I’ve travelled quite a distance during this year’s Spanish and Portuguese Literature Month. First stop was Mozambique before flying over the Atlantic with the Portuguese language to Brazil. This was followed with 3 stops in Spanish speaking South America (Argentina, Uruguay and Peru). Now it’s time to travel up through Central America to reach July’s #literarycities destination of Panama. First through a quick overnight in Columbia …

The Bitch – Pilar Quintana (Translated from Spanish by Lisa Dillmann)

Damaris lives with her husband in a shack on the Pacific coast caretaking the property of an absent family. Childlessness is the great sadness of her life, so when she is adopts an orphaned puppy, she treats it as surrogate daughter. She names the pup, Chirli, after the child she never had. The dog, however, does not reciprocate the intensity of Damaris’s bond. Chirli is continually running off into the neighbouring jungle, for days on end, returning only when needs must. Damaris’s disappointment turns to anger following the birth of Chirli’s first litter. Not only is she reminded of her own failures, but feels an intense feeling of betrayal when the dog proves to be an atrocious mother, abandoning her litter, even eating one of her pups! Damaris’s feelings cool and eventually she determines that the dog must go. Chirli, however, has other ideas. It knows where its bread is buttered, or does it? The end result is shocking but not unexpected; having been clearly foreshadowed in an incident while Damaris was first learning to look after the pup.

The relationship between Damaris and Chirli has its parallels in the relationship between the land and its inhabitants. Quintana creates a great sense of place with sea and jungle providing food and materials for the population, mothering it so to speak. Yet, there is a propensity to turn murderous within an instant …

The Bitch is, in essence, a love story, but one which turns quite sour.

The Captain and The Enemy – Graham Greene

Coincidentally, a childless woman is a key character in Graham Greene’s final novel.

Viktor Baxter is taken from school one day by a stranger who claims to have won him in a game of backgammon. This stranger (the Captain) then gives the lad the choice of returning to the school, or going to live in London with a woman named Lisa. After a day of adventure, which involves absconding from an inn without paying for a meal, Viktor (henceforth known as Jim), who is bullied at school, decides to take his chances in London. As details of his previous life are fleshed out, it’s easy to understand why he does so.

He becomes a surrogate son to Lisa and lives with her (with his scumbag father’s blessing) until adulthood. The Captain comes and goes, returning each time with a new appearance and a new name. He is a shady character, but his nefarious activities do provide financial support for Lisa and Jim.

By the time Jim is grown, the Captain – now Mr Smith – is in Panama. With Lisa on her death bed, Jim decides to fly out to Panama, the country of 123 banks, to join the Captain. At this point the story takes us deep into Greene territory . What exactly is the Captain up to? Why is Mr Quigley – ostensibly a journalist, but obviously a CIA plant – so keen to recruit Jim? And why does the novel end with not one but two tragic accidents?

I found The Captain and The Enemy quite superficial. The pacing was off. Two thirds of the novel concerned Jim’s growing up with Lisa, and ruminating about the Captain, on repeat. As a result the Panamanian section seemed rushed and poorly developed. In the end, the novel worked neither as a Bildungsroman nor as a spy novel. Surprisingly though, it did work as a love story. The Captain’s devotion to his childless Lisa was never in doubt, and ultimately proved quite moving.