Thursday, April 28, 2016

Ecuador in the 1980s

“Blood Lake, a Philomena Buscarsela Mystery,” by Kenneth Wishnia, 2014

Genre fiction has broken out of its cage so many times that it has earned a place as ‘real’ fiction.  Detective stories are no longer predictable police procedurals that are so formulaic as to be sleep-inducing.  However some things remain the same.  

Guayaquil, Ecuador stilt slums
This book by a PHD and professor is one such.  A great look inside Ecuador in the 1980s, it still suffers from the unreality of constantly falling bodies.  Wishnia is a progressive of some kind who has created a reckless female detective, Philomena Buscarsela.  She is a product of poverty and was once a former leftist guerilla in the Andean highlands in Ecuador.  Unusual provenance for a female American gumshoe.  Most, like Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Milhone or Sara Paretsky’s V.I. Warshawski, have no politics.  

The story has a bit too many incongruities.  For some reason Philomena returns to visit her family in Guayaquil, towing her teenage daughter along – then immediately throws herself into a dangerous search for the killer of a Liberation Theology priest who once saved her life.  Her daughter is forgotten, even though it is obvious that the police/death squad people who killed the priest would seize her if needed.  A parent would attempt to hide or shield their child.  But as she says many times, she is a ‘bad parent.’  Philomena fails to spot the tall blonde gringo ‘journalist’ that suddenly shows up at her side as a CIA asset – even though every reader does.  She even trusts the notes of a real journalist who was murdered for researching the assassination of the prior progressive Ecuadorian president to this agent.  She goes on a fruitless search for another invisible right-wing journalist in several Ecuadorean towns like Cuenca, which never makes real sense.  Ultimately she reunites with her guerrilla ex-boyfriend in the Amazonian jungle in the east of Ecuador by Macas.  This is the real literary point of her trek into the mountains, but one which doesn’t lead to any killers.  Again, incongruous. 

Through all this she seems to allow the Ecuadorian police to track her progress towards the guerillas – which is their purpose for letting her go on.  She is even friends with one cop, who saved her life and she saved his.  Philomena was a cop in NYC for 3 years, so she seems to play both sides.  She is an adept at physical violence and can throw a stiletto with deadly force, so plays the role of action heroine well.  She’s also sexy, but her sex with her Jewish boyfriend from New York, who oddly visits her, is more talk or braggadocio than action.  

The great strengths of the novel are its deep knowledge of the poverty of Ecuador during this period.  The scenes of the stilt shanty towns built over the steaming, putrid water in Guayaquil are tremendous.  Philomena rides in rickety buses, sleeps in a shabby concrete construction site, visits humble stores and peasant huts that mirror the ‘otherness’ of Ecuador to the North American reader. Her large family seems to be almost the only refuge.  At one point, she sees a rural Quichua baby and notes that its sad 2-year-old face already registers that it was born into a fucked life.   Wishnia focuses on the crookedness of the press and a confusing matrix of bourgeois Ecuadorean politicians that promise everything and deliver nothing.  He describes the violence of rightist death squads and police; the control of commodities like rice and gasoline by businessmen; the shortages, inflation and power outages of every day – the miseries perpetuated by the local comprador bourgeoisie and their North American puppet masters.  And just to be ‘even-handed’ he shows that the guerillas can perhaps be ruthless too.  

Wishnia references the on-going struggle by indigenous people against Texaco/Chevron’s pollution of their Amazonian region.  The assassination of progressive Ecuadorean president Jaime Aguilera in 1981 in a suspicious plane crash is also a part of the story.  Aguilera established a 40 hour work-week and supported human rights.  Later Omar Torrijos of Panama also died in a suspicious plane crash a few months later. Further investigations of Aguilera's death showed the plane’s motors suddenly shut down, a sign of an electrical pulse weapon.  Documents have revealed that this was part of the U.S. "Operation Condor" plan. (See book review on the assassination of Paul Wellstone, below.) This was during the period of the contra wars in Central America and the Reagan presidency, which considered anything left of Jesse Helms to be a Soviet plot.

In 2010, corrupt Ecuadorean police attempted to kill the present presdient of Ecuador, Rafael Correa.  Most suspect that the CIA was involved in that plot too, as Correa was a staunch supporter of Hugo Chavez.  This happened under Obama and Clinton's watch. Assassination is one of the surgical tools of imperialism and the domestic Right in every country.

Latin America in the 1980s was a bloody, violent place dominated by military dictators, death squads, IMF austerity loan programs, assassinations, anti-communism and poverty. These were the fruits of the heavy boot of the northern colossus.  This is a look back into that past – a place which U.S. imperialism wishes to return to in full force.  See the recent coup in Honduras, the support for right-wing forces in Brazil and Venezuela, the continual financial pressure from the central banking industry in the U.S. and Europe, our love of every right-wing Mexican president.  The past can return.

If you enjoy detective stories with a foreign, feminist and political twist, this book will be of interest.  A nice glossary of Ecuadorean and Quichua words is included in the book.

And I bought it from Mayday’s used book section.
Red Frog
April 28th, 2016

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