Friday, 14 October 2011

the tattoed soldier [hector tobar]

Walk into the heart of downtown Los Angeles, away from Beverly Hills or West Hollywood or Santa Monica and you find yourself immersed in a Hispanic city. Which is what Los Angeles was to begin with. There's an argument to be made for it being the Northernmost output of Latin America. In a Youtube interview to Dutch TV, Tobar makes the point that the city is the meeting point for Hispanic, Anglo and Oriental culture, perched on the Pacific, looking West. Los Angeles' geographical situation helps in every way to make it the dream factory that it has become. But it's almost as though the city's dreaming has succeeded in eradicating its daily realities. No one want to know about the Hispanic city which still occupies its centre, just like no one wants to know that Los Angeles still has a centre. It doesn't fit with the idea of a liminal, dreaming city.

Tobar is a native Los Angelino, descended from Guatemalan immigrants. His novel puts the city back on the map. It's set in the world of Latino immigrants and a multi-racial underclass. The story follows a mission of revenge by Antonio, a political exile, who discovers his wife's army-sponsored killer playing chess in Macarthur Park. The book is set against the backdrop of the Rodney King riots, which Tobar covered as a journalist. The riots provide the cover for Antonio to exact the revenge history demands. The novel is as much about Guatemala as it is about the US, but like any great city, LA contains the narratives of all those countries whose citizens its walls have provided some kind of shelter to.

The narrative is brisk, engaging and discursive. It's written with a smattering of Spanish and Spanglish. It walks the streets with its desperate characters, but the only time it gets near to Beverly Hills is when Antonio's Mexican friend shacks up with a housekeeper. People don't drive their own cars, they take buses. There's a reality lived by millions of Angelinos which the dream factory only touches on when it needs criminals or undesirables to populate its narratives. Tobar's novel brings this reality to life. It's a book which should be read by anyone who's ever visited LA, ever seen a film set in LA. It's all very well living in dreams, but sometimes, you have to return to the dirty business of reality. 

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