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Revista Interamericana de Bibliografía (RIB)
Número: 1
Título: 1998

Martha FOWLER. Vida, pasión y prisión de Washington Fénix. Buenos Aires: Grupo Editor Latinoamericano, Colección: Escritura de hoy, 1991 (released 1995). 198 p.

If as D. H. Monro observes: “There can be no doubt that, all refinements aside, misfortunes are funny, simply in themselves”1 then, to the degree that the tale of Vida, pasión y prisión de Washington Fénix abounds in mischances borne by its protagonist, Monro’s dictum is amply met by Martha Fowler. Such at any rate is the compelling theme upon which the author delivers a humorous novel where topsy-turvy happenstances and misadventures exploit outrageously droll, often zany situations.

Fowler’s comic strategies are manifold: caricatures, satire, farce, play-on-words and parody crowd the story and are sustained by an imagination that never flags in its intent to provoke mirth at every turn.

Lavanda is the fable-like town were jocular aberrations by its blundering citizenry thrive unfettered. Born there, of absent-minded parents, literally mesmerized by their passion for each other, the ill-starred Washington is left to the care of the bungling mute servant Belinda. Though hopelessly untutored in worldly wiles, when the owner of the pharmacy where he is an errand boy disappears, the benighted Washington is left in charge of mixing and dispensing medications for the town’s sick. A baffling rush of sudden deaths by poison soon lands him in prison for life—a bonanza of sorts as the hapless Washington can now simplify the taxing functions of life within the space of a cell.

In a scenario such as this, Fowler does not miss a trick in her earnestness to churn out odd relationships between kindred and friends and, with upside-down logic, lampoon their follies to underscore social, cultural and chauvinistic foibles. Thus, among the repertoire of miscasts, we meet Lieutenant Colonel Campos, an exile from Platilandia (Argentina) who, after botching an invasion in his native country, finds in Lavanda the bucolic existence he had longed to lead had it not been for his dutiful obedience to his martially obsessed family.

In this vein, then, the constant emphasis throughout the novel to parcel out descriptions that maneuver inverse responses to what is habitually known, and conventionally accepted, is rife: A watchtower—the civic pride of Lavanda and the one structure that gives its name to the hotel El Mirador—has its view totally eclipsed by surrounding apartment complexes; and, the hotel’s premier entertainer, the belly-dancer Farah, interprets her sinuous contortions muffled from top to bottom to avoid drafts coming from the dining room. Conversely, Fowler’s bent for raillery contrives names for her characters congenial with their occupation or station in life. The nomenclature also merits innumerable gags and play-on-words. The twins Inocencio and Candido, for instance, marry the sisters, Dolores and Angustias Pena, two spinsters of “delgadez casi esquelética y reservadas como una tumba” (89), a description that suits only too well their station in life as the daughters of the town’s gravedigger. Equally parodical are the names and actions of a circus troupe settled in Lavanda where the likes of Al Filo, fakir and snake charmer, Kitty Leonidas, lion tamer, Máximo Sforza, weight lifter and Mecha Bello, the bearded lady, add their share of levity to the general antics.

In addition, Fowler often harks back to film references to marshall scenes from iconized movies such as Casablanca and recite, with tongue-in-cheek, some memorable lines from the film. Inescapable, also, is the juxtaposition between the mute Belinda—the servant that has cared for Washington since babyhood—and her cinema counterpart from the forties. Or, the connection of the poignant friendship between Ortega and Valentin—the characters from Puig’s The Kiss of the Spider Woman—and the idealized depiction of the camaraderie struck between Washington and his melancholy cellmate whose ennui finds solace only when it is distracted by Washington’s stories of the town’s disfunctional folk—manifestly, a jest within a farce not uncommon in this narrative landscape of hilarious permutations where a doltish hero, of scarce verbal ability such as the simpleton Washington, becomes a proficient and engaging storyteller.

In due time, the symbolism of the phoenix rebirth, preordained in the hero’s last name, comes to fruition when his innocence is irrefutably proven after the real culprits are found out and, in a civic fete of thunderous cheers and welcoming discourses, Washington is restored to the vicissitudes posed by freedom.

Nimble, clever, at times pungently witty, Martha Fowler offers a distinctive brand of humor. She should be encouraged to write a sequel of Washington Fenix’s misadventures. Perhaps in Platilandia.

University of Miami                                                                                                                                NÉLIDA GALOVIC NORRIS
Miami, Florida, USA

1. D. H. Monro, Argument of Laughter (Carlton, Victoria: University Press, 1951) 50.