Virtual dreams and nightmares


A world where truth and virtual reality collide is depicted in the brilliant Sueños digitales by Edmundo Paz Soldán, who will be appearing at the Vancouver International Writers Festival this month
Photo: Vancouver Writers Festival


Sueños digitales
Edmundo Paz Soldán
2000, Alfaguara
238 pages

Reviewed by Georgina Jiménez

THE Bolivian Edmundo Paz Soldán – of the so-called McOndo generation of writers who turned away from magical realism as encapsulated in Gabriel García Márquez’s imaginary town of Macondo – displays original talent in this clever and dark tale about graphic manipulation.

It is another boring day at the office for pseudo-loser Sebastián who, like many Latin American journalists, dreams of fame and fortune but can only expect a lifetime in a lowly paid job unless someone notices his talent. He is the design geek working for an upmarket newspaper. He has poor financial prospects, but the daily has the latest computer software and at times Bolivia feels as chic as New York.

In a moment of rebelliousness, Sebastián decides to fill page 3 by merging Che Guevara with Bolivia’s most beloved legal export to the US … Raquel Welch. The designer’s prank boosts circulation and the paper’s reputation.

Creating chimeras becomes an obsession for Sebastián and his creativity makes his reputation as a photo wizard grow to the point that, one day, he is commissioned to erase the darkest snapshots in the life of the president.

He is proud of what he does, but nonetheless knows this is deeply wrong, and does not have the nerve to tell his wife. Sebastián invents excuses to enable him to go to his assignment in the labyrinthine corridors of a building called the Citadel, where other people work in isolation.

The graphic artist ends up cornered, alienated from friends and loved ones alike, and any attempt to escape the system ensnares him deeper in the net of power.

He recognises that he is in this dilemma because of his own arrogance – he considers himself a “craftsman”, after all, and shows contempt for those who try to “cheat” their way into recognition – but decides to justify what he is doing with the excuse that he is providing for his beloved wife … until it is too late.

Reality hard to take seriously

Paz Soldán observes through his main character that reality tries so hard to outdo itself that it gets very difficult to take it seriously.

This thriller is narrated simply, but fluidly, commenting subtly on the effects upon Latin America of globalisation, technology and urbanisation – consequences that could well be applicable to Europe or anywhere else.

And it is refreshing to see that young Latin American writers are slowly drifting away from the temptation, or the expectation of readers abroad, to merely recreate the picturesque user-friendly stereotype left by García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude.

It is no coincidence that Paz Soldán chose to marry the face many Bolivians now regret having deleted from history (Guevara) with the image most Bolivians are still too proud to flaunt (Welch). As Alberto Fuguet would say, more than being magical, Latin America is just plain weird, and certainly no folk tale, caught as it is between the 19th and 21st centuries.

The best thing about Sueños digitales is the series of meditations about past and future, and truth and virtual memories, which become too real in this cybernetic era.

Sebastián’s frantic confusion and questioning of his own fantasies juxtaposed against the evident reality allow the author to elaborate on the search for one’s identity and place in life.

Pixel, another digital freak who works with Sebastián and befriends him, becomes obsessed with creating happy moments in his father’s past, as his life fades from cancer. Pixel recognises that his “craftsmanship” is not as good that of Sebastián and shows great respect for a friend who, in turn, will end up taking his position. And no one else seems free from a desire to hide or blot out from public view unpleasant moments.

Edmundo Paz-Soldán is the author of eight novels, among them The Matter of Desire and Turing’s Delirium. He won the Bolivian National Book Award in 1992 and 2003, gained a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2006, and in 2008 was selected by Foreign Policy magazine as one of the 50 Most Influential Iberoamerican Intellectuals. He teaches Hispanic literature at Cornell University.

He will be among writers appearing at the Vancouver International Writers Festival from October 18-25.

Georgina Jiménez is a freelance Mexican writer

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