First of all, I confess to bias, since I was born in la República de Panamá (here at Hospital San Tomás) and was raised in the Canal Zone, which no longer exists—sufficient progress such that my missing home doesn’t matter in the scheme of things. I grew up with a bifurcated identity, one foot in the U.S. Canal Zone and the other (the smaller; there always is one) in Panamá proper. Kindergarten through the first half of Mrs. Latz’s fourth grade found me at Balboa Elementary School. For the other half plus fifth and sixth grades, I was enrolled at Colegio de Las Esclavas del Sagrado Corazón de Jesús in the Paitilla section of la ciudad. It was a private Catholic girls’ school, which wasn’t much of a shock to my then-Episcopal sensibilities.
My tenure there (which educated many of the daughters of the Panamanian bourgeoisie) wasn’t well received in the Canal Zone, notably by those in the educational bureaucracy who could and did set me back a grade. When I re-entered the Canal Zone school system for junior high I ran into some unpleasant kerfuffles, including racist concerns that my Panamanian education hadn’t prepared me sufficiently to rejoin my peer group in the Zonian schools. But all’s well that ends well. And just in time, too, since my freshman year at Balboa High School coincided with the now-infamous Riots of January 1963, which led ultimately to the Treaty that ceded the Panama Canal and the Canal Zone, and rightly so.
The names and places speak directly to me. But these tres novelas aren’t chosen for that reason, but because they are exceptional reading—indeed, one might say finest kind. Each novel brilliantly mirrors the signs and stresses of its time in a tiny nation, mutable and adaptable in its capital, but so much slower when it comes to the time and space of the hinterlands that make up its distant heart of hearts (yes, that’s hyperbole). Although, that, too, begins to change even as we watch.
God’s Favorite by Lawrence Wright
This is not a pretty book—but it is an arresting, difficult to put down, and bleakly funny thriller. Wright’s “nonfiction novel” recounts Manuel Noriega’s downfall, the run-up to his pathetic retreat to the Vatican embassy from which he was eventually defeated by, yes, rock and roll. Our protagonist is the Papal Nuncio in Panama who is brought kicking and screaming to his 15 minutes of history. The author writes often for the New Yorker, and won the Pulitzer for general nonfiction in 2007 for The Looming Tower: Al Qaeda and the Road to 9/11.
The World in Half by Christina Henríquez
As opposed to the other books cited here, Henríquez’s debut novel puts the U.S. and Zonian presence in the background. Yes, it’s there—all of Panama knows that—but this book dwells within a native, organic, familial setting. She tells the story of Miraflores (not coincidentally the name of one of the Canal’s three sets of locks), a young woman in the Chicago suburbs. While caring for her mother, who is suffering from early-onset Alzheimer’s, Mira discovers that there’s more to the story of her long-departed Panamanian father than she had imagined. Armed with only an old address, she takes off to Panama City to find him, discover her mother’s history, and learn some important truths about herself. Then story has an honest urgency, and an added bonus is that Henríquez is a sensualist; to read this novel is to really see and feel the country.
The Tailor of Panama by John le Carré
Here’s the teaser for this one: When I tout this book to some Zonians, I am roundly chastised (that’s the polite term) for promulgating anti-U.S. sentiments. Well, if los zapatos fit, wear them. This is a spy novel with no clearcut good guys; almost everyone is an opportunist and the villains are too numerous to count. What you have is a bunch of diversely shady characters, set against a backdrop of intrigue and maneuvering as the U.S. prepares to hand over the Panama Canal. Le Carré’s protagonist, a Jewish bespoke tailor of Etonian credentials named Harry Pendel, finds himself coerced into playing both sides in typical double-agent style. But Pendel isn’t, of course, what he seems at first, and the tale turns out to be more satire than thriller. Still, it’s good fun, even though you might not be quite sure who to root for.
(Photo is of the S.S. Ancon, the first ship to officially transit the Panama Canal in 1914.)