Tag Archives: Caribbean

The Funhouse at Hell’s Edge: The Reef by Juan Villoro

18 Jun

 

juan villoro

Juan Villoro

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. Thus far, 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 thus far 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).

Brief from Nicaragua

15 Feb

At four in the morning there is a noise of riotous celebration from the nearby square, but I cannot be bothered to make it to the balcony to discover its source. Then there is an hour or so of quiet before the deafening screech of birdsong that signals both the beginning and the end of daylight in the tropics. From the trees circling the park hundreds of birds dance, joust, leap and dive in a frenzied avian fiesta.

 

Cloud forest at Mombacho

 

Yesterday began with an excursion to the cloud forest volcano of Mombacho – in which we saw howler monkeys

 

howler monkey from rear

 

and many birds, including the black headed trogon (trogón cabecinegro, in Spanish) pictured here,

 

Black headed trogon

 

after visiting two coffee plantations, sampling their delicious brews, and witnessing a possum asleep in a bucket

 

Possum in a bucket

Our excellent guide José, and friends, at Mombacho

 

– and concluded with an interminable poetry reading, extremely mixed in quality, but beginning with a single (new) poem by Ernesto Cardenal on the sacking of the museum of Baghdad, and ending with Derek Walcott, again reading a single poem, Sea Grapes. Between these two octogenarian maestros – and with one or two exceptions – a number of distinctly indifferent poets went on for far too long, though I will refrain from mentioning the worst offenders.

Granada is an extraordinary festival, which is growing in importance and recognition, but which needs reining in and the exertion of greater balance in the selection of invited poets. This year, like last, I have met some wonderful individuals, made new friends, and learned a lot, but have also had to listen to far too much bad poetry. Fortunately, Walcott’s Sea Grapes does not fall into this category.

 

 Sea Grapes

That sail which leans on light,
tired of islands,
a schooner beating up the Caribbean

for home, could be Odysseus,
home-bound on the Aegean;
that father and husband’s

longing, under gnarled sour grapes, is
like the adulterer hearing Nausicaa’s name
in every gull’s outcry.

This brings nobody peace. The ancient war
between obsession and responsibility
will never finish and has been the same

for the sea-wanderer or the one on shore
now wriggling on his sandals to walk home,
since Troy sighed its last flame,

and the blind giant’s boulder heaved the trough
from whose groundswell the great hexameters come
to the conclusions of exhausted surf.

The classics can console. But not enough.

 

Or you can listen to Walcott reading it here.