Review of Behold Things Beautiful
“After 12 years’ exile in Montreal, Alma Alvarez returns to her native Luscano, the place she fled after being held as a dissident prisoner by the country’s former murderous regime. Alma returns to a now-democratic Luscano to research an early 20th-century poet, but poetry is why she left: While a student, she published a poem unappreciated by state authorities. Luscano is a small South American country -- Montrealers have never heard of it. A joke on Canadian ignorance, yes, but Luscano is also author Cora Siré’s invention, an amalgam of Uruguay, Argentina and Chile, and their histories of military dictatorship and “dirty wars” waged against civilians. Why invent such a place when it already exists? One thing it allows Siré is to be at once more specific and more general. A story about personal ghosts, but also -- set against the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq -- about recurring patterns of repression and violence in the name of security and prosperity.”
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“Poet's novel one of exile and courage
Cora Siré brings her poet's eye for detail and lyrical language to Behold Things Beautiful, a finely constructed novel which deals with, Siré says, "a recurrent theme in my writing – identity, place, and the sense of belonging."
The protagonist, Alma Alvarez, left the fictional South American country of Luscano 12 years before, after a brutal military coup when she was imprisoned and tortured. She now teaches in Montreal and is writing a book about Uruguayan poet Delmira Agustini. But she is persuaded by an old friend, Flaco, to come back to Luscano where things have not changed as much as she'd hoped.
Siré remarks that "I'm dealing with the notion of 'reverse exile' or what happens when someone who was obliged to leave their country returns after a prolonged absence."
Alma's exile in Canada has left her grieving for her home and her loved ones. As this passage describes, she is able to appreciate Luscano despite her uneasiness about returning. "Walking with Flaco from the campus through the downtown traffic, Alma had breathed the city's essence in all its layers. Coffee, exhaust fumes, puddles sizzling in the aternoon sun, savoury wafts of empanadas, the leathery pungency of shoe poish, the roses and lilies offerred by vendors along the plaza, and the hawkers' cries. A short walk, not more than ten minutes, and an immersion, her footsteps affirming. I'm back, I'm back."
Flaco has asked Alma to return, ostensibly to give a lecture on Agustini. He has another, more important, agenda, however, and Alma is forced to face her past.
Siré takes the reader through two women's lives – Alma, physically and psychically scarred by her torture and imprisonment, who has to decide whether or not to deconstruct the protective barriers she has built around herself, and Agustini, about whom Siré says, "What struck me at the outset, was the timelessness of her verses, even though they were written in the early 1900s."
Agustini died young and dramatically, her life as told by Siré adds depth to the experiences of Alma – "Imagine existing as a free spirit in the wrong time, an exile in your own country." The poet's short life and sudden end reinforce what Alma knows about the power of poetry.
Siré's poetic descriptions breathe life into an imaginary country. "A faint bleaching on the horizon and the country stirred, beginning with the airborne, horneros and swallows and pigeons, and above them, the first airplane of the day sliding south through Luscanan airpsace."
Canadian-born Siré travels to Argentina, Chile, and Uruguay, the countries she drew upon to create Luscano, on a regular basis.
"To a large extent," Siré explains, "Luscano reflects my love for, and fears about, the region. I think that just as you can fall in love with a person, you can also fall in love with a place." Her first trip to Argentina "coincided with the period shortly after the military dictatorship during which 30,000 Argentines disappeared, that is, were abducted and killed by the junta," she says.
"So with love comes fear and, through my writing, I've explored this dichotomy."”
““Turn out the lights… words emerge fragile as sprigs…and behold things beautiful. You exhale. Close all doors and enter illusion…the words pull you elsewhere. To a desk, clean hands holding a book, your former self, safe and sane. Briefly you remember who you are.”
These are some of the thoughts of Alma Álvarez, a CEGEP teacher and the protagonist of Behold Things Beautiful, as she begins to understand why she has returned to her home country of Luscano. Initially she thought she was returning to deliver a lecture on the poet Delmira Agustini, and to visit her moribund mother. In 1991 the military junta had imprisoned Alma for a week. She was one of the lucky ones who got out alive; 387 others did not. She fled to Montreal immediately after. It’s now 2003.
The novel portrays a gallery of characters: torture survivors, relatives of the desaparecidos, beneficiaries of the torture and assassinations, members of the secret resistance, and even the torturers themselves. Behold Things Beautiful is also about femicide, which Siré keeps in the foreground through Alma’s obsession with the poet Delmira Agustini, who was shot by her husband in a murder-suicide. The title of the novel is a fragment from a line of an Agustini poem that’s quoted at length towards the end of the novel. Exile is another subtheme, conveyed through Alma’s own feelings of exile in Montreal; we sense it too in the character of Gabriel, whose brother Roberto is one of the desaparecidos.
At the novel’s core is the question: Why does humanity repeatedly commit such atrocities? We overhear Alma’s old friend Flaco reflecting on this as he enumerates a long list of the atrocities committed by military regimes around the world. He concludes, “Evil never dies, it simply relocates.” But Flaco, for all his desire to prosecute the torturers, belongs to the country’s oligarchy and is told in very clear terms that he must comply with its wishes. And comply he does, for his survival depends on it. But there are those who resist valiantly and mostly futilely. And in the calm that follows, monuments are erected to the victims with the tacit approval of the oligarchs, provided they function largely as tourist attractions and are not blatant reminders of the murdered and missing.
Writing this novel was an ambitious but successful undertaking. Siré wanted Luscano, which “is an amalgam of Uruguay, Argentina and Chile in miniature,” to be a stage where readers witness – and contemplate – the self-inflicted atrocities of humanity. Even so, the scenic beauty of Luscano is graphically depicted. Siré even invents a history for Luscano, one that parallels the bloody and tumultuous histories of the region. Importantly, Agustini’s poem, placed strategically at the end of the narrative, urges readers to “Turn out the lights and behold things beautiful; / Close all doors and enter illusion.” When the lights are out our vision turns inward, to our inner selves. What do we then see? But there are also those who turn out the lights to avoid seeing at all.
Siré’s omniscient narrator is effective for the novel’s purpose. For the narrative to achieve its impact, it’s essential that we be privy to the thoughts of the more important characters, observe the games they play with themselves, and discover what they are afraid to reveal. But the most enthralling sections of the novel are those where Alma speaks in her own voice. This reviewer wonders whether the discrete sections on Agustini – interesting to read in themselves – wouldn’t have been more effectively integrated into Alma’s own story.
This is a richly textured novel that reflects extensive knowledge of the performing and visual arts. Siré’s creation of ambiance is impressive.”