BOOK REVIEW / Where wonders never cease: 'The Miracle-Worker' - Carmen Boullosa, trs Amanda Hopkinson: Cape, 9.99

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The Independent Culture
TOWARDS the end of this novel set in Mexico, the eponymous heroine, the Milagrosa, asks: 'What's the difference between what's dreamed and what happens?' The baffled reader wishes she would provide an answer, but this is a Latin American novel and the question is rhetorical.

A man has been murdered. We think we know his identity, but even this is not entirely certain. Is this a thriller, then? No such luck. It is a serious novel attempting to tackle the big themes: illusion and reality (of course), politics, corruption, poverty, the hopes and fears of ordinary people - all served up in impeccably post-modern form, as a series of 'documents'.

The first half of the book, dealing with the miracle-worker's apparent ability to restore youth to the aged and health to the sick and to make the ugly beautiful, is rewardingly specific. Through stories of deprivation, misery, petty viciousness - some no more than a paragraph long - Boullosa presents a powerful indictment of the Mexican predicament, if not the human condition.

In the second half, things fall apart as the windy tendencies of the Spanish language run riot. The Milagrosa worries that 'the I-syllable will dissolve into the banality of we'; but - even allowing for the distorting effect of taking a sentence out of context - how about this for impenetrability: 'If I fail to train up this I with gentleness, far from the dozens and scores and hundreds, separated from the informed bulk of quantity, of the blind rush of the group, what will become of the syllable, other than a grinding of teeth, a tiny shattering, whose very ridiculousness renders it imperceptible?' Not all opacity, alas, is profundity. Boullosa might have achieved more if she had settled for less.