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Their Love Thrives Despite Distance

Book Review

Tarzan's Tonsillitis

December 27, 2001|NICK OWCHAR | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A Novel

by Alfredo Bryce Echenique

Translated from the Spanish

by Alfred MacAdam

Pantheon

$23, 262 pages

Poke around in the heap of ashes of a failed relationship, and you might find this charred phrase: "We can still be friends, can't we?" Is it ever realistic to expect two people, once so emotionally and physically involved, to be capable of returning to the neutral ground of friendship where they started?

In most cases, the answer would be no. But Alfredo Bryce Echenique's superb novel "Tarzan's Tonsillitis" shows us a man and woman who manage to be soul mates for 30 years, despite the husbands, wives and great distances that often keep them apart. This ground is hardly neutral. In fact, some of their most intense, most passionate exchanges come years after the breakup via the postman, who delivers the letters that keep them connected.

"Something extremely valuable and beautiful always existed between us," says Juan Manuel Carpio, a 60-ish poet-songwriter. "Fernanda Maria and I were always first-class passengers each time one of us made a stopover in the reality of the other."

Fernanda is the red-haired, green-eyed beauty Fernanda Maria de la Trinidad del Monte Montes, one of the angelic, Swiss boarding school-educated belles of an elite Salvadoran family. She is the partner of Juan's life, if not always his bed. He calls her a female version of Tarzan; brave, fearless, restlessly globe-trotting, her jungle yell sometimes loud, sometimes muted by circumstances.

Juan and Fernanda started as conventional lovers, but an older and wiser Juan, who narrates "Tarzan's Tonsillitis," admits that "when everything is said and done we were better by letter." They met in 1967 at a Parisian Christmas party for a glittery set of Latin American exiles; drawn by each other's sensitivity, they set up house together. But his self-consciousness and Fernanda's social status clashed; affection strained. Juan seemed obsessed with Luisa, the wife who left him, even though it was some idea of love that obsessed him, not the real woman (she's an ungrateful shrew). He and Fernanda drifted apart.

As the novel opens, the aging musician receives a letter from Fernanda, who's in Oakland, where her purse was stolen--the purse in which she carried all of his correspondence as if it were too precious to leave at home. That loss spurs Juan to recall the rich, bittersweet years that he's known her, spanning several countries from the 1960s to the '90s. He and Fernanda missed many chances to reunite as a couple, and yet, rather than ditch the whole thing, a special love grew that withstood everything. Their love is star-crossed, minus the tragedy that sent Romeo and Juliet to the cemetery.

"The blame for all this, as usual, rests with our 'Estimated Time of Arrival,'" Fernanda writes in one letter, using a travel metaphor to explain their fate, "which you and I obey with such discipline, and which always makes us arrive at different times, if not different places."

That's a nice poetic expression, but if two people are so deeply connected, why can't they get the timing right? One of Peru's best novelists ("A World for Julius") and short story writers, Echenique answers that question with more questions: Why must it work out? In the end, does love always lead to a platinum wedding band and a reservation for the honeymoon suite?

After that Parisian breakup, a couple of years passed and they met again. This time Fernanda was married and had a child; she was struggling to find work and her husband Enrique, an abusive drunk, was no help. Yet friendship arose among the three of them and Juan and Fernanda began to exchange letters, full of yearning and ideals, thus renewing a relationship that always worked best at a distance, when oceans separated them.

Why do this? Why would two educated people, whose conversations range from Hemingway to D.H. Lawrence to Dante, willingly agree to be divided lovers, continuously apart? Echenique subtly shows how their relationship evolved into a special form of consolation as each faced disappointments and sorrows.

Juan wandered far and wide, lonely, playing gigs while Fernanda returned to her violent Salvadoran homeland to find work. His letters comforted her and kept her sane in the madness of military executions and upheavals ("I love you and depend on you" she told him), and she consoled him, late in the novel, when his inability to love a psychologically fragile young woman had a tragic result. The reality of love really seems strange, less knowable after reading Echenique's novel. For some people, love is based on specific commitments; for Fernanda, it's something much simpler.

"At every turn in the road, and now in this damn mezzo of the road in the sometimes extremely dark forest," she wrote Juan, "the quality of your friendship has been a light."

Echenique skillfully captures the emotional changes as they travel that road. Because he's a Latin American, Echenique might get labeled with the overused term "magical realism" and, on the surface, that instinct initially seems right. Echenique's writing is magical. Only it's not the sort of magic that Gabriel Garcia Marquez and company are known for--beggars with angel wings, women who float into the clouds and disappear, circular narratives or paranoid dictators.

Echenique's magic is his graceful, stylistic way of touching his wand to a platitude about love and turning it to gold. When Juan and Fernanda meet again at the story's end, happy though not reunited like lovers in a typical happy ending story, Echenique convinces us of the cliche that true love, in some form, conquers after all, even if it doesn't result in a ride off into the sunset together.

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