- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 21, 2007

An introductory page of Laura Restrepo’s “Delirium,” recently translated from Spanish, bears this quote from Gore Vidal:

“Wise Henry James had always warned writers against the use of a mad person as central to a narrative on the ground that as he was not morally responsible, there was no true tale to tell.”

The novel gets around this objection, not by making a case that the mentally ill are indeed responsible for their actions, but by focusing on the people around a suffering young woman. Ms. Restrepo tells a fascinating story, but she demands her readers wade through some incredibly difficult prose.

The tale takes place in early-1980s Colombia. Aguilar, a literature professor who started delivering Purina dog food when his school shut down, returns home after a brief vacation. His wife is gone.

A phone message directs him to an upscale hotel, and as Aguilar approaches his wife’s room a man opens the door. Agustina — always eccentric; through all her life she’s believed she’s clairvoyant — has broken down.

Her symptoms, of course, tend to match those of delirium. She’s severely confused, often delusional and can rarely concentrate on any one task.

Other symptoms are more atypical (delirium’s causes are “numerous and varied,” according to the U.S. government’s medical encyclopedia). For example, Agustina demonstrates the nervous rituals and constant cleaning associated with obsessive-compulsive disorder, and for some time before her breakdown she’s had paranoid beliefs that “something would go wrong.”

Aguilar brings her home and figures she’ll snap out of it, though, rendering the precise diagnosis irrelevant. In the meantime, he commences an investigation into the last few days’ events.

He wades through Agustina’s past, sorting out genetic and environmental causes. Some of the more fascinating sections are from Agustina’s grandfather, Nicholas Portulinus, who suffered the same illness. The environmental causes are twofold: Agustina’s traumatic childhood and the disturbing events leading up to her “incident.”

Agustina grew up in a dysfunctional household with two brothers. One, named Carlos Vicente Lodonos after the father, is fair-skinned and a bit effeminate; Carlos Sr. abuses him, and Agustina has mixed success predicting these episodes psychically. The family refers to young Carlos by the nickname Bichi. Agustina’s other brother, Joaco, exhibits behaviors more to her father’s liking.

Aunt Sofi, the mother’s sister, lives with the family and has an affair with the elder Carlos. Agustina and Bichi discover nude photographs documenting this, and they hold on to the evidence.

A genetic predisposition and a lifetime of stress certainly explain much of Agustina’s problem, but a very specific event triggered her almost instant descent into madness. For this, Aguilar turns to a whole cast of characters corrupted by America’s drug war. Pablo Escobar, a real-life cocaine dealer from that period, sits in the background.

Joaco has been swept into Escobar’s business, investing money for lavish returns — when those returns actually come. An old boyfriend of Agustina’s, Midas McAlister, helps manage the laundering. Years ago, McAlister got Agustina pregnant, and she had an abortion.

Too many details would spoil the suspense, but McAlister is acquainted with a man named “Spider,” who’s paralyzed from the waist down. McAlister bets his friends he can hire the right strippers to cure Spider’s impotence. Things spiral out of control, and eventually Agustina gets involved.

This is a compelling story, one that could evoke considerable emotion if told well. Unfortunately, the prose is loaded with distracting flourishes that confuse and annoy the reader. Some are undoubtedly Restrepo’s; others may be the fault of translator Natasha Wimmer.

One, the story demands an out-of-chronology telling: Much of the suspense lies in Aguilar’s detective work and the past it reveals. But Ms. Restrepo feels the need to further scramble the events.

For example, rather than beginning the story as Aguilar returns, and describing the scenes at home and in the hotel room, the writer begins 14 days later. Aguilar briefly summarizes the predicament, and only later does he return to the specific details and passions that bring the plot to life.

Two, Ms. Restrepo employs multiple points of view, with Aguilar, Agustina, McAlister and Portulinus taking turns. She does a poor job making it clear who’s telling what, and in what year (simple headlines would work wonders), so only the most alert readers will avoid getting lost here and there. It’s only through picking up on a few clues — Ronald Reagan’s presidency, the movie “Flashdance” — that readers even know what decade they’re in.

The most frustrating problem, though, is that either Ms. Restrepo or Ms. Wimmer holds some bizarre grudge against quotation marks and periods. Here’s one example, only a little windier than the average, with Agustina telling a tale from her childhood:

“Once I’ve spoken these words I start back home, not paying the slightest attention to cars when I cross the street and not stopping even when I trip or step in a hole and then later at home, in the dining room, I sit at the table to have my chocolate milk and vanilla cookies with butter and jam that they always give me at five, and I make the little towers I like so much, cookie, layer of butter, layer of jam, cookie again, and back to the beginning until it’s a stack this high; Agustina eats her tower of cookies and when Aminta, the cook, comes in, she asks Agustina, What happened to you, child, your knees are a mess, and when Agustina looks at them she sees that they’re bleeding and that both knees are glistening with scrapes dotted with sand, scrapes that I don’t know how or when I got.”

Were this passage atypical, one could say it fits with Agustina’s personality, or that it represents a child’s stream of consciousness. But when all the narrators speak in this style to some degree (the Aguilar and Nicholas sections use the most periods), the winding sentences and lack of punctuation tire the audience in a hurry.

It’s not all that unusual for a writer’s storytelling abilities to eclipse her writing skills. With “Delirium” it’s best to hope for a movie version.

Robert VerBruggen ([email protected]) is Assistant Book Editor.

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