This book is a delight. Told from the parallel viewpoints of its two main characters, Manuel Izquierdo and Pablo Manzanares, Rating presents a wry and witty look at the creation of a reality show in all its absurdity and crass exploitation of a society willing to give up dignity and integrity for celebrity. The story takes place on a Venezuelan television channel, but the fierce competition for ratings and the cynical search for the lowest common denominator in viewership are no different from that of North American reality television.
Manuel Izquierdo is a successful but cynical and depressed hack writer of telenovelas who is also in full midlife crisis, his personal life decidedly less successful than his long career. In a different setting, his bitingly funny character could have easily come from the pen of Richard Russo, as in Straight Man or even Nobody’s Fool. He tries to escape his contract with the TV channel but nevertheless finds himself bound to collaborate in the creation of the channel’s latest abhorrent attempt to win top ratings with the creation of a “reality” show about displaced homeless persons, “damnificados,” competing to win a dream house. The “cast” is handpicked with a young, unknown actress added as a fake damnificado.
Pablo Manzanares, on the other hand, is a university literature student filled with idealism and poetry and unrequited love for a beautiful fellow student. He is also the “asistonto” on the project, placed there by his overprotective mother with ties to the television industry. His version, though wide-eyed and inexperienced, complements that of Izquierdo’s.
The dialogue is quick and very funny. The humor will be easily appreciated by North American readers. Barrera Tyszka is an excellent writer, capable of juxtaposing the biting cynicism of Izquierdo and the absurdity of the television industry (anywhere in the world) with the very poignant portrayal of Izquierdo’s attempt to take stock of his sad life at age fifty. The narrative and suspense are constant and the reader can’t wait to learn what happens with the reality show and to the two main characters. Translating into English shouldn’t be a problem except for a couple short passages where Manzanares makes fun of his mother’s habit (and that of Latinoamericanos in general) of elongating vowels and using diminutive forms of names and words to emphasize her point and to wheedle in order to get her way. There are some puns, such as “asistonto”, but those shouldn’t be insurmountable to a good translator(!).
It’s fast moving, very current with popular culture, and extremely well-written with likeable, believable characters. I read rather slowly in Spanish so for the story to hold my interest so firmly says a lot about the author’s skills and story telling abilities. Second and third generation Latinos who grew up watching telenovelas but who are more comfortable reading in English will especially appreciate the importance of telenovelas and the television industry and its stars in Latin America.