by Dave Sewell
Debut novelist JJ Amaworo Wilson’s magical realist fable celebrates the ingenuity, tenacity and resistance of slum-dwellers.
It is the tale of an abandoned skyscaper that’s occupied, revived and defended by a ragtag army of the “damnificados”—the casualties.
To make the trash of the city a home, they take on everything from gangster politicians to a biblical flood and a two-headed wolf.
Some are the poorest of the poor. But many are regular workers and the few characters we get to know include a diplomatic translator and a small business owner.
Pushed to the city’s margins, they are outcasts who refuse to be excluded.
Amaworo Wilson creates a world where people and things that are thrown away come alive and where neglect breeds creativity and tyranny breeds defiance.
The novels that defined magical realism looked into the repressed histories of real societies. Damnificados does the opposite.
Its urgent present tense and its eclectic borrowing of languages and settings cut it off from any one place or time.
While “loosely based on” events in Caracas, Venezuela, the unnamed city could be almost anywhere in the developing world.
At its weakest points this reduces the residents to a vague mishmash of lovable eccentrics—and makes you wish you’d read about the real ones in Caracas.
But at its best it feels like a manifesto. A recurring phrase is “they are us”.
Amaworo Wilson invokes the urban pooor as a global force and invites us to identify with it.