The obvious choice when looking for a Colombian author is Gabriel Garcia Márquez, whose brilliant work I’ve read before. But I wanted something different, and I was particularly interested in finding a woman author. A little Internet searching turned up Laura Restrepo, who began her writing career as a political columnist. She has written several novels, some of which have been translated into English.
The one I chose, Delirium, begins when a man named Aguilar returns home to Bogotá after a few days away and discovers that his wife, Agustina, is in a state of delirium. This is not the first time she’s had a breakdown, but this one is more severe and lasts longer than usual. The book’s plot takes the reader through the factors and traumas in Agustina’s life that helped drive her to the condition in which Aguilar finds her.
There are different narrators throughout the book. First, there is Aguilar himself, whose story encompasses his life with Agustina, from the beginning of their relationship to the present. He is desperate to find a way to bring her back to the way she was before he left for his trip.
Then there is Agustina herself, although she refers to herself in the third person (“the girl Agustina”) and only as she was when she was still living at home with her parents. She craves her father’s approval above all else, but he is a hard man, giving approval only to his older son, who is much like himself. He mostly ignores Agustina, and he is brutal to his younger son, whom he considers to be too effeminate. Agustina is the only one who can console her little brother after their father has beaten him.
Another narrator is a man known as Midas McAlister, who has been a friend of Agustina’s older brother since childhood. Midas was with Agustina when her breakdown occurred, but has his own troubles to deal with. Unlike Agustina’s family, who are members of the oligarchy, Midas has had to hustle for everything he has. Among other things, he serves as a middleman between the notorious drug kingpin Pablo Escobar and the oligarchy, who act as willing money launderers for Escobar, since he returns their money to them greatly multiplied.
Finally, Agustina’s dead grandparents are heard from intermittently throughout the book by way of passages from their journals. Agustina’s grandfather suffered from bouts of delirium too, and the back story in the journals gives the reader a look into Agustina’s family history.
Between the four narrators, the mystery of what brought on Agustina’s breakdown begins to reveal itself. Or does it? A quote from Gore Vidal with which the author opens Delirium calls into question everything the reader knows about Agustina: “Wise Henry James had always warned writers against the use of a mad person as central to a narrative on the ground that as he was not morally responsible, there was no true tale to tell.”
My husband and I travel to Colombia often to visit our son, his girlfriend, and their darling baby boy. Because of my frequent visits, I knew what dish I was going to cook for this post before I even knew which book I was going to read. A traditional dish in Colombia is cazuela de frijoles, which is basically just beans served over rice. In Colombia, it usually is served with a substantial portion of meat as well, and it’s not always easy to convince the server in a restaurant that I really do want it without the meat. I used a recipe from the Sweet y Salado website, omitting the ham hocks the recipe called for. I didn’t have the Colombian aliños seasoning cubes the recipe called for, but there was a Sweet y Salado recipe for that as well. Likewise, I didn’t have the Sazón Goya seasoning packet for the aliños seasoning cubes, but Sweet y Salado had a recipe for that too.
I also made arepas to serve with the cazuela. These corn cakes are ubiquitous in Colombia, where it seems they’re a staple of almost every meal. Usually they’re made with butter and cheese, but I found a vegan recipe at PETA Latino’s website.
Since Medellin is the Colombian city with which I’m most familiar, I wanted my donation to help people in that city. GlobalGiving had a project listed on their website that sounded perfect to me: building urban gardens to help people living in the impoverished Comuna 8 neighborhood.
According to the project description: “Comuna 8 is home to 11% of Medellin's displaced population, of which 98% earn at or below the minimum wage. Families that have moved away from their rural homelands to escape violence leave livelihoods behind. They are then confronted with lack of economic opportunity, which often can lead to crime or violence. This puts impoverished children and families at risk of not achieving their life project, exposure to physical harm, poor nutrition, and low educational attainment.”
The gardens created through this project enable families not only to eat nutritious food themselves, but to sell the surplus to supplement their incomes. More information about this project is available at https://www.globalgiving.org/projects/huertas-urbanas-medellin/.
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