Some years back I was having lunch at an Italian literary festival when a Chilean novelist was introduced to the company. Sitting next to me was V S Naipaul. The Nobel Laureate was at his most playful. "I do not like the look of that fellow," he pronounced, in a voice that carried across three tables. "Quite possibly a Marxist. Definitely a supporter of Allende. I shall have nothing whatever to do with him." Set in contemporary Chile and provoked by the nightmare years of the Pinochet regime, Ben Richard's new novel is unlikely to be Sir Vidia's "Book of the Year".
The Mermaid and the Drunks opens during turbulence on an airline flight from Heathrow to Santiago. Evian bottle clutched in her hand, Fresia Castillo, a 29-year-old Chilean returning to the country her leftist parents abandoned in the aftermath of Allende's fall, strikes up a conversation with Joe, a personable Scots academic (essays on working-class social organisation in the Journal of South American Studies etc) on his way to do some research. Like the turbulence, the title of the CD blaring through Joe's headphones - Magazine's "Maybe it's Right to be Nervous Now" - is all too prophetic.
The emotional trails, though, turn out to lead in different directions. Their alliance cemented by an encounter with Roberto, a fortysomething littérateur whose teenage nephew has vanished in sinister circumstances, academic and returning exile spend the rest of the novel keeping each other at arm's length. Joe hooks up with an old chum, Magdelena, plays football with a raucous outfit from the La Pintana boondocks, and gets down to work. Fresia embarks on a desultory affair with Roberto, dines in chintzy restaurants and explores her roots. Beneath the airy rooms in which these relationships are conducted, the demons of the Pinochet era caper and writhe.
Necessarily awash in Chilean history and legend, from the myth of the title down, Richards' novel has a forgivable tendency to lay on the local colour with a trowel. Spearing their machas from the seafood platter, sipping their caipirinhas at the pavement cafes, listening all the while to cuecos and toledos on their Walkmans, nearly everyone here looks as if they came fresh from a researcher's job on The Not So Rough Guide to Chile. "It's very easy," Roberto explains, when the question of a visit to his house is proposed. "You have to get to Puente Alto and take a collectivo from bus stop 37, that goes as far as San Gabriel." Does Puente Alto have a bus stop 37? It seems horribly likely.
The same faint over-meticulousness infects the first of three dramatic closing scenes. Here one of the La Pintana team nearly shoots a pair of larcenous local right-wingers while remarking that "I'm not interested in politics really, I'm just a palo malo, a criminal for whom a gun is sometimes necessary." For all its patient exposure of the threads that binds its cast to their heritage - a process in which Roberto and his friend Valentina, with whom Joe has a brief fling, are deeply implicated - the novel's best scenes are almost incidental: a neat little encounter with Essex roisterer Gary on the beach, a funny-ominous moment in which Fresia, renting a flat from a patrician landlady, improvises an acceptable lifestyle ("Edward is with the Foreign Office... At the moment he's on a posting in Washington DC.")
Ending with a blast of violence from which Joe is lucky to escape with his life, The Mermaid and the Drunks is full of unexpected detours of this kind. Though fantastically removed both in theme and geography from Richards' last outing, A Sweetheart Deal, it shares many of the earlier book's qualities: narrative slyness, human warmth, above all, the inestimable merit of a stall set out in markets where contemporary fiction rarely strays.Reuse content