Review by Joey Madia
For the past three years, as part of my work as a Chautauquan and historical education specialist, I have portrayed Ernesto “Che” Guevara, one of the key personalities in the Cuban revolution led by Fidel Castro in the late 1950s. Much has been made of Che—to some a hero/Messiah-like savior and to others a heartless mass murderer. He is admittedly complex.
As are all who choose the life of the revolutionary.
This is the core subject matter of Alejandro’s Lie. Taking place in a fictitious country called Terreno (meaning “ground”) in 1983, which has suffered a military takeover (junta) and now dictatorship by General Pelaron (meaning “to skin an animal”), the book explores the motivations of both those on the side of the general and those fighting against him. Although the book is rife with political complexities, it is primarily a character study.
The main characters in this drama are the Alejandro of the title, who is a former guitarist for a popular folk group destroyed for their political activist songs. The lead singer of the group, the Bob Dylan–esque Victor, is a spectre that haunts Alejandro throughout the novel, having been the reason for one of Alejandro’s (many) lies.
When the authorities let Alejandro out of a hellish prison called The Last Supper after a decade, he returns to the capital, Valtiago. The victim of psychological and physical torture, and burdened with his many lies, he tries to find his way amid the rest of the cast, including a troubled priest named Rene Lafarge and a woman named Beatrice with a violent husband involved in the dirty work of Pelaron’s regime. Her father, dying in a hospital, is a powerful, wealthy man in his own right.
Identity is central to Alejandro’s Lie, both concretely and psychologically. Some pretend to be other people. Others lock away entire early chapters of their lives. Some convince others, through violence and brainwashing, that they are someone else. In the second half of the book, Van Laerhoven takes this further with physical masks that various characters wear. In the case of Beatrice, it is difficult to have an identity of your own when your father and husband have subverted your personality and functionality in service to their own agendas. What the characters will do to forge and find their identities is the core thematic work of this beautifully written, excellently paced novel.
I have chosen to title this review “A Hundred Horrible Lies” because, although one of Alejandro’s lies is central to the plot, all of the characters have them. Each is hurtful in its own unique way, like the various devices in a torture chamber. The characters strive to find camaraderie in the common cause, alcohol, and sex. The way that touch and physical/psychic contact harms them like the application of battery clamps to the body reminds me of the characters in the plays of American Pulitzer Prize–winner Sam Shepard. Their pain is constant, spreading ever outward like a contagion, enveloping the innocents the revolutionaries are attempting to save.
The plot becomes increasingly complex as Van Laerhoven introduces us to two half-cocked revolutionaries, Christobal and Joao, who are planning an attack on the general.
As a writer and reader of historical fiction and nonfiction, I am often astounded by how human flaws get in the way of better outcomes for the history that is being enacted. From jealousy to libido, from greed to paranoia, it is the humanness of the players that truly inscribes the drama on the dense surface of history. This is what got me interested in history decades ago and why I have made it the canvas on which I paint the majority of the stories I choose to tell.
In conjunction with this, a writer of historical fiction dances between the micro and macro. The macro story (what we call the A story) in the case of Alejandro’s Lie is the junta and what it is doing to the country and its people. On the macro level, there is the international—Nixon supports the junta because General Pelaron is anti-Communist and has borrowed massive amounts of money from the United States “on the people’s behalf.” This situation has played out numerous times in Central America. Nixon was the one who met with Castro during the Cuban leader’s first visit to America after the revolution. Eisenhower hid out elsewhere. Nixon (talk about flaws) found Castro to be arrogant and paranoid and definitely a Communist. The first two were of course true on some level, but mostly reflections of Nixon’s own psyche. The third was an untruth that became a truth when the United States refused to work with Cuba, leaving Castro with little choice but to get into bed with the very eager Russians.
On the micro level of Alejandro’s Lie, all of the aforementioned characters on the side of justice and some characters who work for the general—Manuel and a torturer named Fitzroy, whose crimes are nearly unspeakable—fall prey to their flaws as the two sides move inexorably closer together as the novel reaches its both surprising and inevitable climax.
Bob Van Laerhoven is a talented storyteller with a gift for structure and character. Alejandro’s Lie—and hundreds of lies within it—weaves a tapestry of events that, given the January 6 Capitol Riots and widening gaps in ideology as the 2022 US mid-term elections approach, is required reading for anyone attempting to understand the micro and macro dynamics underlying human history, and how the simplest songs make a difference when sung by passionate voices.
TITLE: Alejandro’s Lie
AUTHOR: Bob Van Laerhoven
PUBLISHER: Next Chapter, 2021