[City Lights; 2018]
Tr. from the Spanish by Dick Cluster
Though the Spanish original of Gabriela Alemán’s Poso Wells was published in 2007, its English translation could not be more apt for a 2018 release. Dick Cluster’s new translation offers a stunning commentary on today’s befuddling anglophone world. With ill-spoken political candidates driven by industry cronyism and scores of missing women ignored by the police, Poso Wells describes a Ecuadorian setting all too familiar to an American reader. Alemán’s novel develops a convoluted series of bizarre events into a searingly lucid political conclusion. Poso Wells is the sort of dizzying novel that only begins to make sense as it finishes, but then becomes so fascinating that you want to read the hazy first hundred pages all over again. Ready for an afternoon stroll with the likes of Gabriel García Marquez and Karen Tei Yamashita, author Gabriela Alemán offers a collection of layered portraits that hover at the edge of realism.
Within the first few pages, a political candidate is electrocuted while standing in a puddle of his own urine. The novel does not become less strange. After his shocking introduction, the candidate disappears, and one journalist, Gustavo Varas, attempts to find him while also investigating a number of missing women. What he finds extends far beyond his expectations.
With paragraphs meandering for over two pages on a frequent basis, it is easy to lose track of what is happening in Poso Wells. As with many English translations from Spanish originals, the pacing adheres to a different aesthetic than your average American crime drama. More than once, I found myself double checking that I had not skipped a page. Yet, much of what Alemán represents is about the disconnection between people and the muddied tunnels where people can disappear from society’s eye if they aren’t valued enough by those in power. The swamp of the first chapters is made even more powerful by its contrast to the sharp sarcasm and accelerating pace of the final fifty pages.
Alemán’s depictions of the political candidate Vinueza prove some of the most successful components of the novel. The disgusting figure sounds all too familiar in his nonsensical conversations with skeptical reporters.
“We’re at the edge of an abyss,” he pronounced, “and we need to take a step forward.”
“Off the cliff?” the same reporter asked. (104)
Alemán’s humor bites at such powerful figures. She describes “an old iguana perched in a tree, looking more serious and dignified than any member of the national legislature” (103) and a businessman who begins to look “less like a slippery fish, and more like an eel with an upset stomach” (56). Just when the men in power seem to have the most influence, she takes them down a notch. A blackmailing attempt is laughed off for being behind the times; a plutocrat is scorned by a flock of British birders. Although the characters lack depth or development, they are so bizarrely on point as to hold interest.
Poso Wells offers a dark optimism for Ecuador, yet one that is tainted by the lurking presence of a Canadian entrepreneur. The novel links the politics and poetics in the floodplains around the port city of Guayaquil to the copper mining and other extractive industries that can come and go from a country as opportunities arise, leaving a destroyed forest and poisoned people in their wake. The Canadian, Holmes, seems better suited to the name Moriarty as he flies off to cause trouble elsewhere when his present machinations are foiled. His dismissive impatience for “peasants and environmentalists,” especially those from Latin America, highlights his neocolonial distance from long-term well-being through the related health of people and place (142-143). Alemán critiques the uncomfortable ties that connect international speculators, political buffoonery, violence against women, and environmental degradation. The novel scorns those local businessmen and politicians who become the puppets of outsiders such as Holmes, handing over cloud forest and masking violence in order to increase their perceived position.
The political monsters of Poso Wells are contrasted by a couple of powerful female characters who refuse to let men bulldoze them (literally, at one point). They are women who carry scars and vipers and who know how to use them. They draw on their resourcefulness and on the strength of their gathered community to resist the frenzied destruction of their lives and homes. One kidnapped prostitute is taken to five men in a hotel room; the men’s assumption of her helplessness leads to their rather comical downfall. Some of the novel’s most satisfying moments are those that start as if they will represent a successful use of patriarchal power only to end in delight when such ploys crumble in the face of a calm, intelligent response.
Don’t pick up Poso Wells when your eyelids are already half-closed. You’ll be as lost as if you too wandered in the tunnels that wind beneath the city. But, with an espresso by your side and a willingness to trust that all the paths will someday converge, you will be ready for an intriguing exploration of what drives people into action in a world that makes no sense.
Emma Schneider is a graduate student at Tufts University. Her research focuses on North American and Environmental Literature.