Three White Coffins
Tres ataúdes blancos
Three White Coffins has the appearance of a bizarre thriller in which the obese, solitary, antisocial protagonist is forced to take on the identity of the leader of the opposition party and undergo unbearable adventures in order to bring down the totalitarian regime of an unnamed Latin American country. This plot is, however, an empty structure, a skeletal apparatus within which the novel grows— wildly and unpredictably gushing forth in the protagonist’s voice. Excessive, mentally unbalanced, hilarious, the narrator uses his words to question, ridicule, and destroy reality (and reconstruct it, from zero, anew).
Accompanying him on his adventures is an idealistic bodyguard, who is addicted to adrenaline and whose voice bursts in on occasion to narrate the few scenes of violence; and a shy nurse, who ends up being the narrator’s lover and savior. Ceaselessly pursued by the terrorist regime that controls the country and by operatives from their own side, and alone against the world, the characters are finally hunted down and defeated. The two men disappear. The woman manages to escape and leaves the country.
The adventure seems to have come to a definitive end when the woman, living in exile, receives the manuscript written by the protagonist that recounts their experiences (which the reader has just read). Sad and disenchanted, and about to give birth, she reads it, believing that the two men are dead. Her reading, however, becomes a devastating critique of the characters, an assault on the previous narrative’s assumptions, and a questioning of the narrative methods employed. This frantic revision of all she has experienced helps her find, without meaning to, the resolution of the novel, which is also the resolution of her own existence.
Three White Coffins is a polyphonic text, one that is open to multiple interpretations. It can be read as a fierce satire of Latin American politics, a refined reflection on individual identity and impersonation, an exploration of the limits of friendship, an essay about the fragility of the real, or a story of impossible love. Wrapped in a thriller that is easy to open and read and full of humor, this novel is without doubt a fascinating literary game.
«Tres ataúdes blancos is a political satire that keeps the reader on tenterhooks -laughing in nervous disbelief, cringing in fear- until the last haunted sentence when the telemetric dread is deepened even further by a desire to revisit, replay, and recover control of a story that deftly refuses to give up the ghost or say who, precisely, lies withing the three white coffins» (Brendan Riley, Review of Contemporary Fiction).
«The novel has some of the wildness and humour of Gabriel García Márquez’s The Autumn of the Patriarch , perhaps the most accomplished Latin American dictator novel, a work that loses none of its political power for its resemblance to a prose poem. Some commentators have seen Tres ataúdes blancos as a portrait of either present-day Colombia or Hugo Chávez’s Venezuela. Ungar has pointed out that it could as easily be Spain in the 1960s or Argentina in the 1970s, or any other repressive regime in recent history. Its lessons may at times seem overwrought, but they can be widely applied» (Ollie Brock, Times Literary Supplement).
«A grotesque, satirical thriller, which signals the beginning of a literary career that should be followed with interest... Tres ataúdes blancos stuns the reader with a series of sequences that are funny and tragic at the same time ... Congratulations to the writer, who covers a recurring theme—that atavistic violence that surrounds us again and again—capturing the reader with ingeniousness, rhythm and humour. A true pleasure» (Ricardo Baixeras, El Periódico).
«Without the subtle tone of the writing, without the three movements that modulate the development of the story as if it were a complex musical composition (the double, the misunderstood child and the amorous passion) and without the tone of calculated emotional imprecision (somewhere between parody and an elegy of lost political causes), without all of that, this novel would not have provoked such admiration... Antonio Ungar’s novel includes terrible things from a fictitious country: disappearances, kidnappings, executions, a terrible tale with no frontier between the hard left and the hard right. The method of this representation is parody. And its success is to combine parody with the enormous sadness that the story generates» (J. Ernesto Ayala-Dip, Babelia, El País)
«Stylistically brilliant, bitingly ironic, the book becomes a vertiginous story of violent events that tumble upon each other. But it is also the delicate story of an impossible love, which is counterpoised with the river of blood where the protagonist finds himself» (Arturo García Ramos, Abc).
«Antonio Ungar has had a short, but intense career ... This novel can be read in different ways: as a refined reflection on individual identity, as an exploration of the limits of friendship, as a study of the fragility of reality, or as the story of an impossible love. What makes this work stand out is its savage sense of humour, filled with horror» (María R. Aranguren, Bilbao).
«Ungar takes us on a breath-taking race in his most recent and action-packed novel… The anti-hero becomes a hero. He can escape, but chooses not to do so, while he keeps on denouncing the crimes of the dictator who declares a state of emergency that converts all who oppose him in traitors, including the friends of the protagonist, Akira. The narration speeds up, the cruelty increases, Doctor Neira, the protagonist’s father is killed, as are many others who try to face evil with an innocent face. Eventually, we end with more torture and a beach, and maybe even a glimmer of hope» (Antonio Garrido, Cuadernos del Sur).
«In Tres ataúdes blancos, Antonio Ungar paints, with a light register and parodic tone, a grotesque comic fresco of Latin American tyranny, a stunning satire on political violence… But it is impossible not to recognise certain mechanisms of corruption and lies that also affect Europe and the rest of the developed world» (Iñaki Ezkerra, El Correo).
«Can a story manage to authentically reflect the truth of a Latin American country subjected to a cruel dictatorship without losing any of its sense of humour and while keeping up a narrative tension representative of a great novel? The Colombian writer Antonio Ungar has managed that feat in Tres ataúdes blancos, a book in which the author establishes himself as one of the most original voices in contemporary Latin American fiction. A book that can be read in one sitting, with a frenetic rhythm , rich in verbal shades and narrative twists which will fascinate the reader... … Ungar has a distinctive narrative voice, tense penetrating and he has designed a hilarious political satire which also speaks about love, friendship, the death of utopias and the strength of shame as substitute for hope… and it is also a book that talks about life» (José Antonio Sau, La Opinión de Málaga).
«A novel that grows, savagely and unpredictably » (Diari de Girona).
«A compelling book… It can be read in one sitting, or it can be listened to, in the style of an oral history that is constantly digested by the listener... This is an author worth keeping an eye on» (Eduardo San José, La Nueva España).
«Combines love, black humour and a ferocious criticism of the political systems inherent to the northern part of South America» (Gara).
« Ungar has written an novel that will make the reader crack up with laughter. A fantastic parody of the political system in Colombia» (Francisco Barrios, Arcadia, Colombia).
«One of the most important novels written in Colombia in the first decade of the XXIst Century» (Juan David Correa, El Espectador, Colombia).
«The best aspect of this book is the ironic look at a reality as crude as the one that rules this country.… A good prize, for a good book» (María Paulina Ortiz, El Tiempo, Colombia).
«Antonio Ungar combines humour with politics with an admirable efficiency... The story develops using familiar codes from some of the best comedy and detective fiction» (Zona de Obras).
Antonio Ungar (Bogotá, 1974) writes short stories, articles and novels. His stories have been published in more than 25 anthologies in five different languages. He recently published a collection of his stories in Trece circos y otros cuentos comunes (2009). His articles have appeared regularly in magazines and newspapers in the USA, Holland and Colombia, where he was awarded the 2005 Simón Bolívar National Journalism Prize. He is the author of the novels Zanahorias voladoras and Las orejas del lobo, which was a runner-up for the Courier International prize for the best foreign-language book published in France in 2008. He was the Latin American author chosen to take part in the writers’ residency workshop at the University of Iowa and he was selected as part of the Bogotá 39. He currently lives in Jaffa, Palestine-Israel, where he collaborates with different media and where is he is currently preparing his next novel.