Reviewed by Sam Benedict
“There,” Alma Alvarez says to herself, as soon as she disembarks the plane that has landed in Luscano. Eyeing a man armed with binoculars, she cannot help but spot potential junta henchmen among the airport employees, just as her government used to single out supposed dissidents. Her native country once imprisoned her, and now she has uneasily returned, twelve years later, to a home that feels jarringly new but disturbingly familiar.
Cora Siré’s Behold Things Beautiful is one of those rare novels that steeps its readers fully in a fictional reality, and at the same time spurs them to learn more about the history that helped inspire it. Siré sets her story in the invented nation of Luscano, a small South American country still coming to terms with the repressive military rule of General Galti that marred its fragile republic in the early 1990’s. Alma was an outstanding undergraduate then, dedicated to studying the uniquely compelling poetry of Delmira Agustini, and researching alongside beloved classmates like the charismatic Federico “Flaco” Molino and the resourceful Roma. Together, they wrote, protested, and protected the “subversive” literature they all cherished from being destroyed by a government more inclined to incinerate books than celebrate them.
When Flaco—now a dynamic dean at their old university—welcomes Alma back, ostensibly to deliver a presentation about the same poet who captivated her as a student, one might expect her experience to be satisfyingly “full circle.” Instead, Alvarez feels encircled by echoes of what forced her to leave Luscano in the first place. Alma is a poet, too, and one of her student verses so unsettled the junta that she was abducted and detained at the infamous La Cuarenta facility for several days, before being mysteriously released in 1991. Hundreds of other people were killed, however—often ordered to prepare their own graves—and Alma remains perplexed and tormented as to why she survived.
The Luscano she sees in 2003 seems desperate to scrap its past, make itself over, and curry favour; the country has signed up for America’s sparse “coalition of the willing” war with Iraq, and a project to wreck La Cuarenta hurtles forward with an almost breathless urgency. Plans to replace it with a lucrative casino have been engineered by Patron Pinaldo, a perennial financial titan in Luscano, whose imported crates of fruits and nuts tend to contain a curious surplus of firearms, and whose long career once included an unofficial but influential working relationship with the Galti “administration.” When Pinaldo’s tormented son Ernesto stealthily raids the family vault for junta-era records soon after Alma’s arrival, the two events galvanize an investigation into Luscano’s past that is already underway.
For Alma, revisiting her homeland means a reunion with Hannelore, her formidable and often devastating mother, now faced with the final stages of lymphoma. It also means meeting other unforgettable Luscanans like Gabriel Seil, the morbidly observant manager of a local graveyard. Gabriel’s wary encounters with members of the Pinaldo clan find him appraising Ernesto’s pricey wristwatch as reeking of “complacence,” and briefly entertaining the notion of attacking the intimidating Patron with a weighty desk stapler. One of the many triumphs of Behold Things Beautiful is its surprising humour—sudden, unassuming and elegantly deadpan. Of course, as embodied by Alma’s mother, the funniness can be inevitably funereal; a death-minded Hannelore rejects a dress Alma wants to wear to Flaco’s fortieth birthday party, dismissing it as being more fitting for her own imminent memorial service.
Siré has armed her Luscanan ensemble with a disarming self-awareness as if to supply them some means of defence against mortality and the memories of their persecution. Her characters can be so keenly reflective that they find themselves paralyzed, endlessly wondering whether their instincts amount to courage or self-interest. When Ernesto asks Gabriel to stash his father’s pilfered files at the cemetery, Seil’s first impulse is to consult his mother, who has always openly protested the Galti regime. Gabriel almost instantly relents, however, refusing to burden her with information that might endanger her, and curses himself for selfishly wanting to compensate for not having been braver before. Surviving the junta has afflicted Gabriel with a guilt and self-doubt that bleeds into a deep-seated skepticism; initially won over by a conspicuous display of Galti-suppressed texts in Flaco’s office, his next thought is to suspect Molino of putting on a scholarly show, performance masquerading as protest.
Flaco himself threatens to unravel under his own scrutiny, as well as the compromises life in Luscano asks him to make. While hoping to persuade Alma to testify against the Galti regime, he’s painfully cognizant of the calculation he brings to bear, how he’s all too ready to deploy poetry to make an academically moving case: “How to convince her? Quote Neruda,” he concludes, before frowning on the tactic for being too transparent. In Luscano, seemingly opposing concepts like idealism and cynicism, righteous anger and self-loathing do not simply alternate, they can coexist. The professorial face of campus demonstrations, Flaco’s campaign to hold the junta accountable is undercut by a creeping understanding that he and his family are more reliant on Patron Pinaldo than he would care to admit.
Pinaldo, meanwhile, is as an alarmingly convincing literary creation, a perceived financial pillar whose prosperity finds a way to transcend juntas. Far from a cartoonishly sinister villain, he is self-assured and impatiently pragmatic, more preoccupied with pesky back spasms and peskier roadblocks to revenue streams than his role in bankrolling murderous dictatorships. The mind-bending outrage of an army of slot machines, brightly rising up from the ruins of a military dungeon, is dampened by simultaneous donations to Molino’s school, by the jobs Pinaldo already provides, and that his future projects promise to create.
In Behold Things Beautiful, celebratory barbecues and sombre burials mirror and overlap, and Siré uses shared ritual to deftly shift perspective between characters. In one instance, the heady fragrance from an asado cookout acts as a sufficient medium for the writer to make the transfer. Alma Alvarez remains Siré’s central voice, however, and the author explores the experience of the returning exile with compassion and precision. Alma’s feelings about her home hover uneasily between love and dread, nostalgia and nightmare, as she wrestles with the unmooring dissonance brought on by duelling assertions: Luscano is drastically different, Luscano is essentially the same. “Chica, things have changed,” Flaco reassures Alma. “You know Luscano,” Hannelore reminds her daughter, not much later. Alvarez is always reckoning with the restless apprehension her country has instilled in her, and while Alma is sometimes mistaken in her grim game of “Guess Who’s an Ex-Militar?” she soon discerns her La Cuarenta interrogator, having reinvented himself as a regular-guy civilian, the past persisting in plain sight. Alma has almost compulsively devoted herself to Delmira Agustini’s work—the novel draws its title from an Agustini poem called “The Encounter”—but the exhortation to Behold Things Beautiful can be a demanding mantra indeed when trauma constantly threatens to intrude.
Throughout her narrative, Cora Siré skillfully interweaves creation with excavation, tying the conjured to the real. In her acknowledgments, she identifies Luscano as a compressed composite of Uruguay, Argentina and Chile, and the novel’s first scene is a straightforward, still-mysterious account of Delmira Agustini’s death in 1914. An excerpt from Flaco’s Concise History of Luscano endnotes the novel, right before Siré herself supplies an actual and substantial bibliography of collected poems and historical texts. The author assigns her country its own surreal ecosystem, specific but ineffable, and it is to her great credit that Luscano doesn’t feel fabricated so much as merely overlooked. Siré sharpens her portrait by contrasting Luscano with life in Quebec, where Alma has spent the intervening years writing and teaching, and for Montreal readers, Siré’s distilled, tenderly wry observations about the city and its sensibility are certain to sweetly resonate. Setting her story down like a cultured pearl among existing stones, the richly-imagined illusion of Luscano illumines the music, poetry, and history of its real-life Latin American neighbours, all while emanating its own enduring glow.
Behold Things Beautiful by Cora Siré is published by Signature Editions.