Can someone who is not South American write good South American magical realism? Probably, though where this novel’s concerned the answer is not quite. While it has all the elements — social realism combined with aspects of myth, folklore and the fantastical, as well as sympathy for the downtrodden and for social justice — it skims the surface rather than getting under the skin of the world it portrays.
Loosely based on the real life occupation of a half-completed skyscraper in Caracas, Venezuela, Damnificados features the folktale’s heroic quest. Idealistic Nacho, “the little cripple”, leads a community of outcasts, or damnificados, in defence of an abandoned urban tower they have occupied. Archvillain Torres, owner of the tower, means to reclaim it. The setting is a world of debris, scavenging and violence.
We know Torres will stop at nothing. We know the damnificados are ill-equipped to resist. No need to worry, though. A fantastical two-headed wolf pack sees off Torres’s henchmen, which is just as well since Nacho is a pretty ineffectual leader. A wasted journey to a vast shadowland to appeal to a nicer Torres put me in mind of union officials going to ACAS. He consults an ex-diplomat, his brother and the library on how to beat a superior force and when this gets him nowhere, he prays.
All this had me wanting to yell, “Call a mass meeting, rouse the others, involve them!” But then the others are portrayed as hapless and dependent. They won’t do anything. They just moan. Again certain union officials come to mind.
The near certainty that something fantastical will turn up to thwart Torres leads to a loss of dramatic tension. Character development might have compensated for this, but there’s little of that. Nacho starts out a nice wee bloke with withered limbs and ends up a nice bloke without them, having been magically transfigured at a cross-class ritual Great Cleansing.
A cover quote says, “Should be read by every politician and rich bastard and then force-fed to them.” There’s not much here to worry them. Nacho learns to stay chilled and wait for magic to do its work. We’re told that many of the damnificados work in the city, but we see nothing of this. There’s no sign that Torres represents anything other than a rapacious gangster family.
Gender roles are conventional, bordering on the macho: men do the leading, providing and teaching while the principal female character tarts herself up to get her man.
That said, Amaworo Wilson’s sympathies are in the right place, he’s brimful of ideas and his crisp, pacey prose is very good. Scenes are described in telling detail, though Nacho’s train journey, for instance, reads like an excerpt from the author’s travel journal so that we’re seeing through his eyes rather than those of the protagonist.
This is his first novel, though, and it may be worth taking a look at his next.