Welcome to Bookmarked, a weekly newsletter following my journey as I read one book from every country. If you like the sound of my project, I’d love it if you shared Bookmarked with a friend.
Combining satire, absurdism, and science fiction, Gabriela Alemán’s Poso Wells is a sharp, lively, often funny book about corrupt politicians and a forgotten town. At just 157 pages long, it’s the kind of book you finish in one sitting before stopping to ask yourself what on earth you’ve just read. At least, that’s what happened to me.
Alemán’s novel is set in Poso Wells, a fictional shantytown in Ecuador which no one ever visits unless it’s election season, when “it suddenly turns into an electoral battlefield—because there are hundreds of thousands of votes to be had.”
The book opens in the middle of the 2006 presidential campaign, in which a campaigning politician arrives in Poso Wells by helicopter only to accidentally pee his pants and cause himself—as well as ten of his supporters—to die by means of public electrocution. Shortly after the incident Andrés Vinueza, the only surviving presidential candidate, is kidnapped by a group of blind men.
It is the disappearance of Vinueza which prompts an editor at the local newspaper to assign an investigation into what is going on to Gonzalo Varas, a journalist who has been unsuccessfully pitching stories on Poso Wells’s missing women for years.
… there was a pattern dating back at least fifteen years, and the number of women who had disappeared was not four but nearly fifty. All this was buried in a tangle of half-finished legal procedures and official neglect: cases never filed, no money to pursue them, dead ends, leads never followed, no clear priorities established, migrants who went back to where they had come from, leaving the names of daughters, wives, and nieces forgotten on the shores of the saltwater estuary.
Nonetheless, Varas takes on the assignment and it’s not long before his investigation leads him down a literal tunnel into a network of interconnected underpasses beneath the town of Poso Wells. It is here that Varas meets Valentina, one of the town’s missing women. From here on out, Varas enlists the help of friends and locals to help him figure out the connection between the missing women of Poso Wells and Vinueza’s kidnap.
On the plot level, Poso Wells is great: propulsive; exciting; clever. Alemán does a brilliant job of drawing lines between the corrupt world of politics, systemic police failures, violence against women, and global capitalism. On more than one occasion, she (very satisfyingly) subverted my expectations by playing with the power dynamics between her male and female characters. But, though Alemán is undoubtedly a good storyteller, I couldn’t help but feel that a few of her characters fell a little flat and existed primarily to propel the story forwards. Still, if you like genre fiction and you’re interested in a fresh take on political satire—or if you just fancy trying something new—Poso Wells is worth a read.
Poso Wells by Gabriela Alemán, translated by Dick Cluster (City Lights, 2018)
More books by Ecuadorian authors:
Cockfight by María Fernanda Ampuero, tr. Frances Riddle
On Friday Night by Luz Argentina Chiriboga, tr. Paulette A Ramsay and Anne-Maria Bankay
Huasipungo by Jorge Icaza Coronel, tr. Bernard Dulsey
Beyond the Islands by Alicia Yánez Cossío, tr. Amalia Gladhart
The Undocumented Americans by Karla Cornejo Villavicencio
What have you read recently?
If you’ve read a brilliant book in translation or you’d like to pass on a recommendation, I’d love to hear about it! For this project, I’m focussing on contemporary fiction and short stories, with a preference for female authors—but I’m always happy to venture further afield for a good recommendation.
You can get in touch by replying to this email or leaving a comment. I’ll be featuring your recommendations in upcoming newsletters, and I’ll keep a growing list here.
Bookmarked is written by Tabatha Leggett. Thank you to Irene Caselli for her recommendation for this issue. If you know someone who would enjoy this newsletter, please forward it to them!
Oooh. This sounds intriguing. I recently read "The Inheritance of Orquídea Divina," which draws on Ecuadorian folklore. Loved it!