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.

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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.

Guillermo Arriaga – Un dulce olor a muerte (A Sweet Scent of Death)

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Several years ago, I saw the film version of Un dulce olor a muerte at the Los Angeles Latino Film Festival. Starring a young Diego Luna (Y tu mamá también), it was oddly cast with actors from a wide variety of countries, and an equally odd conglomeration of accents. While it was incongruous to have such an international cast in a rural Mexican locale, the story was compelling and wonderfully executed, from a screenplay adapted by Arriaga from his novel.

We know Guillermo Arriaga from his writing of such films as Amores Perros, 21 Grams and Babel, but he has written a series of powerful novels, and wrote and directed the tragically overlooked film “The Burning Plain” starring Charlize Theron and (yes) Jennifer Lawrence. Un dulce amor a muerte is Arriaga’s first novel.

A young man is overcome with a variety of emotions when finds the naked body of a pretty girl in a field outside the village. Although he has only seen her a few times before, the villagers jump to the conclusion that she was his girlfriend, and Ramón is too distraught to correct them. Compounding the confusion, the girl’s family gives him her diaries, and he comes to believe that he is the secret lover she wrote about.

Meanwhile, the villagers and the police focus on who to blame for the murder. There is a surprising lack of interest in actually solving the crime, so it doesn’t take too many self-serving lies and exaggerations to settle on a guilty suspect. Nor does it take long to agree on the justice to be exacted, and that Ramón should be the instrument of that justice.

The tension mounts throughout the entire novel, as a headlong collision between an innocent man and a naive village becomes increasingly inevitable. Only a handful of people are in a position to change the course of events, but each has his or her reasons to stay silent. It comes down to the very last page to see the final outcome.

A tightly written, suspenseful story filled with well-realized characters.

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Una mañana muy temprano, Ramón descubre el cadáver de Adela en unos campos de avena cerca de Loma Grande. Ramón apenas había visto a Adela en un par de ocasiones, pero en el mismo instante en el que el muchacho cubre con su camisa el cuerpo desnudo de la muerta, comienza a difundirse el rumor de que Adela era su novia. A partir de ese momento, los hechos se irán desencadenando irremediablemente y Ramón se verá obligado a vengar la muerte de la joven. Su corazón es quien le obliga actuar, su corazón y un pueblo entero que se convierte en el protagonista de la novela, en el creador de una ofensa y de una venganza inevitable. Un dulce olor a muerte es una novela fascinante en que la pasión y el orgullo dictan cada una de las decisiones de los personajes, la venganza se convierte en destino y la verdad se muestra en su faceta más ambigua y demoledora.

Ojos de Lagarto – Bernardo Fernández BEF

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My rating: 4 stars

Layer upon layer of imagination went into constructing this delightful story. The time frame covers a huge swath between the wild west and some time before WWII. The geography ranges from the African Congo to Shanghai, and from Northern California to Mexicali. We follow the strange history of an ancient, mysterious Chinese man who journeys widely, eventually becoming the criminal leader of a labrynthine city of tunnels under the unlikely border city of Mexicali. Throughout his travels, he has carried with him the only heirlooms of his now defunct wealthy family, and now is the critical climax of his years of care and attention. We meet a wide range of characters, including P.T. Barnum, Mexican president Abelardo Rodríguez, a German spy, a hunter of exotic animals, and a veterinarian and his son, living by their wits as they escape the Mexican revolution. A fun, historic monster story that even solves the mystery of Lake Champlain. Definite recommendation.

Bajo el laberinto subterráneo de La Chinesca en Mexicali se guarda un secreto extraordinario. 1923. Una ciudad serpentea bajo el suelo de Mexicali. En ella, Pi Ying, un anciano chino traficante de opio y alcohol, ha protegido durante años un misterio que lo acompaña desde su huida de Shang Hai, cuando era apenas un niño. El secreto que se resguarda en la población fronteriza convoca a una serie de personajes peculiares: un ambicioso cazador de animales exóticos obsesionado con el rastro de una bestia portentosa, un veterinario viudo y su hijo que van por los caminos vendiendo tónicos milagrosos mientras huyen de la Revolución y sus recuerdos, y un espía del káiser Guillermo II que fracasa en su intento por contactar a Pancho Villa para proponerle una alianza militar con Alemania. Cazadores de elefantes sudaneses y de fauna insólita, recolectores de fósiles en el viejo oeste y personajes como el empresario circense P.T. Barnum, el traficante de especies salvajes Carl Hagenbeck y el presidente Abelardo L. Rodríguez desfilan por las páginas de esta historia que comienza a las orillas del lago Bangweulu, en el Congo, y concluye catastróficamente al norte de México.