Reviewed by Jonathan Kirsch
Sunday, February 18, 2007
TALES FROM THE TOWN OF WIDOWS
& Chronicles From the Land of Men
By James Cañón
HarperCollins. 340 pp. $24.95
Among the colorful characters who populate James Cañón's first novel is an American reporter who carries a copy of One Hundred Years of Solitude in his backpack, an incidental detail that turns out to be a wink and a nod to the reader. Cañón owes a creative debt to the literary tradition of South American fabulism, as pioneered by Gabriel García Márquez and as more recently practiced by Isabel Allende.
Cañón, born and educated in Colombia and now living and writing in New York, sets his story in a Colombian village in the last decade of the 20th century. Mariquita is a charming backwater that boasts a priest with a congregation of one, a rather more active brothel with 13 bedrooms, a medical doctor and a witch doctor, a constabulary whose officers spend their days playing Parcheesi under a mango tree and an open-air market where "older women under green awnings sold everything from calf's foot jelly to bootleg cassettes of Michael Jackson's Thriller." Then, one day, the men of Mariquita are gone, and the place abruptly turns into "a town of widows in a land of men."
No magic is necessary to explain the disappearance of the menfolk. Rather, when a passing band of guerrillas fails to inspire a single villager to join up, they conscript the entire male population, leaving behind only the hapless priest and the 13-year-old son of his sole congregant, a formidable widow who dresses her son in a frock and hides him among her three daughters. The boy feels so comfortable in his new garb that he resolves to remain a girl. So begins the transformation of Mariquita and the women and children who were left behind, a rollicking and often shocking tale that Cañón tells with charm and bite.
The absence of men poses a number of practical problems, including the fundamental question of how to repopulate the village. The new female magistrate declares a Procreation Campaign, and the priest offers to compromise his vow of chastity for the public good. His encounter with a young virgin, appropriately named Virgelina, is rendered with a blend of eroticism, dark comedy and muted horror. The girl's grandmother teaches her the arts of seduction in seven easy-to-remember steps: "Commend yourself to God and let him do the rest" is Step Six. "I hope that your grandmother considers putting your name down for a second visit," says the selfless priest.
Cañón's enchanting tale is punctuated with first-person accounts by various male voices who testify, sometimes poignantly and sometimes ironically, to the human capacity for brutality. "One thing I've learned in the army is that the less contact you have with your victim, the easier it is to kill him," muses a 32-year-old officer in the Colombian army. "I once let a man talk to me for too long before I shot him, and I still regret it." And the guerrillas, too, are capable of committing rape, mayhem and murder against the people they claim to serve: "You see the two boys over there, just to the right of the burro?" one of the widows asks a newcomer. "The taller one's Trotsky, and the other one's Vietnam. The poor things were forced to witness the killing of their fathers at the hands of the guerrillas."
Male violence rather than magic realism, in fact, is the unsettling subtext of Tales From the Town of Widows, and the occasional moments of atrocity go off like land mines among the more frequent moments of sexual adventure and sexual ambiguity that decorate this otherwise comic account of the rise and fall of a gynocratic utopia. "If not having men around meant that Mariquita had to end with the present generation," argue the widows who condemn the Procreation Creation campaign in favor of bedding down with each other, "perhaps an entire generation of harmony, tolerance and love would be preferable to an eternity of misery and despair -- not to mention war." ·
Jonathan Kirsch is the author, most recently, of "A History of the End of the World: How the Most Controversial Book in the Bible Changed the Course of Western Civilization."