Figures of Enchantment
(1986) is a magic realist novel by Pakistani Brazilian author Zulfikar Ghose. Set in an unnamed South American country that resembles Brazil, the novel follows civil servant Felipe Gamboa as he is exiled to a remote island. Meanwhile, Gamboa’s daughter, Mariana, descends into a life of desperate poverty, and her former boyfriend, Federico, comes into possession of a magical amulet which grants him his every wish, but with a Faustian twist. Figures of Enchantment
draws on Shakespeare’s The Tempest
to explore the ways in which people’s wishes and dreams can function as a kind of enchantment, trapping them within oppressive political and economic regimes.
Felipe Gamboa is a meek, well-meaning bureaucrat, toiling away in the lower reaches of the government of an unnamed South American state. His bleak daily routine is enlivened by his dreams. Above his desk, he keeps pictures of the Pacific Islands, to which he longs to escape. But mostly he dreams of promotion, a small step up the ladder which might bring his salary in line with his dearest wants: a larger house, a Mercedes Benz, and college fees for his daughter, Mariana.
Gamboa wants this promotion so badly that he begins to believe, without justification, that it is in the bag. Distraught and enraged when he is passed over, Gamboa turns to drink and starts arguing with his family. One night, on a sulking walk through a local park, he comes across Mariana making out with her boyfriend, Federico, a poor boy with nothing to offer his educated daughter. Unjustly, he accuses Mariana of sexual promiscuity, and he hits Federico.
Like most adult citizens of his country, Gamboa plays the lottery every week, and this week of all weeks, Gamboa’s numbers almost
At his wits’ end, Gamboa begins to sympathize with the anti-government movement; during his lunch break one day, he makes a snap decision to join a protest. All the protestors, including Gamboa, are snatched up by the police and convicted of sedition. Most are sentenced to death or imprisonment, but Gamboa—simply as a joke—is exiled to the remote offshore island of Santa Barbara.
At first glance, Santa Barbara appears to be the island paradise of Gamboa’s dreams. In reality, it turns out to a virtual slave colony. A small band of exiles is condemned to work for inadequate wages in a nitrate extraction operation for a chemical company on the mainland. The company is the sole supplier of food and other necessities to the islanders, so the island’s inhabitants are perpetually indebted to their employers. They dream of returning to the mainland.
Meanwhile, Federico, inspired by the lottery which he is not yet allowed to play, takes up illegal gambling. He steals from his father’s wallet to bet on cockfights, making a small fortune before losing it all to a con artist. He takes his last remaining money to the bohemian district of Nuevo Soho, where he encounters Popayan, the owner of a costume shop. Popayan is a swindler whose stock is all fake, but he easily persuades Federico to buy an amulet by telling him that it is a magical item with the power to make his dreams come true. Popayan issues the novel’s central warning: “Nothing can protect you from your desires.”
Federico wastes no time wishing for “excitement, women, wealth.” Before long, he is picked up at a carnival by a beautiful older woman, a former courtesan with whom he goes to live in a large house. However, she is grooming him for introduction to Ernesto Vivado, a pimp-cum-movie-talent-scout who calls himself a “dealer in sensations.” Ernesto sells Federico’s company to wealthy women from all over the world.
This life quickly begins to pall, but Federico finds himself trapped in Vivado’s semi-criminal world. He longs for Mariana, but he does not dare to make a new wish on his amulet for fear that it might backfire as badly as his first.
Mariana herself is on an opposite trajectory. Having lost her father and his income, she is unable to stay in her private school. She drops out of school and becomes a grocery clerk. Soon she is a single parent as well, and she continues to descend the economic ladder, ending up as a desperately poor chambermaid to the wealthy. The worse her situation gets, the more hopelessly she is addicted to her favorite soap opera, Joanna’s Sacrifice
The city itself is on a trajectory in which dreams and money intertwine. Bohemian Nuevo Soho is spruced up and repurposed as a banking district. Popayan makes a small fortune selling his shop and retires from selling costumes and fakes to invest his money in the currency markets.
The fluctuations from which Popayan profits make life worse on Santa Barbara, where the islanders begin to die off from poverty, infighting, and the cruelty of the company. Gamboa has remarried and had a second daughter, Herminia, who looks exactly like Mariana. Gamboa thinks of her as “nature’s forgery.” Gamboa’s wife dies along with most of the other islanders, leaving just him and Herminia, and a bestially degraded man called Balthazar.
Meanwhile, Federico has been employed in a semi-legal capacity to survey uninhabited coastal islands. He still dreams of his lost love Mariana, so he is taken aback to encounter her doppelgänger, Herminia.
Federico is reunited with Gamboa, who explains that Herminia is not Mariana reborn but a different girl. Reluctant to believe it, Federico is reluctant to leave the island. When the boat sent to collect him arrives, Gamboa and Herminia escape together, leaving Federico and Balthazar to struggle for supremacy.