BOOK REVIEW / In bed with Magdalena: 'The Love Queen of the Amazon' - Cecile Pineda: Hamish Hamilton, 9.99

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CECILE PINEDA has achieved an impressive feat of gringo legerdemain. An American writer living in San Francisco, where she is well known for her experimental theatre work, she has set her third novel a couple of thousand miles to the south, in the Peruvian city of Malyerba. Her book still reads like a North American work, however. The dialogue may be littered with words such as nina, pobrecita and putamadre, but people also call each other 'dummy'. The Love Queen of the Amazon is a romp of a tale none the less. Ana Magdalena, a pupil at a convent, jumps naked into the river to save a drowning (female) friend, and is promptly expelled from school by the nuns on a charge of impropriety. This is both ridiculous and unfair, and when Ana Magdalena ends up in her friend's bed on the latter's wedding night, it is clear that realism, on the simple level of plausibility, is not going to be much of an issue.

Ana is cajoled by her venal mother into marrying a writer, Federico Orgaz y Orgaz; he is believed to have a fortune but, in fact, has an enormous debt. Ana loses her virginity (willingly) to another man, Sergio Ballado, on her wedding night, impersonating a prostitute.

It takes 20 pages of twisting through missing crates of champagne, drunken guards hired from the local prison, a fake cake and a kidnapping to get her into this improbable position; but the important thing is to get her there. There, by the way, is her great-aunt Ofelia's 'establishment', a former convent converted into the best little whorehouse in Malyerba.

Ana Magdalena's destiny as high-class tart, and eventually madame, is on the roll. When Ofelia dies, Ana moves the brothel, lock, stock and barrel, to her husband's house and calls it, of course, 'Casa Orgaz' (the pun is weak but excusable; the idea of Federico's family descending from the Count Orgaz in El Greco's famous painting is, however, absurd).

Federico, meanwhile, is so busy writing an interminable masterpiece (all right, I'll come clean: it's called The Love Queen of the Amazon) that he takes an inordinately long time to perform his conjugal duties. When he does, rather arbitrarily, it is as though the author has forgotten that she married him to Ana Magdalena 50 pages earlier.

This is symptomatic of the novel's underlying weakness. There are some good set-pieces, and plenty of saucy lines (Ofelia's 'Sacred eyeballs of Jesus] . . . That man thinks his backside weighs a ton]' is among the best); too often, however, the plot's structural cracks are too visible, as are Pineda's attempts to paper them over.

So when the story runs aground - after the death of Ofelia, the book's most compelling character - Pineda resorts to familiar magical-realist devices. Rainbows materialise in the wake of vanishing girls; Ana Magdalena's grandmother starts to levitate; it rains for a year. We have been here

before.

Once, it was 'surrealism': tricks, however flimsy, that undermined reality in the name of fiction. The trend in this direction would no doubt have appalled Apollinaire, who invented the term with something very specific in mind. Whoever invented 'magical realism' (and it wasn't Gabriel Garcia Marquez - he has simply deployed a peculiarly vivid, Latin American imagination in his writing) has a lot to answer for. Too many writers are running to the box of tricks.

Pineda, who is basically a realist writer, as her dialogue shows, is a competent storyteller. There is no question that we want to follow Ana Magdalena and her overpowering desire for the itinerant Sergio Ballado to the end. How she gets him provides the drive and drama of the last third of the novel.

It is the way that Pineda goes about stitching her tale together that is the problem; in the best Latin American fiction, unreality is plausible and integral to narrative tension. In slacker fiction, the tricks show, and often creak. Pineda's novel is good fun; but it is a far cry from what she might think it to be.

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