Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Review: Marie Arana. Lima Nights.

NY: Random House, 2009.
ISBN: 978-0-385-34258-2 (0-385-34258-6)

Michael Sedano

Maria walks into the central city crowd, homeless, destitute, the rest of her life in front of her. And that’s that. Bluhm chases her, losing ground until suddenly she is not there.
After twenty years with Maria, before that life with a wife, his mother, two kids, a maid, Carlos Bluhm stares into the brownness of the city numb with pain, oblivious to the crowd’s resentment of his gringoness on their streets. In the distance, Bluhm’s German-Peruvian pals call his name to bring him back into their protective embrace. So ends Marie Arana’s Lima Nights. It’s a novel whose pages you keep turning not because the characters are endearing—quite the opposite—but to see if there’s a point to Carlos Bluhm’s loser of a life.

Maria has never been there throughout the novel, despite her pivotal role in the mess that is Bluhm’s life. He first spots her at a taxi dance bar, Lima Nights, where women keep men buying liquor, then after hours making whatever deals they can turn. An experienced woman counsels Maria to capture a man’s attention by slipping her datos into the guy’s coat pocket. Make a good choice and a woman earns long-term security and a taste of the good life that comes of being a man’s mistress.

Maria chooses Carlos, a forty-something man out on the town with his three pals. Not that Maria’s been on the job all that long, or other work for that matter. She’s fifteen years old, a couple weeks from turning legal. Maria desperately wants out of a life in Lima’s worst slum, her mother an alcoholic who takes in men and laundry to support Maria and her two brothers. Talk about highly motivated to do whatever it takes to shake free of that futureless history, that’s Maria. If something good has come of Maria’s years with Carlos it’s the slim chance that her future will not be to return to that slum and her mother’s footsteps.

But Lima Nights is not Maria’s story. And it’s not Carlos Bluhm’s, despite his central role. Lima Nights is a political novel. Marriage politics looms above all, defining the tragedy that comes to familia Bluhm. Arana casts a cold, subjective eye on men’s philandering and women’s tolerance. Except for Oscar the shrink, the cohort are scions of rich families down on their luck. With their grandfathers’ economic empires dismantled, the men live in Lima’s elegant houses but work regular jobs like camera salesman, appliance store entrepreneur, hotel manager. Bluhm struggles to make ends meet; to pay for his pleasures he begins dismantling his heritage, selling family silver and pre-hispanic artifacts.

Maria never gives a conscious thought to what she’s done to Bluhm’s family, other than one uncomfortable moment staring into the eyes of Bluhm’s younger son, who is older than Maria and who finds Maria beautiful. The women’s attitudes range from bitter resentment of the men covering for each other to zero tolerance only when confronted by hard proof. That’s Bluhm’s wife. Only when confronted with firm evidence of Bluhm’s tryst with the Indian girl, does the wife move out, taking Bluhm’s mother with her, and the maid. Maria moves into the empty house the first night. It is an empty dream but she takes full advantage of it, investing the next twenty years of escape in making the nest a comfortable home.

Bluhm’s friends cannot understand his actions. Not that the girl is not alluring, nor that she’s only fifteen. Only the psychiatrist is troubled by the child’s age. For his part, Bluhm anxiously waits until her birthday to make his first physical move on her. Maria’s main fault is being a chola--brown-skinned India. Indians like her, according to Bluhm’s buddies, are good for a one-night stand but not someone to settle down with. It’s an attitude Maria feels too, thinking herself disposable to men like Bluhm.

This vicious prejudice permeates Bluhm’s light-skinned society. It is the immovable force against the irresistible force of Peru’s indigenous and mestizo masses. This ugly undercurrent of hatred converts Lima Nights from a sadness-infused battle of the sexes fable to a frustrating metaphor for Peru’s decaying colonialism. The intractable divide between cholas like Maria and white-skinned Europeans like the Bluhm’s German-Peruvian social circle offers no escape to either side. There is hope. Bluhm’s sons wash their hands of their father’s past—neither of them wants nor needs the old place, they’ve carved out their own fortunes by dint of their own labor. Just as there’s hope that Maria’s future will not be like her past, if she can parlay into a job what she’s learned as a chola living a middle-class gringo life. If not, there’s always the slum, or the Shining Path, or something less.

A ver, Maria. Suerte. Carlos, you did it to yourself and whatever happens next, you have it coming. Readers have it coming to them to enjoy Arana's Lima Nights.

There's the second Tuesday of June 2009. A Tuesday like any other Tuesday, except you are here. And thank you for visiting La Bloga.


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