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Voices From the Gaps

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The Fat Man from La Paz
Edited by Rosario Santos

The Fat Man from La Paz
  • Cost: $16.95
  • 240 pages
  • Publisher: Seven Stories Press, 2000

Reviewed by Chris Miles

Twenty Bolivian Questions Answered

The twenty short stories contained in The Fat Man from La Paz give an overview of Bolivian culture from romance to politics to revolution. Although the stories are unrelated and written by twenty different authors, they strictly follow the order of the stated themes.

The beginning stories start the compilation off with a more peculiar angle of "love" than one may expect to encounter in a compilation of short fiction describing a nation's social values. The reader is thrust into a small village where a military general turned pimp challenges a man to a pistol duel for the love of one of his prostitutes. Violence, while not always this harsh, appears in almost every story. "Dochera" is the exception to the rule. This very entertaining story follows Benjamin Laredo, a crossword puzzle designer and recluse, through several years of his life. He falls in love with a woman, but only finds out that her first name is Dochera. Using his pseudo-fame he places messages for her in the crossword section:

“Disturbing and nocturnal apparition who has turned a lonely heart into a wild and contradictory sum of hope and disquiet;" seven letters (57).

The themes of the stories soon become more concentrated on political and social interactions between the corrupt police force and the poor working class. "The Fat Man from La Paz" itself is an entertaining, yet anti-climactic story of a rich citizen attempting to find his kidnapped father. Although he knows that if his father is not already dead the kidnappers will never let his father go alive. His vain efforts are followed in his interactions with an unsympathetic police force. Though the crime and victims are clear, he is outcast due to his wealth, and the government cares little outside of apprehending the kidnappers.

Following are some religious stories that slow down the intricately established rhythm of the book. I believe that they take the emphasis off of the Bolivian people and place it on the broader topic of human spirituality. Luckily, this trend is broken with "The One with the Horse. " This light hearted story of a ghost who walks from village to village with his living horse blends spirituality with folklore and perhaps brings the reader in contact with the people of Bolivia better than any other in the compilation.

The stories ending the compilation are witty and amusing tales centering on the preparation for, fighting of, and changes (or lack of) brought about by a revolution. "The Cannon of Punta Grande" is an extremely clever and captivating parable of a village that feels it needs a cannon to better defend itself. Though the government has armed the villagers with all of the rifles and munitions they could possibly need, they feel that they must advance to greater levels of destruction to keep pace with the modern world.

The compilation ends with "The Well," an insight into the diary of Miguel Navajas, a Bolivian sergeant major. His mission is to prepare a well for the Bolivian soldiers that will be passing north through his area. His small attachment keeps digging the same well without striking water, yet his commanders continually insist that there is water in that area. Eventually the well becomes a battle in itself, symbolizing the war for the soldiers that are under his command. Altogether, I found the stories to be light-hearted even in their most violent times, and insightful even in their dullest. My advice: read the last eight stories first, then "The One with the Horse" and "The Fat Man from La Paz," Save "Dochera" for last, then read the rest of the stories at your leisure.