“The small stone plaza was floating in the midday heat. The Christ of Elqui, kneeling on the ground, his gaze thrown back on high, the part in his hair dark under the Atacaman sun—he felt himself falling into an ecstasy. It was no less than this: he had brought it to pass. Had restored to life a dead man.”
We meet Domingo Zárate Vega, “better known to all as the Christ of Elqui,” in the opening lines of Hernán Rivera Letelier’s The Art of Resurrection (Alfaguara, 2010), at the moment of realization of his greatest dream—of having mastered “the sublime art of resurrection.”
The novel follows Zárate Vega in his travels through a key week in the midpoint of his 20-year mission of penance. It is the last week of December, 1942; the randy Christ of Elqui journeys to the mining camp of Providencia in search of the woman he believes will play the role of Mary Magdalene to his messiah. His story of finding her and losing her again is an exuberantly comic, darkly sarcastic, heartfelt, and sentimental meditation on faith and loss, played out against labor unrest among the striking workers of Providencia.
The novel threads together life in the mining camp with currents in Chile’s history in a way that is characteristic of (and perhaps unique to) Rivera Letelier’s narrative voice. He has spent the past 20 years telling the stories of people who worked in the nitrate industry, an industry that formed a vital part of the story of Chile and, by extension, that of the industrialized world. (No nitrate, no industrialized agriculture!) The degree of precision and fluency in his descriptions of scene and character bring that past alive.
The reader’s sense of identification with and sympathy for the characters is heightened by Rivera Letelier’s peculiar trait of shifting frequently and without warning between the third person and various first people—“For his part, he must serve as a light for the world; he did not drink or smoke. A glass of wine at lunch, as directed in his teachings, was sufficient. He hardly touched his food; for among my sins, of which I certainly have many, my brothers, I have never reckoned gluttony.” I found this a bit jarring the first couple of times it happened but quickly came to love it—it gives a cinematic effect of shifting camera angles. Coasting between a character’s head and the world around him, between dialogue and paraphrase, all combines to give a distinctive, memorable access to the world of the book.
Rivera Letelier’s camera work shows him to be a gifted, versatile director. Take this long, sweeping pan—it brings to mind one of Herzog’s opening shots:
Set up facing the kiosk on the plaza, outside the union hall, the three great cast-iron cauldrons were blackening above the stone hearths; the fires were fed with bits of wood split off from railroad ties. The only shade was provided by a cloud of music coming from the Victrola in the union hall; the striking workers and their families were crowded together in the sun waiting for their “wartime rations”, as they called the proletarian plate of beans.
At a distance, it might look like chaos; but everything was laid out in a vivacious, rambunctious order: some kids, a stick in hand, took turns keeping at bay the pack of stray dogs attracted by the smell of food; stocky derripiadores, sweaty, splitting crossties to keep the fires going; a group of women, perspiring freely, aprons cut from flour sacks, their cheeks grubby with soot, ladled out the steaming lunch to the men, women and kids who stood waiting in a dense line, their chipped dishes in hand, their faces long with hunger. The menu, today as every day, was a generous helping of beans—one day with hominy, the next with noodles—seasoned with the sweet-smelling chili sauce bubbling away on another fire, in a deep black skillet.
From the lovingly, baroquely detailed descriptions of Providencia and its workers and management to the long, twisted digressions on the prophet’s life story, with liberal borrowings from Nicanor Parra’s classic Sermons and Homilies of the Christ of Elqui (1977; tr. Sandra Reyes, 1984), to the dark phantasmagoria of the final chapters: The Art of Resurrection is a masterpiece from a seasoned storyteller.
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