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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Matter of Desire

Edmundo Paz Soldán

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To purchase The Matter of Desire

Title: The Matter of Desire
Author: Edmundo Paz Soldán
Genre: Novel
Written: 2001 (Eng. 2003)
Length: 214 pages
Original in: Spanish
Availability: The Matter of Desire - US
La materia del deseo - US
The Matter of Desire - UK
The Matter of Desire - Canada
La materia del desiderio - Italia
La materia del deseo - España
  • Spanish title: La materia del deseo
  • Translated by Lisa Carter

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Our Assessment:

B : a decent approach, but can't sustain everything he wants to convey

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Americas . 9-10/2002 Barbara Mujica
Críticas . 1-2/2002 Irene Pérez
Hispanic . 4/2004 Fabiola Santiago
The Washington Post . 2/5/2004 James Polk

  From the Reviews:
  • "Yet, in spite of some shortcomings, La materia del deseo has much to recommend it. The notion that historical truth is a construct is certainly not a new one, but Paz imbues it with a new urgency by personalizing it. Instead of the historian's dispassionate search for objective reality, Paz depicts the son's impassioned search for his true father. Perhaps, he suggests, there is no such thing as a detached observer. We are all somehow engagé, caught up in our own theories, motivated by our own needs, molded by particular perspectives. But all seekers of truth must eventually resign themselves to their incapacity to know for certain." - Barbara Mujica, Americas

  • "Throughout this captivating, well-written thriller readers will find themselves as powerless and defenseless as the protagonist is to remove the many layers that disguise reality." - Irene Pérez, Críticas

  • "The multicultural nature of the author's world is even more noticeable in the Spanish version of the book (...) when some of the characters break into English phrases as they attempt to explain a concept, make a point or a describe a new technology. In this English translation, the point is made in reverse, but the Spanish sprinkled among the English doesn't work as well nor ring as genuine." - Fabiola Santiago, Hispanic

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The Matter of Desire is narrated by the young academic Pedro Zabalaga. After getting his Ph.D. from Berkeley he got a position at the University of Madison (a stand-in for Cornell). The book moves back and forth between Bolivia (specifically the appropriately named Río Fugitivo, a Paz Soldán invention familiar from his other novels), to which Pedro has returned for a few months, and an account of his life at the University of Madison -- and specifically the affair he had there with a student.
       Pedro's main reason for returning to Bolivia is to flee that affair, but ostensibly he is also doing research for a book about his father. His father, Pedro Reissig, was a famous figure -- the head of a small political party (MAS (Movimiento al Socialismo) who was killed with several of his cohorts when Pedro was still a child. Reissig also wrote a novel, Berkeley, and Pedro has long-been obsessed by it and the hidden meanings he thinks are to be found in it:

Berkeley was a cult novel, one of those impenetrable texts that writers from the twentieth century had insisted on writing, a tribute to their extensive knowledge, to the overwhelming quantity of information the years had accumulated and that would soon explode in all directions thanks to new technologies that could process and store it.
       Pedro's Uncle David -- the only survivor of the political activism of years earlier -- is even more obsessed, working on a "dictionary for understanding Berkeley". David is certainly a man for hidden meanings, the creator of a very popular weekly crossword puzzle which always includes a hidden message.
       Hiding true meaning and communicating through hidden messages appears to be a family trait: Pedro, too, communicates with his student-lover Ashley in code. But The Matter of Desire is, fortunately, presented much more straightforwardly. Certainly it is meant to be enjoyed on two levels, like Uncle David's crossword puzzles (or, possibly, Berkeley), but the topmost level is pleasantly accessible. Pedro's tale is one of a confused man who isn't quite sure where his life is leading. He's torn between the United States and Bolivia -- a country so rapidly changing that there is much that feels unfamiliar to him on his return --, as well as between strict academia and being a media-friendly talking-head. And he obviously still has unresolved relationship issues: he spends much of his time in Bolivia trying to figure out who his father was, while in Madison he was involved in a strange affair with a woman engaged to be married.
       The book proceeds in chapters alternating between Bolivia and Madison, and, somewhat frustratingly, Pedro presents the American affair chronologically, those chapters essentially flash-backs. However, readers know the relationship came to a crashing halt -- and that he still pines for Ashley, tempted to contact her -- from the chapters set in Bolivia, and it gets to be somewhat tiresome waiting to find out what exactly went wrong. All the Bolivian chapters are informed by the end of the affair, so it's frustrating only to be made privy to the details as the book nears its end.
       Paz Soldán has a fairly appealing style in describing Pedro's Bolivian adventures. Without real purpose (he's not really set on writing a book) he reconnects with his uncle and his friends, meets up with one of the local bad guys (who knew his father) who is now writing his memoirs (which Pedro reads and gives him advice on), and learns more and more about his father's past. Quirky Uncle David and his inventions are an amusing distraction (though, of course, there's also meaning behind many of them ...) and though Pedro's search for meaning(s) can get to be a bit much, it works for the most part because Paz Soldán doesn't insist on answers at every step. The hidden meanings often remain hidden, ambiguity remaining dominant, clarity the exception rather than the rule.
       The American chapters are less satisfying, reading much like yet another campus novel centred around a professor sleeping with a student. The fact that the character of the student involved isn't fully developed -- in particular, the way she treats her fiancé is never convincingly presented -- doesn't help, though arguably self-centred Pedro is such a poor judge of character that he can't be expected to to present her any more true-to-life. Indeed, their whole affair -- or at least how they react to each other, during and after -- doesn't come across as fully convincing, which, given the significant role the affair plays in the book, is problematic.
       Paz Soldán teases his protagonist and the reader quite nicely. At one point Pedro wonders:
I once heard an author say that he had to write a whole book just for the only sentence he really wanted to write. Dad wrote his novel to hide a message. To whom ? And what was the message ?
       And the reader certainly also is led to wonder whether there is some similar underlying message in the text s/he holds ..... But Paz Soldán simply tries to do too much to make for a puzzle-tale of the sort Berkeley might be, and too much reads as forced: so, especially, the constant effort to show the melding and clashing of cultures, north and south, English and Spanish (as many of the characters mix English and Spanish in their speech, for example). With Bolivian politics, academic politics and life, all sorts of codes, and much else tossed in as well, Paz Soldán winds up juggling far too many things (too few of which are developed as well as they might be). There's a lot that's good here, but the novel feels like that of a writer still trying to find his way (and subject(s)), and the resulting work, while far from a failure, just isn't a success either.
       Bubbling over with creative ideas and (hit and miss) attempts at presenting observations, and offering a glimpse of rapidly changing Bolivia, The Matter of Desire is of considerable interest and appeal, even as it ultimately feels disappointing.

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The Matter of Desire: Reviews: Edmundo Paz Soldán: Other books by Edmundo Paz Soldán interest under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       José Edmundo Paz Soldán was born in Bolivia in 1967. He teaches at Cornell.

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© 2007-2021 the complete review

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