The Blue Hour

Alonso Cueto is a Peruvian writer who, on the evidence of The Blue Hour, remains strangely unavailable in English. The novel had already won the Premio Herralde (for the best original novel in the Spanish Language) in 2006, and its translation by Frank Wynne went on be shortlisted for the 2013 Oxford-Weidenfeld Translation Prize; despite this, The Blue Hour stubbornly retains its position as Cueto’s only novel to have been translated.

This is surprising because it is both accessible and readable, with the page turning power of a thriller, and an opening gambit that has been used by many a Hollywood movie. It may, in its subject matter, be facing up to Peru’s past – in particular the conflict between the government and the Shining Path in Ayacucho during the 1980s – but an extensive knowledge of, or even interest in, Latin American history is not necessary for thorough involvement in the narrative. It begins with that time-honoured trope of the man who has it all until he discovers something unexpected about who he really is… Adrian Ormache is a wealthy lawyer with a beautiful wife, a beautiful house, and two beautiful daughters:

“I remember back then a friend telling me that every time he saw me I looked happier.”

Brought up largely by his mother – who divorces when he is a child – he gives his father little thought:

“And so for many years I lived with the certainty that my father had been in Ayacucho in the early eighties waging war against the communist terrorists of Sendero Luminoso, that he had done something to defend our country and that, for this, we owed him our respect.”

Only after his mother’s death, with his father already dead, does he discover more about that time from his brother:

“Shit, I don’t know, you probably know all this stuff already, but the old man sometimes had to kill terrorists. But he didn’t just kill them right off. The men, well, he’d have them worked over…to make them talk. And the women, well, you know, sometimes he’d fuck the women and sometimes he’d let the rest of the troops fuck them before he put a bullet in their heads.”

One of the women, his brother tells him, escaped, and suddenly his father’s last words to him – “There’s a girl, a woman I knew a long time ago…I don’t know, maybe you can find her” – begin to make sense. With only her name, Miriam, as a starting point, Ormache begins to hunt for the woman. This is where the novel exercise its grip: both in the search, and in the effect this begins to have on Ormache and his relationship with his family.

This attempt to find the hidden side of his father’s life also brings him into contact with a side of his own country which has been hidden from him. It takes him, for example, into the less desirable districts of Lima:

“We passed houses of cement block and iron bars, a beauty salon and in the window a hairdresser setting a woman’s hair in rollers, a pack of drowsy dogs, children squatting in the dirt playing marbles.”

Eventually, he visits Ayacucho, missing a family holiday in the Caribbean to do so. A woman he meets there tells him:

“The people round here aren’t like people elsewhere… Nobody here believes that life is a normal state. Here, they know that life is a shadow.”

She points to a boy washing dishes:

“He might only be a few feet from you, but right now the distance between you is greater than the distance between the earth and the sun.”

This lack of understanding applies not only to the people who live there but to his father:

“Not that I could understand them, I would never really know them. Nor could I understand the soldiers, not my father, not Guayo or Chacho.”

The novel, of course, also raises questions of how far we are responsible for the sins of our fathers’. This is not foremost in Ormache’s mind – he has always felt distant from his father – but a friend insists, “We’re all responsible for our parents’ sins, and our children’s too.” It might feel easy to dismiss this sentiment as irrational, but, as the novel demonstrates, the children of those sinned against must carry that burden.

I raced through The Blue Hour, finding it hard to put down at times, though this meant that the relatively unshowy ending was initially disappointing, if realistic, seeming somehow to underline a bleaker message while attempting to leave the reader smiling. If you’re looking for a riveting summer read, though, you could do a lot worse.

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8 Responses to “The Blue Hour”

  1. winstonsdad Says:

    Agree surprised there isn’t more from him in pipeline I preferred this to red April both about similar time in Peru

  2. tonymess12 Says:

    This common problem we come across, an accessible (or interesting) writer & limited translations available- I have a couple of reference books about South American writers & I find it very frustrating to find the limited translations available.

    Nice review Grant.

    • 1streading Says:

      Thanks.
      I suppose I always assume if a writer isn’t translated they’re too ‘difficult’ or too ‘local’ – neither seems to be the case with Cueto. I suspect translation is a much more irrational business than I realise!

  3. JacquiWine Says:

    I recall reading a review of this a few years ago (possibly on Stu’s blog) and thinking it sounded really interesting, a view confirmed by your excellent precis of the book. The premise reminds me a little of Juan Gabriel Vasquez’s novel The Informers. There are differences for sure, but even so I couldn’t help but be reminded of it.

    • 1streading Says:

      That’s a good call – both are about facing up to the guilt of the past. I also think that if you liked The Informers you’d probably like this.

  4. Max Cairnduff Says:

    I’m a bit late to this post, but it does sound very good. Hopefully this will succeed enough for some others to be translated.

    • 1streading Says:

      I was a bit late reading it as well but I’d like to see more of his work translated. There are some writers where you can almost understand the lack of translation but when they are very ‘readable’ it’s a puzzle.

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