January 2007

Melissa Albert

fiction

Tales from the Town of Widows and Chronicles from the Land of Men by James Can

In late 1992, a band of guerrilla fighters came to Mariquita, a tiny village in the fold of a Colombian valley, asking for food, money, and soldiers. Getting nothing but scraps, coins, and a single volunteer, they change tactics: “Comrades,” calls their leader, “in the name of the Colombian revolution, take what’s yours!” The guerrillas claim every Mariquitan man over the age of 12, massacring them for resisting or shuffling them out of town at gunpoint. The grieving women that are left behind write pointless appeals to a distant government, and watch as their town degrades to squalor. The husbandless Mariquita is the title town of James Cañón’s Tales from the Town of Widows & Chronicles from the Land of Men. His first novel, it mixes supernatural and allegorical elements into an account of a dying town.

The men that remain consist of four babies, one homosexual (out of Mariquita when the guerrillas came), a transgendered preteen, and a priest. When the men are gone, disorders and madness strike at random. The lonesome, love-hungry maidens of Mariquita whore themselves out to men from adjacent towns, trading tricks for trinkets, chocolates, and love poems. Their “magical whorehouse” is an elusive cluster of white tents that changes location every night to avoid detection, until the night it disappears.

But their problems are bigger than their cold beds. The irrigation system dries up and the market withers. Occasionally the self-styled Magistrate of Mariquita, haughty, big-bottomed Rosalba, will push a new measure through what passes for a legal system (show of hands). Among these is the plan of putting their priest out to stud, hoping to generate a new crop of Mariquitans. Naturally, he’s “sterile as a mule.” Later, a plan to pimp one of the four babies (all grown up) to a lucky Mariquitan girl is foiled by circumstances both supernatural and tragic. They lead to the expulsion of the priest, who takes with him everything he can carry, including the batteries from the town’s last remaining clock.

It is then, on June 23, 2000, that Mariquita steps out of time. One widow measures her days by the blooming of a violet, another by the melting down of candles. Women eat dinner in the morning and the roosters crow at random. Even the skies over Mariquita forget which season to reflect. At this point, when the meager population of Mariquitan men has all but disappeared, Rosalba has her great idea: she creates a communal society, run on female time. Each month becomes a rung, each year a ladder, and the 13 rungs of the ladder bear the names of townspeople and follow the 28 days of a menstrual cycle. Female time runs backward: eliding civil wars, massacres, all the miseries of Colombia’s history. The withered town is rebirthed, by the gentle hands of maids and widows, into a bloodless Communist cell; in its final, Edenic stage, it is a microcosm of the government that their men have likely died for.

Juxtaposed with the mystic, timeless cadence of life in Mariquita are the “chronicles from the land of men,” brief, monologue-style interviews with Colombian fighters recorded by an American journalist (who later makes a brief, but thrilling, visit to Mariquita). These accounts offer an unalloyed view of war from both sides. Though the speakers express little emotion, their stories speak of bitter ironies and wasted lives.

Cañón also displays a gentle, occasionally bawdy, humor. His tale stretches for years, showing the mellowing of grief and the stories that can outlive heartbreak. Mariquita has a precedent in Macondo, the enchanted village of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude -- an influence Cañón recognizes, twice name-checking that novel. But he has more obvious affection for the women of Mariquita; he describes them with frank tenderness, and ages them gently, forgivingly.

The magical whorehouse, the uncanny maladies that afflict without warning, and the lush textures of the town veil the gutting viciousness of war. But while the town resembles a dreamscape, where the running-down of clocks eliminates the divide between night and day, a boy raised among women spontaneously menstruates, and a woman’s eyelids can become hermetically sealed against her sins, its streets and its inhabitants also hold memories of the ruthlessness of revolution. Magic never obscures the filth, the isolation, and the bitterness of a one-sex town’s slow extinction.

Tales from the Town of Widows and Chronicles from the Land of Men by James Cañón
HarperCollins
ISBN: 0061140384
352 Pages