February 16, 2011

Book Review: "Revolution," by Deb Olin Unferth

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Revolution, by Deb Olin Unferth

By Deb Olin Unferth
Henry Holt and Company
Reviewed by Oriana Leckert

"Nineteen eighty-seven is the year I did nothing. The year I fought in no war, contributed to no cause, didn't get shot, jailed, or inured. We didn't starve, didn't die, didn't save anyone either. Didn't change anyone's mind for the better, or the worse. We had absolutely no effect on anything that happened. The only thing that changed as a result of our presence was us."

A quick synopsis: Deb and her boyfriend George leave college in 1987, when she is eighteen and he is twenty, to spend a year traveling through Central America--Mexico, Belize, El Salvador, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Panama--in search of revolutions to foment, or at least "revolution jobs" to procure. Along the way, they work in an orphanage in teaching the children reading and sports, until they are asked to leave. They build bicycles in Nicaragua for a few days before being fired for incompetence. They trade off bouts of diarrhea and fevers and scabies, get robbed over and over, have animated political and philosophical discussions with other Internacionalistas (called Sandalistas by the locals), conduct and record interviews with anyone who will speak with them (though they later lose all the tapes), keep meticulous journals, bicker and make up and fight again, and generally botch everything they set out to do meaningfully.

There is plenty of firsthand history here, as she moves from country to country, revolution to revolution. She teaches us about guerillas who have been successful, soldiers and how they interrogate, spies and their disguises, priests who renounced religion in favor of politics, the way that the things she experienced, in retrospect, wound up playing out on the international stage. But the book is also suffused with the unreliability of memory. Unferth is constantly cancelling out her stories by questioning whether they really happened just then, or there, or in that way. She describes a family trip to El Salvador many years earlier, listing all the awful things that happened, and what a terrible memory it was. Then she says that her mother remembers it as a wonderful time. She tells us that she and George were in Managua when the radical newspaper La Prensa reopened, detailing the crowds, the paperboys, the cheering. But then she backtracks--were they really in Managua that day? Were there really such crowds? Was that the same day they saw the Russian ballet, or the day she cut the soldier's hair? Was La Prensa really even closed? This honesty and confusion is, to me, a welcome and unique stance in our current over-saturated memoir world, to admit that we are fallible, that memory is a trap and a lie. Memoirists always seem so sure of themselves, so certain of who said what to whom and where and when, and it is refreshing to see Unferth questioning and questioning. It makes the rest of her story less iron-clad, true, but also more human, more relatable.

And her language! Beautiful and strange, like everything she writes. "She had the face of captive royalty, the voice of something gentle in a cage." "I hated him with the freshness of wet cement, a new imprint, a hand coming down on my mind and marking it." "The sun was like another language. The sun was like a shout in the sky." Her prose is generally straightforward and sparse, getting out of the way of the story, but sprinkled with moments of beauty, with profound realizations, with sharp and acute characterizations. It makes for extremely engaging, propelling reading.

Starting even with its subtitle, "The Year I Fell in Love and Went to Join the War," Revolution is told in a particular tone, one of amused disbelief in one's former self. It's easy to picture Unferth tapping this out, shaking her head and rolling her eyes--was that really me doing all those ridiculous things? Though there are a few times when this façade is cracked, and she lets real emotions come through, the bulk of the book is extremely self-conscious. She keeps askance of the narrative, condescending to it, to her former naïve self and her bizarre genius boyfriend and all the self-important buffoons they met along the way. "Imagine. We were walking across their war, juggling. We were bringing guitars, plays adapted from Gogol, elephants wearing tasseled hats. The Nicaraguans wanted land, literacy, a decent doctor. We wanted a nice sing-a-long and a ballet. We weren't a revolution. We were an armed circus." This tone choice is clearly a defense mechanism, forestalling criticism via self-mockery, and it is a successful technique, to a point. It grounds the narrative, saving it from corny idealism and keeping it from spinning off into maudlin recollection or inflated self-importance. But ultimately there is such a bemused, disapproving distance that the reader too is forced most of the time into their own jaded head-shaking disbelief, rather than finding a way to embrace the person she was, living the life she chose. Nonetheless, Revolution still manages to be a powerful book. It's ultimately an incredible journey she took, full of insane things she did, and Unferth's language and narration is more than up to the task.

Out of 10: 8.0

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Filed by Oriana Leckert at 9:23 AM, February 16, 2011. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Nonfiction | Oriana Leckert | Reviews |