Mark Jacobs' Fictional Latin America Is Colored By Years In The U.S. Foreign Service, But It's Nonetheless Revealing.
By Randall Holdridge
MAY 10, 1999:
The Liberation of Little Heaven and Other Stories, by Mark Jacobs (Soho). Cloth, $23.
THE STORIES IN The Liberation of Little Heaven are set in Paraguay, Bolivia and Honduras, and their subject is the living consequence of politics on the people of Latin America. Author Mark Jacobs is a career U.S. foreign service officer who's been stationed in those countries, a fact which inevitably colors the way a reader weighs Jacobs' conclusion that, south of the border, politics only wounds the lives of individuals, regardless of personal ideology or social status. A reader might respond to these stories of futility in an entirely different way if unaware of Jacobs' special relationship to his material; but consciousness of it creates levels of cynical engagement and reaction which add immensely to the book's interest.
For instance, the narrator of "Mud Man" is an unemployed peon living on the impoverished outskirts of Asunción. He tells his neighbors the mystical visions which trouble his thoughts, unintentionally inspiring a riot that destroys the mansion of the local general. He reflects on his arrest as a political agitator: "Because my answers were fuzzy, they took me to the police station, where they beat me up. Then they locked me up. These days when that happens the newspapers call it torture and denounce one more violation of a citizen's human rights. That makes it seem important, and it is, especially if your body is the one violated. But what really happens has more to do with a lack of imagination on the part of policemen who don't know how to ask the right questions. Beating you up is what they know how to do."
Still troubled by his dreams, he is nonetheless reconciled, "...knowing that you had to live with what you had, and neither choice nor change was possible, and accepting it." How exactly should a reader interpret this from the pen of a U.S. diplomat, who makes it otherwise quite clear he is fully aware of and abhors the monstrous behavior of dictators?
The title story, "The Liberation of Little Heaven," is about a 13-year-old girl taken from her parents to live in a "girls' school" whose director, Don Andrés, farms the students out for the sexual pleasure of the military and governmental elite. The heroine, Amari, is a particularly beautiful and intelligent child Andrés keeps for his own uses. When she's noticed by the high-ranking officer assigned to choose the most desirable girls for the gratification of the president, Andrés disfigures the girl's face with a steam iron. Amari runs away to a life of squalid unhappiness and abuse, but years later finds joyous freedom in a glimpse of a retired Don Andrés, old and depressed, after the fall of the old regime.
Another victim, Lenín in "How Birds Communicate," has seen his father tortured and murdered, and his mother driven to madness by one Pastor Coronel, the security chief of Paraguayan strongman Alfredo Stroessner. Later, after Stroessner has been toppled, Lenín reacts with sympathy when he sees a photograph of his father's killer in the newspaper, "ill in body and soul." His sympathetic reaction fills him with remorse, and he sneaks into the hospital to kill Coronel. His plan is foiled and he himself is imprisoned, the tables having been neatly turned. Let off lightly, he returns home to his mother's garden, where he deliberately joins her in a state of gentle delusion, talking to the birds.
Such reactions might be understood as post-traumatic stress disorders. There is certainly a kind of clinical analysis in the stories' telling, even when the narrators are involved first persons. Yet, one suspects Jacobs of thinking "a plague on both your houses," and the authority of some of his peasant narrators, such as the housekeeper in "Marina in the Key of Blue Flat" is suspect--perhaps even condescending.
For that reason, the point of view represented by Don Martín del Valle in "The Rape of Reason" inspires greater confidence. Educated at the University of Chicago, Don Martín is the last of his upper-class family to stay on in Bolivia. Years ago, his parents and sisters packed their assets and fled the instability of the leftist revolution for posh lives in New York and Connecticut and Northern California. "Irresponsibly earnest," and seriously moderate, he has remained to teach logic: "He would play his part, however modest, in the education of a generation who would shine the light of reason and logic and clarified thought onto the murky plain of politics, and the quality of Bolivian life would rise in proportion to the intensity of their light."
Appreciated and understood by no one, emasculated and clumsily ineffective in his good intentions, ultimately he is everyone's scapegoat--this I think comes close to revealing the actual perspective on Latin American politics of Jacobs the career U.S. foreign service officer. Certainly, Don Martín is treated with more convincing affection than other characters in these stories, and his shabby dignity is romantically regarded.
American academics and do-gooders get rough treatment. In "Solidarity in Green," a former Peace Corps worker returns to show off the Honduras of his romantic memories to his new wife, only to end up as a hostage of radicals. Helped in his escape by Flechita, a sympathetic guard, months later he collapses in tears while standing in the aisle of a North American supermarket: "The thing was, he remembered with fresh intensity, he had wanted to kill Flechita."
In "The Telemachus Box," a Berkeley grad student travels south to translate the revolutionary poems of Damaso del Campo, former drinking companion of Che Guevara. She reminds the poet of the Contra wars: "...there were lots of Nancy Schmidtkes. They had shown up in droves during the early '80s, looking for something specific and true to which to attach their allegiance. That was the best they could do in the face of their government's perfidy...Without wanting to, they unmanned the Latin lovers they took."
It is impossible to trust the words an American diplomat puts into the mouths of Latin American peasants and revolutionaries, but it is instructive to read them as just that. Properly filtered, The Liberation of Little Heaven tells in its own way almost as much about the cruel goodwill of American imperial attitudes toward Latin America as anything that Joan Didion, Graham Greene or even Carlos Fuentes has written.
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