Ecuador / Novel / Review / South America

Review: Poso Wells by Gabriela Alemán

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Published by City Lights in 2018 and translated by the exquisitely named Dick Cluster, Poso Wells is a genre-blurring novel, with a boldly blue cover spliced with holographic lightning bolts, one which explicitly evokes Latin American indifference to the disappearance of women (“the story was not missing women, but the country’s future”), police corruption and eco-colonialism.

After a noir-esque prologue, imbued with sticky discomfort by way of a bag of mangoes, we witness the utterly absurd demise of a shiny-faced, cocaine-snorting politician who’s campaigning for votes in the (invented) South American slum town of Poso Wells. His death? Electrocution by way of a puddle of his own piss. A satisfying take-down of a very Latin American breed of politician if ever there was one.

From this politically satirical opener, Alemán weaves in threads of supernatural intrigue, detective noir, and feminist concerns, creating a deeply Latin American, metatextual novel that is, as Samanta Schweblin rightly writes, “unclassifiable”. The first few chapters are a head-spinning blur of new characters, threads, and lines of inquiry, often told from different perspectives in paragraphs that snap back and forth. It certainly has the potential to be overwhelming and yet, thanks to Alemán’s straightforward prose—neither overwrought nor poetic, although it has its moments—the growing web of weirdness all remains grounded in her fictional (un)reality and surprisingly easy to follow.

And she does casually dark humour so well, like in the line about a Cruz del Sur bus line crash bringing in “twenty very dead ones”—that is, bodies—to the morgue. I was locked in from start to finish, intrigued as to whether this carefully stacked tower of cards would peak or topple. On reflection, I’d say it wobbles. As the plot advances rapidly, some characters fall a touch flat or seem too easy-breezy convenient to the story. (I’m thinking of our snake-toting sex worker, in particular.) Then there are the slimy, insidious foils, hastily introduced, but so ubiquitous in Latin America (the world?) that they don’t really require any more context anyway, although I could have done without the early Spiderman-inspired scene and eco-exposition towards the close.

But let me pause for a second to talk about the translator, Dick Cluster. I was unfamiliar with this relatably phallic-named wordsmith (who also writes his own original crime fiction), but his translation is impressively smooth, dotted with a few seemingly purposeful instances in which the Spanish either noses through or is left ironically untranslated, such as in the evocative ‘Órale Pinche Güey’ chapter.  The takedown of the near-nonsensical Café Tacvba song ‘Chilanga Banda’ in that same chapter. Funny? Yes! Upsetting? Also, yes! But it’s always enjoyable when writers riff on a cultural marker with which you’re familiar.

Overall, although some threads were disentangled a little too quickly (or suspension-of-disbelief-y) for my taste towards the end—leaving the carefully stacked house of cards without its crowning crest—Poso Wells remains a compulsively readable book grounded in many sad realities of life in Latin America. As Alemán writes, “it was unheard of, monstruous, and staggering—but believable, absurdly so.” And it’s always nice to see a raucous, genre fiction-adjacent book in translation for a change.

Buy Poso Wells (English)Bookshop (US) | Waterstones (UK)

Buy Poso Wells (Spanish): Casa del Libro

About Gabriela Alemán

Gabriela Alemán (Río de Janeiro, 1968) is a Brazilian-born Ecuadorian short story writer, novelist, and one-time professional basketball player, who’s been translated into multiple languages. Poso Wells was her first full-length work translated into English.

Other Books by Gabriela Alemán: Body Time (Planeta, 2003), Humo (Literatura Random House, 2017), La muerte silba un blues (Literatura Random House, 2014), Álbum de familia (Estruendomudo, 2010)

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