Published in: Travel Column
Date: January 1998
Don't Bother Me with Facts When I'm Reading
by Stephanie Gold

There are travel books, and then there are travelbooks. There are the books one uses to meticulously (endlessly, futilely) map out one's itinerary, and the books one reads to enhance the enjoyment of the destination. Call it reading for color, call it mood reading, or call it what it is: vicarious thrills experienced through fictional characters as they soap opera their way through Rio de Janeiro and Shanghai. Just as Verona is forever tinged with romance from the carryings-on of Romeo and Juliet, those sights you're dutifully seeing feel more personal when you remember the hi jinks performed there on page 231.

So yes, I like to read novels set in the country I'm visiting. When in Israel I greatly enjoyed Philip Roth's "Operation Shylock," and I think Alex Garland's "The Beach" is a tremendous Thailand yarn. But as my North American winter drags on (and on), the South American summer beckons ever louder; it's audible over the roar of the rain and the thwack of inverting umbrellas. I thumb through Lonely Planet's "Central America on a Shoestring," planning Guatemalan jaunts to the Mayan jungle city of Tikal, followed perhaps by a backpacking trek in Costa Rica's rain forest and a scuba course on Honduras's barrier reef. But my flight is weeks away. "The War of Don Emmanuel's Nether Parts" by Louis de Bernieres is just the book to take me out of my chill existence and plunge me forthwith into Latin American steam.

So what if it takes place in an imaginary country? De Bernieres fills the jungly, mountainous land with places (Merida, Valledupar, and Chiriguana) that provoke immediate recognition, never mind that they don't really exist. It's the same with the political history (remember "La Violencia" that lasted 10 years?), and the bits of dialect (borrowed liberally from Brazilian Portuguese, Latin American Spanish, and a number of Indian languages)--they all give that sense of vague familiarity that makes you so comfortable in de Bernieres's fabricated world.

But it's the people who make the book breathe, sulk, cry, and flirt. There's Dona Constanza Evans (the haughty oligarch who's kidnapped by the guerrillas and becomes one of them when she and Gonzago plunge passionately in love, falling to it behind every guava tree), Capitan Rodrigo Jose Figueras ("His hairy belly spread his shirt apart at the buttons, he was thick-lipped and leering-eyed, and his hair lay flat across his head by the weight of its own grease"), and of course Don Emmanuel, whose preliminary banter always includes remarks concerning one's nether parts, and who fights the army without bullets, sending instead a willing whore with the clap. There's high comedy and devastating tragedy, touching devotion, and delightful repartee; there's a plague of laughter followed by a plague of magical cats, but best of all, there are two more books ("Senor Vivo and the Coca Lord" and "The Troublesome Offspring of Cardinal Guzman"), for "The War of Don Emmanuel's Nether Parts," happily, is just the first in a trilogy.