Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Review: City of Palaces. Mail Bag.

Review: Michael Nava. The City of Palaces. Madison, Wisconsin : Terrace Books, a trade imprint of the University of Wisconsin Press, 2014.
ISBN: 9780299299101 (cloth : alk. paper)0299299104 (cloth : alk. paper)

Michael Sedano

I was prepared to be unfair to Michael Nava, knowing The City of Palaces wasn’t going to be another Henry Rios detective novel, and I really liked those Henry Rios stories. But then I read The City of Palaces, an historical novel set among Mexico’s elites in the declining years of the Porfiriato through 1913. Sorry, Henry.

Mexico’s in steep decline. Marble and steel on the buildings, decay inside. Excess collapsed onto itself, the old ways become increasingly effete. Despised Indians with their brown skins and Nahuatl-speaking ways pack into barrios that sweep with disease. Government jobs safeguarding public health go to friends of friends. An angel of mercy infiltrates the prisons and barrios to offer hope and a few coins from her family’s shrinking treasury.

Ends justify means but they can’t buy anteojos to read the handwriting on the wall. The handsome doctor meets the veiled woman inside the prison his pamphleteering father refuses to leave. She’s hideously pockmarked from smallpox. They hook up. Chisme has them beauty and the gorgon but they truly are love. Not "in love." This is a book about Love with the big L.

Their marriage prospers in the course of the novel and the characters' humanity. Their son is two spirit, his mother wishes him happiness. Dad takes him the heck out of Mexico for the United States.

Effete societies can barely reproduce themselves. Mexico in 1897 sees a tiny aristocracy held together by the glue of appearances and free room and board for indian servants. I wonder if Nava cut out a section on casta discrimination. An inbred prejudice lurks just beyond the characters’ ken but not their vocabulary, their attitude and idiom effectively constructed by Nava to display the subtle infection of the culture.

Nava makes sure to bring out Mexico’s Indian-killing history. There’s a parade of captive Yaqui warriors, marched past looking angry, not subdued. Early on, father Cáceres tells Sarmiento,

“We are the aggressors. The Yaquis are only attempting to defend their ancestral homeland against Don Porfirio’s army. It is no different than when the Mexica resisted Cortés.”
“Would you have had the Mexica prevail” Sarmiento asked, genuinely curious.
“What’s done is done,” Cáceres replied. “My concern is not with the Indians who were killed three hundred and eighty years ago, but with those who are dying today.”

Porfirio Diaz makes a cameo appearance as a distant ghost of his former self. Francisco Madero, affectionately called Don Pancho, and Victoriano Huerta play significant roles. Nava pens a defense of Madero as a noble but Pollyanaish bumbler controlled by his minions. We see Huerta passed out face-down drunk in an upscale café where the doctor unmans Huerta, making a lifelong enemy.

The love story between the scarred Alicia—she wears smallpox as her nopal en la frente behind heavy Kabuki-like creams and opaque veils--and the soul-scarred Dr. Sarmiento has magical moments. There’s a lifelong tension between the couple that begins in the man’s hang-up on appearance. More tension grows of her unabiding faith in her Catholicism and his scientist’s training—he studied at the Sorbonne and Heidelberg—and his soulful atheism.

Readers will recognize the set-up of the mutual confession scene that kicks the novel into high gear, but will want to sit back and see how the skillful author handles the material. He pulls it off without too much “show me yours” corn.

Though the confessions fashion mutual absolution for their pasts, the effects linger over the novel. His cowardly criminal act shrinks compared to his career. Her sin was her love for a stable indio clashing against society’s conventions. Alicia sees her smallpox and mother’s cruelty as penance for sinning against generations of costumbre. The doctor fumes that it was preventable but crap like propriety keeps doctors from touching their patients. But this is what it is. War, slaughter, disintegration, death.

Henry Rios is safe. If Michael Nava wants to resurrect the guy. The City of Palaces, according to the author’s afterword, is number one of four novels; It's to be Michael Nava’s Mexican diaspora saga. It’s something completely different, certainly in Chicano Literature. Gore Vidal’s US history novels come to mind as precoursors to this series in US Literature.

To be fair to author Michael Nava, The City of Palaces stands as a constant—or for as long as you have to wait for the second novel—reminder that there’s nothing like a good historical novel to wrap yourself around this summer. At 359 pages, it’s a satisfying and thought-provoking escape into today’s yesterday.

Mail bag
Cinco Puntos Author in Publisher’s Weekly Op-ed

Blogueros Rudy Ch. Garcia and Ernest Hogan recently shook the conscience of publishing professionals by pointing to the de facto exclusion of raza writers and raza characters from speculative fiction publishing.

La Bloga recently reported on the day UC Riverside brought together nearly every living chicana chicano sci-fi/speclit writer. Garcia and Hogan were joined by Mario Acevedo, Beatrice Pito, Rosaura Sánchez, and Jesús Treviño.

There are others, but not many more. Garcia observes, In 16 years from 1976-91, 2 latino novelists were published. In the last 2 years (2012-2013), 11 latino spec authors were published, equal to the 11 published in the prior 16 years (1995-2011).

One solution these authors come up with, they’re going to keep writing and looking to help others looking to break into genre publishing. Similarly attuned, Marcela Landres says raza need to seek careers as gatekeepers--editors, readers, factota, at the big publishers.

Désirée Zamorano is the latest Latina author to catch a wave on the rising tide of inclusivity in United States publishing. And, like the consejos coming out of her fellow genre writers, the new Cinco Puntos author recommends jumping into the churn with your own stuff.

Writing in the current Publisher’s Weekly, Zamorano says:

We Latinas read books, write books, buy books—I wish I could buy more! Very often, instead of finding a vibrant tapestry—similar to the neighborhoods I live and work in—I find a monochromatic world on the page, not very different from that already displayed on the laptop and the movie screen. It is more than disheartening that my demographic remains invisible, this population that was here in so many states before statehood, the dominant ethnic group in California, the emerging dominant group in the country. It is infuriating, enraging. It fills me with so much anger that I become inarticulate.
Then I take a deep breath. And get writing.

Zamarano’s first trade novel, The Amado Women is a recent addition to Cinco Puntos catalog. Her 2011 Latina detective thriller, Human Cargo, makes a worthy addition to anyone’s summer reading list.

Mail bag
Heartland Writers Organized

From Kansas City MO, news of a leadership change at Latino Writers Collective. Gabriela Lemmons retires, Miguel M. Morales steps up to President the group. Joining Morales are Gustavo Adolfo Ayabar – Vice President; Maria Vasquez Boyd – Treasurer; Gloria Martinez Adams – Secretary; Jose Faus; Chico Sierra; Sofiana Olivera.

The group holds a general membership meeting on June 18 at The Writers Place. The same venue hosts a June 28 reading featuring Linda Rodriguez & Sergio Troncoso. For details on the group visit them on Facebook.


Desiree said...

Thanks for the shout out, estimado Michael--AND I can't wait to read The City of Palaces and a (new to me) detective series!!

Daniel A. Olivas said...

Michael, thoughtful review of a wonderful book. If you missed my LARB interview with Michael Nava about his novel, here's the link: