At the outset, Viva Santiago has a lot going for it. There are its pleasingly psychedelic cover and long lunch-friendly 137 pages, for a start. More importantly, there is its promise, as can be deduced from the synopsis, to be that rare thing in Indian literary fiction: a jovial, light-hearted read that doesn’t take itself too seriously.
But then, being confronted with the groan-inducing email forward cliché – “Life should not be a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving in a well-preserved body; rather, to slide in sideways, mojito in one hand, Mary Jane in the other, screaming whoo hoo… what a ride!” – that is its first paragraph swiftly sets the tone for the rest of the book. In an odd way, this novel both tries too hard and doesn’t try at all.
Alonso Gonzalez, a typical college student in Delhi, finds himself taking an impromptu trip back to his Goan hometown with Yvette, a Canadian woman who claims to have known his deceased grandfather. Grandpa was infamously devilish: perpetually stoned, surrounded by women, addicted to Bob Dylan, and into heavy pseudo-religious tripping (and vehemently blasphemous, of course). And as it turns out, he also seems to have left a treasure hunt of sorts for Alonso, which he embarks on and solves with unlikely ease.
There is a convenience to the plot that makes it completely unrealistic. The mystery is over quickly, with absolutely no room for suspense (and it’s no spoiler to say that everyone becomes privy to what the treasure is but the reader). Way too many deus ex machinae show up – from Yvette, whom our protagonist inevitably hooks up with (laughably, for a book that’s supposedly about hedonism, in a very chaste manner), to the shady character whose mysterious gift sets the whole ball rolling. Yes, life is often stranger than fiction, and with its random drizzling of photographs, Viva Santiago seems meant to be read as autobiography. But bad fiction is not strange, just boring.
Fernandes has a good feel of laid-back student types, and draws Alonso and his friends reasonably convincingly. He also has a flair for macabre and stoner humour, that terribly unoriginal first paragraph notwithstanding. But there is no real arc of logic to the way in which arbitrary anecdotes about life in Delhi and Goa are thrown together. Plus, there is a boastful undercurrent to the book which erases, if it were ever intentioned or present, the kind of nostalgia and broader concerns that underpin the best memoirs and memoir-like fiction. But like everything else about this book, even the self-absorption isn’t fully-realised. There were several points at which I wondered whether I was reading a casual blog post or an actual book.
It’s rather little saving grace, but Viva Santiago is the kind of novel that only makes one think about how disappointing it is after breezing through it. Perhaps that’s too kind a statement for such an unfledged read, but to its credit, it’s decently-written enough to irritate the reader above all else only with the failure to be the supremely cool novel it could have been. And this is a pity – one suspects that Fernandes is actually a fine author, but lets himself coast by on the bare minimum of effort. The note at the end of the book acknowledging that it was written in three weeks confirms this.
Which makes me wonder: is Viva Santiago, the book, just like all the anecdotes contained within it? Perhaps the challenge of writing it was for exactly what one gets the feeling Grandpa’s and Alonso’s shenanigans are supposed to amount to: impressing someone who’s being chatted up. In which case, this girl, at least, isn’t charmed.
An edited version appeared in yesterday’s The New Sunday Express.