Jorge Franco, El mundo de afuera

June 8, 2014 § Leave a comment

Yesterday in my review Carlos Droguett’s 1971 Premio Alfaguara-winning novel Todas esas muertes, I talked about the appeal that violent, real-world events have for both writers and readers alike.  This can be extended to events like kidnappings, especially in countries such as Colombia where kidnappings have taken on a greater socio-political significance over the past half-century than they ever had in the United States.  One of the most famous kidnapping narratives is Gabriel García Márquez’s 1996 non-fiction narrative News of a Kidnapping.  García Márquez’s tale is so powerful that it is difficult to read any other narrative, fiction and non-fiction alike, set in Colombia without comparing it to News of a Kidnapping

Jorge Franco’s 2014 Premio Alfaguara-winning novel El mundo de afuera (The Outside World) certainly invites comparisons to García Márquez’s narrative, not just because it is based on a real-life 1971 kidnapping in Medellín, but also because of Franco’s association with García Márquez, who once employed him to work at his workshop “Cómo se cuenta un cuento” (“How A Story is Told”) for the Escuela de Cine y Televisión in Cuba.  There certainly were times where there seem to be echos of Gabo’s storytelling in Franco’s narrative, but for the majority of the time, El mundo de afuera manages to trod its own narrative ground, resulting in a story that contains a surprising depth to it.

El mundo de afuera is based on the kidnapping of a rich Medellín man, Don Diego, and his sheltered daughter, Isolda, both of whom are targets of interest for a group of kidnappers led by an man nicknamed el Mono (the Monkey).  This real-life kidnapping was a cause célèbre in Colombia in 1971 and Franco preserves most of the elements of this event in his narrative.  What he does is shift the perspectives a bit, utilizing frequent flashbacks and local color (music lyric snippets in particular) to create a narrative that feels dreamlike, almost fantastical.  Below is a representative passage that underscores this:

En el bosque, el pelo de Isolda se va transformando en una espiral que crece a medida que los almirajes le trenzan los cadejos.  Y se lo adornan con dragonarias y pensamientos morados, amarillos y blancos.  Ella, plácida, disfruta que ellos la peinen con su cuerno hasta dejarle el pelo como el copete cremoso de un helado. (p. 57)

In this passage, the child Isolda’s decorating of her hair with pansies and snapdragons before combing them out creates a sense of idyllic tranquility that stands in stark contrast to the “present day” narrative of the interactions between her father and the Monkey.  This, however, is only the first level of contrasts, as Isolda’s isolated life (based in part on her father’s own dreams and love for theater – consider her name and its literary antecedent) and innocence of the outside world appeals to the Monkey, who has his own reasons for the kidnapping beyond the million ransom he demands for Don Diego’s release.

Franco slowly unleashes the narrative tension he builds up through these contrasts of characters and situations.  El mundo de afuera is almost too languid at times, as it takes some time to get to the crux of the conflicts between the kidnappers and the kidnapped, between the controlling father and the quasi-cloistered daughter.  But yet there is something powerful behind the dialogues, between the flashbacks and the “current” events, something that manages to maintain the reader’s interest even when it seems that the plot is not advancing.  By the novel’s end, there are some interesting comparisons between life and art, between dreams and reality, that make this much more than a retelling of a 1971 kidnapping.  These little bits, which in truth turn out to be very important to the narrative, make El mundo de afuera more of a delight upon a re-read (which I did before writing this review) than on an initial read.  El mundo de afuera is a subtle novel, one that does not readily reveal its depths on a first read, but this is one of the novel’s charms, making it one of the better Spanish-language novels that I have read this year.

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