Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Balancing the essential and the superfluous

Opening line:
The telephone rang, and she knew she was going to die.

It ends for our heroine in a gunfight, a mad dash, and a craving for a cigarette.

I admit that, though I've been enjoying Arturo Pérez-Reverte's "literary mysteries" (whatever that means) for over a decade now, I had little interest in picking up The Queen of the South. I received the hardcover as a gift many, many months ago, but simply didn't care to read a fictional biography of a drug smuggler. Then I opened it.

Of course, it takes a long time to die. "It takes time to lose a life"; "So you die little by little for hours, and days, and years. A long death... But the more you think and the more you live, the more you die"; "Dying takes time" — we are reminded often.

The many years of Teresa Mendoza's (metaphorical) dying are being investigated by a journalist. He meets with her just once, at the beginning of the novel but at the end of the story, to establish and understand the facts of The Situation that set her adventure in motion, for the purpose of his writing a book or a film. The woman he met would never be real — sitting before him was the legend of her, in part created by him.

One review dwells on a structural problem — how can the narrator journalist know the heroine's intimate moments and innermost thoughts? Though I noticed this dissonance early on, I easily forgave it, chalking it up to the journalist's sense of romance, his fictionalization of events and admitted creative reconstruction — this is how we make legends, after all.

After being one drug smuggler's girl, then that of another, Teresa ends up in prison and makes an influential friend. She's never read a book in her life, till now. The Count of Monte Cristo.
"Books are doors that lead out into the street," Patricia would tell her. "You learn from them, educate yourself, travel, dream, imagine, live other lives, multiply your own life a thousand times. Where can you get more for you money, Mexicanita? And they also keep all sorts of bad things at bay: ghosts, loneliness, shit like that. Sometimes I wonder how you people that don't read figure out how to live your lives."

Naturally, after prison, Teresa and Patricia seek out a secret treasure, and Teresa's life begins anew. This time, she's in charge.

(Pérez-Reverte loves books. In particular, he loves Dumas. The homage paid him in The Club Dumas is obvious, and I'm told his Alatriste series of books in unabashedly, swashbucklingly musketeer-like. It's no accident either that after finishing this novel, I moved on to Dumas myself.)

Romance, adventure, honour, revenge. Dying.
How long do you last and what do you achieve while you last? Which is why everything that helps you survive is essential. The rest is superfluous. Disposable, Tesa. In my work, as in yours, you have to move within the simple margins of those two words. Essential. Superfluous. Understand?... And the second of those words includes the lives of other people.

Teresa's motivation? "More than cold-blooded calculation, ambition, or thirst for revenge" — Alvarez nodded... — "I think it was a sense of symmetry."

Amid his reconstruction of the queen's life, in one of many interludes, our narrator journalist meets up with an old friend, a gossip columnist, who reminds us: "Then there's the mystery, right?.... What happened with all of them?" So this is a mystery book after all. There is also the mystery (though I'd forgotten about it by now) of precisely what happened in the hours after that death-announcing phone call.

(I've never been satisfied with how Pérez-Reverte resolves his traditional mysteries. This book delivers in part because, not being a traditional mystery, it avoids the problem of wrapping things up too neatly (or vaguely, or unfairly), while exercising what he's mastered — the pacing, "clue"-dropping, suspense-building of the genre.)

Teresa is an incredibly sympathetic and believable woman. The way she works, the way she loves. The way she is raped. The way she dresses. The way she dissociates from herself, watching herself — checking herself — in disagreeable situations. The way she calculates. She evolves and transforms.

Reading, she'd learned in prison, especially novels, allowed her to inhabit her mind in a new way — as though by blurring the boundaries between reality and fiction, she might witness her own life as if it were happening to somebody else. Besides, teaching her things, reading helped her think differently, or think better.

"She had discovered that all the books in the world were about her."

Teresa's favourite book: Pedro Paramo.
The phrase (from an unnamed book) that impressed her most: The only salvation of the conquered is to expect no salvation.

This brief review is right on the mark:
Pérez-Reverte understands that the glamour of the narcosmuggler is rooted in the codes of revenge and honor that the futureless poor of all countries hold dear. He has Teresa clinging to that code as she returns to Mexico to face the killers of her first love in an unforgettable showdown that cements the Queen's legend in a country whose corridos — musical poems glorifying the underdog — have long championed lawless rebels.

The Queen of the South is audacious, and its heroine uncommon, but it is Pérez-Reverte's pace, unhurried and unforced, and his superb attention to detail, that makes the Spanish novelist's sixth book so mesmerizing. The Queen of the South is that rare blessing — a book by a mature writer at the top of his game, unwilling to settle for less than his best.

The Guardian:
The only force that prevents all this hard-nosed machismo from collapsing into psychopathic anarchy is its own internal honour code. "When you live crooked," a Mexican hitman soberly informs the narrator at a barbecue, "you've gotta work straight." Break your word to your fellow narcos, like Teresa's deceased pilot boyfriend, and you'll be eating lead for lunch. Although their argot is pure hispanic tough-guy talk, and their scores are settled with guns rather than swords, Mexican and Spanish narcomafiosi are ruled by a sense of obligation and loyalty every bit as powerful as that which governs the Three Musketeers. Pérez-Reverte can run from the 17th century, it seems, but he can't hide.

If you like adventure stories, read this book.

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