The Old Man
Who Read Love Stories

Luis Sepúlveda
Translated by Peter Bush


He's the kind of writer you and I want to be, this Sepúlveda. He moves effortlessly into the tale, then it moves on its own, as if you (and he) have to do nothing. Anything that comes into his mind is transformed into words, and they are gentle, and unaffected, and it works.

An old man lives in the jungles of Ecuador --- and all he wants is to be left alone, in his shack, with the rain coming down, so he can read the love novels which he collects every time the traveling dentist comes to town. Ghastly love novels, whose ghastly style contrasts so garishly with the lovely words and music of Sepúlveda.

The old man wants to lie in his hammock, and nibble on monkey meat, and drink a bit of rum, and be left alone to mouth the words of his novels. But then there is the mayor, who is a pig, and all the gringos who come into the jungle, and go hunting, and upset the animals, especially an ocelot: fools --- they murder her cubs, and after that, she becomes the beast in the jungle, who has to get bestial revenge --- murdering humans willy-nilly, until the mayor, the sweating pig, demands the old man help get rid of the beast.

See: it's a murder mystery, except the murderer isn't an enraged, crazed human, it's an enraged, crazed ocelot --- and there is only one person who can track her down, without getting killed, and that is the old man, because, at one point in his life, when everything went stupid and wrong, he went off to live with the "natives" of the jungles --- the Shuar, who taught him to hunt and fish and dream and live in the jungle, without destroying it. But now the old man has come back from the Shuar, and all he wants to do is read love stories, about these people in Venice, who travel around in Gondolas, kissing, passionately:

    The novel got off to a good start.

    Paul kissed her ardently while the gondolier, accomplice in his friend's escapades, pretended to look the other way, and the gondola, lined with soft cushions, glided peacefully along the canals of Venice.

    He read the passage aloud several times.

    What on earth were gondolas?

    They glided along canals. They must be boats or canoes. As for Paul, he clearly wasn't at all respectable, since he was kissing the girl "ardently" in the presence of a friend, an accomplice into the bargain.

    But he liked the start.

    He thought the author was quite right to make it clear from the outset who the bad ones were. That way you avoided misunderstanding and misplaced sympathy.

    As for the kissing, what was this "ardently"? How the devil did you do that?

    He thought back to the few times he'd kissed Dolores Encarnación del Santísimo Sacramento Estupiñán Otavalo [his wife]. Probably, without his being aware of it, one of those rare kisses had been ardent, like Paul's in the novel. Anyway, there hadn't been many kisses, because his wife either responded with fits of laughter or said they must be sinful.

    ...He remembered that he had once seen a gold prospector lying with a jibaro woman, a poor creature who hung around the settlers and adventurers begging for a swig of liquor. Anyone who wanted to could take her into a quiet corner and possess her. The poor woman, brutalized by alcohol, didn't realize what they were doing to her. This time the fortune hunter mounted her on the beach and tried to press his mouth to hers.

    The woman reacted like a wild animal. She pushed the man off, threw a handful of sand in his eyes, and went off to vomit, visibly disgusted.

    If that was what ardent kissing was about, then Paul in the novel was a real swine.

    When siesta time came, he'd read and pondered some four pages, and was worrying about his inability to imagine Venice with the features drawn from other cities he'd also discovered in novels.

    In Venice, apparently, the streets were under water, and the people had to move about in gondolas.

    Gondolas. He was infatuated with the word "gondola," and thought it would make a good name for his canoe. The Gondola of the Nangaritza.

I won't tell you how it ends. It's writing like early Hemingway that beats Hemingway. It's by a writer who obviously loves the jungle, and the people who live there. He's a star, this Sepúlveda. And his translator is top-notch, too.

If we had a star system, this one would get


At the very least.

--- L. W. Milam

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