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