January 3, 1999Make Way for Civilization
This picaresque novel takes a dim view of the Spanish conquest of the New World.
By JAY PARINI
ASSAULT ON PARADISE
By Tatiana Lobo.
Translated by Asa Zatz.
297 pp. Willimantic, Conn.:
Curbstone Press. Paper, $15.95.
he picaresque novel trembles to life again in the hands of Tatiana Lobo, a Chilean-born writer who has lived in Costa Rica since 1966. ''Assault on Paradise,'' which won the Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz Prize (given annually at the Guadalajara International Book Fair) in 1995, tracks the fortunes and misfortunes of a wily 18th-century Spaniard by the name of Pedro Albaran -- a classic rogue, or picaro. True to form, he is a disaffected fellow tumbling headlong through life, repelled by all forms of authority, his adventures an implicit challenge to the hypocritical norms of his time.
Lobo attends lovingly to the petty details of life in Spain and Central America in the early 1700's; indeed, her novel bursts with vivid minutiae, from the fleas and lice that keep Pedro awake at night to the damp cacao beans he must accept as payment for his work. Everything is here, from ''cows, sacks of wheat, corn, beans and cacao'' to ''tapers, wineskins, flasks of honey.''
As the novel opens, Pedro is in flight from the forces of the Inquisition, which he has run afoul of after a drunken episode in a tavern in Seville -- one of many hilarious scenes in a book filled with bawdy humor and wryly comic moments. To escape imprisonment, Pedro sails to the New World and winds up in Costa Rica, mostly because it ''had been described to him as a tranquil, underpopulated region with a pleasant climate.'' As he soon discovers, Costa Rica, while underpopulated, is hardly tranquil; indeed, the Spanish rulers of the province are constantly warring, both among themselves and with the native population.
Wisely, Pedro hides himself in a monastery, the last place the Inquisition might look for him. This also allows Lobo to have delicious fun portraying the ill-mannered pack of friars who become Pedro's companions, devoted as they are to ''cardplaying and dice and making advances to women in the confessional.'' To earn a meager living, Pedro finds employment as secretary to an important government official, applying himself assiduously to his work. He also makes friends with a jolly shoemaker called Smiles (a sometime narrator in this otherwise third-person novel), who becomes his mentor and smooths his passage through the tumultuous local scene. Thanks to the shoemaker's efforts, it even looks as if Pedro might slip into the peaceful anonymity he so furiously desires.
With laudable energy, Lobo brings into radiant (often redolent) being the teeming life of the colonial city of Cartago, which provides a typical assortment of corrupt politicians, vain aristocrats, greedy entrepreneurs, unholy clerics and motley unfortunates of the lower orders, whose fates are dealt with crudely and thoughtlessly by those in control. Translated in a workmanlike if occasionally awkward fashion by Asa Zatz, ''Assault on Paradise'' offers a withering portrait of both the Inquisition and the Spanish conquest of the New World, which was famously ruthless in its suppression of native populations.
Yet Pedro, our picaro, cannot even suppress his own roguish self, and before long he gets into huge difficulties. One of the most satisfying strains in the narrative concerns his bizarre alliances with various women, including La Chamberga, an innkeeper from Seville who pursues him to the New World; Agueda, the seductive wife of a powerful army officer who (for a while) is the object of Pedro's unrequited love; a popular local whore called The Mother of Travelers; and -- most important -- a speechless Indian girl whose culture Pedro unwittingly embraces as he draws close to her. It is with her that he fathers his only child, a daughter, and with whom he finds at least a temporary shelter of happiness.
The novel's plot pivots on the central conflict of colonialism: the clash of the dominant culture over the local, which it attempts (with varying degrees of success) to squash. In this case, the native culture is Mayan, and its great defender is an Indian warrior called Presbere, ''a mature man and sedate as a fig tree, his face grave in expression, under the skin the muscles weaving nerves like the cords of a hammock.'' Lobo speaks with unwavering reverence for the Indians and their vibrant mythology, celebrating their profound sense of a sacred world. If anything, she is a bit too reverent about them. Presbere, who is sacrificed in the end, defying the Spaniards to his last courageous breath, seems unreal, excessively noble. Some flaws in his character would have made him more believable and more appealing.
Finally, it is Pedro who most enchants us -- this hapless, canny, unfortunate and desperately human figure who moves from tempest to tempest, losing much along the way but gaining, at long last, a complex sense of himself. In a poignant scene near the close of the book, we encounter him lying sleepless in bed, his daughter in his arms, recollecting his life as ''a sequence of images that was orderly and coherent and, for that reason, vivid and painful.'' It is Tatiana Lobo's impressive accomplishment that she manages to make such memories shimmer with a sense of actual physical presence.
While ''Assault on Paradise'' can be considered a critique of colonialism and its cruelties, it is not only that. For in her portrayal of its feckless hero, Lobo moves her novel well beyond polemic and into the realm of art.
Jay Parini teaches literature at Middlebury College. His most recent books are ''House of Days,'' a volume of poetry, and ''Some Necessary Angels: Essays on Writing and Politics.''
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Fans of "The Bachelor" know Jade Roper (now Tolbert) as a "Wild Mustang" who got sent home in tears on Chris Soules' season, only to find true love with Tanner Tolbert on "Bachelor In Paradise." The pair got married in January, and the reality TV wedding aired on ABC on Valentine's Day, to much fanfare and with a performance by Seal.
On Monday afternoon, inspired by Lady Gaga's performance of "'Til It Happens To You" at The Oscars, Roper tackled a subject much heavier than the usual "Bachelor" chatter. The 29-year-old reality star wrote a powerful blog post opening up about her experience of sexual assault "just shy of [her] 17th birthday," in the hopes that doing so might make other women feel less alone.
"When I saw Gaga fill the whole room with emotion as she sang with conviction and urgency, as I saw survivors of sexual assault bravely stand up there showing the world that what happened to them does matter, tears streamed down my face," wrote Roper. It was this powerful moment that pushed Roper to write about her own story.
Roper's essay describes how she was assaulted after a party in high school by two boys she was friends with. (According to RAINN, 82 percent of sexual assaults are committed by someone the victim knows.)
"I remember one guy holding me down while another got on top of me," she wrote. "When my parents got home, my dad said he found me in my room on the floor in my underwear, mumbling to him I wasn’t innocent anymore. I was a virgin."
She goes on to write about the painful emotional fallout that occurred after the assault.
"I convinced myself I must have deserved it. That this bad thing happened to me because of something I had done," she wrote. "That I wasn’t worth being loved. That I wasn’t worth having sex for the first time with someone who cared about me. All the hurt and the anger I had towards the boys that assaulted me, I took out on myself."
Roper ends her piece by examining the healing process she's undergone over the years, and explaining why she is refusing to stay silent now:
I am not chained to this experience, it doesn’t have to control my life. I am unafraid of the feedback anymore. This happened to me and it matters. I matter. And I am worthy of love. The Lady Gaga performance gave me the courage to speak about my story, a story that’s been trapped inside me for over 12 years. I hope that sharing my experience will help girls and women know that they are not alone. And that you have to voice things in order for things to change. And always always always: You matter.
In addition to posting on Instagram and her blog, Roper also tweeted her story, along with a heart-wrenching still from Lady Gaga's performance.
Lady Gaga responded in kind:
A warrior, indeed.
Head over to Roper's blog, Burn Bright Love, to read her full essay.
Need help? In the U.S., visit the National Sexual Assault Online Hotline operated by RAINN. For more resources, visit the National Sexual Violence Resource Center's website.