Reviewed by Andrew Ervin
July 9, 2006
By Edmundo Paz Soldn; translated by Lisa Carter
HOUGHTON MIFFLIN; 288 PAGES; $24
[ http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/061854139X/c4iorg - WK]
By bringing the entire history of cryptography to bear on a story about
anti-globalism protests and a would-be revolution in Bolivia, "Turing's
Delirium" combines the excitement of a political thriller with the
intellectual ambition of a literary novel of ideas. Upon its initial
publication in 1992, the novel won the Bolivian National Book Award, and
it now appears in English for the first time, translated by Lisa Carter.
It's the second of Edmundo Paz Soldn's novels to appear in English, after
"The Matter of Desire." The author is associated with the McOndo literary
movement, which opposes the magical realism of Gabriel Garcia Mrquez and
his generation (albeit while splashing laudatory blurbs from the likes of
Mario Vargas Llosa on their book covers). If "Turing's Delirium" provides
any indication, McOndo rejects the essentializing cliches about Latin
America and looks instead to the cosmopolitan reality as influenced by
American popular culture and by globalism in general.
In keeping with his complicated subject, Paz Soldn, now a professor at
Cornell University, tells his story unconventionally, with chapters
dedicated to different members of a larger ensemble cast than one might
typically expect in a book this size. The events of his story unfold
slowly and sequentially and they occasionally overlap, with the same
encounter or conversation repeated from different perspectives. It's
difficult to know whom to believe or even whom to side with for very long.
The closest thing to a protagonist is an aging cryptanalyst named Miguel
Senz (which is, tellingly, pronounced "signs"). Nicknamed Turing by his
colleagues, after the English mathematician, Senz works for the mysterious
Black Chamber, a governmental department dedicated to preventing and
solving computer crimes. He's an unlikely hero, one whose best days are
clearly behind him now that he has been demoted to the archives
department, consigned to an abysmal basement where he is forced to urinate
into paper cups he keeps in his desk drawer. The chapters focusing on
Turing are the only ones told in second person:
"You were happy when Montenegro returned to power through democratic
means; you thought that everything would change under his rule and your
work would again become urgent. What a disappointment. There was no
significant threat to national security as there had been during his
dictatorship. You were forced to admit that times had changed."
Of course the rise of cyber-terrorism keeps the Black Chamber in business
and provides the foundation for this labyrinthine potboiler. The immense
pleasure of reading "Turing's Delirium" derives from a carefully
orchestrated moral ambiguity. No one's hands are clean here, and with the
exception of the formerly evil dictator Montenegro, it can be tough to
distinguish the good guys from the bad. Not even the heartless
Italian-American consortium GlobaLux, which has taken over the operation
of Ro Fugitivo's electricity grid, is universally reviled.
Montenegro has charged Turing and those at the Black Chamber with the
difficult task of tracking down the evil mastermind Kandinsky, a renegade
"cyberhacktivist" bent on overthrowing the government. Kandinsky has been
inspired by the social upheaval he's seen on television. "In 1999, his
attention had been held by the enormous protests by anti-globalization
groups against the WTO in Seattle. Young people from the West were
protesting against the new world order in which capitalism was the only
option. If there was discontent in industrialized nations, the situation
was even worse in Latin America." With his computers, and some irony,
Kandinsky sets out to use the electric power GlobaLux provides against
itself. Normally, it would be easy for a reader to invest sympathy in such
a cause, but some of his methods appear rather questionable, to say the
Turing's long-suffering wife, Ruth, is equally conflicted. She wants to
expose the goings-on of the Black Chamber and its complicity with an evil
regime, but that would mean sacrificing her family for the sake of the
nation's well-being. Their dreadlocked teen daughter Flavia, a hacker in
her own right, eventually provides the novel's moral compass. When
Turing's boss at the Black Chamber gets desperate to track down Kandinsky,
he turns to Flavia for help. She's a fascinating character, one deserving
of her own novel or at least more space than she gets in this one.
There's a problem, however, with the book's narrative strategy -- it takes
Paz Soldn much too long to establish the setting. One must wade through
approximately 50 pages of background exposition before anything resembling
a story rears its head. Once past the setup, though, "Turing's Delirium"
turns into an exciting and rewarding techno-thriller. It reads like a
Robert Stone novel that has been watered down for the mass-market
paperback crowd. That is to say, it's an excellent page-turner, perfect
for a lazy afternoon next to the pool.
Andrew Ervin's story "Yin & Yang," co-written with Ricardo Cortez Cruz,
will appear in the next issue of Fiction International.
2006 San Francisco Chronicle
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