Patience Rewarded

An out-of-work fisherman tells compelling stories about his polluted Peruvian seaport in this new novel

The tone and cadence of the narration of Alejandro and the Fishermen of Tancay--undulating, rhythmic, regular--put you in mind of the sea itself.

Braulio Muñoz, a Swarthmore College sociology professor, was born in Peru. He's written on sociology, psychology, philosophy and literary criticism, and he has published fiction in English and Spanish. In Peru, he was an actor, political leader and journalist. He met and married the translator, American Nancy K. (Bailey) Muñoz, when she was establishing medical posts for the poor in Chimbote, Peru.

The concerns of both are reflected in the novel. The action in real time takes place over a single night in the backyard of a house in Villa Maria, a barriada--shantytown--outside Chimbote. The action in flashback ranges from pre-Colombian mythology, through apocryphal tales of the Incan civilization, to 1980s civil conflicts.

The narrator, master fisherman Don Morales, now out of work, speaks directly to the Alejandro of the title; it's like sitting in on an intimate conversation. Alejandro was a restless, politically active young man who has returned from many years of exile, and Don Morales takes the opportunity to reflect, philosophize and recall stories of the locals.

The rapid industrialization and political instability of the second half of the 20th century serve as background and catalysts for Morales' tales. Chimbote, a port city on the northeast coast of Peru, was known once as the "Pearl of the Pacific" for its pristine beaches and rich marine life. It disintegrated into Peru's third-most-polluted city by late midcentury, after steel manufacturing and fish-meal processing spewed pollutants into the sea. A deadly earthquake, followed by mudslides and floods, and then political corruption, repression and terrorism took their final devastating toll on the region.

The novel opens with an invitation to Alejandro to "remember together" and forebear: "Do not say, 'Don Morales leaves out too much,' Morales says, because to remember is always at the same time to forget."

He begins, then, by describing Chimbote Bay and its inhabitants in the Edenic days before the "damn factories" released their evil into their world. The sea provided so much food that the fishermen could specialize, and their specialties created social hierarchy. The lowly crabbers ("everyone knew that crabbers could not be trusted") scrambled for their catch along the shore. The marucheros, shell-fishers, worked naked "like golden birds with long legs." The chiteros fished for grunt fish by closing their eyes and feeling the rhythms of the rocks in which they hid. The highest order of chiteros were the roseteros, master fishermen who knew how to capture their prey without bait. Don Morales was a rosetero. Muñoz extends his introduction languidly ... so languidly, in fact, that I had to struggle to stay awake through the first few chapters. But Muñoz's affection, respect and grief draw you along. And the storyline does pick up.

The tales about the people of the area, imperfectly remembered, are often ambiguous or conflicting. His characters include fishermen of various stripes, prostitutes, priests, teachers, corrupt officials, ghosts and gods ... even a gentle dog as big as an ox that refuses to be beaten down.

Don Morales often reflects on the reliability of memory and common history. About El Rey (The King) de los Mojarillas, for example, who had a gift for catching fish, and whose son became a rock star (rocanrolero): Don Morales tells of how once El Rey caught so many mojarillas that it took eight stevedores to load them, and of how he sabotaged the "damn factories" by plugging their sewer pipes with seaweed. The death of the bay's last pelican so afflicted El Rey's soul that he had to go away. There are many reports of what happened to him, Morales says. For his part, he believes that El Rey joined the ranks of the old gods. Of the old gods--los gentiles--many conflicting things can be said, he says. And they are all true.

Nancy K. Muñoz's sensitive translation renders Morales' uneducated character simple but observant and intelligent. The questions about which he muses--ways of knowing and expressing knowledge, the nature of memory, the existence of good and evil, the effects of "progress"--are big questions played out in the lives of humble people.

For a novel, Alejandro and the Fishermen of Tancay is thoughtful monologue. Evocative, lyrical, aching, it's not high action. It's not a book for an impatient reader. But one virtue of the Good Fisherman, Morales tells us, is patience. And patience, in this case, is rewarded.

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