Most helpful positive review
FUNNY, SAD, SICKENING . . . AND A TECHNICAL MASTERPIECE
on January 30, 2002
Since first reviewing "Senor Vivo and the Coca Lord" for Amazon my opinion has changed substantially, and it is only fair to pass this on.
I stand by my original thought that this book suffers from the post-modernity malaise: The author has brought together almost too many ideas, styles and techniques in the service of his agenda - at certain points these tend to obscure rather than clarify things. However, the depth of the message and the beauty of its expression have become clearer over time.
The message is simultaneously uplifting and painful: There is a grim symbiosis that unites corrupt and stupid governments with drugs and arms dealers in a feeding frenzy that destroys not just people but civilisation itself. Love and justice can be victorious, but only the kind of love that has more to do with self-sacrifice than romance, and only the kind of justice that is prepared to confront evil regardless of the cost. It's a profound but painful truth that only that strange hybrid of Marxism and Christianity called "Liberation Theology" has succeeded in developing systematically.
The book's principal stylistic flourish is "magical realism", a formula familiar to readers of Garcia Marquez and others. This piece of lit. crit. jargon means simply that magical events are an integral part of the plot, but, this being the world of po-mo, it only happens to make a point. In other words, the author does not require you to suspend disbelief as would be the case in a conventional magic story. This technique provides the opportunity for some of the book's most delicate and beautiful images, but on the downside it imposes a clumsy constraint on the author: He cannot narrate supernatural events directly and objectively - he has to do so in a subjective way from inside the head of one of his characters. This is not a criticism of the author - he executes this perceptual juggling with flawless technique. Rather, it is an indictment of the literary fashion that makes this sort of mannerism necessary. The self-distancing of the author from the world in which his characters live and move is unavoidably communicated to the reader, making it harder to engage with the characters or feel for them the way we would under the spell of a conventional narrative.
In this literary framework, only appalling suffering can draw us into the intensity of feeling for the characters that is necessary for the device to work. The story starts off in a light, satirical vain that will raise genuine rueful smiles and in its erotic moments even perhaps mildly titillate. The only searching question is whether he can reign the po-mo mannerisms in for long enough at a time to keep the story flowing, but Louis writes such beautiful prose that it is a pleasure to read. Nevertheless, the feelgood factor of the earlier chapters cannot last, and quite quickly the book descends into a nightmare of depraved violence. Louis narrates rape, torture, mutilation and so on with exactly the kind of elegant simplicity you would expect, and after the good humour of the early chapters the result is almost unbearably shocking.
I have some reservations as to whether even great literature should incorporate such graphic descriptions of sexual violence. I would certainly not wish to leave this book lying around the house where a young or impressionable person could be exposed to it. And in places Louis' literary technique almost gets the better of his artistic sensibility. Nevertheless, it stands as a remarkable achievement by a novelist of extraordinary gifts. If you are not afraid to laugh, cry and be sickened in one sitting, it is strongly recommended.