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  • Written by Laura Restrepo
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  • Written by Laura Restrepo
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Written by Laura RestrepoAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Laura Restrepo

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On Sale: April 03, 2007
Pages: 272 | ISBN: 978-0-385-52151-2
Published by : Vintage Knopf
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Synopsis|Excerpt

Synopsis

In this remarkably nuanced novel, both a gripping detective story and a passionate, devastating tale of eros and insanity in Colombia, internationally acclaimed author Laura Restrepo delves into the minds of four characters. There's Agustina, a beautiful woman from an upper-class family who is caught in the throes of madness; her husband Aguilar, a man passionately in love with his wife and determined to rescue her from insanity; Agustina's former lover Midas, a drug-trafficker and money-launderer; and Nicolás, Agustina's grandfather. Through the blend of these distinct voices, Restrepo creates a searing portrait of a society battered by war and corruption, as well as an intimate look at the daily lives of people struggling to stay sane in an unstable reality.


From the Trade Paperback edition.

Excerpt

I KNEW SOMETHING irreparable had happened the moment a man opened the door to that hotel room and I saw my wife sitting at the far end of the room, looking out the window in the strangest way. I’d just returned from a short trip, four days away on business, and I swear that Agustina was fine when I left, I swear nothing odd was going on, or at least nothing out of the ordinary, certainly nothing to suggest what would happen to her while I was gone, except for her own premonitions, of course, but how was I to believe her when Agustina is always predicting some catastrophe; I’ve tried everything to make her see reason, but she won’t be swayed, insisting that ever since she was little she’s had what she calls the gift of sight, or the ability to see the future, and God only knows the trouble that’s caused us.

This time, as usual, my Agustina predicted that something would go wrong, and once again, I ignored her prediction; I went away on a Wednesday, leaving her painting the apartment walls green, and on Sunday, when I returned, I found her in a hotel in the north of the city, transformed into someone terrified and terrifying, a being I barely recognized. I haven’t been able to find out what happened to her while I was gone because when I ask she turns on me, it’s incredible how fierce she can be when she’s upset, she treats me as if I'm not me and she’s not who she used to be, or at least that’s how I try to explain it, and if I can’t it’s because I don’t understand it myself. The woman I love is lost inside her own head and for fourteen days now I’ve been searching for her, wearing myself out trying to find her, but it’s excruciating and impossibly difficult; it’s as if Agustina were living on a plane parallel to reality, close but just out of reach, as if she were speaking a strange language that I vaguely recognize but can’t quite comprehend. My wife’s unhinged mind is a dog snapping at me, but at the same time its barking is a call for help, a call to which I’m unable to respond; Agustina is a hurt and starving dog who wants to go home but can’t, and the next minute she’s a stray dog who can’t even remember it once had a home.


***

I'M GOING TO TELL YOU this point–blank because you have the right to know it, Agustina sweetheart, and anyway what do I have to lose talking about it all, when I’ve got nothing left anymore. Your husband is spinning in circles trying to find out what the hell happened to you and there’s so much even you don’t know, because listen, Agustina darling, all stories are like a big cake, with everybody’s eyes on the piece they’re eating, and the only one who sees the whole thing is the baker. But before I start, let me tell you that I’m happy to see you, despite everything I’ve always been happy to see you, and the truth is that after what happened you’re the only person I wanted to see. Will you believe me if I tell you that this disaster started with a simple bet? It’s almost embarrassing to confess, Agustina doll, because you took it all so seriously and were hurt so badly by it, but it was the lowest kind of bet, a dirty joke if we’re going to call things by their true names, a prank that turned bloody.

We dubbed it Operation Lazarus, because the idea was to see whether we could breathe life back into Spider Salazar’s pecker, which had been dead between his legs since the accident at the Las Lomas Polo Club. Do you remember the scandal, Agustina darling? The truth is, it was a stupid, ordinary accident, although later people tried to make it seem more heroic by spreading the story that Spider fell off his horse during a match against a Chilean team, but the rough stuff actually came later, during a drunken free–for–all, because the match was in the morning and Spider had watched it from one of the bottom rows of the stands since he’s too fat to make it up to the top, and I can tell you that the closest he got to the action was betting on the Chileans and against the locals. The Chileans won and then were treated to a typical Colombian lunch that they probably choked down out of politeness, who knows what folk dishes were foisted on them—suckling pig, tamales, fritters, figs with caramel cream, or all of the above—and then they went back to their hotel to digest it while at the club the revelry went on, everyone getting drunker by the minute. Rivers of whiskey flowed, it got dark, and the only people left were the local polo players and the club regulars when Spider and his pals decided to saddle up, and I’m guessing, or actually I know, that when the happy pack rode into the night they were all as drunk as cossacks, a gang of juiced–up clowns; I don’t know whether your brother Joaco was with them, Agustina doll, though probably he was, because Joaco never misses the chance for a spree.

They mounted the horses, which are high–strung to begin with and don’t appreciate overweight brutes squashing their kidneys and making them gallop in the dark along muddy paths, followed by a procession of Toyota 4x4s full of bodyguards, you know how it is, angel, because you come from that world and escaped it only when you'd had all you could stomach, but does the aftertaste ever go away?, no, sweetheart, the taste of shit lingers in your mouth no matter how many times you gargle with Listerine. Every fat cat from Las Lomas Polo is shadowed wherever he goes by five or six escorts, and Spider Salazar is even worse; ever since he struck it rich he’s had himself protected by a troop of thugs trained in Israel, and that night Spider, who hadn’t been on a horse for months because he was clogged with cholesterol and had to content himself with watching from the stands, that night Spider, who was completely plastered, ordered them to bring him the most spirited horse, a big, imperious bay called Parsley, and if I say “called,” Agustina princess, it’s because no one calls it anything anymore, since in the darkness, the mud, and the commotion, Parsley lost his temper and threw Spider, slamming him against a rock, and then some genius of a bodyguard, a guy they call the Sucker, had the brilliant idea of teaching the horse a lesson by blasting it with his machine gun, leaving it riddled like a sieve with its hooves pointing up at the moon, the most pathetic little scene imaginable. In a single burst the idiot pissed away the two hundred and fifty grand Parsley was worth, because that’s life, Agustina sweetheart, fortunes go down the drain in a single binge and nobody bats an eye.


***

THE GIRL AGUSTINA hugs another, smaller child tight; it’s her brother Bichi, who has a head full of dark curls, a Christ Child, the kind artists paint with black hair instead of golden. It’s the last time, Bichito, Agustina promises him, my father will never hit you again because I’m going to stop him, don’t hold your arm like that, like a chicken with a broken wing, come here, Bichi, little brother, you have to forgive my father’s bad hands because his heart is good, you have to forgive him, Bichi, and not stare at him like that because if you do he’ll go away and it’ll be your fault, does your arm still hurt?, come here, it’s all right, if you stop crying your sister, Agustina, will summon you to the great ceremony of her powers, and we’ll do what we always do, she’ll get the pictures from their hiding place and Bichi will spread the black cloth on the bed, you and me preparing for the service that will make my eyes see, Agustina calls up the great Power that lets her know when her father is going to hurt her brother, you’re the Bichi I loved so much, Agustina repeats over and over again, the Bichi I love so very very much, my darling little brother, the beautiful boy who abandoned me a lifetime ago and is lost to me now.

I’ll cure your broken wing, sings Agustina, rocking him against her, I’ll kiss it and make it better. The only problem is that the powers of divination come to her when they feel like it, not when she calls on them, that’s why the ceremony doesn’t always work the same way even though the two children put on their robes and do everything right, step by step, carefully performing each step, but it isn’t the same, Agustina complains, because the powers forsake me sometimes, the visions fade and Bichi is left defenseless, not knowing when the thing that's sure to happen to him will happen. But when they’re going to come they announce their arrival with a flicker of the eyelids, the First Call, because Agustina’s powers were, are, her eyes’ ability to see beyond, to what’s still to come, to what hasn’t come yet. The Second Call is when the head tilts back of its own accord, as if it were descending a staircase, as if the neck were tugging it down and making it toss its hair like the Weeping Woman when she wanders the hills. I know Bichi is terrified by the Second Call, and he doesn’t want to know anything about the Weeping Woman or the wild rhythms of her flowing hair, which is why he begs me not to roll my eyes back in my head and toss my hair because If you keep doing that Agustina, I’ll go to my room, Don’t go Bichi Bichito, don’t go and I won’t do it anymore, I’ll control the shaking so I don’t scare you, because after all this is a ceremony of healing and comfort, I’d never hurt you, I only want to protect you, and in return you have to promise me that you’ll forgive my father even when he hits you, my father says it’s for your own good and parents know things that children don’t.


***

EVER SINCE MY WIFE has been acting so strange, I’ve dedicated myself to helping her, but I’ve only managed to irritate her with my futile selfless efforts. For example, yesterday, late at night, Agustina got angry because I wanted to take a cloth and dry the rug that she’d soaked, obsessed with the idea that it smelled strange, and the thing is, it disturbs me to see all the pots of water she sets around the apartment, she’s taken to performing baptisms, or ablutions, or who knows what kind of rituals invoking gods invented by her, washing everything and scouring it with excessive zeal, my unfathomable Agustina, any spot on the tablecloth or grime on a windowpane torments her, dust on the moldings makes her miserable, and the muddy footprints she claims my shoes leave make her furious; even her own hands seem disgusting to her though she scrubs them incessantly, her beautiful pale hands red and chafed now because she gives them no respite, and she gives me no respite, and she gives herself no respite.

As Agustina performs her mad ceremonies she gives orders to Aunt Sofi, who has volunteered her services as willing acolyte, and the two rush about with containers of water as if this is how they’ll exorcise anxiety, or regain lost control, and I can find no part to play in this story, nor do I know how to curb the mystical mania that’s invading the house in the form of cups of water that appear in rows along the baseboards, or on the window ledges. I open a door suddenly and upset a plate of water that Agustina’s hidden behind it, or I’m unable to go upstairs because she’s set pots of water on each step. How can I go up the stairs, Aunt Sofi, when Agustina’s blocked them? Stay down here for now, Aguilar, be patient and don't move those pots because you know what a fuss she’ll make. And where will we eat, Agustina darling, now that you’ve covered the table with plates of water? She’s put them on the chairs, on the balcony, and around the bed, the river of her madness leaving its traces even on the bookshelves and in the cupboards; wherever she goes, quiet eyes of water open up, gazing into nothing or the unknown, and rather than being upset I feel the anguish of not knowing what bubbles are bursting inside her, what poisonous fish are swimming the channels of her brain, and all I can think to do is wait until she’s off guard, and empty cups and plates and buckets and return them to their place in the kitchen, and then I ask you why you look at me with hatred, Agustina my love, it must be because you don’t remember me, but sometimes you do, sometimes she seems to recognize me, vaguely, as if through a fog, and her eyes offer reconciliation for an instant, but only for an instant before I immediately lose her and the same terrible hurt invades me.

Strange comedy, or tragedy for three voices, Agustina with her ablutions, Aunt Sofi who plays along with her, and I, Aguilar, an observer asking myself when reason fled, that thing we call reason; an invisible force, but when it’s missing, life isn’t life and what’s human is no longer human. What would we do without you, Aunt Sofi? At first I stayed home twenty–four hours a day watching Agustina and hoping that at any minute she would return to her senses, but as the days went by I began to suspect that the crisis wouldn’t come to an end overnight and I knew I’d have to pluck up the courage to face daily life again. Maybe the hardest part is accepting the stretch of middle ground between sanity and madness and learning to straddle it; by the third or fourth day of delirium the money I had on me ran out and ordinary demands arose again, if I didn’t go out to collect the money I was owed and do my weekly deliveries there wouldn’t be anything to buy food with or pay the bills, but there was no way for me to hire a nurse to stay with Agustina while I was gone and make sure she didn’t escape or do something hopelessly crazy, and it was then that the woman who said her name was Aunt Sofi rang the doorbell.

She showed up just like that, as if heaven–sent, with her two suitcases, her felt hat topped by a feather, her easy laugh, and her comfortable manner of a German from the provinces, and while she was standing in the doorway, before she’d been invited in, she explained to me that it had been years since she’d had anything to do with the family, that she lived in Mexico and had flown in to help care for her niece for as long as necessary. This struck me as odd, because my wife had never spoken to me about any aunt, and yet Agustina seemed to recognize her, or at least she recognized her hat, because she laughed, I can’t believe you still wear that little cap with the goose feather, that was all Agustina said to her but she said it warmly, cheerfully, and yet there was something that made me uneasy, if this woman hadn't been in contact with the family, how had she learned of her niece’s breakdown, and when I asked her, she simply said, I’ve always known, Wonderful, I thought, either something’s not right here or I’ve just landed myself another seer.


From the Hardcover edition.
Laura Restrepo

About Laura Restrepo

Laura Restrepo - Delirium

Photo © Carlos Duque

Laura Restrepo is the bestselling author of several prizewinning novels published in more than twenty languages, including Leopard in the Sun, which won the Premio Arzobispo Juan San Clemente, The Angel of Galilea, which won the Premio Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz in Mexico and the Prix France Culture in France, and Delirium, for which she was awarded the 2004 Premio Alfaguara, with a jury headed by Nobel Prize-winner José Saramago, and the 2006 Premio Grinzane Cavour in Italy. Winner of a Guggenheim Fellowship for 2007, Restrepo currently divides her time between Bogotá
 and Mexico City.
Praise

Praise

“Stunning, dense, complex, mind-blowing. . . . This novel goes far above politics, right up into high art.” —The Washington Post Book World“One of the finest novels written in recent memory.” —Jose Saramago“Masterful. . . . Literary dynamite.” —The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel “Every word in Delirium is perfectly chosen, painfully honest and brutally effective. Restrepo chooses her words like a poet, with infinite care.” —The Philadelphia Inquirer“A disconcertingly lovely book, and its depiction of Colombian society at an awful moment in its history is sharp, vivid, utterly persuasive.” —The New York Times Book Review
Reader's Guide|About the Book|Author Biography|Discussion Questions|Suggestions

About the Book

“Stunning, dense, complex, mind-blowing. . . . This novel goes far above politics, right up into high art.”
The Washington Post Book World

The introduction, discussion questions, and suggestions for further reading that follow are intended to enhance your group's discussion of Delirium, a haunting, revelatory story of a young woman's decline into madness. Set in Colombia during the 1980s, it traces the interlocking lives of the upper and criminal classes against the turmoil of a country held in thrall by the notorious drug lord Pablo Escobar.

About the Guide

Aguilar, a literature professor reduced to selling dog food after losing his job at the university, returns from a short trip to find his wife, Agustina, transformed into “someone terrified and terrifying, a being I barely recognized” [p. 1]. The daughter of a well-to-do family who delights in breaking the rules and flaunting her eccentricities, Agustina Londoño was found cowering in a hotel room; the manager reported that an unidentified man left her there the previous evening. Searching for an explanation for Agustina's breakdown, Aguilar pieces together his own recollections, speculations based on Agustina's vague stories about her past and bits of family history revealed by Agustina's aunt, Sofi, who has arrived to help care for her.

As the novel unfolds, other stories intersect with Aguilar's narrative. We hear from Agustina herself, in tangled tales that conflate past and present, memory and fantasy. Midas McAlister, Agustina's former lover and a money launderer for Escobar, paints a wry and telling portrait of Colombia's corrupt society—and of the corruption in the heart of the Londoño family. Glimpses into the life of Agustina's grandfather, Nicholas Portulinus, a talented and eccentric musician and composer, hint at a family history of madness.

About the Author

Laura Restrepo is the bestselling author of several award-winning novels, including Leopard in the Sun, which won the Premio Juan de Arzobispo San Clemente, and The Angel of Galilea, which won the Premio Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz in Mexico and the Prix France Culture in France. Delirium was awarded the 2004 Alfaguara Premio and Italy's Premio Grinzane Cavour in 2006. Her works have been translated into more than twenty languages. Restrepo was born and raised in Bogotá, Colombia, and now lives in Mexico City.

Discussion Guides

1. The multiple narratives in Delirium are presented without transition. Discuss the elements—for example, the use of recurring images both actual and metaphorical—that connect one section to the next.

2. How would you describe the tone and style of the various threads of the novel? What does Aguilar's account demonstrate about the way he thinks and looks at the world? Are Agustina's monologues simply the ramblings of an unbalanced woman or do they reveal something about her character, intelligence, and perceptiveness? What stylistic oddities bring out her state of mind and self-awareness? What effect does Midas's slangy language and casual, conversational style have on his credibility as a narrator? How would you compare Aguilar and Midas in terms of their reliability and the sympathy they evoke in readers? What literary qualities distinguish the vignettes about Nicholas and Blanca from the other narratives? Are they as powerful and engaging as the other stories?

3. In what ways do Aguilar's and Sofi's reactions to Agustina's behavior differ? What principles (or beliefs) shape their responses? What roles do their personal histories with Agustina play in the way they interpret her rages and compulsive rituals?

4. Aguilar says, “I never bothered to ask [Agustina] about her past, her family, or her memories. . . . I mourn the questions I didn't ask” [p. 21]. Do you think that Agustina would have been open with him about the negative sides of her upbringing or would her own confusion and guilt have made that impossible? What insights does Aguilar's list of the faults her family finds with him provide into why he and Agustina were attracted to one another? To what extent did each of them act out of willfulness and self-interest?

5. How does Agustina see her father? Does her portrait of him change as the novel progresses? In what ways is their relationship shaped by the dynamics in the household, the family's status, and traditional Latin American culture? Are there moments or incidents that capture familiar experiences? Discuss, for example, what their ritual of locking their doors together [pp. 75-6] and their interactions when Agustina begins dating [pp. 192-8] illustrate about the nature and complexities of many father-daughter relationships.

6. What do Agustina's efforts to protect Bichi show about her inner conflicts? What is the significance of the juxtaposition of religious and sexual elements in the secret ceremonies they conduct [p. 33]?

7. Eugenia is presented from various perspectives, from Aguilar's view of her as a cold, uncaring mother [pp. 22-4] to Agustina's memory of watching her prepare for an evening out [pp. 97-100], to Sofi's description of her sister's isolation within the family [p. 108]. How do the personalities, needs, and prejudices of each influence their impressions of her? In a society built on the unquestioned authority of men, could Eugenia have played a larger, more effective role in the family? Could she have prevented his brutal treatment of Bichi or at least mitigated the effects of his blatant preference for the macho Joaco? What does her reaction to Agustina's first period [pp. 151-2], and especially to the confrontation that ultimately tears the family apart [p. 300], reveal about her own sexuality and the repression of upper-class women in Colombia? Does the exposure of lies and deceptions the family harbors change your opinion of Eugenia?

8. Class and money are central to the plot of Delirium, as well as the interactions among the characters. How does Midas capture this, both in his dealings with Escobar, Spider, and the other thugs, and in his behavior with and observations about the Londoño family? Why is he better able to see the importance of both class and money than the other characters? Do you think he expresses the author's point of view on the underlying economic and social causes of Colombia's corruption and the violence that has become commonplace?

9. In his description of life with Agustina, Aguilar says, “Madness is a compendium of unpleasant things: for example it's pedantic, it's hateful, and it's torturous” [p. 105], and Midas, addressing the absent Agustina, complains, “You start to use fancy words and predict things like a prophet, but a whiny, annoying prophet . . .” [p. 254]. How do you think Agustina would respond to these characterizations? What aspects of their descriptions come out either explicitly or implicitly in her own accounts? Do her memories and fantasies offer a more profound and perhaps more realistic portrait of madness and the consequences, real or imagined, of being a “visionary”?

10. Why does the story of Nicholas and Blanca add to the novel? What insights does it provide to the nature and causes of madness? Are there parallels between the emotional confusion (about love, sex, and belonging, for example) Nicholas and Agustina experience? Are there similarities between Blanca and Aguilar and the roles they play in their spouses' lives?

11. Aguilar describes Colombia as “a country . . . split from top to bottom by a mountain range, the highways . . . twist and twine around abysses . . . and they're seized every day by the army, the paramilitaries, or the guerillas, who kidnap you, kill you, or assault you with grenades . . .” [p. 29]. How do the images this passage invokes relate to Agustina's breakdown? In what ways does Colombia's decline into chaos and fear parallel the delirium Agustina suffers from?

12. Although Escobar was killed in 1993, the drug trade continues to thrive in Colombia. What does Delirium demonstrate about the power of drug-traffickers and the failures of America's “war on drugs”?

13. The epigraph of the novel quotes Gore Vidal: “Wise Henry James had always warned writers against the use of a mad person as central to a narrative on the ground that as he was not morally responsible, there was no true tale to tell.” Does Delirium belie James's wisdom? Can you think of other novels in which a mentally ill or disturbed person plays a central role and exposes the deceptions and the immorality within a family or a society? Are the situations in which these lies are necessary to the survival of an individual or even an entire nation?

Suggested Readings

Isabel Allende, The House of the Spirits; Julia Alvarez, In the Time of the Butterflies; Roberto Bolaño, The Savage Detectives; Nathan Englander, The Ministry of Special Cases; Rosario Ferré, The House on the Lagoon; Jorge Franco, Rosario Tijeras; Gabriel García Márquez, Chronicle of a Death Foretold; Ken Kesey, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest; Toni Morrison, Song of Solomon; José Saramago, Seeing; Don Winslow, The Power of the Dog.

  • Delirium by Laura Restrepo
  • March 11, 2008
  • Fiction - Literary
  • Vintage
  • $16.95
  • 9780307278043

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