El arte de la resurrecction (The Art of the Resurrection) by Hernan Rivera Letelier – A Review

El arte de la resurrecction (The Art of the Resurrection)
Hernan Rivera Letelier
Alfaguara, 2010 254 pg

Hernan Rivera Letelier’s El arte de la resurrecction is a novelization of the life of a Chilean mystic and wandering preacher, Domingo Zárate Vega known as El Cristo de Elqui, who roamed the country during the 30s and 40s. Letelier gives a small slice of his life as El Cristo de Elqui journeys north into the desert in search of the holy prostitute Magalena Mercado who keeps an alter in her home and is devoted the Virgin Mary. He tracks her to a godforsaken little mining town in the desert where he is hailed as a holy man by the striking workers and as a agitator by management. Most of the book is concerned with his preaching in the town and how the strike unfolds as management grows more and more angry at his seeming rebellious behavior.

El Cristo de Elqui, though, is not a revolutionary but a mystic who has added his own additions to Christianity, much to the annoyance of church officials throughout Chile who see him as a threat. He is free, when he feels the need, to have sex with one of his followers, often quickly and on the roadside. In one of the funnier incidents, the day he arrives he gos to Magalena’s shack where he stretches his arms across the back of a table in a pose reminiscent of the crucifixion and she performs her trade. El arte is irreverent but not libertine so scenes like this are more scarce than one might think. El Cristo is more a holy fool, a man who has lost touch with reality and experiences the world in a mystic reality that makes him unable to perform simple tasks. It is this kind of mysticism that leads him to believe he can walk through the desert on his way to find Magalena. Naturally, he ends up walking in a circle and nearly dies, alone, forgotten. A sample of his teachings will illustrate just what kind of holy man he is. When asked for some new proverbs he says,

“La franqueza es la llave de la buena amistad.”
“La honradez es un palacio de oro”
“Las aves del cielo son mas felices que los grandes millonarios, a pesar de dormir en sus patitas y cubiertas solo de sus plumas.”
Y uno que el Padre Eterno me revelo hace solo unos días, mientras evacuaba mi vientre en plena pampa rasa: “Buen remedio es para la soberbia del hombre volver la cabeza de vez en cuando y contemplar su propia mierda.”

“Frankness is the key to good friendships.”
“Honesty is a palace of gold.”
“The birds of the sky are happier than the greatest millionaires, in spite of sleeping on their feet and covered only by their feathers.”
And one that the Holy Father revealed a few days ago when I was evacuating my bowels in the middle of the  pampa: “A good remedy for the pride of man is to turn his head once and awhile and contemplate his own shit.”

Through multiple different voices and flashbacks Letelier leads us through El Cristo de Elqui’s failures and almost successes. At one time, before the novel takes place, he had journeyed to Santiago ready to speak to thousands of followers, only to have the government arrest him and hold him in a mental hospital for several months. An abuse of state power, but given some of his actions there is just a bit of doubt, too, if his hospital stay was needed. It is obvious as the book closes that El Cristo de Elqui is as much a figure of ridicule as wisdom.

Letelier also takes time to describe Magalena’s background and this is where shows the greatest of its many weaknesses. For much the book the idea of the holy prostitute is puzzling and one wonders how someone who was so devoted to the church would become a prostitute. Unfortunately, his solution to this question is simple, insulting, and humorless: she was sexually abused by the priest who took care of her as a child. Her only escape was to run away from home and become a prostitute. What marks his humor uninteresting, and there is plenty of humor on display here, is the frivolity of the abuse and her later life as a prostitute. It is as if there were no scars, as if her personality disappeared in her religiosity. Perhaps one could say it is just a refuge for a damaged soul, but given her character is one of the biggest cliches there is, the prostitute with a heart of gold (who gives tricks on credit to the striking miners), I think it’s just bad writing. There is no complexity gained out of any of this. Just simple characters to push around the desert.

Ultimately, El arte, with its picturesque strikers who are either comical clients of Magalena or buffoonish followers of El Cristo de Elqui, is a book sprinkled with the left overs from a magical realism workshop and really has nothing to say. When I finally reached the end of the book, where El Cristo de Elqui (and yes, his name is used with the same frequency in the book as in this short little piece) and Magalena are exiled to a little hill outside of town where the strikers make their pilgrimage to see her and Letelier takes great pleasure in describing the grotesques they are, I couldn’t take it anymore. Yes, there is humor is this book; yes, there is some good writing in the book; but there is also a tendency to infantilize and instead of black humor, I had the feeling of just another man writing about sex without really saying anything new. I am rather tired of prostitutes and magical realism. Enough. There is more to Latin America.