Downtown Paraíso. Julio Escoto. San Pedro Sula: Editorial San Ignacio. 2019. 580 pages.
The novels of writer Julio Escoto, which span four decades, remain little known outside his native Honduras. As a whole, the recurring themes invoked in his narratives have explored the history and cultural formation of Honduras from the Maya presence in Copán to the contemporary problematics of narco-violence, poverty and state corruption that have wracked the country over the last several decades. Among these, a major feature of Escoto’s novels centers on his analysis of the convolutions of political power and the multiple identities that constitute Honduras’ little known history. In novels such as El General Morazán marcha a batallar desde la Muerte (1992), Rey del albor, Madrugada (1993), El Génesis en Santa Cariba (2007), and Mayas magos monjes Copán (2009), Escoto’s work demonstrates a comprehensive command of the politics, cultural forces and foreign interventions that have shaped the history of Honduras.
In his 1993 novel Rey del albor, Madrugada, Escoto exhaustively explores the complexity of Honduras’ multivalent history and diverse ethnic identity through the efforts of the novel’s protagonist Quentin Jones, a North American commissioned to decipher in writing the keys to the nation’s history. In Escoto’s most recent novel, Downtown Paraíso (2019), Jones reappears as a political investigator, unraveling the dense layers of corruption and power that hold sway in contemporary Honduras. Jones’s inquiry is related as a labyrinthian narrative universe of Odebrecht dimensions and remarkable breadth. In doing so, his sojourn explores the cybernetic, subterranean language that evinces and reflects the current realities of the isthmus. Sophisticated networks of lucrative criminality, new “fiscal paradises” facilitated by neoliberalism’s framework now engulf the political culture as they reap the monetary rewards of the insatiable demand for originating in the United States. Three separate narrative threads intersperse Escoto’s narrative: a probing analysis of the role of Honduras in the contemporary international drug trade, the ethnic and historical background of the Mosquito Coast and Jones’ continuation of an effort to bring some semblance of coherence to the country’s troubled past and present. These three narrative paths serve as the novel’s structure, and each is amplified by Escoto’s extended digressive forays into Honduran history, culture and economic structures. Throughout its five hundred eighty pages. Escoto creates a narrative density designed to evoke the frameworks of power and venality that afflict contemporary Honduras and Central America at large.
Jones is thrust into the maelstrom of San Pedro Sula, known for its astonishing levels of violence and linkage to international drug trafficking. His quest brings him into direct contact with the Caribbean coast’s century old Palestinian presence whose history coincides with Coyumel and Standard Fruit Companies that bring transnational capitalism to Honduras at the turn of the last century. Amid frequent references to this transnational presence initiated by the Fruit Companies their modern extension into the world of global drug trafficking are foregrounded as a continuum of foreign economic meddling throughout the novel.
Emblematic of this trend is Constantino Nini; a merchant whose arrival in Honduras in 1893 initiates the importance of Palestinian entrepreneurship in La Ceiba and San Pedro Sula and whose influence in Honduras helped to stimulate international investment in the early twentieth century. The contemporary successor to this influence in the novel is Don Vladi, whose extended dialogues with Jones throughout the novel not only elucidate his central role in the evolution of drug trafficking and money laundering in Honduras but also their co-optation of the political and military structures of power from the 1980s until the present. In the form of an exposé, the importance of the illegal enterprise behind laundering of illicit funds as a deeply criminalizing feature of the Honduran economy is evident in the novel’s expansive detail in exposing the correlatives of global drug trafficking: the covert laundering transactions and their corrosive impact on the economies and financial institutions in Central America. As such, after Jones acquires computer access to the intricate details of laundering operations in San Pedro Sula, his virtual glimpse into the schemes that undergird the economy of the north coast, his knowledge, due to its subversiveness, put him and his lover Dasha in danger of assassination by the protectors of such information.
In essence, the novel’s depiction of the intricate global currents of historical investment and predation in Honduras create a devastating portrait with scant hopes for future improvement. The country’s recent history includes a panoply of iniquities related to the rise of neoliberalism: unmitigated extractivism, the murders of environmental activists Berta Cáceres, Lesbia Urquía and Jeannette Kawas, the US-backed overthrow of Mel Zelaya, rampant MS-13 gang violence in San Pedro Sula, widespread claims of fraud in the 2018 election and, finally, most applicable to the novel’s content, the recent drug trafficking conviction of Tony Hernández, the brother of president Orlando Hernández. Together, they stand as a backdrop to corroborate the primacy of Escoto’s narrative indictment of his homeland.
In certain sections of the novel, the narrator points to an acute awareness of the role of texts; both historiography and literature as creators of national narratives. Accordingly, the central indictment of the novel is found in an extended, journalistic essay detailing the origins of dark money, the elaborate transactions that legitimize it and its profound influence on San Pedro. Additional references point to this same understanding through an allusion to fellow Honduran Roberto Castillo’s novel exploring Lenca identity in Honduras, La Guerra mortal de los sentidos (2002), and to the self-referential critique of Escoto’s own novel Rey del albor, Madrugada and its parallels and overlap with Downtown Paraíso as its sequel. Here the dimension of self-referentiality in the novel underscores the impact a literary text can produce in a small nation like Honduras. The most obvious examples are found in the influence of Honduran writer Ramón Amaya Amador’s indictment of the Standard Fruit Company in Prisión Verde (1945) and its impact on the 1954 banana workers strike of 1954 in Olancho. In a similar fashion, the influence of Escoto’s own novel Rey del albor, Madrugada, with its focus on pluri-nationalism and Honduras’ ethnic complexity, influenced the administrative transformation of the Ministry of Society, Culture and Art advanced by Dr. Rodolfo Fasquelle preceding the overthrow of president Zelaya in 2009.
In conclusion, it is crucial to situate the narrative universe of Downtown Paraíso within the broader trends impacting Central America over the last several decades. In this regard, the novel subsumes the importance of characters and plot into its broader, excursive chronicles that remind the reader that of the inability of the revolutionary fervor of the 1980s to implement more lasting reforms. In this sense, the novel marks the transformation of the isthmus from a post-war society to a new class of elites embracing the imperatives of neoliberalism to forge economies largely underwritten by narco-dollars, complicit militaries, and evangelism’s increasingly complicit role in politics. Ultimately, the novel’s searing indictment of the new narco-state, together with its warnings regarding its sustainability are central throughout. Nonetheless, absent is any optimism as to how to ameliorate the intractable problems of expanding poverty, security related to gangs and the inevitable result of both; huge increases in immigration from Honduras to the United States.
University of the Ozarks
Proofread by Jenna Tang