Monday, May 31, 2010

“Day of the Dead”: Novelist examines futility of war through events of a century ago

Book review by Daniel Olivas

In his new novel, Day of the Dead (Floricanto Press, $25.95 paperback), Manuel Luis Martinez shows us Mexico during the Revolution through the eyes of Berto Morales, an unremarkable man whose life crumbles when his wife, six months pregnant, is raped and murdered.

Martinez's narrative is tough and unsparing as we follow Morales on his quest to find his wife's murderers and exact a form of justice. But his journey becomes complicated as he develops friendships, and even falls in love, against the brutal backdrop of the Revolution.

Martinez is a native Texan who attended St. Mary's University in San Antonio, completed a master of arts in creative writing at Ohio State University, and then earned a doctorate from Stanford University. He is an associate professor at Ohio State University, teaching 20th-century American literature, American studies, Chicano-Latino studies and creative writing.

Day of the Dead is certainly a departure from Martinez's previous novels, Crossing (Bilingual Press) and Drift (Picador USA), both of which touched on contemporary issues.

"The reason I set Day of the Dead during the Mexican Revolution was because I wanted, partially, to reflect on the morass that is the U.S. involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq, but I didn't want to write directly about the conflict," he told me.

"At the same time, Berto's story had been something I wanted to write for 20 years, but I hadn't gotten to it because I knew I needed to spend more time in Mexico and to educate myself a great deal on Mexican history and politics before I could start."

Martinez's research is readily apparent from the first few pages of the novel, particularly in passages depicting the almost-random violence visited upon Mexico's populace.

"I stayed close to the actual accounts of the battle for Torreon," he said. "It was a horrific war aimed largely at terrifying innocent people."

Through Berto's eyes, the Revolution offers no obvious delineation between heroes and villains.

"I think that history shows that most starters of wars have no idea how awful a price war exacts," Martinez said. "People get caught up in nationalist fervors, or they begin to believe the propaganda that war is justified, that it will be quick and decisive, a thing of 'shock and awe' that somehow rights great wrongs."

"So I do think (moral ambiguity) is a general aspect of war, but in Berto's case, I wanted to bring this principle down to the individual level. The moral ground is always shifting, and once one discovers that, the reason for war becomes almost impossible to grasp."

Regardless of a person's view of war and its repercussions, Day of the Dead tells a compelling story of an ordinary man's attempt to make sense out of staggering loss during one of the most violent chapters of Mexico's history. By any measure, this is a potent and enthralling novel.

[This review first appeared in the El Paso Times.]

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