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issue 35: Mar - Apr 2003

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Adios Muchachos by Daniel Chavarría: Serpent’s Tail (UK), 2003
translated from the Spanish by Carlos Lopez

Back in the distant past books and films in translation always seemed to verge on the arty side. This has changed over the last ten years or so with the proliferation of popular fiction in translation. The last two offerings I have read for TBR (both from the Spanish) - Raul Nuñez’s The LonelyHearts Club and Pedro Juan Gutiérrez’s Dirty Havana Trilogy - are typical of this trendy new wave. These novels are anything but arty; in fact, I doubt there is a word as long as ‘pretentious’ in either one. Adios Muchachos follows in this tradition. For those having a sense of déjà vu this is the UK’s first publishing, and Serpent’s Tail, following the 2001 release in the US, have given the book a graphic-design cover, but made it brighter, more modern and, appropriately, toned down the illustration to a less tarty looking girl. The cover boasts ‘2002 Edgar Award Winner’ for best original paperback; and Martin Cruz Smith’s blurb: ‘Pulp fiction in Castro’s Cuba…sex, scheming, and, well, more sex’. So, we have a mystery-cum-sex book (sic).

The opening line says a lot about the speed, style and content of what follows: "When Alicia decided to become a bicycle hooker, her mother agreed to sell a ring that had been in the family for five generations." Straight in, no messing about, we know mum is going to invest heavily so her daughter can become a prostitute. Not your everyday family setup then. In fact mum cooks fantastic meals for the foreign-tourist-johns that Alicia brings home through a scam with her built-to-break-down bike. It is a good investment and soon the two have a healthy stockpile of refrigerators, air conditioners and so on as Alicia doesn’t really do it for money; she is even insulted if money is offered. No, what she wants is a stinking rich husband who lives anywhere other than Cuba, so to blatantly come across as a hooker is not on.

The scam goes something like this: You are a rich tourist, Cuba is full of hookers, the sex tourist trade is huge so getting laid is no problem, but then a beautiful girl with an incredible arse cycles past. She is carrying what looks like rolled-up architectural drawings in a knapsack - obviously a student. Suddenly the pedal falls off and the girl is sent sprawling on the ground. You help her up, dust her down and, being a gentleman with a grateful curvaceous babe on your arm, you offer to take her, and broken bike, home. Here you meet a mother who thanks you profusely and offers to cook for you. There is a photo of a painting of the girl in the nude, you are taken to see the original which is in the girl’s bedroom, and even if you are ugly and fat with an erection problem, you are made to feel very at home. Suddenly something happens, like the creaking fan stops running, and this makes the girl angry. After sex you offer to pay, girl gets angrier, so, you think, she is not a whore, she must have screwed you because she likes you. You offer to buy a new fan/air conditioner/bicycle /replace the food /buy even more food etc. Hell, you think, she is so cute and smart and likes me for what I am, I could even marry her!

Now, it is up to Alicia to find out how rich you are before she says ‘yes’. She has a shortlist but nothing has really come along. Then one day her choreographed bike trick lures in Victor King and suddenly scammer meets scammer. What Victor (a dead ringer for Mel Gibson) really wants is too much a part of the plot to reveal here, but he has a curiously mysterious wife, Elizabeth, and her needs are very interesting indeed. In the lucrative position of a kept woman Alicia finds herself with lots of money, surrounded by luxury she could only once imagine, servicing selected business contacts of the Dutch conglomerate Victor works for. But an innocent disaster leads to more scams and double-dealings to escape possible arrest and imprisonment, and one is left with the type of farcical situation Hollywood would love to make a movie of but just couldn’t because of the content and subject matter.

This is a fun book - short, fast, funny, mildly erotic but with tragedy, of a kind, also woven in. The author is apparently a classics professor and if one wanted to look closer at this work I suppose they could find elements of classic Greek comedy, but being ignorant of this fact certainly wouldn’t hinder one’s enjoyment one iota. In fact it was a bit pretentious of me even to mention it. MGS

Strictly Casual: Fiction for Women in Love, edited by Amy Prior: Serpent’s Tail (UK), 2003

For some diverting reading try out this anthology of sixteen short stories by such writers as A.M. Homes, Pagan Kennedy, Julia Bell and Laura Hird. As editor Amy Prior states in the introduction: "The days of an easy Mills-and-Boon ride are over. For the single girl, it seems relationships are becoming a much trickier business, fraught with complications and confusions previous generations probably never could have predicted . . . . The outcome: there are now far fewer ground rules in love. The moral: we just have to make them."

It’s true, I can’t conceive of my mother ever having been in the situation of the thirty-year-old single girl in Elizabeth Graver’s "Between": she’s living with a handsome and affable gay, Paolo, who cooks, shares the housework and is her best friend. Each dates others, and they even try at relationships, but can’t seem to let go of their comfortable, hassle-free "marriage." Bridget O’Connor’s "Inappropriate Random" gives us three good-time girls knocking back triple gins during Happy Hour at the local pub. Then, as can happen, one turns sad and teary, and the efforts of the others to help her along prove to be disastrous (and very funny). In Laura Hird’s "The Happening" a single girl awakens in an alcoholic haze the morning after that most dangerous of annual events - the Christmas office party. She must now try to figure out just who the naked teenage boy is asleep in her bed.

Brett Ellen Block’s "The High Month" follows a cheeky girl who’s just "stolen" her boyfriend’s Mustang. He’s nuts over it, she’s jealous and just wants to teach him a lesson, but all doesn’t go according to plan. Caren Gussoff’s "Love Story" follows the business-like correspondence of a single girl who, on the referral of a friend, applies to a guy for "the open position as your girlfriend" and dutifully includes her résumé. Detachment also figures in Anne-Marie Payne’s "Web Diary of AMP." Here we follow a media writer whiz, who prefers relating to others electronically, on her slide down the chute during the dot com crash.

A female bike messenger in London meets with a lovely lady every Wednesday at Espresso Espresso in Julia Bell’s charming tale "Strictly Casual"; while in Bonny Grier’s "A Map of the Tube" a spoiled, wealthy, overweight New York Buppy, in love with an English guy after a one-night stand on Martha’s Vineyard, tries to track him down in London; she’s pathetic but has plenty of conviction, and her sassy voice is funny as hell.

Taking an edgier turn, Cris Mazza’s "Cookie" traces the life of a young woman who breeds, trains and shows Shetland sheepdogs at her very own dog facility behind her home; alone in her world of dogs all is well, but her equilibrium is thrown off balance when strange neighbors move next door and her water delivery man begins to come on to her. There is unease as well in A.M. Homes’ "Raft in Water, Floating" where a dreamy American teenager seems to have created her own world, afloat on a raft at home in the pool.

The darkest and most perverse of the stories is Barbara Gowdy’s "We So Seldom Look on Love," which follows the making of a female necrophile. She becomes a hearse driver in her teens and what goes on behind the closed doors of the funeral home would make Poppy Z. Brite proud. It’s positively gross and I loved it. Have I mentioned Pagan Kennedy yet? She’s in top form in "Fish Without a Bicycle," where an environmental worker must come to terms with her boyfriend’s sudden split. And there are more stories as well.

Strictly Casual is a fun read and says something, too, about the ‘new world order’ of the single female: she must indeed make her own ground rules. The women in these stories seemed oh-so familiar - like who hasn’t over-indulged at an office party? - and I enjoyed following their escapades. Necrophilia is a bit outside my realm of experience, but hey, that’s just this girl’s thing! You can’t stand between a woman and love. And don’t try to predict what she’ll get up to. Twenty-first century, mate. J.A. [See Laura Hird’s story "The Happening" in this issue of TBR.]

© 2003The Barcelona Review
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 tbr 35           March - April 2003 

-Short Fiction
      Alexei Sayle: Barcelona Plates
      Laura Hird: The Happening
      Barbara Lefcowitz: Medea, The Girl from Albania, The Walking Tree
  picks from back issues:
      Des Dillon: The Blue Hen
      Pedro Juan Gutiérrez: Buried in Shit
and Stars and Losers

      Gretchen McCullough: March 2003: Letter from Cairo

      Sue Thomas: Spivak

     with Scottish author Laura Hird

     All About Books
      Answers to last issue’s Graham Greene quiz

-Book Reviews
      Adios, Muchachos by Daniel Chavarría
     Strictly Casual: Fiction by Women on Love, edited by Amy Prior

-Special Links
      writers speak out on the issue of war

-Regular Features
      Book Reviews (all issues)
      TBR Archives (authors listed alphabetically)

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