Tono the Infallible

The Devil is a recurring presence in Scottish literature – from James Hogg’s The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner to James Robertson’s The Testament of Gideon Mack. Evelio Rosero’s Tono the Infallible (translated by Victor Meadowcroft and Anne McLean) presents us with a Columbian entry into the genre – even its cover echoes one of the many designs to have graced the front of Muriel Spark’s The Ballad of Peckham Rye in which Dougal Douglas boasts of the horns that once grew from his head. Here our potential devil is Tono, Antonio Ciruelo, a childhood friend of the narrator, the writer Heriberto “Eri” Salgado. Tono appears at Eri’s door one day, twenty years after he was last seen, demanding use of his toilet – “an earthquake made all the more terrifying for being so intimate” follows – filling the house with the stink of his filth:

“…because it comes from the most hateful and perfidious large intestine of the most hateful and perfidious Tono Ciruelo.”

Eri then recounts his friendship with Tono which begins at age fourteen (a suitable age for temptation) when both are accused of plagiarism (in Tono’s case justified but not in Eri’s) and Tono asks him where he copied his work from. Eri notices “that Ciruelo’s presence gave off coldness,” the first of many hints that he may be more (or less) than human. Despite this, Eri is intrigued by Tono:

“He would tell…these…stories – about himself, about his family – that soon captivated me, to my regret, for my entire life.”

He tells Eri that his father dresses as woman and his parents are separating. When Eri claims he is lying, Tono lets out “the most dreadful roar of laughter I’d heard in my life.” One suspects that the regret and guilt Eri feels relates in part to the way he is attracted to Tono’s stories, and his inability, even as a writer, to compete – as they say, the Devil has the best tunes. On another occasion, Tono turns a fight between Eri and another boy into a brawl using a knuckle-duster, so establishing that sex and violence are where his interests lie. When the sister of another friend, Fagua, is assaulted in the street, Eri begins to suspect that Tono, who appears at their door moments later, is to blame. At nineteen, he is invited to Tono’s home, only for his host to disappear with his thirty-five-year-old sister:

“…something like a slap exploded; then, rolling bodies; a shriek of laughter – a cry? – it was their clothes, their clothes tearing.”

On the same visit he tells Eri, “By the time I was five years old… I was already getting stiff,” and claims to have slept with his cousin at seven.

Tono’s sexual appetite almost gets Eri and Fagua killed when they go on a trip together while still at high school. Tono, whose father is a wealthy senator, is the only one of them with much in the way of money, but when they reach their destination, he refuses to buy food:

“Hunger was devouring all of us by the will of Ciruelo.”

When they threaten to leave, Tono tells them he was “conducting an experiment,” a further sign he sees others, even his friends, as little more than playthings. They find themselves in more immediate danger when they come across women from a wedding party peeing in the woods; deciding it is not enough to simply observe them, Tono places himself beneath the bride in the darkness: “He had his face under my ass.” Now the three of them find themselves in fear of being shot.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the friendship doesn’t last, though years later Eri and Fagua will coincide at an airport waiting to meet Tono. After his sister’s assault, Eri says Fagua “became addicted to Ciruelo.” His sister, Angela, goes out with him: “He dazzled me.” There is something irresistible about Tono and, in fact, he claims to be able to hypnotise people.

Book One ends with the last time Eri saw Tono before he appeared at his door twenty years later; Book Two largely tells of Tono’s activities in the years between. These include his Exhibition of Pain, and the setting up of his Freedom Ranch, a form of commune in the countryside:

“The twelve females all fell pregnant, incapable of naming a father with any certainty… There is talk of two schoolgirls… who were confined to sanatoriums.”

This section is perhaps less effective as it is hearsay, and, with distance, Tono becomes a monstrous legend, almost a caricature of evil and excess, but Rosero clearly intends this to be representative of Columbia. (At one point he says, “Nor could Columbia itself escape the exhibition of pain…”) In the end we return to Tono sleeping on Eri’s couch. Could he be dead? You will not be surprised to learn Rosero has one final twist in store in this devastating portrait of appetite and evil.


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One Response to “Tono the Infallible”

  1. Lisa Hill Says:

    It’s good to know about a book like this, so thank you for your review, but I don’t think I want to read it myself.

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