And What About Rodríguez?
Being blond and blue-eyed, having a Jewish mother and a Mexican father are more than enough to saddle David Rodríguez with a severe identity problem. Then there are his grandfathers. They didn't object to his parents' marriage on grounds of religion or race. For them it was a matter of revolutionary politics. That Trotsky was murdered in Mexico City was, for his Russian grandfather, inconvertible proof of the unsuitability of the whole of David's father's family, but especially his other grandfather, an anarchist who had ridden with Zapata. Before they both died when he was about ten David had had an intense, contradictory and now dimly remembered political education. He thinks about his grandfathers often searching for some guidance from their endless arguments in the back yard of his Los Angeles home, for it is 1972, he has come to Peru, a country in the midst of revolutionary change, and he finds himself in at the deep end. More than that. He is in way over his head.
It starts with a chance meeting in a Lima café with Anna. He falls in love. And why not? Doesn't she look and sound exactly like Lauren Bacall? Wanting to impress, he passes himself off as a seasoned international journalist. Later that night he receives a message asking him to meet her in Piura, a town in the far north of the country. Sensing romance he boards a plane the next day. On arrival he is immediately arrested by men he assumes are police, although they aren't wearing uniforms and don't offer any identification. He sees his mutilated body being sniffed by pariah dogs at the side of the road. But no. Instead they are friendly. They want a favour. Is he not a famous journalist? Surely he will want to write a story about the great success of the revolution? And, of course, they will assist him. What can he say? Before he can say it someone tries to shoot him. He thanks fortune that he is a runner and not a fighter. He runs. In making good his escape he finds himself once more with the lovely Anna. She and her comrades want him to tell the world how the peasants are suffering under the so-called revolution, want him to write about their leader Andrés Vásquez. What can he say?
So begins his story. A harrowing journey of mishaps as he is pursued through the Peruvian countryside by the army, the police, the peasants, the guerrillas and various other people he meets along the way. They all want something from him, all think he is someone he is not. And Rodríguez? What about Rodríguez? He listens to the voices of his grandfathers and when he is not running, he frames his experiences with scenes of old movies and of movies yet to be made. It's no wonder he has an identity problem. It is no wonder he is in trouble.
"Bill Albert is a natural writer, and Rodríguez is a powerful, adventurous and atmospheric story that looks at American experience in South America and 'the great American escape fantasy' with a sharp and modern eye. In its play between American images and political facts, it gives us an original, macabre comedy of real power."
- Malcom Bradbury
This novel is many things, most of them good.
Tracing the misadventures of a young `gringo' caught up in the murderous politics of Peruvian land reform in the early 1970s, it is a notable addition to the genre of hapless traveller abroad. It's also a masterclass in shifting a plot along with deft economy, a precise and credible evocation of somewhere exotic, seedy, and dangerous, an anti-romantic romance, and a cunningly diffident condemnation of injustice and callousness - cunning because never preachy. It's also very funny, though the humour is nearly always tinged with pain or the threat of pain, and occasionally gets so dark that you feel guilty for finding it funny.
The narrator and central character is the improbable scion of Russian and Mexican revolutionaries. He's also a big, blond, blue-eyed Jew. You just know from the off that he's going to get himself into heaps of trouble, and when he doesn't, other people oblige, a favour he duly returns. The result is a comedy of barely suppressed panic in which the narrator's clamouring cowardice and equally tumultuous lust are offset by his frustrated and frustrating desire to do the right thing.
The story is steeped in literary and cinematic allusions, above all the latter, which allows the author to dismantle our expectations, taking cinematic clichÃ©s (innocent abroad, whisky priest, disillusioned hack, femme fatale, sinister military apparatchik, gentle but potentially homicidal giant, noble peasants and so forth), most of them meticulously referenced, then turning them on their head, so that nothing quite pans out as it's meant to. It's an elegant trick and one that underlines the basic theme of unintended consequences as good intentions go awry in a bafflingly ambiguous world that rarely corresponds with the fantasies of popular culture.
However, apart from Albert's characteristic dry wit and lovely one-liners ("One bird craps on your head, everyone thinks you're a statue", "an hysterically erect penis"), what I'll remember most from this book are the peripheral details, notably a brilliant riff on the impossibility of writing about sex, and the glorious flashbacks to the love-hate relationship of the narrator's bickering grandfathers.
Albert is a real novelist, you always want to know what happens next, which leads to my only quibble, an inadequately resolved ending. There are good reasons for this, it's what the book is about and shows the serious purpose behind the gags, but I still wanted to know what happened next. I guess that's a good sign, though, like getting up from the table still hungry. I'm just greedy and like to stuff myself.
First published in French as
Et Rodríquez alors?
in Gallimard's Série Noire