Posts Tagged ‘Jorge Ibarguengoitia’

Lost Books – Two Crimes

July 23, 2022

Sadly, having read The Lightning of August and The Dead Girls, Two Crimes is the last of Mexican author Jorge Ibarguengoitia’s novels available in English (translated by Asa Zatz in 1984, five years after it was originally published). Another three novels remain untranslated as well as numerous short stories. The pity of this is that Ibarguengoitia is one of Latin America’s most entertaining writers (Juan Pablo Villalobos would be a good example of a modern writer with a similar sensibility) – and Two Crimes is probably his most entertaining book.

The novel begins straight-forwardly enough with a party thrown by Marcos and his wife, the Chamuca (which seems to be Portuguese for samosa leaving me to imagine a lewder interpretation…) to celebrate their wedding anniversary. This, however, is the traditional moment of happiness before their lives fall apart, a collapse which originates in the seemingly innocuous arrival of an uninvited guest, Evodio, who asks to stay the night. Although they know Evodio is a “dedicated activist” they have little idea of the danger this will put them in until they receive a phone call at work the next day to tell them that police are searching their apartment:

“And so that portion of my life came to a close.”

They go straight to the bus station and separate: the Chamuca to her cousins and Marcos to his uncle, Ramon, to borrow money so they can “go somewhere to live until this blows over.” As Marcos is narrating the novel, we follow him to his uncle’s – where he is refused entry by his cousin, Amalia. Unwittingly, Marcos finds himself at the centre of battle for his uncle’s inheritance, but he is able to gain admittance the next day when he returns with his uncle’s friend, Don Pepe. In fact, Marcos’ plan to get money from his uncle has nothing to do with any potential inheritance – instead he tells Ramon he has a business opportunity, an abandoned mine where cryolite can be extracted. He intends to make the money from the ‘costs and profitability study’ he will undertake which, as he tells his uncle:

“…you’ll have to pay me…even if the study should show that it is not an advisable investment.”

The uncle readily agrees, and, to stir things up, tells the cousins that he asked Marcos to come. So worried do they become that they offer to buy his share of the inheritance (without being sure he even has one) and, when that doesn’t work, sign an agreement that they will split the inheritance equally, whatever they get.

To complicate things further, Marcos becomes involved with Amalia’s daughter, Lucero, when he finds her in his room and she gives him “the most perfect kiss, technically speaking, that I had ever had in my life.” He soon doubts whether her apparent attraction can be trusted:

“A little later, when I was putting on my shirt, I noticed that the sixty-one pesos and the copy of the contract that were in the pocket had changed places.”

Not only does this not stop him pursuing her, but when he fails at the first attempt, he turns to Amalia instead:

“…it was an irresistible impulse. I was inside Amalia’s room before I realised it. What a different reception that was!”

The con, however, seems to be working, until the unexpected arrival of Marcos’ wife, and the death of Ramon soon after. Ibarguengoitia’s handling of the plot is masterful, but his stroke of genius to hand the narrative over at this point to a new narrator, Don Pepe. This gives us a different perspective on the first half of the novel – we realise that, for all his enthusiasm, Ramon did not trust Marcos, assuming that he would disappear with the thousand pesos he had given him and the Land Rover he borrowed:

“Doesn’t that story Marcos told us about the beryllium mine sound like hokum to you?”

Don Pepe then drives the narrative forward as he hunts of Marcos after Ramon’s death. The change in perspective works brilliantly, refreshing the narrative when it seems to have reached one conclusion, until we reach another. Marcos is charged with ‘two crimes’ – the original crime of ‘terrorism’ which forces him to go on the run, and his uncle’s murder – but, of course, although two crimes are indeed committed in the novel, these are quite different, and the last one occurs unexpectedly in the final pages. Two Crimes is a thoroughly entertaining novel from a master story-teller, with both its tension and humour working as well today as they did forty years ago.

The Lightning of August

July 31, 2021

Latin America not only has a history of dictators, but an entire genre of dictator novels, from Miguel Angel Asturia’s The President to Mario Vargas Llosa’s The Feast of the Goat. In The Lightning of August, Jorge Ibarguengoitia offers us a different viewpoint, that of General Jose ‘Lupe’ Arroyo, whose attempts to gain power have a tendency towards catastrophe, none of which, in his telling, are his own fault. The novel holds the heroes of the Mexican revolution up to the light and finds them wanting: rather than heroism what we see is self-interest, back-stabbing and military incompetence. In making Lupe the narrator of his own story, zealously defending his own actions, Ibarguengoitia mines a rich vein of ironic humour.

As the novel opens it is clear that Lupe has some score-settling to do, targeting, in particular, the memoirs of a fellow general:

“I want to make it perfectly clear that I was not born in a dirt-floor hut, as Fatty Artajo claims, and my mother was not a prostitute, as some have hinted; nor is it true that I never entered a school room.”

Such asides occur throughout the novel and, such is Lupe’s propensity for presenting himself in an unfailingly favourable light, they often have the effect of seeming more believable than his own version of his life story. This, and his not unrelated inability to back down, are his defining characteristics. We see the latter in effect early in the novel, alongside the bad luck that will dog him throughout. Lupe is appointed Private Secretary to the newly elected President, Marcos Gonzalez – but Gonzalez manages to die while Lupe is in transit to his new posting, and before officially taking office. When Lupe does arrive, Gonzalez’s widow tells him her husband’s final words were, “I want Lupe to have my gold watch,” but the watch is now missing. Lupe immediately blames the only other visitor to Gonzalez’s death bed, Eulalio Perez, whom he promptly pushes into an empty grave at the funeral. The next day, however, Lupe and his comrades, plotting to seize power, are outmanoeuvred and Perez is named Acting President. Though his fellow Generals beg him, Lupe refuses to consider apologising, even when he returns to his hotel room to find a note from Gonzalez’s widow to say she has found the watch:

“I decided that even if Perez hadn’t stolen the watch in question, the punishment was well deserved anyway because he’d been a dishonest man all his life.”

The real power, however, lies with Vidal Sanchez. When Lupe complains that Perez is incapable of organising an election, Sanchez retorts, “Where did you get the idea anyone gives a damn about a free election?” The novel goes on to recount the lead-up to the election. Sanchez forbids the military from belonging to any political party, but Lupe and his friends think they have outwitted him:

“While it would appear the party’s sole assets were two remarkable orators… it would actually boast some twenty thousand fully armed and equipped troops.”

However, Sanchez promptly resigns his post so he can stand for election.

The approaching election is more about military manoeuvring than campaigning for votes. Though often bordering on farcical, the novel also highlights an atmosphere of fear, for example when the generals are meeting and find their telephone lines cut:

“People I’ve told this story to invariably ask why we were so frightened. They don’t realise that anyone who gets involved in politics has to be prepared for the worst.”

The generals work together but have little respect for each other – one is even known as the Jinx and, when, in perhaps the novel’s most farcical episode, attempts to roll a train carriage full of dynamite towards the enemy repeatedly fail, Lupe has an idea:

“And then it occurred to me that the best idea might be to let it go with the Jinx on board. Maybe he’d take his bad luck with him.”

Lupe is similarly scathing when it comes to their presidential candidate, Juan Valdivia:

“The fact that Juan Valdivia was incompetent had been fully demonstrated. What I can’t understand is not that the troops realised he was a bungler, but that we hadn’t discovered it before we made him Commander in Chief of the East Army of the Restoration Forces.”

The Lightning of August is history as farce, demonstrating that the fate of a country often relies on the whims and flaws of those in and with power, and that political rhetoric is frequently used to excuse personal ambition. That Lupe himself reveals this in the story he tells is a masterstroke, his apparent openness uncovering his own delusions.