The heart of Latin America's rich reality

March 23, 1994|By Andres Oppenheimer | Andres Oppenheimer,Knight-Ridder News Service

A Latin American friend who is not too keen on the United States likes to ask me every time he visits here how I can live in a country where the coffee is not coffee, the milk is not milk, the sugar is not sugar -- where almost every foodstuff carries a label saying that it is not what it is supposed to be. How can you live in a place where nothing is real? he asks.

I was reminded of his tirades when I read Alma Guillermoprieto's "The Heart that Bleeds: Latin America Now," a powerful collage of articles on recent events in various Latin American countries. Life in Latin America is often sadder, more violent and less predictable than in the United States, but things -- from foodstuffs to human emotions -- have a richness and intensity that keep its people in a state of permanent excitement and continue to seduce visitors. Things may be bad, but no one will dispute that they are -- to use my friend's words -- "real."

Ms. Guillermoprieto's book, a collection of 11 articles that appeared in The New Yorker between 1989 and 1993, is a literary gem. Its reports from Bogota, Mexico City, Buenos Aires, Panama City and Rio de Janeiro bring to life what the author describes as her own obsessions: "violence, inequality, survival, the faithlessness of politicians, and the faithful stubbornness with which people seek to believe."

Readers who closely follow Latin American affairs will not find surprising revelations in "The Heart that Bleeds." But those wanting a feel for the spirit of Latin America or what lies behind the headlines will hardly find more vivid accounts of the region's recent history.

Ms. Guillermoprieto, a Mexican-born writer who has long worked for U.S. media, is at her best when she analyzes a country's mega-problems beginning from a microscopic look into a seemingly minor issue.

In the 1989 account of Colombia's drug wars that opens the book, she introduces us to the ways in which Colombians have learned to live with terrorism: "Among the few people to have benefited from the current face-off between the government and the cocaine traffickers are Bogota's windowpane fitters."

We meet Carlos Lopez, one of the men who install windows after buildings have been damaged by car bombs set off by the Medellin drug cartel.

He explains: "Every morning, we turn on the radio and wait for the announcement. And then, when we hear it, we go, 'Bomb explosion! Let's go to work!' And we set out for whatever address they give on the newscast." Mr. Lopez, we are told, was almost euphoric after that morning's series of bomb blasts "as he saw himself surrounded by buildings full of business potential."

In a 1992 report about Mexico's fears of U.S. cultural penetration as it approached an era of free trade with the United States, we are introduced to the ranchera music Mexicans love to sing and to its peculiar place in the Mexican psyche.

"Mexicans know that a party has been outstandingly successful if at the end of it there are at least a couple of clusters of longtime or first-time acquaintances leaning on each other against a wall, sobbing helplessly," the story begins.

Mexican rancheras are changing with the onslaught of U.S. rock music, but the form is not dying. An updated style "is proof of the fact that the ranchera has changed as much as Mexico has, and that in doing so it has survived," she writes, in a metaphor that applies to Mexico's culture as a whole.

In a fascinating dispatch from Rio de Janeiro, Ms. Guillermoprieto interweaves the story of President Fernando Collor de Mello's scandal-ridden fall from grace with an account of the simultaneous murder scandal involving two of Brazil's most popular soap opera actors. She takes us into the world of the telenovelas that keep millions hooked to the box every night in a country that has more television sets than refrigerators. It is as if one could only understand Mr. Collor de Mello's downfall by keeping abreast of the story lines of the soap operas on which the nation's mood rises and falls.

One of the few shortcomings of the book -- aside from its melodramatic title -- is the absence of a final chapter putting Ms. Guillermoprieto's observations into perspective. The book almost cries out for a conclusion on where she believes Latin America is heading, culturally and politically. Such an addition would have been enlightening and would have given this book a much larger dimension.

Still, "The Heart that Bleeds" is a wonderfully written collection of dispatches that capture the richness and intensity of Latin America's reality.

BOOK REVIEW

Title: "The Heart That Bleeds: Latin America Now"

Author: Alma Guillermoprieto

Publisher: Knopf

Length, price: 345 pages, $24

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