By Frances Itani, whose latest novel, "Remembering the Bones," has been nominated for the 2009 IMPAC Dublin Award
Tuesday, December 30, 2008
By Marie Arana
Dial. 246 pp. $25
Marie Arana's compelling new novel takes place over 20 years, beginning in 1986 inside a smoky tango bar called Lima Nights. There, an unlikely couple comes together, and the author shows us how easy it is to deceive ourselves and others when following a forbidden path of sex and love.
Carlos Bluhm, a married, middle-aged Peruvian of German descent, is accompanied by his three closest friends after an evening out with their wives. A chauffeur takes the women to an ice cream parlor after dinner, and the men go carousing in a rough part of town, lying, in their usual fashion, about their destination.
Carlos is immediately attracted to a young woman in a tight dress, an indigenous, dark-skinned Peruvian named Maria, one of many women hired at the bar to dance with paying customers. It is a joke to his friends that he has "an appetite for cholas -- the browner the better." What Carlos does not know at the time is that, during the evening, Maria slips a paper with her phone number into his pocket. He also doesn't know that she is not quite 16.
And so begins a tempestuous, obsessive affair. Arana, who retired this month as the longtime editor of The Washington Post's Book World, draws on her knowledge of Peruvian culture and politics in this, her second novel. Maria, eager to escape the poor and violent part of town that spawned her, survives by dancing with customers at the tango bar at night and packing groceries in a supermarket by day. The supermarket is in Carlos's part of town, an upper-class area protected by armed sentries on every street. Although Carlos is descended from a line of rich bankers, the ancestral wealth is largely gone. He is no banker, merely a camera salesman living in the grand family home along with his 77-year-old mother, his wife and two sons. The sons are educated, and his family belongs to "the club," but there are financial strains.
When Carlos's wife discovers his affair with the young girl, their marriage ends. Carlos, who has not looked far enough ahead to foresee the loss of his family, is left to fend for himself in the once-grand home. Maria, having lost both her jobs, moves in with him.
"And then, all at once, he realized the obvious: She had seen it before," Arana writes. "She had come there to see how he lived. She had stood in the street with her face pressed against the iron and taken count of his possessions. She had wanted this house so much that she had pictured herself in it, imagined herself behind its windows, wished her way through its walls."
In the second half of the novel -- which takes place in 2006, 20 years later -- Arana truly plumbs what happens when two people get what they think they want. Against all odds, Carlos and Maria have stayed together and are still in the house, which is decaying around them. Maria is 36, and her greatest wish is to have the status of a married woman. Carlos refuses to grant this desire; she suspects he is seeing another woman.
Arana hits her stride as she describes, with immediacy and detail, the unexpected twists in the deteriorating relationship between this man and woman. Carlos, still in touch with his three male friends, turns to them for support in dealing with the problems he has created for himself. Maria turns to black magic. The tensions between the couple and their mix-ups in communication -- a word spoken in anger or haste, a word unspoken, a gesture made, a gesture lost -- become more and more agonizing. And the relationship between Carlos and Maria is not the only one under scrutiny. Arana shows deep insight into the friendships among the four male friends, too. Each man differs from the others in temperament and profession, but their loyalties endure. Advice or interference may be helpful or not, but friends do not abandon friends:
"He saw an enormous car -- like an ominous crow -- sitting in front of his house. It was Oscar's black Mercedes. Three men sat inside. Marco was the first to emerge. He faced Bluhm, opening the great gray wings of his arms. Oscar was next, straightening a crisp blue tie. Willy was last, and he exited slowly, his cheerless face telling a whole tale. Bluhm was racing now, gasping for air, the little stone striking his chest. 'What?' he shouted. 'What!' "
This love affair, crossing ethnic, generational and class lines, has been doomed from the beginning. It's an age-old story, but in Arana's skillful, perceptive telling, her characters propel themselves toward a climax both unpredictable and inevitable.