The War of Don Emmanuel’s Nether Parts is a satirical novel set an imaginary country in South America, in a time that must be the mid/late-80s. With a vast cast of characters and a plot so absurd and convoluted that it hardly bears description, the story seems almost impossible to explain, and very hard to review (this is at least my fifth try at an intro…).
Simply put, I love this book. This was my third or fourth reading, and won’t be my last. The reasons are simple– De Bernieres’ character building, imagery, and sense of place are so strong that you feel a part of his world. The satire works too, though I feel sure I miss the subtler points due to lack of knowledge on South American history and politics. Then there is the prose:
These cigars are, like their coffee, easily the most sublime in the world, but of both commodities they keep the best for themselves, exporting only the dross for the world’s connoisseurs to praise. To smoke one of those cigars outdoors of an evening in a hammock while drinking half a quart of thick black coffee is to condemn oneself unknowingly to a lifetime of nostalgia.
The political satire strikes against all sides pretty equally, mainly pointing out the absurdities inherent in the far right and left while contrasting them to the apathy of the common people. The government is generally shown to be bunglers, with the left hand rarely knowing what the right is doing, and each hand often trying to chop the other off. The plot centers around several different groups of people and their roles in a political revolution of strange proportions– but the heroes are mainly the villagers, campesinos, and simple country folk who live far from the capital but in the midst of the strife.
The satire is mixed with some more straightforward lampooning, and a little bit of earnest thoughtfulness, as in De Bernieres’ take on patriotism:
There are two types of patriotism, although sometimes the two are mingled in one breast. The first kind one might call nationalism; nationalists believe that all other countries are inferior in every respect and that one would do them a favor by dominating them. Other countries are always in the wrong, they are less free, less civilized, are less glorious in battle, are perfidious, prone to falling for insane and alien ideologies which no reasonable person could believe, are irreligious and abnormal. Such patriots are the most common variety, and their patriotism is the most comtemptible thing on earth.
The second type of patriot is best described by returning to the example of General Fuerte. General Fuerte did not believe in “my country, right or wrong”; on the contrary, he loved his land despite the faults that he could so clearly see and that he had labored to correct. It was his frequently stated opinion that anyone who supported his country when it was obviously in the wrong, or who failed to see its faults, was the worst kind of traitor. Whereas the first kind of patriot really glories in his own irrationality and not in his country, General Carlo Maria Fuerte loved his country as a son loves his mother or a brother his sister
The book includes some touching moments– some of love, others showing the sadness of loss, in both personal lives and battles– and is actually a fun read, full of witty banter, broad satire, and more character-driven comedy.
I cannot do this book justice without getting into the characters and their many foibles, quirks, and odd spirituality, but then I cannot do this book justice anyway. Read it. It may be a slow starter (there really is a cast of thousands), but it is worth it.
Don Emmanuel is the first book in a trilogy by the British De Bernieres, so look for reviews of the two sequels to come. I’ll probably pass on re-reading his Corelli’s Mandolin, though it is a fine book in spite of the unwatchable Nick Cage movie they made out of it…