By Roy Kesey
(Jonathan Cape, £12.99 stg, H/B)
A pacazo is ‘an uncommonly large iguana, native to the environs of Piura, NW Peru’. John Segovia is an uncommonly large, 35-year-old Californian historian living in Piura, NW Peru. It is 1997, and he went there four years ago for his doctoral research on Peruvian history, and the horrors of the conquistadors – there is a vague family myth that he might be descended from a settler with whom he shares a name – but has not yet completed. Something of an eternal postgrad slacker, he instead teaches English language at the town’s university, his position there more tenuous than tenured, his visa status problematic. Given his bulk, and apparent ugliness, he identifies with the titular reptile. However, as the word can also define ‘a petty, bitter, local god who hates fat pale pillaging strangers’, he is also repelled by it – not least because in his first year on campus one defecated on his head from the branch of a tree he was walking under on his way to work, and it took weeks before he smelled good enough again for his students to approach him. So, self-loathing is much in the air.
He has bigger problems, however, and greater reasons to hate himself. Ten months previously, his young wife, Pilar, has been raped, beaten and left for dead in the desert, dying of heatstroke later after wandering in the wrong direction. Segovia blames himself. So do his in-laws. And so he is left to care for their infant daughter, Mariangel, who was only four weeks old when the murder took place.
The local police, venal and corrupt, have given up on the case, and so Segovia searches obsessively for clues and for his suspected perpetrator, a taxi driver. In his time off, he scours the desert where Pilar’s body was found, accumulating dubious ‘evidence’. Otherwise, he visits prostitute ‘Jenny’ occasionally, and gets into trouble continually picking on the wrong people in the street, dark young men he mistakes for the culprit.
When the floods of El Nino arrive, destroying his horde, it seems like a sign that it is time to move on. He begins socialising with his university colleagues again, even finding a new love in Karina. Then, when another woman who resembles his deceased wife is found raped and murdered in similar circumstances, and then two more, he goes into full maniacal mode again, even to the point of indulging in an episode of bodysnatching. The dénouement is disturbing, but not altogether surprising.
Written in the present tense, foremost among Kesey’s stylistic ticks are unsignposted time shifts between Segovia’s current surroundings and scenes from Peruvian history, usually occurring mid-sentence. This imbues the prose with a dream-like quality, but also casts Segovia as an unreliable narrator. So lost is he in his interior thoughts and reflections, he doesn’t always see clearly what is going on around him. In general, the writing is beautifully cadenced, recalling the arresting simplicity of William Carlos Williams. The novel is also good on depicting academic disillusionment (but under the weight of such personal tragedy, what field of professional endeavour would not appear somewhat vacuous?), and the quotidian hassles of expatriate life.
Pacazo is Kesey’s first full-length novel, after a novella, Nothing In The World, a short story collection, All Over, and a travel guide to the Chinese city of Nanjing. At over 500 pages, it is longer than it needs to be, suggesting that maybe shorter forms suit him better. The repeated scenes of checking taxi license plates, and missing intercity buses, tend to tire fourth time around. Also, having set the story up with a noirish element, it does seem like cheating the reader to suspend the ‘investigation’ plot for most of the book. But, then again, given the quality of the writing, it would be a brave editor who would decide what to leave out.
Besides, Pacazo isn’t really a whodunit at all. It is a study of overpowering grief, remorse and anger, and incidentally the bemusements of first-time fatherhood. On those terms, it deserves to be read, even if it does wear out its welcome.
First published in The Sunday Independent.