Cristina García's "The Lady Matador's Hotel," reviewed by Carolyn See

By Carolyn See
Friday, September 10, 2010; C03


By Cristina García

Scribner. 209 pp. $24

Won Kim, a Korean textile manufacturer, and his pregnant, teenage peasant girlfriend, live in a hotel. So does Aura Estrada, a shapely waitress who used to be a leftist guerrilla in this Central American country's recent civil war. And Ricardo and Sarah, an American couple that came to this country to adopt a baby girl. And Gertrudis, the avaricious lawyer who handles many of this country's adoptions. And Col. Martín Abel, an officer in the country's victorious rightist army, whose favorite pastime is torturing people. (In fact, he once cruelly slaughtered Aura's little brother.) And Suki Palacios, the lady matador of the title, half Japanese, half Latina, former denizen of East Los Angeles, who's just arrived to participate in a women's bullfighting competition.

And there's the unnamed country, which for decades has been no more than a playground for the American military to act out paranoid fantasies. And finally, there's the hotel, the Miraflor, elegant and fairly modern, and situated around a traditional Latin American courtyard that is lavishly studded with tropical plants, a swimming pool and a nice outdoor restaurant.

Cristina García has emulated the example of the venerable Vicki Baum, whose 1929 novel "Menschen im Hotel" followed the doings of residents in an elegant "Grand Hotel," as Edmund Goulding's classic movie version called it in 1932. The stately, iconographic movements of history were reduced to understandable size in Baum's novel by focusing on the individuals who passed through the revolving doors of the five-star establishment.

And so, in "The Lady Matador's Hotel," we look at our Western Hemisphere and all its societal problems, beginning with the exploitation of minority workers. Won Kim, who inherited a textile factory from his father and is expecting the death of his mother, is now stuck in the fanciest suite in the hotel, waiting for a workers' strike to end and his child to be born. Baffled by the strike and suffering from severe depression, he's planning a deadly yachting jaunt: "When they are far out to sea and the captain is safely drunk, Won Kim will push Berta [his girlfriend] overboard. Then he will follow her."

The colonel, on the other hand, dreams of sex and murder. He'd love to have sex with the lady matador, or, failing that, the shapely waitress. Then he'd like to drag them down to a dungeon and make them plead for their lives. That's life as he sees it. The waitress spits on his pork chops and gets an earful from her dead little brother, who tells her to murder this monster now that he's conveniently under her nose and relatively vulnerable.

The adopting couple just hang around. Ricardo, the Cuban husband, writes awful verse ("As the island fades/I leave behind departure itself") and establishes a somewhat tenuous hold on his adopted baby, while the lawyer, an old-fashioned sharkish type, oversees a breeding farm of indigenous mothers and charges $30,000 for each infant she supplies, but she's suddenly faced with a shift in public opinion about whether or not what she's doing is a crime.

In the forefront is the lady matador herself, Suki Palacios, a ritual-bound superwoman of sexuality and courage, who always makes it a point to sleep with someone different and eat a ripe pear before she fights the bulls. She's currently the talk of the town, but privately she broods over the death of her mother and frets over her womanizing dad.

The story lasts for just seven days, and the end of each chapter gives us snippets of scattered news: "Leftist terrorists are trying to sow confusion and fear before the elections, but, mark my words, they won't succeed. I've made it my personal mission to stop them," the bloodthirsty colonel says on Channel 9. And there's also some astrology and celebrity chitchat. Against this trivia, the other, highly allegorical characters speak to each other in oracular aphorisms: "God is drunk and in the forest breaking all the rules," the adoption lawyer's husband says to her at one point, meaning . . . what? When she isn't in her suit of lights, the lady matador dresses in a tiger-striped unitard. The colonel imagines her with "a dead zebra between her teeth," which would be quite a sight, if you think about it.

I hope I'm wrong about this novel, but the allegory seems pretty heavy to me, and the characters stubbornly refuse to come alive. Yes, we know that the United States is considered by some people to be an imperialist disgrace -- exporting jobs, importing babies, using impoverished countries for our own military games -- but what is García's actual point? Isn't there any kind of meaningful resistance to this beyond retreat into costume and ritual? The Korean manufacturer's girlfriend dresses up at one point in an 18th-century gown with a powdered wig. I wanted to ask: Why? And that tiger-striped unitard: Why? These people are meant to impersonate ideas, not human beings. But what's the author trying to say? I haven't the faintest idea. I hope that's my fault, not hers.

See reviews books regularly for The Post.

Sunday in Outlook

-- Down the path to permanent war, again.

-- The faulty science of gender differences.

-- A new history of the Korean War.

-- The real cost of repressed memories.

-- And what separates us from chimps.

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