From what I could gather there was more than one ship in the port and we would have to work until late. The ships were the joy of us all, we knew that when the ships arrived we would earn more money. And there was nowhere where you could get more money than in the ships. When right through the town the sirens that the ships gave announcing their arrival were heard, everything changed: the packs of children ran towards the seashore, the business owners became happy and closed shop until midnight, the prostitutes did themselves up in the hope that the sailors would come down, the souvenir sellers cried and ran from side to side along the wharf, the city seemed to be a different city. In the pineapple packing factories, in the offices, in the loading and unloading on the pier, everywhere the talk was about the arrival of the ships. It was the same on the plantation; before the commander had arrived, the comrades already knew that the ships had anchored.
Honduras sadly has the reputation of being the archetypical banana republic. And this novel takes place on a banana plantation. It is set at the end of the 1970s as neighbouring Nicaragua falls to the leftist Sandinistas after the interminable Somoza dictatorship, and US forces start to appear in Honduras aiming to undermine that new regime.
Guillermo works on the plantation but has higher hopes, he wants to write a novel set there. When workers there go on strike for higher wages, they are partially successful, but are then are forced to work at night without pay to fill the boats and make up for it. The boats seem to symbolise war (both the economic war and the real war).
The author uses different styles skilfully. There are some breathless passages, word on word with no punctuation. This well-written novel is definitely worth reading.
Quesada, Roberto (1963 – ), Los barcos, NY, Big Banana Publisher’s [sic], 2014, ISBN 9681501015267
Published in English as The Ships with the same publisher/year.
(First published Tegucigalpa, Baktún, 1988)
‘The sea looks the same as in the moving pictures, only bigger.’
Camila had heard about the moving pictures which were being shown at the Hundred Doors, close to the cathedral, but she had no idea what they were like. However, after what her cousin had said, she could easily imagine them as she stared at the sea. Everything in motion. Nothing stable. Pictures mingling with other pictures, shifting, breaking in pieces to form a new image every second, in a state that was not solid, not liquid, nor gaseous, but which was the state of life in the sea. A luminous state. Both in the sea and in the moving pictures.
This is a stunning portrait of a dictatorship. It is a place of betrayal – no one can trust anyone (especially not the President!) The whole country is at the whim of one mercurical person. He acts like a cat toying with a mouse. He runs a state of lies, where the weapon is false accusations – the ‘truth’ must be made to fit what is convenient for the regime. On the one side is his cruelty; on the other, sycophancy.
One of the most chilling sections is a frightening interview with the incoherent, drunken president:
‘Do you know, Miguel, that the man who discovered alcohol was looking for an elixir to produce long life?’
’No, Mr President, I didn’t know that,’ the favourite hastened to reply.
’It would be odd, certainly, for a man of such wide knowledge as you, Mr President, who has every right to consider himself as one of the foremost statesmen of modern times, but not for me.’
His Excellency dropped his lids over his eyes, to shut out the chaotic vision of his surroundings that his alcoholic state was presenting him with at the moment.
’M’m, yes, I do know a lot!’
While anyone familiar with any of the world’s too numerous dictatorships will find so much that is familiar here, mirrored in the highest literary style, it also reminded me of Trump’s White House – and I find it impossible to imagine anyone with a more towering egoism.
All in all, a chilling, masterly novel.
ASTURIAS, Miguel Angel (1889 – 1974), El Señor Presidente, Guatemala, Piedra Santa, 2000, ISBN 99922-5-024-0
In English: The President.