Review: Señor Vivo and the Coca Lord (Louis de Bernières)

Señor Vivo and the Coca Lord is a highly amusing book with a very serious message, but de Bernières never lets lets the humour diminish the importance of his comment on the South American (particularly Columbia’s) drug culture. Señor Vivo and the Coca Lord is, at times, both violent and horrific – but the violence is never gratuitous. De Bernières’ strength lies in his ability to seamlessly blend the horror and the humour, which confronts and engages the reader, and represents the vast differences in South American society. De Bernières examines the lives of all those involved in the South American drug trade – from the government ministers who want to both accept bribes and be rid of the drug lords, to the victims of the drug lords’ violence, the police, and ordinary people who want to make a difference.

De Bernières writing describes the lives of his characters in great detail, bringing them vividly to life in the reader’s imagination. This detail, however, avoids the mundane and has amusing details about characters with even a very minor part:

This angel was hook-nosed and senile, with crumpled feathers hopping with fleas. The nimbus around its head was of a greyish pallor, it salivated copiously through its missing teeth and could not remember its name when Garcia demanded to know it. In disgust, the latter threw open his door with the intention of wasting no more time on this pitiful creature and of joining in with the festivities, only to find that they were already all over.

The light-hearted sections of the book, however, do not diminish the horror of the drugs trade, but rather act as a foil to expose the evils of drug production, and provides a hope that even in a society so badly affected by drugs, corruption, and civil war, there is still a human (or even angelic) story that can bring a smile to some-one’s face. De Bernières certainly never shies away from describing what the coca barons are involved in, and employs grotesque detail to shock the reader. This detail is never used gratuitously – only one murder is described in great detail, but the reader is reminded of the torture methods used by the henchmen throughout the book. The single murder scene stays fresh in the reader’s memory as a harrowing reminder of what is happening now in other parts of the world.

De Bernières’ portrays the lives of all those involved in the drugs trade to bring a message to all his readers: everyone has their part to play in improving this world. His message is for the politicians who must decide whether to accept the bribes or to stand up against the drugs trade. He speaks to the members of the police and armed forces who also, must let their conscience win over their greed. He tells the victims that there can be hope. Most importantly, however, he tells us all that, in the middle of it all, an ordinary citizen (Dionisio Vivo) who wants to change something, can. Although Dionisio Vivo falls far short of completely ridding his home country the problem, de Bernières’ central character is one to inspire us all to speak out against the evils in society.

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