(Calmann-Lévy, 450 pages, 2019)
*** SHORTLISTED FOR THE 2019 GRAND PRIX RTL-LIRE ***
What is a hero, if not a man who one day realizes the secret dreams of an entire people? —San Perdido
In San Perdido, a small town on Panama’s Caribbean coast, Yerbo Kwinton is a legend. The poorest residents of the Lágrima slum who live off the municipal dumpsite first notice him one morning in June 1946. From out of nowhere comes a small, ten-year-old black boy with strange blue eyes, mute and frail, but with powerful hands much too large for a child his age. Decades later, the people of San Perdido will still remember him as La Mano, “the hand that reaches out to help when no one else can.”
Felicia, a resilient Ghanian woman who made a home for herself on the edge of the landfill, is the only one able to approach this inscrutable and solitary child. They wordlessly help each other. Yet in spite of their complicity, Yerbo’s comings and goings remain a mystery. He grows up scouring heaps of garbage for scrap metal. Only a few know that he can turn into a merciless vigilante who kills thieves and child predators with his bare hands.
As he reaches adolescence, Yerbo abandons his scavenging life to work in the harbor overlooking the Bay of Port Sangre. One day, his boss challenges him to an arm-wrestling contest. All present witness the crushing power of Yerbo’s hands. From then on, Yerbo’s reputation as a man not to be meddled with spreads around town. In San Perdido, corruption and exploitation are commonplace. The dock men’s strike is violently repressed. When the building where many of them lodge is destroyed by arson, Yerbo intervenes with deadly efficiency; summary justice, yes, but how moral can one be when living in San Perdido, “a city forsaken by God”?
An exuberant set of characters accompanies Zukerman’s elusive main hero as he defends the innocent and the oppressed. There is the temperamental Yumna who, thanks to her voluptuous beauty, climbs the social ladder by becoming the mistress of the governor—a man whose insatiable sexual appetite earned him the nickname El Toro; the exquisite Hissa, an orphan rescued by the madam of the most upscale brothel in town; the good doctor Portillo-Lopez, who cares for bodies and souls; as well as ex-American soldiers, shady adventurers, greedy public officials, and descendants of runaways slaves who long ago found refuge in the nearby rain forest.
With great gusto, David Zukerman combines social realism with pure fiction, and an added frisson of supernatural horror. He is a master storyteller who effortlessly orchestrates his characters’ intersecting fates. There is no second role here. San Perdido is a seductive tale that transports the reader into the atmosphere of a tropical town with all its political intrigues, explosive passions, and raw sensuality—a reading pleasure hard to resist.
David Zukerman is an actor, musician, and playwright. San Perdido is his first novel.