A pacazo is an uncommonly large iguana. Just in case you were wondering. Let's move on. Pacazo the novel is large too, over 500 pages, and whilst I'm not the kind of reader to be put off by bulk I have to admit that it was this that led me to put aside a proof some time ago and forget about it. But then voices start to be heard recommending it (real voices I hasten to add, I haven't lost my mind) and a bit of enforced bed-rest provides just the kind of opportunity required to read a book like this and I found myself bringing it down from the shelf. Carefully.
Kesey's novel is set in Piura, Peru in which we find the corpulent American John Segovia. Attracted to Peru by his love of its history, by stories of conquistadors and Incas, he managed to find work in the University teaching English and there continued his historical research. It is a city well suited to this sizeable fellow, food plays an important part in the culture and the varied dishes and drinks are well described by Kesey along with the 'eternal heat' that leaves John drenched in sweat for much of his day. When he met Pilar and fell in love the major problem was her being a student of his and there were plenty of voices warning him off, including that of his friend Reynaldo.
Perhaps I would have listened if he had said, She will alter what it means to be in the world, she will go late to the outdoor market to buy mangos, she will peel them and cut them in slices, she will allow you to run the slices across her bare stomach and thighs and between her shoulder blades, the juice will become one of her many scents and flavours, and four weeks after giving birth to your child, she will be taken into the desert, will be raped, strangled, left for dead, will regain tortured delirious consciousness, walk the wrong direction, and die of heat stroke the following day.
And this will be your fault.
Sorry to land that on you rather abruptly but Keysey doesn't tend to take the sensitive route so neither will I. John is therefore a widower with an infant daughter, a man consumed by grief and guilt. From the very first page this novel doesn't give the reader a chance to find their feet very easily. In fact this is a classic 'hard to get into' novel, oh how many times I longed to close it for good and move on to something else but something made me persevere, maybe the perseverance of the narrator. John's obsession with the history of Peru invades the very text we read, '...threaded through the history I came to research is other history still happening, times and tenses washing over me.' Within the same paragraph, sometimes the same sentence, Kesey switches from modern Peru to its past and we follow Spanish conquerors laying waste to Incan forces and vice versa; heat, sweat and hard work linking both.
The nearest building, sharp white. I close my eyes. There is the smell of decomposing leaves, of heat and wet and grass. I have been this tired before but do not remember when and a ship drifts south along the coast toward the mouth of a river. A shout goes up. The men gather at the port gunwale. There is a Tallan mending a net on the bank. He is the first human they have seen in two days, perhaps of use. The men drop anchor, lower the skiff, go to get him.
The frequency of this switching comes and goes and how much it really adds to the novel is up for debate. Pacazo is one of those novels that I wished had been pruned whilst I was reading it but I'm sure plenty would argue that to take anything away from it, especially something so intrinsic to the style as the time-switching narrative, would be to take away from the experience of the book. John is obsessed with finding the man responsible for his wife's murder, the taxista who drove away with her to the market. With an image in his mind of the man's face, a memory of his voice and the fragments of a licence plate he scans the streets each day as the taxistas drive by and woe betide any whose plate begins with a P and ends with 22.
He searches also the site of her ordeal, finding significance in anything he picks up and also adding a stone to the cairn he has created in her memory each time he visits. All he can allow himself to want is the 'true story of a single night, less than a night, of a few hours only.' But that single desire is enough to run roughshod over his work and his ability to be as good a parent as he could be. On more than one occasion his daughter suffers, most obviously when he takes her with him on one of his trips out into the desert. There's stark contrast in his efforts to do the right thing, applying sun block assiduously in order to protect her, and yet subjecting her to an awful ordeal in the heat of the desert. And yet one of the remarkable things about this book is the way it marries a man willing to beat a stranger in the street based on a hunch with a man willing to spend hours singing to his daughter and dancing with her about the room in order to get her to sleep. Grief and guilt have warped him in many ways and yet when his daughter hits him on the head with one of her empty milk bottles and laughs he thinks immediately 'of calling in sick today, every day, waiting to hear that laugh again...'
As well as anger there is sadness, rivers of it (Peruvian poet Carlos Oquendo is quoted at one point: 'Sadness is prohibited.' That sentence for John, 'either magical or dictatorial. I hope soon to decide'). In a book as bloated as its narrator it is surprising how many times the real blows to the gut come from a single sentence or image. As it approaches another anniversary John takes to the streets, hanging flyers asking for any information and he casually mentions that at first it used to take him hours to do, 'Then I learned the secret of not looking at the photograph any more.' The ways in which his friends look out for him, or his long-suffering boss at the University accepts another shortfalling, or his (one-eyed) nanny Casualidad is asked to do a little more than she intended, all go to show how much love there is for this man and how much they want him to move on with his life, convinced that enough time has passed for him to grant himself that release. Mother Nature intervenes in the shape of El Niño, torrential rains swell rivers, cause floods and wash away John's evidence, much of his research and almost precipitate a paradigm shift in his thinking. But the desire to know is too strong.
But it is something else too and when John is questioned at one point about why he doesn't believe in God, showing how he and those of a religious bent use the same tools in the face of death but only achieve different results, we get an insight into the novel's great theme.
We beat death back with narrative...Biologically each of us is pointless. And we cannot bear being pointless. So we create a point by placing ourselves in stories that grow ever longer... and death is the anti-narrative. It is the story not even ending but simply stopping. If the story never ends, death loses.
This is why John cannot let go of his wife's death, this is why John's father told his son about being distantly related to a conquistador called Juan de Segovia ('What a load of shit. But helpful shit, yes? The very best kind. Made me strong. Made me angry and so very strong.'), this is why the conquistadors themselves cut through the undergrowth of this novel to make their own appearances time and again. But our personal narratives can be hard to keep true and as the novel finds its legs in the second half, a new series of murders opening up the prospect of John finding his killer once again, even John knows that he is losing grip of what he once held as facts in his search.
I see him daily, he is every taxista, every shopkeeper, every janitor, his thin dark face dark hair dark eyes. He is every cook every plumber every passenger on every bus and my eyes, the differences...
How can a man hope to chance upon another he has glanced only for a moment in a busy city? We could return to lizards once again and the one that John accidentally stands on and kills, 'there is nothing less likely than this death, not given their speed and agility, so there is hope, always hope, always.'