Friday, May 04, 2007

It Takes Two

Manuel Ramos

By Daniel Chavarría
Akashic Books, 2007

Not that it comes up all that often, but most of us would admit, just as most of us slow down and gawk at traffic accidents, that there is a peculiar kind of attraction to understanding the personality of the torturer. I suspect that for some it is a political problem. How can one human being be capable of inflicting pain and torment on another human in the name of an ideology, government, king and queen, or religion? What is it about the torturer’s belief system that enables him to brutalize, terrorize, even murder? Are all true believers susceptible to acts of horror on behalf of their particular cause? For others, the curiosity is more basic – what motivates cruelty, where does evil come from, how is it stopped?

I recently reviewed Roberto Bolaño’s excellent treatment of this theme: Distant Star (New Directions Books, 2004), a fictional character study of a Chilean torture expert, see La Bloga, January 12. Now I have finished Daniel Chavarria’s less cerebral but just as satisfying excursion into the mind and soul of a "scientific persuader," the novel Tango For A Torturer. There are several similarities and differences between the books, of course. But, for me, what is intriguing is that two respected Latin American authors, both witnesses to and participants, to different degrees, in the liberation struggles and revolutionary fervor of the latter half of the Twentieth Century, concluded that it was important to write about the ongoing debilitating impact of the atrocities that were committed against the people of Chile and Argentina by military dictatorships. These are crimes that cry out for justice, yet, to a large degree, the criminals have remained free and unpunished, not even recognized for what they have done. Through their writing, Bolaño and Chavarría have attempted to keep the topic in front of the world’s short attention span.

Chavarría’s story concerns two men, Aldo Bianchi, the victim, and Alberto Ríos, the false identity of Orlando Ortega Ortiz, known as "Triple O", the victimizer. The plot is about Aldo’s revenge, and how he and the beautiful Bini, a prostitute who works Cuban hotels, finally triumph over the sadistic Ríos. These three characters are rich in contradictions, surprises and subtleties. The victim is not a pure hero. His weaknesses are deep and unpleasant, to say the least. Bini is not the whore with the heart of gold. She relishes the trappings of her wealthy customers – high-powered automobiles, flashy clothes, a dissolute life style. But the most troubling squeamishness comes from Ríos. We learn he is an educated, culturally-aware man. He diligently exercises, watches his diet, and regularly reads philosophy. He is writing a treatise on the horrors of nature that ensure life and perpetuate a species in its biological cycle, and his research has attracted the interest of marine scientists. He can be entertaining and witty, even generous. The reader may start to appreciate his eloquence and charm. But, there is no denying that he is a monster.

This novel exposes that monster but, in the end, the mystery of the torturer's psychology remains as clouded as ever. Perhaps there is no understandable explanation for such people.

Daniel Chavarría weaves classical literature themes into his stories, e.g., The Eye of Cybele (Akashic Books, 2004), but he respects the notion that readers of his "political thrillers" expect a clever plot, exaggerated characters, bawdy humor and erotic situations. Tango for a Torturer provides all this, and more. There are some details that may cause a reader to look up from the page, perplexed. For example, a critical plot point hinges on the fact that Aldo and Alberto have the same shoe size. The reader also has to accept the pivotal roles that minor characters play in the success of the scheme set in motion by Bini and Aldo. And there are several sub-plots that get lost in the overall unfolding of the key drama. However, these minor annoyances are more than overcome by Chavarría’s insightful use of glimpses into Cuban life, something that I think many North American readers will appreciate. He allows readers to learn about things such as the important influence of Afro-Cuban religions, or the surprising revelation that the primary crime-solving institutions in the U.S. and Cuba collaborate amicably.

Readers of Chavarría’s Edgar-winning novel, Adios Muchachos, will not be surprised at the integral role of the Cuban prostitute. The back cover publisher’s blurb admits that Chavarría has two passions: classical literature (which he taught for years), and prostitutes. Apparently when he wasn’t attending to his classes on Latin and Greek literature, he studied the origins and evolution of prostitution. He also writes acclaimed books, and in addition to the Edgar he has received the Dashiell Hammett Award from the International Crime Writers Association, and several other awards and recognition, including from Cuba.

A brief note that Sherman Alexie will appear at the Tattered Cover, LoDo, Denver, on May 16, 2007, at 7:30 pm. Here’s the TC newsletter item:

Poet, screenwriter and novelist Sherman Alexie will read from and sign his new novel Flight ($13.00 Black Cat), a powerful, fast, and timely story of a troubled foster teenager who learns the true meaning of terror. Simultaneously wrenching and deeply humorous, wholly contemporary yet steeped in American history, Flight is irrepressible, fearless, and again, groundbreaking. Free tickets for the booksigning will be handed out at 6:30 pm; one ticket per person in line. Seating for the presentation prior to the booksigning is limited and available on a first-come, first-served basis to ticketed customers only.

It’s good to be back.



Anonymous said...

Excellent post for your return, Ramos.

If you ever leave again, please do leave the likes of your guest posters. A quality line-up.

Anonymous said...

Glad to have you back, Manolo.

Lisa Alvarado said...

Welcome, back, Don Manuel! I needed my noir fix!