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Baroque Bordello : THE LOVE QUEEN OF THE AMAZON By Cecile Pineda (Little, Brown: $19.95; 264 pp.)

March 22, 1992|Cristina Garcia | Garcia's first novel, "Dreaming in Cuban," will be published by Alfred A. Knopf this month. She is a former correspondent for Time magazine

Gabriel Garcia Marquez once observed: "A novelist can do anything he wants so long as he makes people believe in it." This simple and overwhelming principle is never more tested than in the genre of magical realism. Like myth, magical realism utilizes the fantastical to reconstruct reality, tapping into the history and legends of Latin America to synthesize outsized truths.

In her third novel, "The Love Queen of the Amazon," Cecile Pineda has written a larger-than-life story about how a convent school girl, Ana Magdalena, is derailed from a conventional life by an act of courage and ends up becoming the reigning madame, or "love queen," of the Amazon region of Peru. It is a story that augurs much delicious baroqueness and perversity in its initial pages but scantly succeeds in fulfilling its early promise. With its stock characters, lackluster language and infelicitous metaphors, "The Love Queen of the Amazon" is a pale imitation of the glorious style of the best Latin American literature.

Admittedly, it is not easy to tackle the subject of bordellos and whores in the context of South American writing, as so many already have written splendidly about the subject--notably Mario Vargas Llosa with the "The Green House" and Jorge Amada with "Tieta." When it comes to Latin American literary pedestals, whores are elevated at least as high as madonnas, if not a bit higher. All the more reason why they should be treated with particular insight and imagination, or not at all. Unfortunately, "The Love Queen of the Amazon" sheds no new light on the lives and thoughts of its women, but offers only recycled superficialities about good-hearted hookers, business-minded madames and the utter fecklessness of men.

The bordello, as run by Ana Magdalena, is something of a benevolent dictatorship. Its eight prostitutes are color-coded by dress and room decor in order to assist their customers' memories. As in many South American dictatorships, investments in the infrastructure here are supported by North American loans, in Ana Magdalena's case by an organization called the IFF, whose lending policies and requirements are reminiscent of the International Monetary Fund. Squeezed by payoffs to local officials and to her conniving father, Hercules, who tries to blackmail her, Ana Magdalena decides to expand her services to include nine chambers for special vices.

The novel is at its best describing the obsessions and antics of several of its secondary characters. Ana Magdalena's neurotic and penurious mother, Andreina, takes to raising bees in her crumbling house to make ends meet, and becomes entombed in a chrysalis of honey. Ana Magdalena's husband, the self-absorbed Federico Orgaz y Orgaz, a once wealthy man of letters, spends years clacking away at his typewriter on the top floor of their mansion, thus enabling his wife to conduct her bawdy enterprises on the lower floors. Ana Magdalena's weary and ancient mother-in-law, Clemencia, one day inexplicably begins to float. Her servant feeds her by attaching a fork to a long pole, and improvises a bed for Clemencia in the branches of the chandeliers.

But these touches, these acts of magic and faith, only intermittently leaven Pineda's narrative, which is burdened with flat dialogue and sex scenes that read like passages from an overheated romance novel:

"Sergio held her down. All around her the waves were rushing, under and over her. She was being swept away by the fierceness of the rapids, brimming, spilling over the edge. 'Aiee, aiee!' Her scream disappeared in the torrent of white water."

In fact, water imagery proves irresistibly seductive to the narrator both in and out of the bedroom. Ana Magdalena's breasts bounce toward her love "like twin dolphins in happy abandon." Andreina's tears are described at one point as a "raging torrent." And the Love Queen allows the "tide" of her lover Sergio's desire to "swell on her shores."

Although the novel aims to be entertainment, a comedic romp of manners and morals, mostly, the gags are strained and the farce falls flat. "The Love Queen of the Amazon" also wears a clumsy conceit, namely that Federico Orgaz y Orgaz's magnus opus-in-progress, also titled "The Love Queen of the Amazon," unwittingly chronicles the story of Ana Magdalena's own rise to demimondaine glory. This comes about because Federico, who suffers from severe writer's block, is forced to borrow ideas and plots from Ana Magdalena, who offers up details from her own increasingly complicated life to feed her husband's muse. Since Federico hasn't descended the stairs for some years (he puts out his dirty underwear and empty food trays to be taken away), he fails to recognize--or does not want to recognize--his fictional Love Queen as his own real one. While this device is amusing for a while, the novel has difficulty sustaining it convincingly, and after several chapters it wears out its welcome.

Finally, Ana Magdalena's ongoing lust for the elusive Sergio Ballado is also problematic. The captain of a rusty Amazon steamer, Sergio is away from Malyerba--and the arms of our heroine--for years at a time (although he manages to send her customers from as far away as Belem in Brazil and expects a cut of the action).

Even in a novel as fanciful as "The Love Queen of the Amazon," their undying bond taxes a reader's credibility. Although Sergio greatly appreciates Ana Magdalena's sexual gifts and occasionally sends her a half-hearted love letter (this is a man who talks to his penis), there would be little to hold the Love Queen's devotion. Given the lack of magic or realism overall in "The Love Queen of the Amazon," there is little to hold readers' interest as well.

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