Friday, October 2, 2020

Expat Literary Hero

 They began to raise their voices.
 «Now we have a Fascist dictatorship!»
 «Instead of a Communist one!»
 People sitting near us looked uncomfortable. As for me, I was becoming, strangely and unexpectedly, aroused.
  —Excerpt from Chapter 11 of Searching for Cunégonde
There is something empowering about writing fiction. When you pen a novel, you experience the illusion of being God. You create people. You make them do what you want. You have total control of their fates. You can bestow them with good fortune or you can punish them with senseless tragedy. Their destinies are pretty much literally in your hands.

In practice, it doesn’t really feel that way. Characters—even ones you create yourself—have a way of taking on lives of their own. I think most authors have the strange experience of finding they are channeling their characters rather than controlling them. Your own characters sometimes do things you did not plan or want. Events sometimes take a turn you didn’t see coming when you started out.

These are interesting things to ponder but are probably best left for my book blog where I announced this week the publication of my fifth novel Searching for Cunégonde. More pertinent to this space is the fact that, when one writes a story set in a particular time and place, one is generally constrained by real-world events and situations.

The new book continues the adventures of Dallas Green, the protagonist of Maximilian and Carlotta Are Dead and Lautaro’s Spear. More pertinent to this space is the background provided by the real world to his story. In all three books, he is a picaresque hero journeying through the strange world in which he finds himself. The first novel was set in 1971, the time of the Vietnam War, the military draft in the U.S., and political unrest in Central America. The second book took place in 1980, the year of a U.S. presidential campaign, Ronald Reagan’s election, the sixth Deauville American Film Festival, and a constitutional referendum in Chile.

The new tome splits its narrative mainly between two different time periods. One strand picks up directly after the end of Lautaro’s Spear in December 1980 and proceeds through the following year. These bits alternate with events in the year 1993. This larger scope allowed me to draw in all sorts of historical references. Dallas experiences several weeks of comfortable living under the Pinochet dictatorship as well as venturing into Argentina, also governed by a military junta. There is then a return to California which not only provides a contrast between South and North America but also an implicit comparison between the rural San Joaquin Valley and the suburbs of the Bay Area. Indeed there are a number of contrasts drawn in this story, for example two very different funerals in two very distinct cultures.

By the time this leg of Dallas’s journey ends, he has become all too acquainted with the violent latter days of Ireland’s Troubles. He has also become a nearly unwitting participant in the bad old days of the Cold War, and he even gets to witness the single most symbolic moment of the fall of Communism.

If I have made Dallas’s exploits sound as if they are all about politics, then I have misled you. In this book, as in the others, the heart of the story is really in the friendships. There is some romance as well, or at least as much romance as a neo-Lost-Generation baby-boomer can manage in a cynical world. He finds himself in bed with an interesting array of lovers and not-quite lovers.

At one point someone compares him to the hero of Voltaire’s Candide, thus tipping my hand. That is how I have always seen him—someone more or less politically innocent, wandering the world with wide eyes and bearing witness to the strangeness and wonder of the wider world.

Appropriately enough for this blog, in the course of this novel Dallas becomes an expat. I tried to capture at least a bit of the disorientation that comes with adjusting to a different culture and functioning in a different language. In the end, though, the goal was always to entertain. Mainly to entertain myself, but in the hope that others might be inadvertently entertained as well.

The paperback edition of Searching for Cunégonde is available from major online booksellers, including Amazon and Barnes and Noble. The digital version is available from Amazon’s Kindle store, Barnes and Noble’s Nook store, Kobo, Google Play and Apple iBooks. For those links and other information, kindly consult my book blog.

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