Friday, August 29, 2014

"Prayers for the Stolen," by Jennifer Clement

“Prayers for the Stolen” is a novel about innocence being violated with impunity, because it is innocence, and it is good, and it is weak.

If you are in the habit of shrugging off sanguinary stories of Mexican mass murder as the woes of people who probably got involved with things they should not have, Jennifer Clement's narrative will cure you of that habit.

“Prayers for the Stolen” depicts the lives of a dozen or so women, living on a hill in the jungles outside Acapulco, who are bereft of men and very vulnerable.

Says narrator Ladydi of the place where most of the yarn unwinds, “I thought of our angry piece of land that once held a real community, but was ruined by the criminal world of drug traffickers and the immigration to the United States. Our angry piece of land was a broken constellation and each little home was ash.”

The immigration is responsible for all the men leaving and never coming back, the drug traffickers are responsible for the “stealing” of pretty girls, without fathers to protect them, as merchandise in the sex trade.

That's the set up. Newborn baby girls are announced as boys, and little ladies are disguised as little men to throw off the drug lords' dragnets. When that no longer works, mothers strain to make the adolescent females ugly by blacking out their teeth and short-cropping their hair.

The girls and their mothers have dug deep holes on the mountainside. Their ears are attuned to the most distant rumbling of SUVs (the Narco's vehicle of choice), which triggers a run for the holes where the daughters will hide.

It's not much of a defense and the women are exposed to the most vicious kind of predators. Going any further along the narrative arc would be to drop spoilers, but it does not give too much away to say the story is also about the dissolution of traditional communities and the displacement of indigenous peoples in Mexico.

Says Ladydi of one acquaintance made along the way:

[Luna] was a small, dark brown Mayan Indian from Guatemala with straight black hair. I was a medium-sized, dark brown mix of Spanish and Aztec blood from Guerrero, Mexico, with frizzy, curly hair, which proved I also had some African slave blood. We were just two pages from the continent's history books. You could tear us out and roll us into a ball and throw us in the trash.”

Which is pretty much how their rights and plights are handled.

Clement keeps it simple, clean, yet colorful, and tells an engaging story that gives a human face to the femme fatalities in Mexico's war with its own dark soul and that of its neighbor to the North.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

"Victus," by Albert Sánchez Piñol

Martí Zuviría, the protagonist of “Victus,” has allowed the fates and furies to convince him of his own wickedness.

The nonagenarian military engineer's resume includes service on behalf of His Majesty Carlos III of Austria, the Confederate States of America, Prussia, the Turkish Empire, the Comanche, The Tsar of Russia, and the Creek, Oglala, and Ashanti Nations, to name a few.

“Victus,” nonetheless, engages his early years. First as a cadet at a French institute at Bazoches where military engineering is imbued with a strong dose of mysticism. Later, putting his theories into practice during an early 18th century European conflict.

There is something of Thackery's “The Luck of Barry Lyndon,” to “Victus” (Lived).

For all of Zuviría's self-loathing, his profession has landed him in rough historical currents and he does little more than take up cudgel's on behalf of whatever side the waters have deposited him. In fact, during the war before us in “Victus,” he works for both.

That war is between an alliance of French and Spanish Bourbons hoping to install a Philip on the throne in Madrid and a “Grand Alliance” of England, the Dutch, and Catalonia, among others, to prevent this coronation and establish Austrian Archduke Karl as Spain's regent.

But Spaniards were cool to Karl (Carlos) and he returned to Vienna causing the English to pull out and the coalition to unravel, while leaving Catalonia exposed to Bourbon repression and control.

Victus” is about the siege of Barcelona and the massacre of its inhabitants at the hands of Bourbon troops led by one James Fitz-James, the Duke of Berwick. 

Author Albert Sánchez Piñol is a writer who employs the Catalan tongue. Whether or not his choosing to dramatize (romanticize?) the historical moment (1714) of Catalonia's absorption by Bourbon Spain has anything to do with the current push by those desiring independence from Spain to convene a referendum on the question, we cannot say.

Zuviría was apparently a rare talent of much use when it came to the business of digging trenches, establishing bastions, razing up ramparts and other things important to either mounting, or resisting, a siege.

Through him Piñol can introduce the reader to a gallery of significant, but largely forgotten historical figures. There is the Duke of Vauban, under whom Zuviría studied military engineering. The Duke of Berwick was apparently taken with the young man and they conducted an affair before and during the war. There is the hard-shelled, noble-hearted commander in charge of the Catalonian defense, Villaroel and the romantic “miquelet” guerrilla, Ballester, who carries the banner of the peasantry.

Zuviría's first-person accounting of the tragic events is told, or translated into, a nineteenth century novelistic voice, world weary, bawdy, slathered in black humor. History provided Piñol with the twists and turns to justify the narrator's beleaguered bitterness but at least at the outset of his long career, the young engineer's heart seemed to be in the right place.

Only the magnitude of the horror Barcelona endured could have knocked him off his axis.