Senor Vivo and the Coca Lord by Louis de Bernieres

This book is hard to explain. On one hand, it’s a genuinely passionate statement about how the cocaine trade has crippled South America and everyone is too afraid to go against the cartels; on the other hand, it’s a magical realism story where human women can give birth to cats, gods posses people, and panthers can be domesticated.

Amazingly, these two very different elements combine to make a fantastic story. It doesn’t seem like it would work – how can an author make a statement about the realistically awful cocaine trade and its effects, while also incorporating magical elements that distract from the reality of the situation? Because, lest you be fooled, this is not a light and happy story. People are murdered, raped, and tortured in excruciating detail, and for the majority of the book we’re sure that the actions of one man Senor Vivo, cannot possibly overcome the cocaine industry in South America.

It wouldn’t seem like magic belongs in that story, but it does. The cocaine trade ruins lives, and the people behind it are ruthless, stupid, horrible thugs who nonetheless can control entire countries. The situation is depressing, to say the least, and that’s why the magical realism aspect is so important to this novel. When we read about Senor Vivo, who writes passionate letters to the newspapers condemning the cocaine dealers, who respond by leaving raped and mutilated children in his backyard, we need to know that nearby, in a small village on the Amazon, witches are working to bring down the cocaine dealers. We need to know that one man can have enough luck to escape multiple assassination attempts. We need to believe that in this world of violence and destruction and inhumanity, miracles are possible and that the good guys will win in the end. Here, reality is not enough, so the author gives us something better. He gives us a world where good can triumph over evil, and even though the journey is horrible and painful and people die and no one will ever be the same afterwards, the good people can still win.

Also the protagonist has two pet panthers, which is just plain awesome.

Verdict: five out of five stars


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