(Reviewed by Mary Whipple AUG 12, 2007)
"If the program that runs the universe were mathematical, there would be a primary algorithm from which the rest would be derived. If the program were computational, there would be three or four lines of code that could explain the tides and the leopard's spots and the wide variety of languages and the movements of your right hand…[Eventually], you ponder the question and ask yourself, 'What is the meaning of wondering about meaning?'"
Dense with ideas and complex in its plots, Turing's Delirium confronts the issues of globalization and the conflicts generated by a perpetual underclass. Within a thriller set in Rio Fugitivo, Bolovia, author Edmundo Paz Soldan, described by Mario Vargas Llosa as "one of the most important Latin American writers of the new generation," brings social unrest to life in this Third World country. Though young intellectuals have always relied on strikes, demonstrations, and indigenous riots by miners, coca growers, and other laborers to emphasize their grievances—and do so here, too—they now have a new weapon, the computer. Now it is possible for the resistance and revolution to be conducted in cyberspace, and hackers are the front line in the waging of the new war. Their older governmental opponents rely on their historical experience as cryptanalysts and code-breakers to try to protect their files and maintain their security—along with their control of the government--while the hackers rely on ingenuity and their knowledge of the newest computer coding.
Several plot lines develop simultaneously here: The main character, Miguel Saenz, also known as Turing, was nationally famous in the 1970s as a code-breaker, but he is now in charge of the archives of the Black Chamber, the Bolivian security agency. He has recently received a coded message which was hacked into his own computer, "Murderer, your hands are stained with blood."
Trained by the elderly Albert, "the spirit of cryptanalysis," who is now retired and dying in hospital, Turing works for Ramirez-Graham, an American-born Bolivian recruited by the vice-president of Bolivia to modernize the Black Chamber. The President of Bolivia, Montenegro, a former dictator, has recently been democratically elected, but he is in trouble politically. Tremendous unrest has resulted from the President's decision to give the national contract for electricity to Globalux, an Italian and American consortium, which has raised prices and angered the general population.
A local judge, Judge Cardona, wanting to avenge the suspicious death of his cousin Mirtha, a woman he adored, intends to put President Montenegro on trial as soon as Montenegro returns to civilian life, but he also wants to incriminate people like Turing and his wife Ruth, another cryptanalyst, for their roles in supporting Montenegro. A reclusive man covered with red spots and addicted to "Bolivian Marching Powder," Cardona lurks in shadows, motivated by his own hatred.
The chief hacker into the governments systems is Kandinsky, a young expert in creating viruses. Like many of the young people involved in the resistance, including Turing's daughter Flavia, one of the most active members, Kandinsky participates in the virtual "game" of Playground, in which young hackers try out techniques for conquering the enemy, recruit others who share their ideas, and try on other identities, always careful to keep their real identities secret. The fact that virtual reality is "virtually" identical to "real" reality is one of the keystones of the novel.
As the various characters are developed and their backgrounds and relationships are shared with the reader, the several plot lines begin to swirl together and become increasingly complex. Simultaneously, the author also explores more complex metaphysical ideas--the nature of reality as opposed to virtual reality, the mechanisms of thought, concepts governing identity, and guiding principles of the universe.
Stylistically, Paz Soldan is a magician, keeping at least three or four different plot lines going at the same time, developing characters and their relationships, and exploring philosophical ideas. Turing, for whom the author uses the second person point of view to reveal thoughts, proves to be a different character depending on who is considering him, and whether or not he is a reliable focus for the novel is always an open question for the reader. Albert, the father of cryptanalysis and Turing's mentor, serves as a constant refrain, as he, delirious, reminisces about his life and past lives throughout the novel. As murders mount in number, the reader must ask whether Kandinsky is a "good" person or not, whether Turing's motives are "pure," whether Turing's daughter Flavia is following a "thoughtful" path to solving the problems of Rio Fugitivo, whether Judge Cardona is an avenging angel or a vengeful criminal, and whether the problems of the country can ever be solved.
The novel is dense and philosophical in many places, but it rewards careful reading. Not the typical thriller, it requires the reader to think as the narrative evolves and as the themes are revealed. Lacking a main character with whom the reader can fully identify, the novel may keep some readers at a distance, appreciating the author's skill and his well-developed ideas while regretting their inability to become more fully involved with the characters and action. Paz Soldan provides a vibrant picture of life in Rio Fugitivo, however. An acclaimed member of the McOndo Movement, which is Latin America's pragmatic answer to the magical realists, he leaves the reader wondering about the universal meaning of "progress" and its particilar meaning in places like Rio Fugitivo. (Translated by Lisa Carter.)
- Amazon readers rating: from 6 reviews
Read a chapter excerpt from Turing's Delirium at MostlyFiction.com
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Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)
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- Cornell page on José Edmundo Paz-Soldán
- Houghton Mifflin interview with Edmund Paz Soldán
- MostlyFiction review of The Matter of Desire
- Complete Review on Turing's Delirium
- The Age.com review of Turing's Delirium
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About the Author:
Edmundo Paz Soldán is the author of six novels and two short story collections. He has won the National Book Award in Bolivia, the prestigious Juan Rulfo Award, and was a finalist for the Romulo Gállegos Award. One of the few McOndo writers who live in the United States, he is frequently called upon as the movement’s spokesperson by the American media. The Matter of Desire is his first work to be translated into English.
He is an assistant professor at Cornell University in New York City.