Hilario Peña – Págale al Diablo (Pay the Devil)

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I’ve been enjoying Hilario Peña’s novels for several years now. A great fan of such writers as Raymond Chandler and Jim Thompson, he has published a series of highly enjoyable “novelas negras” that bring a distinctive Mexican perspective, and a liberal dose of black humor, to the classic noir genre. My personal favorites are La Mujer de los Hermanos Reyna and Juan Tres Dieciséis.

So many great noir novels have been made into films – films noir – that when I read one, I find the characters, locations and settings easy to visualize. I picture dark streets, heavy shadows, low camera angles, claustrophobic spaces and stressed characters. Peña’s novels are no exception. They tend to be filled with gangsters, crooked politicians, treacherous women, bad cops, tough-talking detectives and clueless victims. But they have always been novels.

When the clerk at Libros Gandhi in Mexico City handed me the slim volume, I thought there was a mistake. But when I saw the graphics, and the artwork inside the book, I realized I was in for a new and fun experience.

The story is pure noir… and pure Peña. It focuses on Telma, a classic femme fatale, and Silverio, the poor schnook who falls under her spell. The plan is that Silverio will kill Telma’s husband, and they’ll use the insurance proceeds to go together to Long Beach. Not the most glamorous plan, but a clear call to action for Silverio. Things go well at first, with Siverio even finding a component of revenge to soothe his largely untroubled conscience. But the complications begin when he hears disturbing things about Telma, and obstacles are thrown in the way of their plan, including blackmail, infidelity and betrayal, gangsters with guns and a boxing match we know is rigged. We just don’t know which way it’s rigged.

As I whistled through the book, I realized I wasn’t getting the sort of descriptive passages or back stories that I’ve come to expect in a novel. Still, I was getting beautiful pictures of the people and action in my head. And of course, the dialog was as hard-boiled as you could hope for. There wasn’t enough art work to consider it a graphic novel, though, and it’s too long to be a short story. Perhaps it’s a novella, but it felt kind of like a screenplay.

He may disagree, but I believe Hilario Peña has written a film noir… and I had a lot of fun with it.

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Martín Solares – No Manden Flores (Don’t Send Flowers)

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What do you do when you’re rich, your daughter has been kidnapped, and you live in a city on the gulf coast of Mexico? You can’t go to the police or the army, because they may actually be the kidnappers. Anyway, they’ll milk you for cash, regardless of whether they lift a finger to help. You can’t ask any of the 3 gangs that control the region, because if you ask the wrong one, you’ve just made yourself a target to them. And you can’t trust your personal security staff, because they may have facilitated the kidnapping by selling their inside knowledge of your activities.

Martín Solares’ excellent novel, No Manden Flores, takes place in an unnamed city in Southern Tamaulipas that has been devastated by gang wars and corruption. It’s a place where you can’t go out for dinner, because the restaurants close in the evenings due to the gang violence. It’s a place where you can’t get medical assistance after a beating because the medical staff deserts the clinic in fear that the gangsters will come to finish the job. And if you take the wrong bus, you might find yourself hijacked and pressed into slave labor in a criminal compound guarded by a virtual army of thugs.

The answer to the kidnapping question is that you hire a smart, street-wise detective, a former cop who solved a high-profile murder case a few years ago. And you hope to heck he doesn’t cross paths with the city’s police chief who framed a suspect to collect the reward for that murder case – and has been trying to kill your detective ever since.

The focus of the book is divided equally between the detective and the chief of police, and the irrational, apocalyptic challenges they both face in accomplishing their radically opposite goals and intentions. The author treats us to an abrupt surprise with the structure of the book, which led one reviewer to describe it as 2 books. I’m not convinced. Despite the richly drawn characters and tight plotting, it seems to me that the book is not about the detective and the police chief, or about the kidnapping, as much as it is about the time and place in which the story is set.

The book’s title happens to be the same title as a famous article by author Jorge Ibargüengoitia, written as a bittersweet remembrance of his mother at the time of her passing. I read the book as a commentary on the direction of the gulf Coast, and Mexico itself. Don’t Send Flowers is a stern warning… and a great book.

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No manden flores cuenta la historia de Carlos Treviño, un ex policía que se ve obligado a volver al Golfo de México a fin de investigar la desaparición de una rica heredera.

Partiendo del sur de Tamaulipas, cerca de Paracuán, y viajando hasta el centro de la violencia en la frontera norte, Treviño deberá seguir el rastro de la mujer, e indagar entre los grupos criminales que se disputan el control de ciudades y carreteras. En la misma medida, evade la persecución del tenebroso Comandante Margarito, jefe de policía de La Eternidad, que lo busca para matarlo. La rivalidad entre estos dos personajes con perfil de tiburones elevará la tensión durante siete días a niveles nada recomendables.

La crítica ha opinado:

“Una radiografía seca, aguda, del horror en el que vive el Golfo, la red de complicidades, los alcances de la tragedia. Una novela ruda, directa, emocionante, que será de lectura obligada para quien quiera asomarse al infierno en que se ha convertido el Golfo (y México a la vez)” -Antonio Ortuño-

Craving Huitlacoche… Again

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One of the more fascinating and addictive Mexican foods is an acquired taste, perhaps because of its dreadful name in english, and its seriously unappealing appearance.

It’s called Corn Smut in english. Or Devil’s Corn. Not very appetizing, until you hear it called Mexican Truffle, or Mexican Caviar. Those names come from people who understand the earthy, fungus flavor with just an underlying hint of corn. The flavor is brought out especially well when served with a warm hand-made tortilla, and a sprinkling of cheese.

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Corn smut is considered a disease by American farmers, and they take elaborate pains to eradicate it. Mexicans have been eating it at least since Aztec days, and grow it specifically for consumption.

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I had never paid much attention to huitlacoche – it’s a subtle flavor, and can get lost in the company of some of the bolder Mexican dishes. But then I read Miguel Ángel Chávez Díaz de León’s wonderful novel Policia de Ciudad Juarez. A gritty “novela negra” with liberal doses of satire, its main character Comandante Amarillo is addicted to huitlacoche, but finds it hard to come by in Ciudad Juarez. Once I focused on it, I became a bit of an addict myself.

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Fortunately, I live in Los Angeles, where huitlacoche is easily available. Today’s travels took me to the Olympic Mercado east of downtown, where food stands pop up on weekends.

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Luis Spota – Paraíso 25

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Luis Spota had a remarkable career, first as a journalist, then a highly prolific novelist and screenwriter. I’ve probably read 10 of his novels, largely because I was captured by the extraordinary series in which he cynically portrayed the inner workings of Mexican power, politics and wealth in the 1960s and 70s. That series devoted several novels to the gradual corruption of an idealistic young cabinet minister as he jockeys for position, runs for, then is elected president, only to lose focus on what is really important. The series also included books devoted to some of the key players in the fictional power structure, and it stands as one of the most impressive bodies of work that I’ve read.

Several years ago, early in my explorations of Mexican literature, I read Spota’s Casi el Paraíso, which translates as Almost Paradise. Written in 1955, it was the story of a young man who grew up in the slums of Naples, but passed himself off to the highest levels of Mexican society as an Italian prince. The desire of the Mexican “aristocracy” to cut ties to their rough and tumble revolutionary roots, and to be recognized on an international level caused them to open their doors and their hearts to the young prince, without even the most basic due diligence. The book was highly entertaining, and focused on the foolishness of the most powerful members of society. Spota had a strict moral code, though, in which everyone seems to need a good comeuppance, Prince Ugo Conti notwithstanding.

25 years after his abrupt deportation from Mexico, 1980 by now, the young prince has become the middle aged Count Sandro Grimaldi. Surprisingly, the title is legitimate, as he managed to marry a Spanish countess, but was left out in the cold financially when she passed away. The Count becomes involved with one of Mexico’s “Juniors,” one of the young men determined to make his fortune by leveraging the wealth and influence of their families. In this case, the junior is the nephew of the incoming president of the country, and he knows he has exactly 6 years to make his fortune before his influence disappears with the next election.

Luis Spota passed away in 1985, so he won’t be offended if I say I had some trouble getting through this book. The characters are well drawn, and the Count’s back story is fascinating, but there really isn’t much plot to hang on to. The rich kid assumes the European aristocrat has access to huge amounts of capital, so he invites him to Mexico and gives him a whirlwind tour of the stunning magnitude of corruption that goes along with political influence in Mexico. It becomes a series of meetings with other rich or influential people, and descriptions of the outrageous schemes that they are planning. Lots of those meetings, and lots of schemes. After some 350 pages, the Count finally goes home, but with plans to return… That’s the plot.

The Count is never identified as the disgraced prince of 25 years ago, and there is no evidence that the president is party to the corrupt schemes, and there isn’t even any romantic interest to keep our attention. The book felt like a lengthy essay disguised as fiction. My hopes for a follow-up to the witty observational satire of the first book were not fulfilled….

But hey, it’s just one out of many great books by Luis Spota.

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Reseña prestada de Librería Gandhi:

Los personajes que nos indignaron en casi el paraíso vuelven renovados y con menos escrúpulos. El príncipe Ugo Conti, con otra identidad, regresa a México veinticinco años después para emprender una especie de revancha, al insertarse nuevamente en el mundo de espejismos y mentiras en el que viven los poderosos: pocos negocios tan rentables como lograr su cercanía. Sin pudor y sin límites, la -juniorcracia – se apoderó del país y toma las riendas de un juego en el que dinero y poder forman una urdimbre invencible. Paraíso 25 es un duro (y desgraciadamente vigente) retrato de la opulencia y la corrupción desmedida con la que se maneja la clase política mexicana.

José Augustín – Arma Blanca

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Dionisio is a talented chef who runs a popular restaurant named after the woman who left him at the altar, and broke his heart 6 years previously. She had withheld a rather important detail from their relationship. She was a member of a radical communist group, and had to leave the country when a political assassination went wrong on the eve of the wedding.

The book takes place in Mexico City in 1968. That year was hugely important in Mexico, and its impact on the country still has repercussions today. 1968 was the year in which the student movement gained traction, and commanded newspaper headlines for months. Their proposed social reforms were gathering more and more popular support at the same time the government was intent on quelling any possible social unrest before the Summer Olympics drew world-wide attention. The culmination was a massacre at a huge demonstration, in which hundreds of demonstrators and innocent bystanders were allegedly shot by government forces, and the event was covered up for years. The architect of the massacre was allegedly a man who later became president of the country.

Dionisio has mostly recovered from the abrupt end of his relationship with Carmen, but naming his restaurant after her is a pretty good sign that there are some lingering feelings. He has no strong political convictions, but like many intelligent people, he is willing to listen to reasonable arguments for social change. When he learns that Carmen is now married to one of the ideological architects of the student movement, a writer who made a huge impression on Dionisio in his college days, he is flooded with conflicting emotions. The emotions are heightened when he learns that Carmen and her husband have returned to Mexico City, but that government forces are hunting for them.

The emotions are further heightened when Carmen and her fugitive husband appear on Dionisio’s doorstep, asking him for refuge.

The book features a fascinating cast of thoroughly-drawn characters, including “El Trancas,” Dionisio’s best friend and senior member of the federal police force, and Lucrecia, a young woman with an uncanny ability to tap into the emotions of the times, and to translate them into her own personal experience. The book captures the excitement of 1968, and the growing hope for much-needed social change. The chapters are named after song titles from the time. As the hope and optimism of the nation builds, so does the hope and optimism of the main characters.

But just as the hopes of the nation are brought to a sudden, violent end in October, 1968, so are the hopes of Dionisio and the people who are closest to him.

I was fortunate to read this book early in my discovery of Mexican literature, and it had a huge impact on me. Several years later, its impact is just as strong as before.

Liliana V. Blum – Pandora

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I’ve come to expect surprises from author Liliana V. Blum. I’ve been impressed by her ability to concisely draw interesting and consistent characters with whom I can easily identify, but just when I think I know where she’s headed, she’s always a step ahead of me. I was certain this time that the surprise was that Pandora was a love story… Well, maybe it is, but if so, it’s certainly the most horrific love story I’ve ever read.

The story revolves around the competition for the affections of Gerardo, a handsome, successful doctor in a hospital in an unnamed city in Mexico. The female staff members view him as the perfect man, and many pursue him, despite his apparently perfect marriage to Abril, and their perfect twins. Meanwhile, Gerardo, a gynecologist, has become so desensitized and withdrawn that on an outing to a strip club, he wants to write a prescription for one of the dancers.

The 2 women in Gerardo’s life are Abril and Pandora. Abril spends her scarce free time exercising and dieting, because she constantly feels she doesn’t deserve her exalted role as wife and mother of the children of such a handsome, successful man. Gerardo actually finds Abril physically repugnant, but his communication skills are such a disaster that he has allowed a terrible but correctible tension to build between them for many years.

Pandora has experienced a lifetime of obesity. She has accepted this as her lot in life, but the author explores in considerable depth the emotional toll of a lifetime of pain, humiliation and anonymity that go hand in hand with being morbidly obese. When Pandora inadvertently triggers an obsession in Gerardo, she is extraordinarily vulnerable, and emotionally unprepared for the course of events he initiates. The Pandora metaphor is highly appropriate. When she opens the box, all manner of human evils emerge, building to a memorable climax.

As a man, I would have liked to understand Gerardo better, but the book isn’t really about him. It’s about the women. It’s about the lines they draw between love and obsession, between sacrifice and abuse. It’s about pain and yearning, about communication and the all but unbelievable things we are prepared to do for love.

This is a powerful book, and one that will stay with me for a long time. Liliana Blum just keeps growing stronger as a writer.

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Gerardo es un hombre que parece tener todo en la vida: es un respetado ginecólogo que ha logrado ascender económica y socialmente gracias a su profesión; tiene una bella esposa capaz de hacer lo necesario para que él no la abandone; es padre de un par de gemelos a los que adora. Sin embargo, siente que su vida es árida y aburrida; le falta el placer que se despliega en fantasías, hasta que se topa con Pandora, quien no tiene nada que perder ante el rechazo social y familiar que sufre por su inmensa gordura e inseguridad. Sumergido en el gozo de su parafilia, Gerardo no sabe de límites e incluso el riesgo parece un elemento excitante en su nueva vida, y al acariciar y perderse en ese voluptuoso y voluminoso cuerpo que con tanto esmero cultiva, comienza a sentir que ahí está todo lo que él necesita. Mientras, Pandora va cayendo en un abismo en el que parece no hay posibilidad de retornar, víctima de sus propios vacíos.

Alejandro Paéz Varela – Musica Para Perros

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Musica Para Perros – Music For Dogs – portrays the bleakest imaginable landscape, and the hopelessness of its inhabitants in an incongruously vivid and poetic style. It is a perfect third part of Alejandro Paéz Varela’s trilogy that he unofficially calls “los libros del desencanto” – books of disenchantment. It fits loosely with Corazón de Kaláshnikov and El Reino de las Moscas by virtue of geography and themes of hardship, alienation and desperation.

The story is a sort of rural La Ronde, in which the 3 main characters are interconnected in surprising ways, and the relationships come full circle in an unexpected but inevitable manner. We have original characters in original situations, great dialog, routine murder, love and betrayal, and the wonderful metaphor of a rag-tag zoo in the middle of nowhere.

As I read about Muchacho, who appeared on the ranch as a feral child, and was raised by the elderly cook, and about Flor a young prostitute whose dream is to go to Ciudad Juárez, I realized at some point that very little was happening, but I was still entranced. I’ve tried to take photographs of the nothingness of vast areas like the Chihuahua where the book takes place, but what typically comes out is nothing. The author, though, is able to paint the despair, the mundane routine and the constant sense of danger that make up the daily lives of these very ordinary people, and make us care about them. Descriptions of the most unremarkable events were both riveting and critical to the story. It felt like poetry at times.

It’s a highly successful novel, and is a strong finish to a beautifully conceived trilogy. I’m very glad to have read them all.

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Música para perros inicia con la historia de Muchacho, un joven sicario que con su flauta engatuza tanto a los perros como a las víctimas de su patrón, Liborio Labrada. ¿En qué momento y bajo qué circunstancias su destino se cruzará con el de Flor y Graciano? Tres historias se entrelazan en Música para perros de Alejandro Páez Varela, que a su vez se entrecruza con sus anteriores novelas, Corazón de Kaláshnikov y El reino de las moscas.

Tres destinos unidos por un mismo lazo, el de la miseria. Flor, Graciano y Muchacho son parte de un zoológico a cielo abierto donde los animales también muerden el polvo de la inmundicia, en el que se dan cita narcotraficantes y burdeles de poca monta. Música para perros también se desarrolla en pueblos perdidos en el vasto territorio de Chihuahua, siendo Ciudad Juárez “una gran ciudad, con oportunidades para todos” y el eje en torno del cual gira esta historia de amor y redención, de personajes que viven al límite de sus fuerzas; que harán todo por sobrevivir, aunque en ello les vaya la vida.

El trabajo de periodista de Alejandro Páez Varela lo ha hecho estar en permanente contacto con todo tipo de gente; de ellos rescata el habla de la calle, el humor y la tragedia para construir sus historias y personajes, tan vivos como las últimas noticias de la nota roja. En Música para perros podemos sentir la asfixia del calor, la desesperanza del olvido y podemos estar seguros que el dinero tampoco compra la tranquilo del sueño.