The magic of Panama – David Colclasure’s “Visions: The Legend of Cascara”

Description by the author / blurb:

Visions, a new 220 page novel, captures exciting details about Panama, its people, history, and conflicts. Distant past scenes come alive with the legend of an Guaymi Indian princess shamed by deception and with ancient Kuna Indian ceremonial rites. Vivid battles capture the attack on Portobello by Admiral Vernon in the “War of Jenkins Ear.” Conquistadors and early explorers face fierce dangers in the dense jungles of Panama. The past, mixed with the present life of a family in the former Panama Canal Zone, presents memorable Visions! This novel creates an adventuresome, emotional trek through the Isthmus that divides a nation and unites the world!
Book cover

Review

The protagonists of the novel are Michael, a teenage boy living in the early 1960s, and the English Lieutenant Broderick, a medical officer of the year 1739. In consequence of a near-death experience, Michael receives unsettling visions about an Indian woman entrusting a task on him, a task yet uncertain. His visions will bring him into the life of the Lieutenant – first in his participation in the attack on the Panama coast, then held by the Spanish. These visions are to lead Michael to the revelation of what he is called upon to do.

For me, it was a foreign world that Colclasure described, and yet, when I read his story, this world seemed strangely immediate. I felt the tide of the hot and moist climate brushing my skin whilst sitting in blankets in my room with snow flakes circling outside; I felt that, just in stretching out my arm, I might touch the banana tree Michael laid hand on, when all I could really touch was the scarce house plant drooping on my window sill. And more still, I also felt the nostalgia the author must have felt in writing; as can be seen from his bio, the youth of Michael could well have been his own youth (except for the visions, that is). With me, however, there were no biographical links to the feeling of nostalgia.
I was intrigued. I scanned the text carefully. However, contrary to what I would have expected from how I felt, Colclasure wasn’t profuse about enticements on the level of language. The style wasn’t bent on drawing the reader into this world. There are novels staging their action on some Southern beaches and on every page the author will paint, with broad or delicate strokes, the beautiful scenery – in such a novel it’s easy to tell where the feeling of immersion into the scenery, when it occurs, is derived from.

In some ways “Visions” is an original adventure novel. The story showed some lengths when Broderick’s team was passing through the woods, taking to the heels of the Spaniards. Uncommon for any good adventure, the drama was not visible any longer. Of course, it is not problematic the reader does not know what will be the end to all this toiling through exotic woodland. In that he partakes in the quest of Michael, who falls into his visions exactly to find that out. But as the men continue their journey, the mystification of the reader accrues as to how the long description of what they do may add to the plot: the search of the reason for Michael’s visions. The answer he finds is that it does not add to the plot; it is no part of the major complication of the story.

This somewhat loose frame of the story line could have considerably marred many other adventures. However, „Visions“ it leaves largely unblemished. And I realised the reason for this was the answer to my question: how the author, with his rather sober style, creates a dense atmosphere around the reader.
The random episodes, apparently not linked to the plot, really serve the function of atmospheric descriptions and need not be closer integrated into the plot than the description of a setting sun (which would only become a part of the story if, for instance, it suddenly were to fall off the sky and thus have a major impact on the protagonists’ lives). Instead of recurring to a language layered by poetic ambition, the author recurs to small facts and anecdotal episodes about life in Panama to get across the idea and feeling of how it is to live there, to be there, to move there.
At one point Michael’s brother goes crocodile hunting. Later on, Michael tries to turn one baby croc into a pet. Then their neighbour’s cat has an unpleasant encounter with that crocodile. These episodes, especially the hunting, are described in detail, but without use of the style principally employed to let the reader merge with the environment of events: this would be a style saturated with images, drawn together by evocative adverbs and adjectives and the use of metaphors. The author’s style is rather straight than deep, rather cautious than luxurious, rather concrete than condensing. In general, the setting is described by factual, instead of poetical statements. An example:
Beyond the wire clothesline, over the drainage ditch, and up the hill, the trees in his father’s banana garden gently swayed in the morning breeze.” Only in few instances the language turns to the colourful: “Orange rays stretched across the golden, eastern clouds like God had used a painter’s brush, soaked in yellow and tarnished with red, across the canvas of the sky.” And yet, just in the next sentence, the description finishes on a down-to-earth note: “A beautiful backdrop for the King’s Stables, the lieutenant reasoned.” However, though more inclined to the concrete and descriptive, the author masters the condensed and evocative of more poetical expressions whenever he uses them. Only in rare cases does his imagery seem a little off: “ (…) the shock waves from the ship’s guns rocked the warship like a Dublin whore in heat.”

One does not wade in Colclasures’ sentences like one would wade ever deeper into the submersion of a drawing tide of images. Rather, the author writes about dangerous snakes on the borders of the wilderness, he writes about an ocelet that has escaped its cage, he writes about a police officer giving advice on how to get the animal back – the reader wonders what its all about. Yet, ere he becomes aware of it, he has been pulled into the current, he has been translated to the Panama of the 1960’s – and to the Panama of the 18th century: The author depicts the happenings at an Indian ceremony, he lets the characters talk about Indian mythology, he tells about how a captain nearly goes blind. The reader’s mind gropes for the connection with the plot, and fails to find it. But even as he gropes, he draws back his hand in wonder – he was about to touch the very tree the Lieutenant had just been prevented from touching. The reader was deeper into the story than he had thought.

Unity in a novel is important, and yet Colclasure can pay the luxury of seemingly random sidelines in the story. They don’t turn out to be random, inasmuch as they create atmospheric unity instead of disintegrating the unity of content. The crocodile hunting and efforts of domestication of a baby croc are of no importance to the plot; the feeding of the ocelet is of no importance either; if they would have been left out, the mainline of the story would have been none the poorer, as far as content is concerned; to the contrary, it would have been a story told with much better focus; but still, the story would have been immeasurably poorer, because it would have lost the greatest part of its enchanting atmospheric density. These small inconsequential episodes, which could have been the downfall of any other novel, here heighten the impact on the reader. They replace a function that else might have been employed by image-laden language: the tantalising effect of the setting of the story.

To this effect, the choice of the few verses that are preceding the novel is ingenious. Here they are: So you’ve come to the tropics, heard all you had to do / Was sit in the shade of a coconut glade while the dollars roll into you. / They told you that at the bureau? Did you get the statistics all straight? / Well, hear what it did to another kid, before you decide your fate…
(Down and Out) by Clarence Leonard Hay”
These lines, indeed, seem like another digression, another search for the ocelet. From these lines, would anybody infer an Indian curse, magic thriving through centuries and a boy haunted by the gift of the seer? Certainly one would expect an adventure story, but none containing the complications of events Colclasure’s story builds on. The adventure might just be as mundane as a hunt for baby crocs. And yet, the “tropics” are invoked and a certain attitude towards them. Whatever the adventure may be about, it will be set within the tropics and shaped by the protagonists dealing with their lives in the tropics. I feel that the author could have called his work “Panama Canal” and while, in doing so, he wouldn’t have been true to the plot, certainly he would have caught the atmospheric essence of the book. And this essence is explicated, is developed in the small episodes of action and wonder about the curious life in the tropics.
To permit oneself the luxury of digression is a rare luxury indeed; and I still marvel it worked out so well for the author’s work.

Still it becomes evident by the long toil through the tropical forest that the book suffers a bit from the central complication veering out of focus. A love relationship is worked into the text and the story really is on the point of becoming a love story while it has been an adventure story up until then. A woman accompanies the group of soldiers, Maria. From her first encounter with Broderick onward, between the two of them playful banter mingles with emotional confusion. At one point, Maria first bites the Lieutenant’s hand and then puts it to her breast. From there it’s not difficult to see to where the story might have driven off. Besides, initially Broderick and Maria have to be close out of necessity, because else it’s not sure what the other men might do to the woman. A corporal, an ambiguous character, grabs at her blouse. Broderick steps in. I thought, at these passages, the story was to change aspect and identity completely; that it would descend into the murky depths of physical love, unbridled passion and the brutality of male power struggles for the dominion over the female body. Fortunately the author didn’t travel down that road, though from what he has written it’s clear he has seen it and even taken some tentative steps in the direction. This would have been a major error; a real breach into the structural unity of the story. Because a side-story about unleashed passions wouldn’t have been functional to the maintaining of the tropical flair anymore. It would have been a novel apart, dislodged from the major dramatic complication of the visions and their meaning.

The author has been betting on a high wager and he has won the wager, but he only won by a hair’s breadth. Like I said above, as Michael explores his visions, there hardly are links to the dramatic knot, which ties itself around the reason for the visions he undergoes. Before they set out on their journey, the Lieutenant is entrusted with a medallion by a mysterious Indian who will, later on, appear and mysteriously disappear for two brief moments. But, up until the end, no other connection is drawn. The danger of the visions loosing their perspective on the dramatic complication thus is imminent. The author has bypassed that danger just by a thin space of story digression left. Unfortunately there are a few instances when he has even infringed on that space, when the small side episodes neither lead back to the plot nor heighten the perception of the setting: come to my mind the soldiers talking by the fireside about a dubious cure for troubled feet and about a boy’s first fox hunt; or Michael’s chat with a Jamaican of the maintenance department.
However, in general Colclasure bypasses the danger, and then his daring turns out to be enriching. The story doesn’t drop off into a parallel storyline, a novel within the novel, but exciting elements are added to it. Instead of being taken aback by a parallel love story of bodies and passion, the reader is thus enthralled by genuine elements of romance and protective chivalry. Nor does the reader suddenly find himself, surprised, in a novel about the struggles for male supremacy – a story about giving and receiving orders and the possession of the female body as an emblem of power. Instead of that, the reader takes part in how character traits are further elicited by moments of crisis in interpersonal tension.

Tied to the plot is Maria, and the plot only reappears when her connection to it is revealed. Everything else the men experience on their journey shows to be of no consequence to the major complication of the story, upon which its suspense arc is erected. However, when the connection is made explicit, it happens so arbitrarily it rather reminds of a deus ex machina mechanism. Also, both the reasons why the Lieutenant was given the medallion in the first place and the reason why Maria was left to travel with the Englishmen make little sense. It seems at this place the author was just in search of a post-factum explanation for Maria’s permitted stay with the English. The explanation is weak. This is a major fallacy in the construction of the story.
It’s not that the conclusion wouldn’t be sound – the major complication is resolved. Michael had had his visions at a specific point in time and they were given to him to find out about what to make a change. At the end of the novel, all this has happened. Still there remains the impression that the end was a little rushed; another indication for this is that Nargana, an Indian who has accompanied the group through their journey, goes missing, but when the novel ends, his whereabouts have not been cleared up.
As to why Broderick had to carry the medallion and why the English had to be involved with the Indians, the explanation is implausible. Besides the stretches of added length due to unclear digressions, this makes the novel fall short of the five stars it else could have merited.

In many ways, to make the construction of his novel work, Colclasure set out for a difficult task. I highlighted the major pitfalls his writing could have fallen into so easily. Yet, with his careful craftsmanship, more often than not he skilfully circles around the traps – and it is precisely in escaping them that he brings original elements to his adventure novel. With full justice he can invite anyone to an exciting trip to Panama Canal.

Rating: 4 of 5 stars

[The author has informed me that the ending will be reworked for a second edition.]

Link to Amazon USA

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