Edmundo Paz Soldán

"Turing's Delirium"

(Reviewed by Mary Whipple AUG 12, 2007)

"If the program that runs the universe were mathematical, there would be a primary algorithm from which the rest would be derived.  If the program were computational, there would be three or four lines of code that could explain the tides and the leopard's spots and the wide variety of languages and the movements of your right hand…[Eventually], you ponder the question and ask yourself, 'What is the meaning of wondering about meaning?'"

Dense with ideas and complex in its plots, Turing's Delirium confronts the issues of globalization and the conflicts generated by a perpetual underclass.  Within a thriller set in Rio Fugitivo, Bolovia, author Edmundo Paz Soldan, described by Mario Vargas Llosa as "one of the most important Latin American writers of the new generation," brings social unrest to life in this Third World country.  Though young intellectuals have always relied on strikes, demonstrations, and indigenous riots by miners, coca growers, and other laborers to emphasize their grievances—and do so here, too—they now have a new weapon, the computer.  Now it is possible for the resistance and revolution to be conducted in cyberspace, and hackers are the front line in the waging of the new war.  Their older governmental opponents rely on their historical experience as cryptanalysts and code-breakers to try to protect their files and maintain their security—along with their control of the government--while the hackers rely on ingenuity and their knowledge of the newest computer coding.

Several plot lines develop simultaneously here:  The main character, Miguel Saenz, also known as Turing, was nationally famous in the 1970s as a code-breaker, but he is now in charge of the archives of the Black Chamber, the Bolivian security agency.  He has recently received a coded message which was hacked into his own computer, "Murderer, your hands are stained with blood." 

Trained by the elderly Albert, "the spirit of cryptanalysis," who is now retired and dying in hospital, Turing works for Ramirez-Graham, an American-born Bolivian recruited by the vice-president of Bolivia to modernize the Black Chamber.  The President of Bolivia, Montenegro, a former dictator, has recently been democratically elected, but he is in trouble politically.  Tremendous unrest has resulted from the President's decision to give the national contract for electricity to Globalux, an Italian and American consortium, which has raised prices and angered the general population.

A local judge, Judge Cardona, wanting to avenge the suspicious death of his cousin Mirtha, a woman he adored, intends to put President Montenegro on trial as soon as Montenegro returns to civilian life, but he also wants to incriminate people like Turing and his wife Ruth, another cryptanalyst, for their roles in supporting Montenegro.  A reclusive man covered with red spots and addicted to "Bolivian Marching Powder," Cardona lurks in shadows, motivated by his own hatred.

The chief hacker into the governments systems is Kandinsky, a young expert in creating viruses.   Like many of the young people involved in the resistance, including Turing's daughter Flavia, one of the most active members, Kandinsky participates in the virtual "game" of Playground, in which young hackers try out techniques for conquering the enemy, recruit others who share their ideas, and try on other identities, always careful to keep their real identities secret.  The fact that virtual reality is "virtually" identical to "real" reality is one of the keystones of the novel.

As the various characters are developed and their backgrounds and relationships are shared with the reader, the several plot lines begin to swirl together and become increasingly complex.   Simultaneously, the author also explores more complex metaphysical ideas--the nature of reality as opposed to virtual reality, the mechanisms of thought, concepts governing identity, and guiding principles of the universe.

Stylistically, Paz Soldan is a magician, keeping at least three or four different plot lines going at the same time, developing characters and their relationships, and exploring philosophical ideas.  Turing, for whom the author uses the second person point of view to reveal thoughts, proves to be a different character depending on who is considering him, and whether or not he is a reliable focus for the novel is always an open question for the reader.  Albert, the father of cryptanalysis and Turing's mentor, serves as a constant refrain, as he, delirious, reminisces about his life and past lives throughout the novel.  As murders mount in number, the reader must ask whether Kandinsky is a "good" person or not, whether Turing's motives are "pure," whether Turing's daughter Flavia is following a "thoughtful" path to solving the problems of Rio Fugitivo, whether Judge Cardona is an avenging angel or a vengeful criminal, and whether the problems of the country can ever be solved.

The novel is dense and philosophical in many places, but it rewards careful reading.  Not the typical thriller, it requires the reader to think as the narrative evolves and as the themes are revealed.  Lacking a main character with whom the reader can fully identify, the novel may keep some readers at a distance, appreciating the author's skill and his well-developed ideas while regretting their inability to become more fully involved with the characters and action.  Paz Soldan provides a vibrant picture of life in Rio Fugitivo, however.  An acclaimed member of the McOndo Movement, which is Latin America's pragmatic answer to the magical realists, he leaves the reader wondering about the universal meaning of "progress" and its particilar meaning in places like Rio Fugitivo. (Translated by Lisa Carter.)

  • Amazon readers rating: from 6 reviews

Read a chapter excerpt from Turing's Delirium at MostlyFiction.com

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"The Matter of Desire"

(Reviewed by Mary Whipple OCT 30, 2005)

"My weekly column was called "Vivir en el Sur" and it was about "the strangeness of living in [South America] after so many years in the North" (the mediocre libraries, the strikes, the smell of nicotine on clothes after a night out at a bar or club, the fact that I smoked or that I arrived late here, while everything was the opposite there). I wanted to be witty, but it was hard not to sound frivolous. It was obvious I was lost, distracted."

Pedro Zabalaga, with a freshly minted PhD from Cal Berkeley, is a professor of Latin American Studies at the University of Madison (New York), a young man much in demand by American magazines as a commentator on the political situation in South America, and Bolivia, in particular. Pedro is the son of Bolivian hero Pedro Reissig, one of six men massacred by the army as their socialist cell was meeting to plan the overthrow of President Montenegro. Reissig died in the 1970s, when his son was still a small child, and the only legacy young Pedro has is a book his father has written entitled Berkeley. This he regards as "a long letter from Dad to me. By discovering the message he had hidden in the book, I would discover him…"

Pedro Reissig, the father, had, like his son, studied for his PhD at Berkeley, where he became politically active, and where he also wrote a novel, still a cult favorite, filled with symbols. In order to find out more about his father and the myth that has grown up around him, young Pedro has returned to Rio Fugitivo in Bolivia, having been granted a one-semester research sabbatical by his university, and he is staying with his Uncle David Reissig, the only one of the seven people at the meeting to have survived the massacre. Now an alcoholic, David is a man with dreams of inventing a radio that will capture the voices of the dead. He uses an old cargo container on his patio as an experimental "lab" and barely supports himself by developing cryptograms which communicate secret messages, a popular crossword entertainment in the Sunday newspaper. In his spare time he works at identifying the many symbols that fill Berkeley. "Berkeley can be considered as a political critique of the media," David Reissig tells Pedro, "And of history as well, starting with the telegraph and even, in the last chapter, prophesying the coming of the Internet."

The political use of the media is a theme which appears again and again throughout this novel. Not only is it one of Pedro Reissig's themes in Berkeley, but it is also a concern of Pedro Zabalaga, his son, whose magazine articles about the political situation in Latin America are more accurately his visceral reactions to events and what he knows from his life there than they are a result of serious academic research. Magazines have quickly recognized that Pedro's writing communicates differently from academic writing through its appeal to the reader's emotions.

Shortly after he returns to Rio Fugitivo, Pedro Zabalaga is asked to evaluate the memoirs of Jaime Villa, the drug kingpin of Bolivia, who is awaiting extradition to the United States, a man who was once his father's close friend. Villa sees himself as the champion of the poor, a man involved in the sale of drugs in order to siphon money into poor villages instead of into the coffers of the dictator and the army. Villa believes that through his memoirs he can use the press to affect the country's perception of him as a Robin Hood-like hero. Several of the revolutionaries Pedro Zabalaga befriends in Rio Fugitivo are also involved in the media, one of them working for a television station. A popular contemporary rock band, named "Berkeley," conveys revolutionary messages through its videos. In one of the book's cleverest ironies, the author of this novel himself employs the clues of Uncle David's cryptograms as a way of conveying the history of the revolution to readers of this book.

However cohesive its themes may be, this is not just a "message novel." Pedro Zabalaga's return to Bolivia is as much an escape from a disastrous love affair with a student as it is a search for his identity. Involved in a passionate affair with Ashley, to whom he is unwilling or unable to commit himself fully, he has left New York on the eve of her wedding to another man, leaving her to deal with her feelings for him on her own. As the novel alternates between Bolivia and New York, with Ashley constantly in Pedro's thoughts, the reader sees innumerable parallels between the lives of Pedro and his father in their unwillingness to commit themselves to a future course of action. Not surprisingly, also, the author uses "Ashley" as a symbolic name: Jaime Villa eats the ashes from his cigarettes for potassium, Pedro Reissig has been reduced to ashes, and Pedro Zabalaga's life is in ashes.

The mystery of Pedro Reissig occupies much of the novel—Who is he? Who betrayed the group to the army? What does his novel Berkeley mean? What is the secret message? Who do the novel's characters represent in real life? As the answers to these questions change with each of the main character's new discoveries, the reader is kept in suspenseful anticipation. The ending is stunning.

Paz Soldan is a fascinating "new" writer whose descriptions of people, their actions, and their politics are insightful and enlightening to the norteamericanos who will read this first-ever translation. His sensitivity to the contrasts between life in Bolivia and life in upstate New York is striking, and I found myself smiling at the description of Pedro's arrival at the airport in La Paz: "I light a cigarette, wondering whether there'll be a shout to put my hands in the air, a shove that'll knock me to the ground, making the pack of Marlboros fall, an arrest and six months in federal prison. Nothing happens. The act doesn't lead to hysteria here." His ability to create not one, but two less than admirable "heroes" both of whom, nevertheless, keep the reader interested in their fates, is daunting. The tight construction, despite the constant changes in time and setting from Rio Fugitivo to Madison, NY, and Berkeley, along with the consistent thematic development, make this a novel which conveys a message without sacrificing the literary qualities which make novels and their characters come alive. This reader can hardly wait for further novels by this brilliant young Bolivian author to be translated into English.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 3 reviews

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About the Author:

Edmundo Paz SoldanEdmundo Paz Soldán is the author of six novels and two short story collections. He has won the National Book Award in Bolivia, the prestigious Juan Rulfo Award, and was a finalist for the Romulo Gállegos Award. One of the few McOndo writers who live in the United States, he is frequently called upon as the movement’s spokesperson by the American media. The Matter of Desire is his first work to be translated into English.

He is an assistant professor at Cornell University in New York City.

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