Book Review: Damnificados by JJ Amaworo Wilson

Damnificados is based on the real-life story of the occupation of the “Tower of David” in Caracas, Venezuela, during the country’s housing shortage. The tower is an unfinished skyscraper abandoned in Venezuela’s capital city in 1994 because of another national crisis (this one having to do with banking).

Because of the housing shortage, about 200 families took up residence in the abandoned tower in October 2007. The Tower of David had a peak population of about 5,000 people before the government intervened.

Damnificados is a work of fiction, but it bases much of its plot around the real-life Tower of David story. The novel takes place in a fictional Latin American city, as hundreds of poor families occupy an abandoned skyscraper.

The main character is Nacho Morales, a crippled man who becomes the leader of the rag-tag gang of squatters. Nacho is humble, reserved, and very intelligent – he speaks several languages and works as a translator.

Much like in Caracas, Nacho’s group of misfits build a unique community in the abandoned skyscraper. They find a way to hook up basic utilities, Nacho runs a small school for the families’ children, and there’s even a bakery and a beauty salon run by some entrepreneur damnificados.

A family of corrupt and brutal politicians (the Torres brothers) threatens Nacho and his gang and vow to take back the tower. It seems impossible for the damnificados to defeat the Torres brothers, but they prevail after getting help from a variety of supernatural forces.

The novel uses elements of magical realism, carrying on the tradition from other Latin American authors like Gabriel García Márquez and Isabelle Allende. In fact, the book greatly reminded me of Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude in the way it utilizes humor and the supernatural to explain tragic real-life scenarios.

Politics are very dark in 2020, so Damnificados was a welcome surprise for me. The book has incredibly funny moments and a colorful cast of characters, including Nacho’s best friend, the Chinaman, a huge, soft-spoken man who acts as the tower’s bodyguard. The novel tells a social justice story in a unique and accessible way. JJ Amaworo Wilson, the author, manages to write about complex topics in beautiful prose.

Damnificados is also a novel about the global community. Wilson was born in Germany and educated in England, but he’s lived in nine countries and traveled to sixty others. His knowledge of different cultures is evident in the book, which has characters from all walks of life and backgrounds and, most of all, celebrates the underdog.

(The title of the book – Damnificados – is a Spanish word that translates in English as “victims.”)

Wilson’s novel checks in at 288 pages, and it was a great read. If you like Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude or Toni Morrison’s Beloved, there’s a good chance you’ll like Damnificados.

(Cover photo by Zac Durant on Unsplash)

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