Brendan Riley reviews Juan Villoro's Arrecife

(Barcelona, Anagrama, 2012)

Arrecife (Reef, 2012), the latest offering from acclaimed Mexican writer and journalist Juan Villoro—author of numerous articles, essays, short stories, novels, and books for children—is a gripping tale of human corruption and postmodern nihilism. Beneath the rippling surface of a murder mystery lies a compelling drama in which a cast of painfully damaged psyches attempt to survive a dangerous series of events at a fetid Caribbean resort called The Pyramid, a name which invokes all the nightmarish associations of the ritual human sacrifices found in ancient Mayan history.

The novel's narrator, Antonio "Tony" Góngora, is a recovering drug addict and erstwhile bassist from the once-promising rock band The Extraditables. Thanks to his best friend Mario "Der Meister" Müller—the band's ex-singer, who now manages The Pyramid—Tony has been given the opportunity to begin what might be a new, albeit absurd, career: running an ambient music system whose notes are generated by fish vibrations from the hotel's aquariums. The project's underwater sound cables are installed by Ginger Oldenville, a sunny, world-class American diver, who soon turns up dead with a harpoon in his back. Who could have killed such a gentle, fun-loving soul? The official theory is that Ginger was partner in a gay suicide pact, and, as if in response to the need for proof, another American diver, Roger Bacon, soon turns up drowned. Tony becomes a reluctant witness as the local detective and moonlighting preacher, Ríos, tries to crack the case, while the whole scene at The Pyramid unravels to reveal the dark machinations at the heart of luxury adventure tourism.

Villoro mashes up the postmodern world of cagey hoteliers, extreme sports enthusiasts, eco-adventurers, and punk rock musicians with the looming threats of narco-trafficking, guerilla warfare, and revolution. What seems at first a simple whodunnit becomes a dramatic meditation on the lost dreams of sixties and seventies pop music—the white man's romantic, co-opted, commercialized blues revolution—and the lamentable worldwide clusterfuck that is the 21st century.

Tony's dour, fragmented recollections swarm with worries about his failed love life and his increasingly fraught relationship with Mario, his best friend since childhood. When Tony's father disappeared—possibly killed by the Mexican army in the tragic 1968 Tlatelolco massacre—Mario's large family provided him with a refuge from his beautiful, distant, suicidal mother. Even as he is forced to confront the painful memories stirred by the hellish turn of events at the resort, Tony discovers that Mario is becoming a dangerous sort of game master: in a dark update of the 1970s TV drama Fantasy Island, Mario's grand managerial scheme to stimulate business at The Pyramid involves using actors playing guerilla terrorists to kidnap the hotel's wealthy eco-tourists and give them a taste of revolution, Latin American style. The guests' awe and reverence for such "real warriors" offers a humorous rebuke to First World foppery. But Tony starts to wonder whether the actors are martial artists trained by Sandra, the hotel's kung-fu instructor, to impersonate guerillas, or whether they are, in fact, real guerillas (but not real revolutionaries) extorting the hotel. And so Villoro's slippery pairing of memory and imagination, danger and drollery, Thanatos and theater, becomes both rhetorical enticement and tragicomic omen.

Arrecife imagines that the savage gods of ancient Meso-America were neither vanquished by Christian evangelization nor quelled by socio-religious syncretism; they remain, demanding our blood sacrifices. Was Tony's missing father one such victim at Tlatelolco? Villoro also ponders the Maya's ritual sacrifice of precious items (gold, gems, babies, and adolescent virgins, all flung into the mysterious blue jungle pools called cenotes), suggesting that such propitiatory acts, however horrific, were more meaningful, more humane, ironically, than our toxic pursuits of techno-sophistication, financial gain, and meretricious war.

Amid this moral confusion—the cenote is simultaneously a passage to heaven and hell, as well as an ideal portal for drug smugglers—Tony ponders the sad case of Jaco Pastorious, the brilliant, arrogant, and unhinged electric bass prodigy who was beaten into a coma by a Florida bouncer and died at the age of 35: a shining talent sacrificed to the gods of fame. Tony is but a middling reflection of Pastorius, neither so gifted nor quite so manic. His one brush with real fame, when The Extraditables opened for a reconstituted Velvet Underground, brought him face to face with the cold countenance of Lou Reed (writer of Heroin, flogger of Honda motor scooters and AmEx cards): "Lou Reed was a human skull wearing dark glasses, brought down from an altar of the dead," and spurred him on to one last corrosive drug binge. Tony's malaise is informed, from first to last, by what Villoro imagines might be present in a self-conscious Mexican mind: there is no escaping the ancient, savage history now manifest within the modern narco state: millions suffer in the shadow of drug lords, rapacious financiers, and suborned police who scatter the human detritus of their ravages for the relief workers to piece back together. As Tony's shadowy American employer, "The Gringo" Peterson, coldly summarizes: "You're Mexican, Tony. You people here don't need a war to get high. This place already exists in an altered reality."

One of the delights of Arrecife is how Villoro's altered-reality prose conjures up a pop-chthonic cast of attractive, sometimes familiar, seriocomic ancillaries: Bobby Fisher, Dennis Hopper, William S. Burroughs and his infamous William Tell-style shooting of wife Joan in Mexico City (Burroughs famously claimed that without Joan's death—sacrifice?—he would never have become a writer), an extreme sports outfit called Cruci/Fiction, the family-dolphin TV drama Flipper, Spielberg's Jaws, underwater cellphone snaps of great white sharks, NFL wide receiver Ahmad Rashad (née Bobby Moore), numerology in The Koran, the gay subculture of Bears, the onanistic death by hanging of David Carradine (serene Shaolin monk sacrifices self in sordid sex-suicide?), Avándaro (a.k.a. the Mexican Woodstock), the Paris-Dakar rally, George W. Bush, Vicente Fox, London as the nexus of international money laundering, the Mexican Day of the Dead, and the Mayan apocalypse.

Villoro's kaleidoscopic murder fantasy is ultimately a jarring, socio-psycho-sexual satire which nonetheless conceals a micron of redemptive possibility: Mario's dicey involvement in the world of narco-finance reveals a number of fateful secrets, including his terminal cancer and a child he's fathered with a poor Indian woman who lives on the outskirts of The Pyramid's tacky, crumbling luxury. And Tony's response to this news raises a number of compelling questions about the nature of loyalty.

Arrecife strikes an interesting balance between its psychological pinwheel of cultural references, sensory associations, and fragmented memories, and the fact that, like the best fiction, the plot is a genuine reflection of our unhappy world. It swims from the insularity of Tony's failed life of sex, drugs, and rock and roll, through the scrim of criminal mendacity, to reach the bellwether reality of human misery on the other side: Mario, the seemingly indifferent corporate ladder-climber who is unable to raise or love his bastard child, born into squalor and headed straight for a refugee camp.

Stylistically smooth, with a disarming conflation of piquant humor and pitch-dark dread conveyed through aqueous prose and cunning, lucid conversations, Villoro's novel is ultimately concerned with our present international quandary: how transgression, border crossing, and shifting frontiers can foster the abject terror of an implacably calculating post-literate, post-national world bent solely on self-aggrandizing performance and maximum experience. Arrecife is a chilling, substrate work about border erasure and its many grim implications, a truly Pan-American novel, which appropriately and effectively transcends its own linguistic and cultural origins.