Man Versus Nature

Luis Sepúlveda has always lived on the edge. As a student, he was politically active and has even held government positions during the term of President Salvador Allende. However, his halcyon days saw their end when President Allende was overthrown by General Augusto Pinochet. Sepúlveda got arrested and tortured but through the intervention of Amnesty International (AI), he was put under house arrest. However, nothing was stopping him from being part of the underground movement. He would again be arrested but now for a heavier offense of treason, for which the government has meted him a life sentence. His sentence was reduced, again with the intervention of the AI. When the opportunity presented itself, he escaped from Chile and lived in different South American nations while staying active as a journalist and political activist.

While his younger years were marked by his activism, Sepúlveda was also a prolific writer. His capabilities as a writer have always been evident even when he was younger. His first book, a short story collection titled Crónica de Pedro Nadie (Chronicle of Pedro Nobody), was published in 1969 when he was in his early twenties. It was critically received but it was until he lived as an exile did he focus on his literary career. He achieved global recognition for his prose with the publication of his novel, Un viejo que leía novelas de amor in 1989. It was later translated into English by Peter Bush in 1992 and was published with the title The Old Man Who Read Love Stories.

The titular old man is Antonio José Bolívar Proaño, a widower who, for over four decades, has lived in El Idilio, a small Ecuadorian village lying on the peripheries of the Amazonian jungle and on the banks of the Nangaritza River. It was so remote that it can only be accessed through the river. There were a couple of settlers but, with the exception of adventurers, hunters, and gold prospectors, no one else dare visit the village. The central government barely cared about the village they sent a mayor rumored to be “sent to this backwater in the east as punishment for embezzling funds.” Twice a year, a dentist, Dr. Rubicundo Loachamin, travels to the village to pull teeth and provide dentures.

“He spent the whole of the rainy season brooding on his unhappy plight as a frustrated reader, and for the first time in his life knew what it was to be pursued by the beast of solitude. A cunning beast. If he relaxed for a moment, it pounced on his voice and subjected him to long lectures that hungered for an audience.”

~ Luis Sepúlveda, The Old Man Who Reads Love Stories

The relative peace that the village experience was disrupted by the arrival of a corpse of a gringo. He was transported to the village by two natives, the Shuar Indians. They found him upriver and traveled for two days. The mayor immediately accused the Shuars of killing the man using a machete and stealing his belongings. Antonio José Bolívar, present at the quay when the Shuars arrived, immediately intervened. Examining the wounds and smelling the putrid stench that overlaid the smell of a decaying body was enough for him to identify who the culprit was: a she-cat, a female ocelot. Among the gringo’s belongings were found the skins of young ocelots, pieces of evidence that further incriminated him.

When another dead body floated to the village bearing the same marks, it was clear that danger was imminent and getting closer. The ocelot, having tasted blood, was out for more and was slowly inching towards the village. There was no option left but to call for an expedition to hunt down the ocelot and prevent more deaths. Despite their differences, the mayor was cognizant that Antonio José Bolívar was the perfect candidate to lead the expedition party. He was a former hunter and he had an intimate knowledge of the area, having lived with and learned from the Shuar Indians. He was reluctant at first but eventually agreed.

In the novel, we read of the classic man versus nature trope. It underscored several ugly realities many of us have already realized. Through the story of Antonio José Bolívar and the ocelot, we witness how the encroachment of the outside world threatens the jungle and the wilderness – its flora and fauna. For the wrong reasons, people were invited to settle in the jungle and establish small communities, with the promise of wealth. Across the globe, more and more acreage of virginal rainforests were leveled in exchange for what the capitalists have sugarcoated as “development”. Their definition of development, unfortunately, comes at a price and the destruction of the wilderness is what we like to call collateral damage, a small price to pay for our “future.”

Industrialization, aka capitalism, has also pushed back many natives, as was depicted in the novel. Shuar Indians, whom the author himself has spent time with, were pushed further back into the jungle as more settlers arrived, “drawn by promises of future in cattle and timber.” The arrival of the gringos also disrupted the harmony of the environment as they introduced elements and items that were dangerous to the environment such as dynamites, guns, and alcohol. Unregulated and indiscriminate hunting has also become commonplace. The wild animals, like the Shuar Indians, were also left no recourse but to backtrack into the depths of the forest.

“A series of gullies led him to an area of lush vegetation, inhabited by wasps and the hives of worker bees, splashed everywhere with bird droppings. As soon as he entered this dense forest, a silence descended that lasted several hours, until the birds grew accustomed to his presence.”

~ Luis Sepúlveda, The Old Man Who Reads Love Stories

Throughout history, we can see how nature, when pushed to the brink, strikes back. Unregulated industrialization caused massive deforestation and pollution. Climate change and global warming have become ubiquitous. We see all the signs everywhere. Hurricanes and typhoons have become stronger than ever, with some of the strongest and most destructive recorded in the past two decades. The ice caps in both poles have been melting at an alarmingly quick pace. Floodings and storm surges have become more common and more destructive. What was most appalling was the lukewarm response from many governments and big corporations. Recently, the news of arrests of scientists calling for a scientific approach to addressing global warming was all over the news. This enraged environmental activists and the common individual.

Looming large in the narrative was Antonio José Bolívar. He was not originally from the area. He was from the village of San Luis, another mountain village near the Imbabura Volcano. When he was fifteen years old, he married his childhood friend, Dolores Encarnacion del Santisimo Sacramento Estupinan Otavalo. The young couple left their village and traveled to El Idilio because they were also drawn to the promise of a good future. But this promise soon dimmed when Dolores perished due to malaria. Following her death, Antonio José Bolívar lived among the Shuar Indians from whom he learned the art of hunting and how to survive the wilderness.

One interesting facet of Antonio José Bolívar’s personality that seemingly went against his nature was his fascination for love stories, hence, the book’s title. Through the dentist, he was supplied with new love stories. He cannot write but he can read and, in his isolation, these love stories kept him company. As the world outside his home was descending into inevitable chaos, he lost himself in love stories, but not of the rosy or hopeful kind. Rather, he immersed himself in the pain and anguish of doomed love stories. In this shared pain, the books acted as valium that help him forget about the atrocities of humankind and of his own heartaches.

With Sepúlveda’s masterful writing, love stories took many different shapes. They also influence us in different ways. The love of money, for instance, corrupts many of us. We are easily blinded by shimmering gold. But then, there are still among us the pure ones. In the Shuar Indians, we see profound respect for nature. This made them live in harmony with nature. But there is also that fierce kind of love that has the power to transform us; the transformation can either be for the worse or for the better. This kind of love was portrayed through the ocelot; we see in her the powerful love of a wife for her husband, of a mother for her children. Her story was also a reflection of Antonio José Bolívar’s own heartbreaks.

The American was lying a few yards further on. The ants had done a magnificent job, leaving their bones as smooth as plaster. The American’s skeleton was receiving the last attention of the ants. They were carrying away his straw-colored hair strand by strand, like tiny women woodcutters felling coppery trees, to strengthen the entrance tunnel to their anthill.

~ Luis Sepúlveda, The Old Man Who Reads Love Stories

The story was fraught with symbolism. The mayor was the embodiment of moral corruption. He was generally disliked and was called Slimy Toad behind his back. He also levied unreasonable taxes, beat his native wife, and managed his own beer supply. He also viewed the natives with disdain. Meanwhile, the gringos were allegories for the capitalists and big corporations who, like the mayor, were not bound by any moral conduct. They barge into uncharted territories because they were seduced by the promises of financial gains. Through the arrival of the gringos, the novel subtly underscored the region’s history of colonialism. The ocelot, on the other hand, was the manifestation of mother nature.

The story was straightforward and real, refusing to romanticize the jungle and life in the wilderness: “Life in the jungle tempered every inch of his body. He acquired feline muscles that hardened with the passage of time. He knew the jungle as well as a Shuar. He could track as well as a Shuar. He swam as well as a Shuar. In short, he was like them, and yet was not one of them.” In little over 100 pages, Sepúlveda was able to grapple with several seminal subjects and themes that transcend time. The book found power in its simplicity but despite its simplicity, the Amazon came alive with Sepúlveda’s descriptive prose. He was also able to capture the atmosphere.

Man versus Man. Man versus Nature. Nature versus Nature. Man versus himself. The novel abounded with conflicts. But in these conflicts, Sepúlveda captured something more profound. Despite being published in 1989, The Old Man Who Reads Love Stories resonates into the present because of the power of the message it holds. With the plethora of ecological subjects and themes it has explored, the novel turned into a microcosm depicting a growing global concern that has been hounding us in the past decades. Deservingly the winner of the Premio Tigre Juan (Tiger Juan Award), the novel vividly captured the intertwined destiny of people and nature while underscoring the dangers of unregulated development.

It’s your own death disguising itself so as to take you by surprise. If it’s doing that, it’s because your time to leave hasn’t yet come. Hunt it out.

~ Luis Sepúlveda, The Old Man Who Reads Love Stories
Ratings

85%

Characters (30%) – 25%
Plot (30%) – 
23%
Writing (25%) – 
22%
Overall Impact (15%) – 
15%

When I hosted my first Latin American reading month, I wasn’t expecting Chilean writers to captivate me. Yes, I have become a fan of Isabel Allende because of her debut novel but it did not prepare me for the magnificent reading experiences that her countrymen gave me. All of the Chilean writers who were part of the aforementioned journey – Roberto Bolaño, Jose Donoso, Alejandro Zambra, and now, Luis Sepúlveda – stood out. They all stood out in different ways because of the variety of subjects they dealt with. In Sepúlveda’s The Old Man Who Read Love Stories, I read about a seminal and timely subject: ecology and the slow destruction of nature because of our insatiable appetite and erroneous interpretation of the word development. The book transported me to places I never expected I’d find myself in, the Amazon. But while it was local in many ways, its profound and powerful messages resonate on a global scale. In a way, the book made me understand my place in this world. It was a slender book but it was packed with hard-punching realities. We need mother nature but mother nature also needs us.

Book Specs

Author: Luis Sepúlveda
Translator (from Spanish): Peter Bush
Publisher: Harcourt Brace
Publishing Date: 1993
Number of Pages: 131
Genre: Ecofiction

Synopsis

An aging widower lives quietly in a river town in the rain-soaked Ecuadoran jungle where, increasingly, tourists and opportunists have begun to make inroads. He takes refuge in his books – paperback novels of faraway places and bittersweet love.

But a trader pushes nature too far, setting a mother ocelot on a bloody rampage through the village. The old man, a hunter who once lived among the Indians and knows the jungle better than anyone, is pulled from his peaceful life when he is pressured to join the expedition that will hunt down the animal.

An enchanting tale of adventure and personal honor.

About the Author

Luis Sepúlveda Calfucura was born on October 4, 1949, in Ovalle, Limari Province, Chile to José Sepúlveda, a militant of the Chilean Communist Party; and Irma Calfucura, a nurse. Sepúlveda studied in the capital, taking up theater production at the National University of Chile where he was politically active. During the Allende administration, he served under the department of cultural affairs and also acted as a mediator between the government and Chilean companies. However, following Allende’s overthrow by General Pinochet, Sepúlveda was imprisoned but released with the assistance of Amnesty International. He would be arrested again with charges of treason but he managed to flee in 1977. What ensued was a peripatetic life, transferring from one country to another, until he was granted political asylum in 1980 by the German government.

Sepúlveda published his first book, Crónica de Pedro Nadie (Chronicle of Pedro Nobody), a short story collection, in 1969. While in exile, he kept on writing and publishing works that spanned different genres such as crime stories, short stories, travelogues, and children’s stories. His works include Los miedos, las vidas, las muertes y otras alucinaciones (Fears, Lives, Deaths, and other Hallucinations, 1986), and Cuaderno de viaje (The Travelogue, 1987). His 1989 book, Mundo del fin del mundo (The World at the End of the World) won him the Premio Juan Chabás for Short Fiction. He achieved global acclaim with the publication of Un viejo que leía novelas de amor (The Old Man Who Read Love Stories, 1989). It earned him the Premio Tigre Juan, a literary award for ecological issues.

His latter works include Nombre de torero (Name of the Torrero, 1994), Diario de un killer sentimental (The Diary of a Sentimental Killer, 1998), Hot line (2002), and La sombra de lo que fuimos (The Shadow of What We Were, 2009). His works also have appeared in a score of international journals and newspapers including Le Monde Diplomatique. For his works, he received different awards such as the Premio France Culture Etrangêre (1992), Premio Terra (1997), and the Premio de la Crítica en Chile (2001). He also worked as a director and screenplay writer for different films, including the adaptation of his novel, The Old Man Who Read Love Stories (2001).

Sepúlveda passed away on April 16, 2020, after being infected with COVID19.