A love story about a young man who chases a girl around the world, José Castro Urioste’s “And What Have You Done?” sounds like a cheesy romance yet turns out to be much more when cutesy moments give way to interactions between characters more infatuated and lustful than in love. Urioste, a Chicago resident and Latin American Literature professor at Purdue University Calumet, captures the devil-may-care attitude of his sexually obsessed protagonist with abundant humor and—though bordering on the overly vulgar at times—his descriptions of romantic and sexual relationships have something very real about them, especially the melancholy commentary the narrator, Tito, uses to describe events after the fact. Urioste refreshingly depicts the insecurities and perversities of characters we cannot help but like, especially since he is writing in a genre where far too often it seems that every character is either a saint or a devil in disguise. By creating characters who are a mix of both good and bad, Urioste recognizes that people who fall in love are not always nice people and not always nice to each other, adding a rich moral ambiguity to his story.
That ambiguity leads to incredulity when it comes to the children, however. Although Urioste skillfully sketches sophisticated and depraved characters, he is—at least in this story—less adept at describing childhood innocence. Yes, there are mean children in this world, but the kinds of sexual and violent experiences in Tito’s childhood seem unlikely for a child. Tito’s “first sexual experience” is ridiculous and requires his narrator to be a thoroughly sexualized being at the age of six.
Nevertheless, Urioste’s engaging narrative style and the compelling perspective of his narrator adds color to a story that deals with classic themes like war, love, and death with sincerity rather than triteness. A Peruvian, Urioste addresses the political problems in his native country with humor and grace, and captures the emotional impact that such events have on the Peruvian people. He addresses how guilt and blame destroy friendships poignantly, and his descriptions of how characters respond to death is right-on-the-mark. The stream-of-conscious narrative can be confusing at times, mostly due to a lack of punctuation, but generally speaking, it is very effective—a marvelous hodgepodge of dialogue, thoughts, and descriptions that seems like the stuff of life. The combination of Spanish, slang and poetic discourse in Enrica Ardemagni’s translation preserves the sense of place in the story, and also gives the reader unique insight into the way the narrator and the other characters see the world. A memory story about a man recalling the major events in his life, the book sheds light on the way we remember, and gives insight into how stories “end” in real life. (Ilana Kowarski)
“And What Have You Done?”
By José Castro Urioste, translated by Enrica J. Ardemagni
Latin American Literary Review Press, 109 pages, $13