Antonio Ungar, Three White Coffins

Antonio Ungar, Three White Coffins (en español aquí)

The narrator of this novel lives an unassuming life, in some inadequate slum of the Republic of Miranda, away from all the action (drug trafficking, petro-dollars, land seizures and death squads). The outside world rarely makes an impact on his life:

The old battery-powered radio, which only ever used to appear when at the shop some neighbour had alerted my father to the existence of an event that, according to the papers or the TV, was of supreme national importance. That radio had appeared in Dad’s hands – if I remember correctly – to mark the following grand occasions:

  1. Assassination of opposition presidential candidate, 1989.
  2. National football team holding on for a draw, 1990.
  3. Assassination of opposition presidential candidate, 1990.
  4. First place in a cycling time-trial, 1990.
  5. Assassination of opposition presidential candidate, 1990.
  6. Second place in the javelin at the Pan-American championships, 1991.
  7. Assassination of monarchist presidential candidate, 1995.
  8. Best traditional costume at Miss Universe, 2002.
  9. Papal visit (false alarm), 2008.

He simply records the details, without passing judgment, caring more about getting his prose stylings suitably melodramatic (“as if way up in the sky something was looming over me, the dark shadow of Death or a considerably large bird”), doing calisthenics in the garden or drinking cocktail after cocktail.

But then something happens which forces him to poke his head out his shell, the same event which has brought the radio out of its hiding-place (and for the same reasons as usual): the assassination of another presidential candidate, Pedro Akira, who just happens to be a dead ringer for our socially-inept narrator. Trouble ensues.

Throughout the first chapter there is a non-stop deflation of any heroism attached to politics. Akira himself is described too-adoringly; the whole country is under the thumb of cults of personality; the President himself is a psychotic toddler:

A journalist sent to our capital by Spain’s El País has declared that, thanks to the public order measures brought about by our very own cool-as-a-cucumber President Del Pito, foreign investment has recovered, GDP has risen, and the currency has gained in strength. This is what they say. The journalist went on to demonstrate that these macroeconomic changes are reflected in the everyday lives of the populace, exemplified by three archetypical citizens of the Republic: the taxi driver who drove the journalist from the airport to his excellent hotel, the vice-president (who, moreover, is the owner of our largest paper and half of the television stations, a fact unknown to our visitor) and – who else? – the midget-of-the-moment, the statuesque Del Pito.

The first fifty pages have this same mint-julep infused cynicism and slightly touching grandstanding all the way through. But the voice changes. The narrator is press-ganged into taking Akira’s place, pretending that the candidate is still alive and viable, and so becomes acquainted with his political backers (the ‘heavyweights’ of the Yellow Movement): weasels, cokeheads, drama queens, and one or two who are actually decent people. From which point on, little by little, he starts to act like Akira as well. He performs him.

The book shakes off the comedy of errors of the narrator’s independent existence (a shame, since this first long section is easily the best part, but a necessary move), and instead focuses on the trials and tribulations of Faking It. Our hero had long been plagued by his resemblance to Akira, as beautifully made clear early on in the story:

Between Pedro Akira, the wounded candidate, and me, your humble servant, there had always been a sort of fairground mirror. He had always stood before the mirror, and I had always been the warped image. Some small god had decided to send me to this vale of tears as a crooked representation made flesh, thinking that this would teach me an invaluable lesson (which I am yet to understand).

However, he gets the hang of impersonation easily, and quickly begins to enjoy it. I wondered if this would be the ‘message’ of the book: that politics is voice – if you can say something convincingly enough, you start to believe it. The narrator hardly disagrees with the accusations that come out his mouth (against the political system, the President, and his own comrades), but before ‘being’ Akira he was never in a position to utter them. He just needed the courage born of being allowed to fake it, to treat it as a script.

But it doesn’t go this way at all.

The plot descends instead into taut drama, as one by one the various characters are assassinated or tempted over to the dark side. A little black humour remains in the narrator’s voice, at the height of despair, that same pedantic insistence on using language correctly even as he wilts under the tropical sun, hiding from the death squads and sliding painfully through the weeks:

I don’t let go of the vodka bottle for almost two months. Not the same one – many bottles, which at the beginning I delicately measured out over sprigs of wormwood and salt and soda water, and which now I drink straight, ungarnished, sprawling in the garden as the sun converts me to crackling. I also do crosswords. And sing.

But for the most part it’s pretty grim. Well-written, powerful, though the humour and warmth of the early parts or the identity confusion of the middle section are completely forgotten. Characters are either tortured or flee the country, and we begin to see that the whole book is a fictional account of something that really happened (although, of course, it didn’t really, if you see what I mean). This is especially clear in the final chapter, in which we read another character’s diary, but there a lots of little references to it throughout the second half of the book – if I was being cynical, I’d say that this whole stance of “O, why is fiction so powerless to represent the real world?” has been done to death and, well, cynical itself.

As another reviewer said (I’ve translated it pretty loosely):

The author (or the narrator, at least) feels obliged to repeatedly admit the same old platitudes about the inefficiency and bankruptcy of fiction in general and his efforts in particular when it comes to truly representing reality, but without being prepared to alter his approach or – god forbid – write non-fiction.

Most of the (slight) criticism the book has received relates to the later sections, and to the idea that it has played it safe by reverting to a straightforwardly horrible story.

The fact that this novel won the Premio Herraldo certainly tells us something about the persistent metropolitan preference for garlanding only those books which have taken up as their themes violence, corruption or poverty, or which perpetuate folkloric stereotypes about the third world.

There is a big disconnect between the satirical, forlorn, fake-literary style of the early sections on the one hand, and the later scenes of action, espionage and torture on the other. But maybe that’s the point. Or at least, the experience of reading it was disconcerting and confusing and resonant, which is exactly what I want.

Novels are supposed to build and flow and have an internal logic, not shoot off in strange new directions, undermining their own voices and roots. But every now and again we get something else. Good.

2 Responses to Antonio Ungar, Three White Coffins

  1. Pingback: Tres Ataúdes Blancos | Fight the Landlord

  2. Pingback: On Hiatus | Fight the Landlord

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