The Lady Mata­dor’s Ho­tel by Cristina Gar­cía, Scrib­ner/Simon & Schus­ter, 209 pages

Pasatiempo - - In Other Words - — Michael Wade Simp­son

A Mex­i­can-Ja­panese-Amer­i­can fe­male bull­fighter; a weight-lift­ing Latin Amer­i­can gen­eral with a ruth­less past; a Cuban poet and his worka­holic Amer­i­can wife on a mis­sion to adopt a baby; a Korean busi­ness­man with a preg­nant teenage lover and sui­ci­dal im­pulses — these are just some of the char­ac­ters Cristina Gar­cía holes up in a lux­ury ho­tel in an un­named Cen­tral Amer­i­can cap­i­tal where bombs go off, killings are plot­ted, anony­mous love af­fairs and ghost vis­i­ta­tions are com­mon, and the whole coun­try, with its his­tory of dic­ta­tor­ship, is on the verge of a pres­i­den­tial elec­tion. In the back­ground, tele­vi­sions sup­ply ad­di­tional in­for­ma­tion — celebrity in­ter­views, hur­ri­cane re­ports, fashion tips, and evan­gel­i­cal Chris­tian hys­te­ria. Gar­cía’s world is like a trop­i­cal path­way to­ward Ar­maged­don. Death looms ev­ery­where, but so do flow­ers, and so does sex.

Gar­cía, who wrote Dream­ing in Cuban, a Na­tional Book Award fi­nal­ist, and three other nov­els, has moved into new ter­ri­tory with this work. Not only has she left be­hind the lit­er­ary prove­nance of Cuba and much of the mag­i­cal re­al­ism of her ear­lier work, but she also of­fers an om­ni­scient nar­ra­tor for the first time. Gar­cía is the god fig­ure, look­ing down on her cre­ations, pre­sent­ing a col­or­ful and fas­ci­nat­ing bunch of per­son­al­i­ties swim­ming around one an­other like the ex­otic and wary in­hab­i­tants of a fish tank.

Gar­cía be­gan her ca­reer as a jour­nal­ist, and it’s as if she is step­ping back here, tak­ing refuge in a more fac­tual pre­sen­ta­tion of sto­ries, play­ing with plot more than char­ac­ter. The par­tic­u­lar slice of the Latin Amer­i­can uni­verse she presents is well supplied with chaos, odd­ity, and sen­su­ous de­tail, but it’s a chess game rather than lit­er­a­ture that heads to­ward an ex­plo­sion of emo­tional im­pact.

For many Amer­i­cans, even Sept. 11, as shock­ing as it was, had a cer­tain dis­tance to it. Im­ages came over end­less loop­ing tele­vi­sion ac­counts; it wasn’t quite real. Cen­tral Amer­ica, with its more densely pop­u­lated ur­ban ar­eas, of­fers less of this Amer­i­canstyle sep­a­ra­tion from re­al­ity for its res­i­dents. Gar­cía cap­tures how life there must in­clude in equal mea­sures de­nial and a rit­u­al­is­tic ap­proach to the tasks of nor­mal life. The author man­ages to do this with a sense of hu­mor, ref­er­ences to tele­vi­sion, and a con­sis­tent but never over­done use of po­etic de­scrip­tion. There is also a sense of the fem­i­nine in her at­ten­tion to fa­mil­ial re­la­tion­ships and the dy­nam­ics of con­ver­sa­tion as well as in the dom­i­nant pres­ence of the beau­ti­ful lady mata­dor Suki Pala­cios.

“The lady mata­dor stands naked be­fore the ar­moire mir­ror and un­rolls her long pink stock­ings. She likes to put these on first, be­fore the fit­ted pants and the stark white shirt, be­fore the bul­lioned waist­coat and the ribs-length jacket densely em­broi­dered with se­quins and beads; be­fore the braces, and the soft black slip­pers, and the wisp of silk at her throat; be­fore the mon­tera, an au­then­tic one she or­dered from a bull­fight­ers’ shop in Madrid, which sits atop her hair, pulled back in a sin­gle braid; be­fore her cape, vo­lu­mi­nous as a colony of bats.”

This bull­fighter is a mul­ti­cul­tural prod­uct of Ja­panese and Mex­i­can par­ents who grew up in the United States. Her fa­ther is a pro­fes­sional ball­room dancer. She has taken a break from med­i­cal school to em­bark on a more, shall we say, ex­act­ing en­deavor. Many of the char­ac­ters Gar­cía presents, such as the bull­fighter, are in­tro­duced as com­plex, con­flicted per­son­al­i­ties. The cof­fee-shop wait­ress at the ho­tel was a guer­rilla fighter dur­ing the last revo­lu­tion, and now she silently serves food to the mil­i­tary lead­ers (and despots) who gather for “power break­fasts” at the ho­tel. An­other char­ac­ter, a Korean busi­ness­man who has been ex­iled to Cen­tral Amer­ica to run his fam­ily’s tex­tile busi­ness, is ob­sessed with but­ter­flies and once dreamed of be­com­ing a lep­i­dopter­ist. His shame at get­ting a lo­cal teenage girl preg­nant, his fail­ure at busi­ness, and a gen­eral sense of fam­ily guilt have driven him to the edge of obliv­ion. He has moved into the ho­tel, un­able to cope with his life.

“The tele­vi­sion drones on be­hind the ma­hogany bar and Won Kim tries to dis­tract him­self with the weather re­port. A hur­ri­cane, ap­par­ently, is churn­ing its way to­ward their shores. If only he could be swept away by its purg­ing winds. How he would rel­ish tum­bling through the air with the pel­i­cans and dusky fish, their gills opened and red as new wounds.”

Gar­cía is clearly flu­ent in the lan­guage of vi­o­lence, whether real or po­ten­tial. Nar­ra­tor and read­ers “watch” a bull’s horn sink­ing into flesh, the as­sas­si­na­tion of a gen­eral, the mo­ments be­fore a sui­cide, the bloody taste of an il­licit kiss. Ho­tels of­fer fan­tas­tic op­por­tu­ni­ties for fic­tion, with hun­dreds of sto­ries go­ing on be­hind as many room num­bers. But the al­lure of anonymity they of­fer can also be a trap. Cristina Gar­cía signs copies of “The Lady Mata­dor’s Ho­tel” at 6 p.m. Thurs­day, Sept. 16, at Col­lected Works Book­store, 202 Gal­is­teo St., 988-4226.

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