Review by Brian Kennedy
Martin Boyd describes Papalotero as an “intercultural love story“, and the novel certainly offers an incisive and frequently comical picture of the clashes of cultural perspectives that inevitably occur in cities as richly multicultural as Toronto. But I would argue that the clash of values explored in Papalotero is something even more essential, something that transcends cultural boundaries: a clash between the basic human desire to control and regulate life, and the courage to embrace it, to truly live it and love it, recognizing it as the extraordinary accident – or miracle – that it really is.
Adopting such a daring perspective on life is no easy task, especially for us middle-class North Americans, accustomed as we are to a regulated, stable environment, where we strive so hard to make everything safe and predictable. As an antidote to the stability of North American life, Boyd posits the concept of the papalotero, for which a dictionary definition is provided as an introduction to the novel: “one of those rare individuals blissfully courageous enough to devote their lives to doing what they love, with no concern about whether their chosen vocation comes with social approval, a retirement package and/or a good dental plan.”
Teresa Jones, the novel’s protagonist, is a young woman suffocating in a world bereft of papaloteros. A self-professed “dullard” in a family of academic overachievers, she has struggled all her life just to be average, and now, at 19 years old, is beginning to sense that the whole system stinks. In protest, she has refused to go to university, taking a mundane, minimum-wage job instead. In reality, Teresa is too clever for her own good; she can run rings around her brother Milton, a star literary student at the “oh-so-prestigious” University of Toronto, who for all his erudition can’t keep up with his sister’s sharp wit. She is too contrary, too much of a lateral thinker, to fit into the straitjacket that her straight-laced family seems to have prepared for her.
On the other hand, Elena, Teresa’s best friend, has thrived in the same regulated environment. Pretty, smart and socially adept, Elena has always played by the rules laid down by society – or more specifically, by her ultra-materialist father – and it has always paid off for her. But when tragedy suddenly strikes her private world, she finds she doesn’t have the resources to handle it.
Enter Miguel Angel, a curious young Mexican who describes himself as a papalotero, which is Mexican Spanish for kite-flyer. In a practical and orderly city, a boomtown of bankers and big business, what could be more absurd than flying kites for a living? Yet it is through the prism of Miguel Angel’s perspective that we see the absurdity of the other characters, whose respective neuroses reflect the simple truth that material security cannot guarantee a happy, fulfilled existence. Miguel Angel’s kites, filling the skies of Toronto, are a symbol of the joy with which he embraces life.
As a post-modern romantic comedy, Papalotero rolls along at an entertainingly swift pace as the bizarre love triangle between Teresa, Elena and Miguel Angel unfolds. Boyd’s skilled use of dialogue, at once convincingly real and intensely witty, propels the story forward, as the different characters engage in a series of conversational jousts replete with acerbic comebacks and amusing, but ultimately disastrous, miscommunications.
The novel also has the elements of a mystery, as the enigmatic character of the “Papalotero” has both Teresa and Elena second guessing about his real intentions. Can he really be a professional kite-flyer? Is it all just a big act? How does he seem to know so much about them? Is he a psychic? Or is he just a psycho? As wild as their hypotheses may be, they can’t possibly guess at the truth about this mysterious Mexican, whose very existence is, in fact, a miracle.
The plot makes some surprising twists and turns, yet Boyd’s coherent narrative voice weaves the various threads together with remarkable fluidity. His skilful use of shifting narrative perspectives between characters, a post-modern strategy that can at times have a jarring effect, works extremely well in this case, particularly for a novel that so cleverly satirizes the yawning gaps between individual perspectives on the same problem. On one level, these gaps are cultural, as Miguel Angel’s Mexican origins are essential to his very different view on life from the “Protestant work ethic” of Teresa’s family, or the similar “stoical Slavic belief in the importance of hard work” held by Elena’s father. But as the story shows, such cultural stereotypes are not set in stone, and anyone, anywhere, can choose to be a “papalotero”. It’s not easy, but it is possible.
An intercultural love story? A satire? A mystery? Social commentary? All of the above. But above all, a story of hope.
This review was originally published in Amazon Book Reviews, and is reprinted here with the author’s permission.