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Books Letters From Latin America: July 28, 2022

LEO BOIX reviews fiction by Argentinian Ariana Harwicz and Colombian Cristina Bendek, and poetry collections by Bolivian Rocio Agreda Pierola and Anglo-Argentine Miguel Cullen

SALT CRYSTALS (Charco Press, £11.99) is Cristina Bendek debut novel.

The book, flawlessly translated by Robyn Myers, recounts the story of Victoria Baruq, a young woman of mixed Raizal (Afro-Caribbeans from the Colombian archipelago of San Andres, Providencia and Santa Catalina) and Lebanese ancestry, who has lived for several years in Mexico City.

She decides to return to San Andres, her birthplace, after the sudden death of both her parents.

Once in her family home, and while trying to make sense of her new life, Baruq will make a series of discoveries, both personal and historical.

San Andres, that seemingly paradisiac coral island of turquoise waters where Spanish, English and Creole languages mingle, will play out to be the perfect setting for self-discovery and political empowerment.

“I think, we’re like the salt that makes the seas, simmering in the heat of a History as acidic as wound-healing vinegar. My abstractions evaporate. In this enormous womb, I know we’re like salt crystals, refractory, luminous, mirrors for each other,” writes the protagonist.

As Myers writes in his translator’s note, the book “chronicles and interrogates race and class, personal experience and generational history, past crimes and contemporary reckonings, entire centuries of migrations and transformations.”

This is a superbly written debut book, insightful and ambitious in its scope.

Argentinian writer Ariana Harwicz’s Tender (Charco Press, £9.99), published in Spanish as Precoz (Precocious) and translated into English by Annie McDermott and Carolina Orloff, is the third and final instalment of the author’s “involuntary trilogy” after the award-winning Die, My Love and Feebleminded.

The acerbic book centres around the dysfunctional relationship between a mother and son, where maternal love and good parenting is not always what it seems.

With an arresting intensity, characteristic of Harwicz lyrical writing, she questions what it means to be a “good mother/bad mother” and how desire and brutality coexist.

The countryside serves as a perfect backdrop for this exhilarating book about morals, political correctness and anti-Establishment sentiments.

Halfway between Thelma & Louise and The Clockwork Orange, the author manages to create an electric atmosphere that repel and attract in equal measure.

“The last ray of sun kind of spins, kind of skips and ricochets off the bushes, the sky glimmers on the water and everything’s a miracle again,” Harwicz’s original voice doesn’t disappoint.

Horses Drawn with Blue Chalk (Ugly Duckling Presse, £8.49) is Bolivian poet Rocio Agreda Pierola’s first poetry collection published in English.

Rendered into English by Jessica Sequeira, it shows a vibrant talent: among my favourite poems in the book is Sunlight Will Win: “My country is unreason. Dionysian pessimism. Love, because I must lie to you, I write. So that you return. So that you’ve never left. Language is a danger to temporality.”

Agreda Pierola creates a new world, one that explores the limits and strength of human experience. A must-read book by an exciting poetic voice coming Bolivia.

Hologram, a multisensorial experience combining poetry, short films and music, is Anglo-Argentinian poet Miguel Cullen’s third poetry collection.

Divided into two main sections, Guest List and Stragglers, the book functions as a dreamlike party where the list of guests includes a variety of unexpected protagonists: from the Argentinian middleweight world champion Carlos Monzon and Diego Maradona, to Frida Kahlo, Brad Pitt, Frank Ocean, Timothee Chalamet, Donald Trump and Pope Francis, to name but a few.

Cullen’s ability to be ironic and playful at the same time, combined with an eclectic language of the surreal and the hypermodern.

Like in Maradona: “Hand of god, varnishing / his nails with cotton-ball clouds / eh-o-eh salchichas [sausages] con pure! / limp wrist, cracking up as the other cracks down /contrapposto, malo ciccone,/ arms over invisible slow-dance shoulders / swivelling, one leg up like a flamingo./ Forever in the game, in laws / laid down, the boundaries that he was given / as a boy.”

The book includes four short videos by Ivar Wigan and Fede Velar: Ronan Farrow, Maradona Pope, Carlos Monzon and Brad Pitt, that are shown from the drawn face of Caravaggio’s Medusa.

This is a three-dimensional book that makes you see the world in a new, exciting light.

Hologram is adventurous, whimsical and unusual poetic alchemy.

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