Monday, June 05, 2023 | Dhu al-Qaadah 15, 1444 H
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The old man who read love stories


Due to the pandemic, my old friend Josip has been locked up in his apartment in Hamburg for almost two years. Having no connection to the outside world but through his landline, I’d call him from time to time to check on him.

We’d exchange quick news about what’s happening in our lives in general before we delve into our favourite topic: Books that we’ve read. Josip is a man with a voracious appetite for literature like no other, you mention an author and trust that he'd read one of his books. Lately, he recommended Luis Sepulveda’s: 'The Old Man Who Read Love Stories'.

Having read Sepulveda’s, 'The Story of a Seagull and the Cat Who Taught Her to Fly', I decided to give Josip’s recommendation a shot. Needless to say, it was one of the best reads of this year. The book is short (135 pages) yet it’s deep and precise.

The main character is Antonió José Bolivar Proaño-also known as the old man — who lives in a village called El Idilio in the Amazonian region of Ecuador. He’s not a native though as he’d moved down from the mountains along with his wife ages back when the government decided to inhibit the region as marking boundaries with neighbouring Chile.

The old man gets to learn to survive the jungle and to co-exist with its creatures after meeting up with the Shuar, the natives of the area. More settlers move in and they bring along with them nature’s worst enemy: Civilisation. But nature retaliates and dead bodies of gold diggers and tourists start appearing on regular bases.

The governor asks Antonió José Bolivar Proaño to investigate further and find the culprit. That’s when Antonió’s journey of tracking and hunting the killer down starts. Sepúlveda succeeds in depicting a world far and unknown to the reader yet filled with wonders: The world of the jungle.

In sharing the old man’s experience of living with the Shuar tribe, he reflects the reader’s own ignorance and at times questions his/her survival abilities in those dire conditions (I found myself wondering if I could live under constant rain and humidity or if I could eat monkey meat).

The characters of the book are memorable even when they’re not mentioned much (the deceased wife), bystanders with funny comments (the villagers) or stereotypical corrupts (the governor). The old man’s fascination with reading is heartwarming. The conversation he has with the villagers regarding love stories and their confusion about Venice is witty.

Sepúlveda focuses on the theme closest to his heart: How human greed destroys nature. This could be justified in the old man’s choice of love stories which the author describes as: “That sometimes make him forget human barbarity”. Published in 1988, the book was an instant success and won the Tigre Juan literature prize. It was translated into 60 languages and sold more than 5 million copies since then. It was turned into a movie starring Richard Dreyfuss in 2001. Like his book, Luis Sepúlveda led a fascinating life. Born in Ovalle in 1949, he was an active member of the Chilean Communist Party and was jailed for two years. He was sent to exile several times and kept escaping to different countries till he settled in Asturias, Spain. Meanwhile, he worked as a journalist, taught, founded theatrical companies, worked to improve Latin American indigenous’ lives and became a crew member on a Greenpeace ship. He died in 2020 of Covid-19. 'The Old Man Who Read Love Stories' is beautiful and devastating. A brilliantly imagined tale that should be on every book lover's shelf.

Rasha al Raisi is a certified skills trainer and the author of: The World According to Bahja.

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