Tales from the Town of Widows

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9780061140389: Tales from the Town of Widows

In the small Colombian mountain village of Mariquita, a band of guerrillas storms in to protest the country's ruling government. They arrive with propaganda and guns, and when they depart they have forcibly recruited all the town's men, leaving behind only a few—the priest and a young, fair-skinned boy disguised as a little girl.

In their wake, Mariquita becomes a sinking wasteland filled with women who quickly resign themselves to food shortages, littered streets, and mourning. Without men, life is hopeless, and getting along, nearly impossible. But, Rosalba viuda de Patiño, wife of the former police sergeant, sees a different fate for the town of widows. She declares herself magistrate and promises to instill law and order while restoring the failing economy and infrastructure. Reluctantly, the women agree to join forces. A utopia emerges, one that ironically resembles the ideal society the guerrilla group claims to promote.

Deft, rich, and darkly humorous, Tales from the Town of Widows is a captivating exploration of gender and sexuality that uses the ongoing conflict in Colombia as a backdrop. It presents a fascinating portrait of ill-fated wives and the war that helped them build a peaceful, equality-based society.

Exquisitely wrought, remarkably original, James Cañón's stunning debut marks the arrival of an unforgettable new literary talent.

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About the Author:

James Cañón was born and raised in Colombia. He moved to New York to study English and later earned his MFA in Creative Writing from Columbia University. Cañón was awarded the 2001 Henfield Prize for Excellence in Fiction. He lives in New York.

From The Washington Post:

Reviewed by Jonathan Kirsch Among the colorful characters who populate James Cañón's first novel is an American reporter who carries a copy of One Hundred Years of Solitude in his backpack, an incidental detail that turns out to be a wink and a nod to the reader. Cañón owes a creative debt to the literary tradition of South American fabulism, as pioneered by Gabriel García Márquez and as more recently practiced by Isabel Allende.

Cañón, born and educated in Colombia and now living and writing in New York, sets his story in a Colombian village in the last decade of the 20th century. Mariquita is a charming backwater that boasts a priest with a congregation of one, a rather more active brothel with 13 bedrooms, a medical doctor and a witch doctor, a constabulary whose officers spend their days playing Parcheesi under a mango tree and an open-air market where "older women under green awnings sold everything from calf's foot jelly to bootleg cassettes of Michael Jackson's Thriller." Then, one day, the men of Mariquita are gone, and the place abruptly turns into "a town of widows in a land of men."

No magic is necessary to explain the disappearance of the menfolk. Rather, when a passing band of guerrillas fails to inspire a single villager to join up, they conscript the entire male population, leaving behind only the hapless priest and the 13-year-old son of his sole congregant, a formidable widow who dresses her son in a frock and hides him among her three daughters. The boy feels so comfortable in his new garb that he resolves to remain a girl. So begins the transformation of Mariquita and the women and children who were left behind, a rollicking and often shocking tale that Cañón tells with charm and bite.

The absence of men poses a number of practical problems, including the fundamental question of how to repopulate the village. The new female magistrate declares a Procreation Campaign, and the priest offers to compromise his vow of chastity for the public good. His encounter with a young virgin, appropriately named Virgelina, is rendered with a blend of eroticism, dark comedy and muted horror. The girl's grandmother teaches her the arts of seduction in seven easy-to-remember steps: "Commend yourself to God and let him do the rest" is Step Six. "I hope that your grandmother considers putting your name down for a second visit," says the selfless priest.

Cañón's enchanting tale is punctuated with first-person accounts by various male voices who testify, sometimes poignantly and sometimes ironically, to the human capacity for brutality. "One thing I've learned in the army is that the less contact you have with your victim, the easier it is to kill him," muses a 32-year-old officer in the Colombian army. "I once let a man talk to me for too long before I shot him, and I still regret it." And the guerrillas, too, are capable of committing rape, mayhem and murder against the people they claim to serve: "You see the two boys over there, just to the right of the burro?" one of the widows asks a newcomer. "The taller one's Trotsky, and the other one's Vietnam. The poor things were forced to witness the killing of their fathers at the hands of the guerrillas."

Male violence rather than magic realism, in fact, is the unsettling subtext of Tales From the Town of Widows, and the occasional moments of atrocity go off like land mines among the more frequent moments of sexual adventure and sexual ambiguity that decorate this otherwise comic account of the rise and fall of a gynocratic utopia. "If not having men around meant that Mariquita had to end with the present generation," argue the widows who condemn the Procreation Creation campaign in favor of bedding down with each other, "perhaps an entire generation of harmony, tolerance and love would be preferable to an eternity of misery and despair -- not to mention war."

Copyright 2007, The Washington Post. All Rights Reserved.

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