A sprawling thriller transplants a Dumas plot south of the border.
By Jonathan Yardley
Sunday, June 13, 2004; Page BW02
THE QUEEN OF THE SOUTH
By Arturo Pérez-Reverte
Translated from the Spanish by Andrew Hurley
Putnam. 436 pp. $25.95
The name of Edmond Dantès does not appear until more than 150 pages into Arturo Pérez-Reverte's sixth novel, but by then the reader already has figured out that The Queen of the South is a variation upon Dantès's story as told by Alexandre Dumas in The Count of Monte Cristo. This is scarcely surprising, since the plot of Pérez-Reverte's second novel, The Club Dumas (1997), revolves around a fragment of the manuscript of The Three Musketeers, and since the influence of Dumas is self-evident in all the rest of Pérez-Reverte's work.
Like the great 19th-century French novelist whom he so openly and unapologetically emulates, Pérez-Reverte is drawn to elaborate plots adorned with numerous subplots, full-speed-ahead narrative, outsized characters and a degree of intellectual seriousness not ordinarily associated with bestseller-list fiction. Formerly a journalist, he puts his reporter's skills to work in the accumulation of intricate detail and the evocation of exotic cities and landscapes. His work is a great deal of fun to read and offers the bonus of substance as well as style.
Like The Count of Monte Cristo, The Queen of the South is a story of betrayal and revenge. The betrayed is Teresa Mendoza, a Mexican in her early twenties whose boyfriend, a pilot and drug-runner named Raimundo Davila Parra, aka Guero, is killed when his plane is shot down by a couple of hit men in the employ of . . . in the employ of whom is one of the mysteries not solved until the novel's closing pages. In any event, what matters more than naming names is the effect of the killing on Teresa Mendoza.
Until then she had been, or had seemed, just another pretty girl attached to just another daredevil, "a girl like so many others -- quieter, even, than most, not too bright, not too pretty," but like Edmond Dantès she is transformed by betrayal and its aftermath. In her case "something had died with Guero," a "certain innocence, perhaps, or an unjustified sense of security." Assaulted by gunmen who clearly intend to kill her (and one of them rapes her), she responds violently and escapes. She makes her way to Spain and then Morocco. She takes a new lover, another drug-runner, Santiago Fisterra, and when his sidekick is killed she steps in, learning the tricks of a very tricky, dangerous trade: "The little Mexican girl that little more than a year earlier had taken off running in Culiacán was now a woman experienced in midnight runs and scares, in sailing skills, in boat mechanics, in winds and currents."
Eventually she lands in prison, El Puerto de Santa Maria, where she meets her mentor just as, in the Chateau d'If, Dantès meets his Abbé Faria. Hers is named Patricia O'Farrell Meca. She gives Teresa a copy of The Count of Monte Cristo -- "Edmond Dantès is me," Teresa tells her -- and teaches her many things, as a former prison social worker remembers a few years later:
"Mendoza discovered the usefulness of an education. . . . She read, studied. She discovered that you don't have to depend on a man. She was good at figures, and she found the opportunity to get even better at them in the prison education program, which allowed inmates to get time off their sentences for taking classes. She took an elementary mathematics course and a course in Spanish, and her English improved tremendously as well. She became a voracious reader, and toward the end you might find her with an Agatha Christie novel or a book of travel writing or even something scientific. And it was O'Farrell, definitely, who inspired all that."
Before the two are released, Patty tells Teresa, "I've got a treasure hidden on the outside," to which Teresa replies, "Just like Abbé Faria." Like the Abbé's treasure, it is hidden in a cave, but it is something quite different from the gold and silver and jewels that await Dantès: a "stash of coke, the half a shipment, half a ton that everybody thought was lost and sold off on the black market . . . still all packed up nice and neat and stashed in a cave on the coast near Cape Trafalgar, waiting for somebody to come and give it a lift home." Which is just what Patty and Teresa do, though it is Teresa who quickly becomes the dominant partner as they hook up with the Russian mafia and then set up "an infrastructure whose legal front was named Transer Naga, S.L.," and which turns "the Strait of Gibraltar into the largest cocaine entry point in southern Europe." Soon Teresa is "a legend: a woman thriving in a world of dangerous men." As one person tells the novel's narrator:
"She was very smart and very fast. Her rise in that very dangerous world was a surprise to everyone. She took big risks and was lucky. . . . From the woman riding with her boyfriend in that speedboat to the woman I knew, it's a big jump, I'll tell you. You've seen the press reports, I presume. The photos in ¡Hola! and all that. She got refinement, manners, a bit of culture. And she became powerful. A legend, they say. The Queen of the South. The reporters called her that. . . . To us, she was always just La Mexicana."
The speaker is a captain in the Guardia Civil, one of many law-enforcement officers trying to crack Teresa's elaborate "business dealings," through which flow "more than seventy percent of the drug traffic in the Mediterranean." Over and over again they fail, not least because "one-third of Transer Naga's income went to 'public relations' on both sides of the Strait; politicians, government personnel, state security agents," all of whom are careful to see that the inner workings of her operation are impenetrable to outsiders generally, the law most particularly.
She is driven in part by vengeance, in part by "a sense of symmetry," a desire to keep "accounts balanced and closets in order." She believes that she has put Mexico and the terrible events there far behind her, but of course it all catches up to her eventually, and she has to make some hard, painful choices. As one of her Russian friends tells her: "There is one necessary skill. Yes. In this business. Looking at a man and instantly knowing two things. First, how much he's going to sell himself for. And second, when you're going to have to kill him." Suffice it to say that when the time comes for her to use Skill #2, she doesn't blink.
The Queen of the South is complicated, lively and, in its depiction of the drug trade and those who run it, convincing. Pérez-Reverte doesn't wince from tough, nasty business. He's an ace at chase scenes -- the one in which Teresa and Santiago crash at 50 knots into an unforgiving rock is especially vivid -- and the shootout at the novel's climax could be right out of Sam Peckinpah, blood and guts spattered all over the place. Pérez-Reverte knows his stuff, and brings all of it to life.
Unfortunately, though, The Queen of the South labors under a debilitating structural problem. It is told not by an omniscient narrator but by an unnamed first-person journalist who is digging into Teresa's background, talking with some who knew her, but has only one brief encounter with Teresa herself. Yet this narrator is not in the least reluctant to tell us her most intimate thoughts and experiences: "She would almost have been able to love him, Teresa thought sometimes"; "They had made love almost all afternoon, like there was no tomorrow"; "There are two kinds of women, she started to say to herself, but she couldn't complete the thought, because she stopped thinking."
To which the only response from the reader can be: How does he know that? In fiction no less than in nonfiction, the narrator must be credible. The narrator of The Queen of the South is not. Every time he represents Teresa's thoughts, emotions and erotic experiences -- and he does so innumerable times -- one is left to wonder how he knows that. The result, in the end, is a book the reader simply cannot believe, much though the reader may want to. •
Jonathan Yardley's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company