(Peace Corps novel)
by Bernard F. Blanche (Brazil 1965–67)
Reviewed by Deidre Swesnik (Mali 1996-98)
Think Gabriel Garcia Marquez meets John Grisham. Throw in a touch of John Wayne and you’ve got yourself Iracema’s Footprint.
Iracema is both the name of an Amazon warrior and the name of the village at the center of the book. Like the villagers who spend every night in the town square circling round and round the towering statue of Iracema, the main characters swirl around in a current of dizzying misunderstanding throughout the story.
At the beginning of the book, we arrive in the village of Iracema on a bus with Marcus. He’s a twenty-something community health worker from Sao Paolo going to this remote town in Brazil’s Northeast region. Soon after his arrival, he meets Ben, the local Peace Corps Volunteer. The metropolitan Paulista and the American have a lot in common, both foreign to much of the Northeastern culture and unaware of the political morass into which they have stepped.
Marcus comes into town thinking that he’s got a job to do and that he’ll be able to do it. Ben has similar ideas, believing that he will eventually convince everyone to get on board with his plans for the community. They soon see that the Doctors Mendonca - Marcus’s bosses who run the local health center and the dominant political party–are playing at political war with another up and coming doctor named Elias and his underdog party. Our protagonists initially think that they won’t get involved in the politics of the upcoming election, and that they will somehow manage to stay above the fray.
Danger is lurking around the corner. Marcus and Ben decide that by sheer will and honesty, they are going to avoid it. But they don’t know what they are up against. This is a harsh land - meticulously described by the author - with cowboys, prostitutes, and hired killers, just to name a few. Early on, one of their colleagues gets killed under mysterious circumstances. And he’s not the only one. The foreigners are pawns in a game whose rules they don’t understand.
They eventually see that no matter what they do and how honest they are, some people accuse them of bad intentions. The handsome, tall, nice doctor of the brothers Mendonca (the other one is short and curt) tries to warn them that they are in over their heads and even recommends a leave of absence to avoid the upcoming election. Think they listen?
I think you get the drift of how this story has a bit of the Johns Grisham and Wayne in it. Where does Garcia Marquez come in, you may ask? Mostly in the long descriptions of the dry, unforgiving land, and the relationships between the people. There are also a few mysterious women thrown in, including the dominant image of Iracema, to keep the plot moving. The romantic interludes add intrigue, suspense, and otherworldliness that haunt moments of Marcus’s and Ben’s experiences.
Returned Peace Corps Volunteers and really anyone who’s ever been a stranger in a strange land will understand that the main characters are dealing with a basic lack of information. That feeling of misunderstanding hit me by about six months into my own Peace Corps service. I was going along swimmingly until I suddenly hit that brick wall realization that I had no idea what I was doing or how I got there. It’s a humbling and very worthwhile experience. Toughest job and all that.
Among the rough and tumble back alley scenes in the book, the sometimes creepy mystery of Iracema, and the agonizing missteps of our heroes, is some pleasant writing.
“The sweet air of the morning gave him strength. Even a night’s rest did less to rejuvenate Marcus. He filled his lungs with its coolness, anticipating the dry heat that would soon envelope the delicate freshness. [...] The mornings comforted him, and he courted them for their favors.”
Inside this book is a basic battle between modernity and the old ways; health and sickness; paganism and monotheism; brute force and reason. I have a feeling that there was a lot of symbolism that the author was trying to convey in the book - about the Amazon warrior, blood, water, dirt - but I’m not sure I got it all. That may have been a bit of the “misunderstanding” theme the author threw in there for the reader, too, just to keep you guessing.
Deidre Swesnik laughed for a lot of her two years in Peace Corps Mali and still does so uproariously with her RPCV friends at home in Washington, DC. DeeDee is the Director of Public Policy and Communications at the National Fair Housing Alliance, loves to edit and read, and is terrified of writing anything longer than two pages.