Dante and Cervantes. *

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