La Ciudad de las Bestias (The City of Beasts) is a novel by Isabel Allende. I read it in Spanish, without consulting reviews or doing any prior research. It was only later that I realized the book was originally conceived as a ‘young adult’ novel. I apparently do not qualify, largely on the latter half of the target. I am clearly still young enough, because I found the book to be an engaging, if rarely challenging read. First the bare flesh of the work.
We start in New York with the book’s real weak spot. Alex is on his way to stay with his grandmother because his mother is ill. We see him get involved with a young woman who robs him. His flute - yes, flute - was in the lost bag. We think we are about to embark on an urban tale of misfits, crime and precarious living. We are not. The first section is really a vehicle to introduce the reader to Kate Cold, Alex‘s grandmother, who is an eccentric writer on indigenous peoples in the Amazon, an anthropologist perhaps, who also just happens to have her husband’s flute, which forms the perfect replacement for Alex‘s lost instrument.
And then they set off up the Amazon. Grandma Kate is on a mission to encounter lost tribes and Alex accompanies. What happens in The City of Beasts is more important than how it happens, so this review will not describe detail events. But listing the elements is giving nothing away.
On the expedition we have an academic who seems to know everything about his subject, which happens to be indigenous Amazonians, except of course he does not know how to accept criticism or contradiction. There is a young girl, Nadia, who is a few years younger than Alex, who of course bonds with him. There’s a capitalist who wants to exploit the land inhabited by indigenous peoples. He cannot do this while they are still in residence, so he has devised an ingenious way of protecting the people which is eventually a way of getting rid of them. Alex and Nadia of course uncover the plot.
Alex and Nadia are eventually taken by the People of the Mists and they travel through jungle, mountains and caves, to experience ritual and tradition. They encounter fabulous beasts that do not spell smell too good. They learn that all that glitters is not gold, even in El Dorado, and apparently come to appreciate what it must be like to live as a hunter gatherer.
What is striking about these two young characters is their consistent application of rational thought to everything that happens to them. Whereas received opinion or generally adults talk seriously of magic and myth, Alex and Nadia think things through and always unearth the plausible that just seems to have passed by everyone else. That is probably because their vested interest always takes precedence, and these vested interests are better served by continued obfuscation.
The City of Beasts in Spanish was a learning experience. It was also worth reading. There is still room for more magic by the end.