But one day I shall find a land corrupted and depressed beyond all knowledge, where the children are starving for lack of milk, a land unhappy, although enlightened, and cry: “I shall stay here until I have made this place good.” Malcolm Lowry.
With The Reef (Arrecife, in Spanish) Juan Villoro has achieved something quite remarkable: a novel that offers a microcosm of the state of modern Mexico – perhaps, by extension, the entire postmodern world – within a luxury hotel. The activities for residents of the hotel include extreme sports, fake kidnappings and beatings, excursions to the jungle and encounters with poisonous snakes; all intended to stimulate a state of excitement that always runs the risk of – and sometimes tips over into – violence. Tourists from the USA and Europe, an international leisure elite who are bored with more conventional touristic fare, flock to the hotel in Kukulcán, on Mexico’s Caribbean coast, a hotel whose head offices are, of course, in London, the money-laundering capital of the world.
At the centre of it all, as if by accident, is our narrator, a lame, hard-drinking 53-year old ex-rocker with a missing finger and a very poor memory. Tony Góngora is an amiable sort who has dropped too much acid (and much else besides) over the years, and lost a few marbles en route. Early in the story, we are offered this elemental insight into Tony’s soul:
‘Walking back, I spotted a little transparent gecko. I have a certain weakness for lizards: they’re great company for drug addicts. When you’re high, even the presence of an insect feels intolerable and nearly all other animal species seem to pose a threat. But lizards move so gracefully, and they glow in the dark. I liked to watch them scurrying around like colourful embodiments of my ideas. Back then I rarely had any ideas, but the lizards, electric blue, bright yellow and green, made me think I did.’
Mario Muller was the lead singer in their old band Los Extraditables – who once infamously opened for The Velvet Underground (Lou Reed, “a walking skull in dark sunglasses” looks at Tony “like he’s the next piece of trash”) – and Tony played bass. Mario is now manager of The Pyramid, and his labyrinthine scheming and manoeuvring amply justify his moniker of ‘Der Meister’, originally applied in homage to the medieval mystic Meister Eckhart. Tony, meanwhile, sets the fish in the hotel’s aquarium to music: his job is “to line the sand of the aquarium with sensors that would translate the fish’s movements into sound.” The two have known each other since they were young kids, and having teamed up again at The Pyramid, Mario helps Tony to remember things that Tony’s errant brain cells made off with long ago. He is only partly successful in this endeavour but we, as readers, share in Mario’s colourful reconstruction of their shared past lives in the process. During insomniac nights in his office, Mario fills in the gaps in Tony’s memory with things that may or may not have happened, interspersed with helpful advice: “The man who fails and makes amends is braver than the man who has never failed.” Tony isn’t so sure. He struggles to remember anything at all, even a seemingly crucial event from their early teens when, drunk on cheap vodka, they were chased through an abandoned building by a dishevelled, bearded giant in a long black coat, covered in “infinite layers of filth” and flaunting a massive red erection. Of this and other ‘memories’, Tony wonders: “Was it a dream or some delusion emerged from fragments of memory.”
Near the start of the novel a friend of Tony’s, a diver by the name of Ginger Oldenville, is murdered – ‘Even in death he wore the dreamy look of a man gazing up at seagulls’. This event serves as the device by which we examine the different characters involved in running, and policing, The Pyramid. This being Mexico, it is no surprise to encounter cartel capos, corrupt policemen, violence against women, (real) abductions and trails of dirty money lining the way. The story is set in the southern country of the Maya, and the hotel itself, as its name indicates, takes the form of a pyramid, a structure which, a long time ago, served as a place of interment for the dead. By contrast, in the novel, the descendants of the Maya, the hotel’s employees, “didn’t appreciate the culture of their ancestors. What they appreciated was that they came from outer space.” One of the sales gimmicks of the hotel is a ‘pop cosmology’ approach to Mayan history and culture, playing on this version of alien visitation, which complements the other faddish accoutrements of the hotel; for instance, Tony’s sometime girlfriend, Sandra, is an instructor of Ashtanga yoga and Tibetan kung fu who enjoys being pleasured by the stump of Tony’s phantom finger. She is from the USA, living in Mexico without a visa (a nice retort to Trumpian xenophobia) and her teeth are responsible for one of Tony’s best one-liners: ‘I don’t like the aggressive teeth of gringas’.
But the real triumph of the story, to my mind at least, is the compassion and integrity that lies at the core of the relationship between Mario, Tony, and two vulnerable inmates of a ‘shelter for ruined lives’, one of them a child. While the friendship between Tony and Mario offers a journey into the past, the novel also offers the prospect of a tentative journey into the future, laden with all the doubts of an individual – or a country – embarking on a process of recovery from terrible abuse and violence. In this way, however small, the novel manages to raise a glimmer of hope in humanity’s capacity for self-repair. I carried that away with a degree of gratitude, in spite of everything else that we know, or suspect.
The Reef is published by George Braziller, New York, and translated with admirable fluency by Yvette Siegert. At the time of writing, readers of English need to purchase US editions of Villoro’s work, as – incredibly for a man regarded by many as Mexico’s most compelling and original writer – he remains unpublished in the UK, apart from a couple of his (excellent) essays in The Sorrows of Mexico (MacLehose, 2015) . Also highly recommended are his collection of short stories, The Guilty (Brazillier, 2015) and his masterful, probing and philosophical study of football, God is Round (Restless Books, 2016).