War by Candlelight By Daniel Alarcón, Harper Perennial 2006, Paperback, 224 pages, $12.95
Dancing to “Almendra” By Mayra Montero (translated by Edith Grossman), Farrar, Straus and Giroux 2007, Hardcover, 261 pages, $25
We can save some time here. Read Daniel Alarcón’s book of short stories, War by Candlelight. It’s terrific. Okay, maybe you won’t like it. The stories, after all, are brutal. In the opener, “Flood,” a band of street toughs, including the heartbreakingly young narrator, migrate from trouble to prison and back before the real cataclysm strikes. In “City of Clowns,” a young reporter whose father has died recalls the crimes and deceit that shaped his childhood. In the title story, a revolutionary’s short life unfurls before us like a set of postcards mailed-out-of-sequence from Hell.
Hell, in this case, has a local address: Lima, Peru, where in the 1980s and 1990s, crazed revolutionaries and bloodthirsty government troops tore the country apart. Alarcón, who was born in Peru, and spent time there as a Fulbright scholar, gives you a pretty good taste of what that must’ve been like.
I’m trying to put my finger on how Alarcón does it – how he achieves his stunning effects. “In Lima, dying is the local sport. Those who die in phantasmagoric fashion, violently, spectacularly, are celebrated in the 50-cent papers beneath appropriately gory headlines: DRIVER GETS MELON BURST or NARCO SHOOTOUT, BYSTANDERS EAT LEAD. I don’t work at that kind of newspaper, but if I did, I would write those headlines too.”
When Hemingway was on, that was how he wrote – laying down perfectly honed sentences line by line. Alarcón’s achievement is to lead us deep into the war zone and into the homes and hearts of the people trapped there. He forces us to reflect on the twists of fate that leave some of us hanging on every word, and some of us gasping for our last real breath.
I’ll tell you what I should’ve done then – I should’ve read Alarcón’s new novel, Lost City Radio. Instead I moved on to Dancing to “Almendra” a novel set in pre-revolutionary Havana by the Cuban-born writer Mayra Montero. “Almendra” weaves a fascinating tale of American gangsters, Cuban circus performers, hard-drinking journalists, revolutionaries and reactionaries. There’s murder, mystery, love and lust. The American actor George Raft even steps onto the stage in a featured cameo.
I wanted to love this book. You know how that goes: open up to the first page, read the first paragraph, you squirm with the excitement that any new book provides. A few more pages – you’re still excited, but already a shadow has crept across the book’s spine. A seed of suspicion – a clammy fear. What if the flaws you’ve already spotted are not anomalous, but endemic?
The trouble begins in the first paragraph. “On the same day Umberto Anastasia was killed in New York, a hippopotamus escaped from the zoo in Havana. I can explain the connection. No one else, only me, and the individual who looked after the lions.” The second sentence holds the rhythm, but that third – “No one else, only me” – destroys it. It’s clunky, it’s unmusical and it highlights the narrator’s self-centeredness before we’ve even met him.
Sadly, Montero’s tin ear shows up again and again in “Almendra.” Sadly, because her captivating tale and colorful characters kept me turning the pages even as the examples of off-key prose added up. Is it unfair to criticize a novel that’s been translated from Spanish into English? Not when the translator is Edith Grossman, who has made music of Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Cervantes.
So give yourself (if you must) to Dancing to “Almendra” for its American gangsters and its Havana nightlife. But save yourself for Daniel Alarcón – for his is a relationship that will last through poverty, sickness, and war.