Reviewed by Jim Criste (PC Staff/Ecuador 1999-02)
Ecuador is an incredibly diverse country in so many ways. Jorge Velasco Mackenzie takes us on a journey through one part of that diverse country, the western lowlands along the Pacific Coast, to places both known and unknown, real and imagined. Drums for a Lost Song seems to be the literary equivalent of a school of painting in Ecuador known as “Magical Realism.” This is pointed out clearly by the translator in his afterword where he cites, “One of Velasco’s themes is the slippery nature of what we call “facts” or “truth. . .,” which just shows that Velasco was ahead of his time in the use of “alternate facts.”
The reader is challenged not only to sort out what may be true or not, but quite often also must try to ascertain whose facts are being presented. The role of the narrator is a constantly changing one which moves among characters including “The Singer” (the principal protagonist), his dog, his various pursuers, and others along the way who attempt to help or hinder his progress. The narrator role passes from one to another without warning and I had to stop occasionally to ask myself who was telling the tale.
The fact that I spent a couple of years in Ecuador, including visits to the region of this story, made it more interesting for me. I am not sure it would have been of as much interest without that context.
Kudos to the translator. I note that the book received an award for the translation. Especially with something which is as heavily intertwined with the context and the cultures of the place and time, it is a challenge to render a version in English, or I suppose any other language, which can flow smoothly and communicate the meaning and the feeling of the story. I also work as a translator on occasion these days and know well the struggle of trying to find the right words to express what is being said in Spanish. Even when I understand in Spanish exactly what is being said, there are sometimes no words to express that in English. Yet the translator here has done so admirably.
I am not completely sure where it ended up. But I enjoyed going along for the ride.
Jim Criste (PC Staff/Ecuador 1999-02) has spent more than 35 years in the management of private, public and non-profit development in Africa, Asia and Latin America. He has worked for over 10 years at the Chief of Party level in El Salvador, Ethiopia, Costa Rica, Ghana, Kiribati, Dominican Republic, Nigeria, and Tanzania, heading up both national and multi-country operations.
Jim has a Bachelor of Architectural Engineering degree from Penn State University, as well as a Masters degree in Development Economics from the Food Research Institute at Stanford University, and an MBA degree from the Graduate School of Business at Stanford University.
In the past few years, Jim has been traveling back and forth between his home in Tegucigalpa, Honduras where he does document translation and occasional simultaneous interpretation, and rural Pennsylvania.