OK, this is a strange name for a novel, even for this one.
“The War of Don Emmanuel’s Nether Parts” is Louis de Bernieres’ first novel, written in 1990. de Bernieres, an Englishman with a French name, is best know for “Corelli’s Mandolin”, but should be best known for “Birds Without Wings”, an extraordinary novel which spans most of 20th century Turkey.
After finishing his education, de Bernieres spent several years in Columbia as an English teacher. While there, influenced by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, among others, he wrote three books in Marquez’ general style.
Of course, there are many Latin American writers who follow the same format, semi-humorous, semi-political, semi-fantastical, semi-historical novels, written in vignette form, set in imaginary locations. Think also Peru’s Mario Vargas Llosa, and Brazil’s Jorge Amado.
Don Emmanuel’s nether parts are just what you imagine them to be, although I must say that they play a rather small part in the book, although they are themselves rather prominent in fact and reputation. The action takes place in the provincial backwaters of an unnamed country in South America, a country resembling Colombia, to be sure, but not Colombia (which is also mentioned in the book). People belong to one or more group: they are peasants, or Indians, or capitalists, or politicians, or landowners, or revolutionaries or the military.
The political situation is corrupt and even when politicians’ actions are altruistic, they backfire. The military is paranoid and believes only it can save the civilization in the country, purposely resorting to uncivilized methods as the only ones which “work”, and fighting among themselves, and attempting to deceive each other. The revolutionaries are in the hills, usually wondering what they are, who they are fighting and what they will do if they win. The landowning elite feels isolated, and without purpose. The peasants are peasants, and the Indians are, well, Indians.
But a peasant can become an Indian, or perhaps he always was one. A landowner can join the revolutionaries, finding her true love and therefore her niche in life, while remaining totally disinterested in politics. A general can turn against the military, and be assassinated four different times on the same night, yet live to tell the tale. Promising youths can die in their prime, yet reappear from time to time to guide their fellow villagers as they journey, Exodus-like, to find a new home. Not only hidden Inca ruins can appear, but 500 year old Spanish conquistadors and Indian slaves can return to life. People can be brutalized beyond description, bridges can blow up, land mines hidden, the daughter of the Norwegian ambassador kidnapped, a French woman miraculously cured of clearly end-stage cancer. Anything can happen.
I admit I had a difficult time keeping all the many, many characters straight. But after a while, I realized that it didn’t really matter. What my job was, was to sit back and enjoy the story.
Which I did.
I should probably find the other two books and finish the trilogy.
So little time.