Shuffling quietly through the cool halls of any great museum, patrons have little sense of the moral quagmire that lies behind such collections. And who can blame them? Everything about the way invaluable artifacts are displayed — so immaculate in their glass cases — isolates these objects from the violence of acquisition.
But that dirty backstory is the heart of Lili Wright’s whirling debut novel, “Dancing With the Tiger.” A journalist and a professor at DePauw University, Wright captures the bloody intrigue that brought — and sometimes still brings — priceless archaeological treasures to the “civilized” world. This is the story of how looted objects and sordid motives are purified for public consumption. In other words, how we can look at the uprooted icons of a foreign culture and feel nothing but delight.
Wright begins with an American meth addict digging in a cave near Oaxaca, Mexico. He has a contract to turn over whatever he finds to a ferocious drug lord who collects antiquities. Suddenly, a relic falls loose. “Five hundred years of Aztec history tumbled into his busted hands,” Wright writes. “A face stared up at him, a turquoise mask with only one eye. . . . The mask was surprisingly heavy, as if it carried metaphysical weight, a man’s soul, his history, his quest for immortality.” Improbably — very improbably — the looter has unearthed Montezuma’s funerary mask, the greatest archaeological discovery since Howard Carter opened King Tut’s tomb.
Or so a group of unsavory people soon believes. In the short, punchy chapters that follow, Wright races through the antics of the looter, the dying drug lord, his guilt-ridden henchman, and a mad collector and his gun-toting wife. But the central character in all these breathless hijinks is a new arrival to this partnership of thieves: a young American woman named Anna Ramsey. Anna has just learned that her father’s renowned collection of Mexican masks has been rejected by the New York Met because of “worrisome inconsistencies and inaccuracies in its documentation” — i.e. some of his masks are fakes.
What’s a loyal daughter to do?
In a fit of recklessness, Anna flies to Oaxaca determined to purchase Montezuma’s newly discovered funerary mask before it attracts public attention. With this one dangerous gesture, she can restore her father’s reputation and make his collection once again irresistible to the Met.
A skeptical reader may suspect this plot suffers as many cracks as a 15th-century piece of Aztec pottery discovered in a Walmart parking lot. But no matter because we’re already rollicking along.
South of the border, Montezuma’s revenge is the least of Anna’s problems. Even before she arrives, the precious mask has been stolen. And then it’s stolen again just as she’s about to close the deal. But keep your eyes on that one-eyed wonder, dear reader. In almost every chapter, the mask changes hands — through violence or subterfuge. “No matter how many times Anna found the mask,” Wright writes, “she would lose it again.”
That happens so many times, in fact, that an element of absurdity begins to swell in the novel, inflated further by some of these characters’ improbable survival. Take heart if you’re ever buried in a bathtub of cement!
Sharper editing could have cut a quarter of these pages and produced a more propulsive story. That excess length — double-crosses stacked atop double-crosses — produces a novel that sometimes reads like a jolly comedy: “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad Mexican World.” And the novel’s tone seems equally erratic. Despite her setting, Wright maintains a somewhat tentative commitment to this culture of carnage. Yes, she periodically reminds us that “heads were rolling down the streets of Acapulco, seventy-two immigrants blindfolded and shot in Tamaulipas, six tortured and dumped in the cave outside Cancun, hearts carved from bodies like cantaloupe balls.” But those horrors remain distant headlines, while the sense of menace within her own story frequently abates.
Wright is more focused when she explores the ethical implications of collecting and its scent of exploitation. She takes us into the underground world of art laundering, where stolen objects are washed clean by corrupt dealers with fake provenance papers. “Less scrupulous experts found creative writing a lucrative profession,” she notes. “It was amazing how many recently surfaced antiquities had previously belonged to unnamed Swiss collections.”
Theft and fraud are easy to condemn, but what about the probity of legitimate collecting? Haven’t Western buyers and museums served as vital storehouses for the world’s greatest art? Anna’s father makes this point himself when he argues that “current cultural property law ignores the essential role the collector plays. We are the ones who safeguard art. We hold it and preserve and protect it from scoundrels.”
Chasing and being chased through the streets of Mexico, Anna sincerely believes that “in the United States, the mask would be safe,” but a handsome Mexican artist disagrees: “Once objects are taken from their context, history is lost.” He goes on to make a point at once profound and tragically naive: “We need museums for the same reason we need zoos, but animals still need to live in the wild. Ancient people were buried with treasures. Should we dig up every grave. . .? We don’t need to see everything. We can imagine them. We can wonder. We can leave them for someone else.”
The problem, of course, is that Montezuma’s funerary mask — no matter what its actual origin — has already been dug up and so “now it has to belong to someone.” In Wright’s rapacious cadre of thieves, collectors, murderers, bounty hunters and art lovers, it’s impossible to determine who that someone should be. Every one of these people is wearing a mask. “Folk art used to be so innocent,” Anna’s father complains, “but money ruined it.”
That may be the only honest thing he says. But there are lots of other valuable insights to unearth in this wild novel.
Ron Charles is the editor of Book World. You can follow him on Twitter @RonCharles.
By Lili Wright
Putnam. 453 pp. $26