Sunday, April 1, 2007

Brief Encounters with Che Guevara

I have, as usual, a dozen or so books strewn around the house, in each of which I have read anywhere from 10 to 50 pages, more or less in the hope that one of them will lift me into that reader's zone where the real world fades away and you just keep turning the pages. Last night I was at Barnes and Noble and saw for perhaps the third or fourth time a book of short stories called Brief Encounters with Che Guevara, by Ben Fountain. I brought it home and started reading it last night and stayed with it for much of the time that I was home today. It's an ambitious and well-crafted collection set in a variety of international situations: the Colombian rain forest, Haiti, Myanmar, and Sierra Leone among them, and they all have to do, in various ways, with the compromises which the main characters are more or less forced to make when they find themselves in situations complicated beyond their ability manage or even to imagine. In the first story, "Near-Extinct Birds of the Central Cordillera," John Blair, an graduate student in ornithology, makes the mistake of traveling to do field work in the Columbian rain forest and is immediately taken prisoner by rebel group hiding out in the jungle. The story is consistently both surprising and convincing as it traces his adaptation to his new situation and leads toward a conclusion which is likewise both surprising and convincing. The other stories also explore the ways in which larger cultural and historical forces shape the lives of characters who are only dimly aware of the nature of those forces, or, to the extent that they are aware of them, sense them to be beyond their control. This passage from the second story, "Reve Haitien," illustrates both the volatility of the political situation and the author's ability to bring it to life though precise description. The main character is Mason,an O.A.S. observer in Haiti:

On Thursdays he went to the Oloffson to hear the band, and on weekends he toured the hotel bars and casinos is PĂ©tionville. Otherwise, unless it had been such a grim day that he could only stare at his kitchen wall and drink beer, he would get his chess set and walk down to the park, past the weary peddler women chanting house-to-house, past the packs of rachitic, turd-colored dogs, past the crazy man who squatted by the Church of the Sacred Heart sweeping handfuls of dirt across his chest. There in the park, which resembled a bombed-out inner city lot, he would pick out a bench with a view of the palace and arrange his pieces, and within minutes a crowd of mouthy street kids would be watching him play the day's challengers. Mason rarely won; that was the whole point. With the overthrow and exile of their cherished president, the methodical hell of the army regime, and now the embargo that threatened to crush them all, he believed that the popular ego needed a boost. It did them good to see a Haitian whip a blan at chess; it was a reason to laugh, to be proud at his expense, and there were evenings when he looked on these thrown games as the most constructive thing he'd done all day.

It is precisely Mason's desire to be of some help, his sympathy with the lives of the people who have little to be cheerful about, that leads him into a more challenging and more dangerous sort of public service as the story continues.

These stories are told with impressive authority and apparent verisimilitude. I don't know enough about any of the venues of the stories to vouch for their authenticity, but they all surely feel authoritative. This is the best collection of short stories I've read since I ran across John Murray's A Few Short Notes on Tropical Butterflies, which had a similarly international scope and imaginative depth. Two excellent collections.

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