Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Immigrant Novels: The Tattooed Soldier Redux

Michael Sedano

Last week in La Bloga, I struck out in an endeavor to recall very many Chicana or Chicano novels that tell the story of the immigrant's journey from home to their new home. La Bloga's Bloguera Gina MarySol Ruiz shared a children's book about a young girl's journey, a child who finds that strength comes from who she is, wherever she is. And I remember hearing Reyna Grande read a chapter from her upcoming novel that seems to be about the journey--enticing, so I'll have to wait 'til next month. And I recall looking at, then putting away, a novel about a group of immigrants who die in a sealed boxcar. I didn't want to read that story.

Perhaps the point is not the journey but the settling, what matters is the new world, the new life. The point came to me last week, when I journeyed to IMIX bookstore to order a copy of Hector Tobar's 1998 novel of Guatemalan immigrants. My niece wanted to read it and couldn't find it in her local library. I'd reviewed the work when it first appeared, and figured it would not be an active seller. IMIX has a highly efficient special order service, so there I was. What a pleasant surprise to find several copies of the title--now in paperback--readily available.

As most novels about immigrants, The Tattooed Soldier spends a few pages "back home", gets the immigrants to the US, then develops the plot around events that happen here, post migration. Tobar's written such a powerful novel that I have friends who read it at my behest keep reminding me--as recently as last week--how much they enjoyed the novel. If you're among those who have not yet picked up a copy, I hope the following re-run will spur you to find it. Maybe, just possibly maybe, some soulless anti-immigrant could find a modicum of understanding by reading this outstanding novel.

Hector Tobar. The Tattooed Soldier. ISBN 0140288619

Readers who enjoy reading war literature have probably read The Red Badge of Courage, All Quiet on the Western Front, The Naked and the Dead, The Iliad. Readers of Chicano literature find notable Vietnam war fiction to add to such a list: Alfredo Vea's Gods Go Begging, Charley Trujillo's Dogs of Illusion, Daniel Cano's Shifting Loyalties. Hector Tobar's The Tattooed Soldier offers a worthy companion to reading shelves of war literature readers, with the added dimension of being an immigrant's story with a close kinship to Chicano Literature.

Tobar plants Guatemala's filthy US-sponsored war against its native Americans in the middle of Los Angeles. The writer's focus is the humanity of war in telling a story that ends with a street murder during the Rodney King riots and begins with a political assassination of a mother and child in a Guatemalan village and a kidnapping of an indian teenager some years before.

Antonio and Jose Juan get evicted into homelessness as the 300 page book opens. For Antonio, homelessness is yet another downward spiral that started when he steps into the puddles of blood flowing from his wife's partially clad corpse and son Carlitos' machine- gunned body sprawled amid childish toys, building blocks. Ever industrious as well as lucky, the Mexicano Jose Juan works his way back to a home and respectability. This loyal friend brings Antonio back into reality as the book closes.

A teenager's mother warns him to come right back from town. Instead he's kidnapped into the Guatemalan army and never returns to his mother's corn patch or hears her voice again. The soldier murders Elena and Carlitos and eyes Antonio who is fleeing to the United States in mortal fear. That they meet up again in Los Angeles is a convincing coincidence, so fully does Tobar fill his world with believable details.

The tragedy of war goes without saying. Its ironies likewise. The humanity of war favors the victor. Except Tobar has chosen to make both sides, Antonio and the soldier, decent humans. Except Longoria was once a vicious murderer trained at School of the Americas. Except Longoria is a small indian who speaks in a peasant's voice serving an Army contemptuous of indians and their voices.

Longoria plays chess, he never wins. The butt of the locals' jokes at the MacArthur Park senior citizens tables (Longoria could be another Mickey Acuña, but a vicious one), the soldier stays aloof from the tawdry swindlers he works for in a crooked paqueteria. Offended small business tipos might object to the stereotype but it serves the perfect backdrop for the life Longoria has found in the United States. Longoria is customer relations; when a customer complains that money never got to its addressee, Longoria intimidates them into accepting their being cheated.

Antonio finds friendship among the homeless camped on a hillside overlooking downtown Los Angeles' skyscrapers until the police and bulldozers scrape the hillside clean of all traces of the habitation. A small band comes together retreating to the PG&E tunnel and safe haven.

Tobar's homeless men offer a tribute to sentimental image-making and useful ways to advance his story. The Mayor has sage advice, Frank helps Antonio buy a gun from a Chicana in the projects.

Tobar makes it clear that looting and disorder are aberrant behaviors. Antonio gives a strong speech against theft and looting; bystanders give dirty looks to people suspect of carrying looted goods. Even the homeless, Frank and the Mayor, steal only small quantities, of necessities. The reader understands that Frank somehow deserves to hear the news once again on his portable radio.

The Tattooed Soldier will leave the reader curiously uncentered, in part because Longoria, damaged as a boy, is not wholly evil, in part because Tobar is particularly adept at reversing victim and attacker. The story of the wounded Longoria crawling three blocks pursued by his attacker retraces Antonio's journey from home to tunnel. Antonio never forgot the face of a man first seen in a Guatemala Park, only to see that face again, across a chessboard in a park, in Los Angeles, (but Antonio forgets the date his wife and son were butchered by that man), where Antonio disables the sergeant, accelerating the tattooed sergeant's own inevitable finish as his past catches up with him.

In today's dispiriting anti-immigrant milieu, Hector Tobar's moving exploration of these two immigrants' lives might help us for a moment set aside the hatred and instead go searching out our mutual humanity.

And if pigs could fly, they'd be my uncle.

See you next week. Read! Raza.



cindylu said...

I was reading the book while camping last summer with some Guatemalan friends of the family. It struck me that what I considered fiction was very much their reality. That experience was very sobering. (link to my blog post on the discussion)

On a separate note, I loved Tobar's descriptions of LA.

msedano said...

cindylu: when i was in the army i would take my books up to my rincon personal where deep shade, huge boulders and the swiftly moving stream kept the heat and humidity under control. that, plus the books, helped me keep my sanity. thanks for reminding me. LA adds its own character to the book, que no?