Why I Wrote “The Lieutenant of San Porfirio”

How do we paint a picture with words? How do we show in a few lines the complexities and nuances of deeply disturbing realities? And how do we raise our voice in protest against injustices that we see around us? In Latin America, the great writers of the past and present have developed a tool; they call it the dictator novel. Writers such as Vargas Llosa, Marquez and Allende – through works as varied as The Feast of the Goat, Love in the Time of Cholera and Eva Luna – have allowed their voices to be heard above the din as they shared their perspectives on their surroundings and showed, in story format, the realities of their rich worlds.

This is not something that is common in the United States. We think in bumper stickers and are far too fond of dichotomies: up and down, right and left, east and west, right and wrong. We label, and then we attack. Worse, we think we can transfer this viewpoint abroad – to intensely nuanced realities like those in Latin America. And in doing so, I think we miss out on what the continent has to offer.

I wrote The Lieutenant of San Porfirio because I love Latin America. I haven’t learned to love it naively, as some Americans say, because of its chaos. I love it because I grew up there, and in spite of the chaos. I love it because I have shared the struggles, the hungers, the frustrations, and yes some of the few – the precious few – victories.

Set in Venezuela, because that small Andean/Caribbean country is at the center of the maelstrom, I am telling a deeply Latin story for an American audience. Through magical realism I have attempted to show the magical, mystical and spiritual side of diverse and divergent societies. Through legend I have tried to weave the sights, smells, sounds, and tastes of a continent into a rich fabric upon which the story hangs. And through archetypical characters I have sought to lay out the similarities, and differences, that plunge nations over and over into conflict.

I have tried to capture in insufficient words the birth pains of a people. The fight against poverty but also against dictatorship; the struggle for freedom but also to hold destitution at arm’s length; and the brawling for temporal power that always ends badly. It is, however, not a muddled story. It is a story about the search for individual liberty; a story of clear ideas in a place of uncertain direction and outcomes.

Now, I invite you to join me in my story. It is not an easy one; but most readers regardless of geography or ideology will find something to love, something to enjoy, but also something deeply troubling in The Lieutenant of San Porfirio.

About Joel D. Hirst

Joel D. Hirst is a novelist and a playwright. His most recently released work is "Dreams of the Defeated: A Play in Two Acts" about a political prisoner in a dystopian regime. His novels include "I, Charles, From the Camps" about the life of a young man in the African camps and "Lords of Misrule" about the making and unmaking of a jihadist in the Sahara. "The Lieutenant of San Porfirio" and its sequel "The Burning of San Porfirio" are about the rise and fall of socialist Venezuela (with magic).
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