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Antonio Ungar Wins 2010 Herralde Novel Prize

Just received an e-mail announcement from the Spanish publisher Anagrama, that Colombian writer Antonio Ungar has won this year’s Herralde Novel Prize for Tres ataudes blancos (Three White Coffins).

The Herralde Prize was launched in 1983 with the goal of promoting new works of Spanish literature. Over the years, a number of very influential Spanish-language authors have won, including Daniel Sada, Martin Kohan, Juan Villoro, Alan Pauls, Enrique Vila-Matas, Roberto Bolano, Sergio Pitol, and Javier Marias. (An awful lot of dudes have won this . . . ) The winning book is then published by Anagrama and the author receives and 18,000 euro advance.

Ungar’s is the author of one other novel, The Wolf’s Ears, which is pretty interesting, but this new book sounds much more complex, ambitious, and playful:

Three White Coffins has the appearance of a bizarre thriller in which the obese, solitary, antisocial protagonist is forced to take on the identity of the leader of the opposition party and undergo unbearable adventures in order to bring down the totalitarian regime of an unnamed Latin American country.

This plot is, however, an empty structure, a skeletal apparatus within which the novel grows—wildly and unpredictably gushing forth in the protagonist’s voice. Excessive, mentally unbalanced, hilarious, the narrator uses his words to question, ridicule, and destroy reality (and reconstruct it, from zero, anew).

Accompanying him on his adventures is an idealistic bodyguard, who is addicted to adrenaline and whose voice bursts in on occasion to narrate the few scenes of violence; and a shy nurse, who ends up being the narrator’s lover and savior. Ceaselessly pursued by the terrorist regime that controls the country and by operatives from their own side, and alone against the world, the characters are finally hunted down and defeated. The two men disappear. The woman manages to escape and leaves the country.

The adventure seems to have come to a definitive end when the woman, living in exile, receives the manuscript written by the protagonist that recounts their experiences (which the reader has just read). Sad and disenchanted, and about to give birth, she reads it, believing that the two men are dead. Her reading, however, becomes a devastating critique of the characters, an assault on the previous narrative’s assumptions, and a questioning of the narrative methods employed. This frantic revision of all she has experienced helps her find, without meaning to, the resolution of the novel, which is also the resolution of her own existence.

Three White Coffins is a polyphonic text, one that is open to multiple interpretations. It can be read as a fierce satire of Latin American politics, a refined reflection on individual identity and impersonation, an exploration of the limits of friendship, an essay about the fragility of the real, or a story of impossible love. Wrapped in a thriller that is easy to open and read and full of humor, this novel is without doubt a fascinating literary game.



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