A REVIEW OF LAURA RESTREPO'S
NO PLACE FOR HEROES
BY AMY MITCHELL
The Rusty Toque | Issue 3 | Reviews | Fiction | October 12, 2012
NO PLACE FOR BUFFOONERY
Laura Restrepo is a prominent Colombian novelist who counts José Saramago among her admirers, and who won the Premio Alfaguara de Novela in 2004 for her novel Delirium, which has enjoyed a strong international reputation. Given this background, it is surprising that her 2009 novel No Place for Heroes (translated into English in 2010 by Ernesto Mestre-Reed) falters.
The conceit should work. The novel tells the story of a mother and son who embark on a journey into the past in order to find the absent (and possibly sinister) father. Lorenza is a Colombian woman who joined the underground resistance in Argentina in the years of the military junta, and Ramón, her erstwhile husband, played a hazy leadership role in the local Buenos Aires resistance. In retrospect, Lorenza admits that it never occurred to her at the time to wonder if Ramón was a good man or not. She simply fell for him, probably aided by the intensity of their shared political risks, and later had a son, Mateo, with him. The family decamped to Colombia and relative safety, only to have Ramón then perpetrate a mysterious act that Mateo calls “the dark episode.” Ramón subsequently vanished. No Place for Heroes follows Lorenza and a teenaged Mateo as they return to Buenos Aires in an attempt to find and reconnect with Ramón, while Mateo simultaneously elicits all the details of “the dark episode” from Lorenza, which he did not already know in their entirety. The novel as a whole tries for a balance between suspense, intimate family drama, and political memoir, but in the end does not succeed.
Lorenza is the best-developed character in the novel. Her transformation from bourgeois upbringing to naive revolutionary rings true (Ramón speculates that the resistance capitalized on her naivete when they flew her into Buenos Aires with a particularly egregious amount of contraband). She initially has difficulty acclimatizing herself to the rules of precise deception that kept resistance members alive, comes close to flubbing her missions a few times, and then slowly integrates into the underground scene. When she has Mateo, the precarious nature of her and Ramón’s existence hits home with her, and she convinces him to leave with her and the baby for Colombia, where she becomes a journalist and then later a novelist. The unity of the character begins to fragment when Restrepo introduces (and almost immediately abandons) the fact that Lorenza is allergic to tears—this particular malady, crying out (pardon the pun) for symbolic resolution of some kind, simply goes nowhere. When we see her through Mateo’s eyes, there are a few isolated, artificial attempts to give her slightly harder edges. Mateo is the apotheosis of a picky eater, and contrasts their battles over food with her insistence on political tolerance: “She was a sadist with food. She knew that Mateo would not want to taste anything that came from her plate, or even her fork, but she never relented...[S]he persisted, her tolerance reserved only for her political views.” One of the reasons Mateo appreciates her novels is that they remove him from these and other kinds of fights:
He enjoyed the time when she was writing because he knew he wouldn’t have to go chasing after her if she decided to travel on a whim, make sudden decisions or take up new political causes and leave everything else to go to hell, for the sole reason that she was Lolé and Lolé did whatever the fuck she wanted. Hadn’t Mateo noticed the murderous fury in her eyes when he refused to eat something? Now that he was tall and robust, no one could force him to do anything, and even if he didn’t lift a finger against her, she glared at him as if he were a monstrous abuser of mothers.
These types of details do not manifest themselves elsewhere in the novel, however, and Lorenza in the final analysis is a gentler and more passive figure than the novel seems to want her to be. This reality of her character, though, is the only reason the ending works even modestly, since by that time we feel that she is not entirely up to the betrayal she experiences.
Mateo is, quite simply, a failure as a character. His emotional age registers as prepubescent, although he is a teenager who shaves in the morning. When he travels back to Buenos Aires with Lorenza and finds Ramón’s name in the phone book, he has the following exchange with Lorenza:
“Here, in Buenos Aires. It’s the Buenos Aires phone book, right? Shit, that’s so fucked up, Lolé. Maybe he lives right next door. What a disaster, what a shock. Let go of the phone book, leave it wherever it was. And shut it, I beg you, I don’t know what got into me to go looking in it.”
He is also given to annoyingly manic and lengthy monologues, as we see most painfully just after he attends the Rolling Stone’s Bridges to Babylon concert in Buenos Aires with Lorenza in tow:
“Spectacular, truly genius,” he repeated as they tried to move through the crowd, which was leaving the stadium in droves. “Not to lessen the experience, but it’s pretty strange to go to a Stones concert with your own mother, for how can you get all worked up and crazy with your own mother right there? Although, if you think about it, the Stones are probably more from your generation than from mine, Lolé. It’s funny how you knew all the lyrics better than I did. And what a drag, they didn’t play ‘Paint it Black,’ even though we yelled, they pretended not to hear, but Dylan did play ‘Like a Rolling Stone,’ he wrote that, that song, he wrote it, and then the Stones took the name, I think that’s how it was, and then they had a falling-out with Dylan and that’s why tonight’s reunion is historic, Lorenza, once in a lifetime, the Stones and Dylan are friends again and I got to see it! Do you understand? Me, Mateo Iribarren! But you’re a geek, Mother, how can you have liked the small stage better; what a loser, you showed your age there, you’re definitely ancient, liking that little retro stage because it was more like the ones rom your era, but the fucking real show was on the big stage, pulling out all the technological stops, blasted with light, and you ecstatic over that pathetic little stage. The best part was the blue hoop, exploding during the fireworks while they played ‘Satisfaction,’ and everything else turned blue. Didn’t you love that blue hoop of light? Unbelievable...”
What is truly unbelievable is that this monologue continues for over another page. In a novel that aims for quotidian realism, Mateo seems either completely false or grievously disturbed, especially since he is already shaving. It is difficult at times to remember that he is more than, say, eight years old.
The other characters are either minor or ciphers, or both, which further magnifies the continuous wrong note that is Mateo.
The structure of the plot also falters. Restrepo intersperses Mateo and Lorenza’s current adventure with Lorenza’s slow revelation of details about Ramón’s “dark episode,” which happened when Mateo was so small that he cannot remember more than the odd detail or two about it. This alternation between times and stories creates a kind of artificial tension about the nature of the “dark episode”—artificial because Lorenza already knows what has happened, and there is nothing new to find out, no clues to draw readers along or justify taking the majority of the novel to relate the information. Additionally, this piecemeal revelation fails to create any interesting juxtapositions with the other material that surrounds any instance of it, and thus reminds us that genuine tension is missing from the novel as a whole.
This lack of tension or danger is actually interesting, considering the novel is set during and after Argentina’s dictatorship. The key to this problem may lie in the moment when Lorenza decides how to write about her experiences. She has this realization while visiting an old friend from the resistance, who is now a seamstress working out of her own home:
Amid clouds of steam and fuzz, the sputtering steam iron, and the hum of the sewing machine, they continued their chat laden with secrets that had never been revealed and indeed would never be mentioned again. The sheets, embroidered and ironed, piled up, and they had to be sorted into sets—fitted sheets, flat sheets, and pillowcases—then wrapped in tissue paper and placed carefully in a box. And it was there in Gabriela’s apartment where Lorenza thought she had finally found the tone that would allow her to write, now, yes, that [revolutionary] chapter in their history... The problem had been how to tell it, and now she thought she had it figured out: simple, intimate as a conversation between two women reminiscing behind closed doors. No heroes, no adjectives, no slogans. In a minor key. Without delving minutely into major events, keeping just the echo, to wrap it in tissue paper, like the sheets, to see if it finally stopped beating and, little by little, began to yellow. Yes, wrapped in the silky tissue paper, maybe that’s exactly what was needed: for the chatter, the laughter, the interweaving of moments and pains, the small confessions—these would smoothly envelop the old fear, reducing it to the realm of everyday gossip.
This decision to wrap up the past in tissue paper and carefully pack it away resonates with the origin of the novel’s title (while it is No Place for Heroes in English, a more literal translation of Demasiados héroes would be something like “Too Many Heroes”). Lorenza’s father had a favorite saying: “‘What are we, heroes or buffoons?’” to which Mateo responds “‘I’d rather be a buffoon...[t]he heroes can all go to hell.’” The theme of seeing and choosing buffoonery over conventional heroism permeates the novel, and is part, I think, of Restrepo’s efforts to reduce this story from the epic to the quotidian—to pack it away in tissue, as Lorenza would put it. The problem is that this approach results in a distancing and dampening of both the story and its historical setting, which then reduces the feeling that there is anything truly at stake. It also forces strange, uneasy comparisons between the domestic and the horrors of the dictatorship that don’t satisfactorily resolve.
Without giving away the ending (which echoes the “dark episode” and indeed brings it to its logical conclusion), Ramón is, at best, a jerk with the potential for domestic terrorism (if not quite violence). The awkwardly muted and flattened landscape that he inhabits leads to the inevitable comparison between him and the coercive powers of the dictatorship, a point that Restrepo explicitly drives home through the voices of both Mateo and Lorenza’s friend Gabriela when they make this observation. This comparison would work if Ramón were genuinely violent, but we are in the realm of buffoonery, not heroics, and so the “dark episode” only ever flirts with the possibility of violence, dancing adroitly just on the edge of catastrophe. The ending broadens Ramón’s betrayal of Loreza out into a betrayal of her by men more generally, but, while the “dark episode” was certainly intentional, the ending of the novel exhibits a casual cruelty that may be wholly unintended on the part of the male characters involved. We don’t know. And thus we are left with a very deliberate comparison between forms of intimate male cruelty and the brutal dictatorship, but with the violence of both poles unusually minimized and with at least one male character who frankly does not merit this comparison at all. In a way, he is himself betrayed by the novel in this respect. This quandary—the fact that the comparison simply doesn’t work when examined closely enough—is insoluble within the bounds of the novel because it stretches credulity too far.
Restrepo has attempted an interesting experiment with her tissue paper approach, but it may be that it is not such a good idea to pack away both violence and complexity (the novel is very short, considering its subject matter, large type and wide margins). The characters need to live more, or there needs to be real depth, or real risk. Without these things, the novel winds up both oversimplified and thematically incoherent. We certainly don’t need heroes in this novel, but the buffoonery seems responsible for the problems with character, structure, tone, and intellectual content. Had Restrepo chosen the middle way, this could have been a much more fascinating work.
AMY MITCHELL has a PhD in Modernist poetry from Western University. She is currently a Professor of English and Writing at Fanshawe College.