Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Review: A Tuesday Like Today

Michael Sedano

Cecilia Urbina. A Tuesday Like Today. Translated by Clare E. Sullivan. San Antonio: Wings Press, 2008.
ISBN: 0916727475 ISBN 13: 9780916727475

Someone rings the doorbell, rousing Márgara from a whiskey-induced nap. Is it David? Has the mysterious-stranger-become-lover tracked her down after so short a delay?

This is how Cecilia Urbina's novel ends, with an unanswered question, a drowsy Márgara, an unfinished novel on the floor beside her chair as she rises to go answer her door.

Of course it's David, isn't it? This is a romance, isn't it?

Urbina's and Sullivan's A Tuesday Like Today wends its way from the ruins of Cambodian temples, to Bali, to Mexico City, with a detour via a story-within-a-story to the cowboy and indian Old West. Exotic locales with a pair of exotic sisters and a story, that, once it takes hold, holds a reader's interest to see how Urbina develops the tantalizing clues and parallels she weaves into her story.

At first, the story seems oddly out of place. The rich by marriage Camila, protective older sister Márgara, traveling the world on Camila's husband's credit card while he works on some mysterious, possibly illegal, business in Europe.

The novel's story within a story fuzzes the boundaries between the history of Camila's namesake grandmother and the sisters' pursuit of the definitely out of place David Masters-Iturbe, a piano playing Mexican they stumble upon in the bar of the Grand Hotel, who knows the history and ins and outs of Angkor Wat and other enchanting places.

The sisters become captivated by the urbane David. Camila, the married sister with the man-killing stare, seems to have the upper hand, even disappearing into the night with David while Márgara retires to their room barely containing her big sister dudgeon, yet nurturing her bitterness at a failed relationship of her own. Camila always gets the man.

David is like a local. Puts his jeep at the women's disposal, along with his services as guide and raconteur. The first hint that something lurks beneath the surface comes when the women spin David a family legend of Camila's namesake in Victorian Mexico involving the Decameron, a forbidden flirtation, and a handsome but ultimately worthless husband. But the question hangs over them, who is David, why is he at home in this remote part of Southeast Asia, does he have a shady occupation as does Camila's husband? Is history repeating itself?

The family legend of grandmother Camila's flirtation then disastrous marriage to the bad poet cheating gambler Francisco is turned upside down when the sisters invite David to tell his story. Rather than take on his own history, David fabricates the unknown history of Francisco, between the flirtation and the grandparents' union some years later. David confesses he weaves a story of lusty gamblers and fearless women out of countless of movies he's seen, but to Camila and Márgara, David has masked elements of his life in the cloak of the fable.

Their escapist evening tales come to an ugly confrontation with their surroundings when the tourists meet dozens of children missing eyes, feet, legs; victims of land mines left behind by various invaders. It's a searing fact that later bears a direct connection to David's story, his search for a sister missing somewhere in the Cambodian jungles.

I was hoping for a bit of ribaldry, a la the Decameron, but Urbina underplays it with nothing lubricious. A bit of understated sex on the beach, the lovers' two-day tryst in Bali, very little urgency one might find in a U.S. novel. But then, this is a Mexican novel. Unlike numerous translations, A Tuesday Like Today has a smooth continuity that doesn't bump up against the original language and culture. In English, it's an involving story. In Spanish, it won the Premio Coatlicue 2008, as did Elena Poniatowska, putting Urbina in the finest literary company.

Wings Press is not some powerhouse advertising behemoth--Urbina's novel is not yet on the publisher's website, so for your fortunate reader friends who merit an excellent recommendation they're not going to find at some mega store, order and read your copy of A Tuesday Like Today and pass it along.
Coming in at only 160 pages, the novel passes quickly through one's hands and into a friend's.


That's the antepenultimate Tuesday of the last month of 2008. Uau, wow, and Santa Claus around the corner desperation. Still time to mail order hard-to-find titles, or visit your local independent bookseller. See you next week.

mvs