Saturday, July 18, 2009

A Pretty Face by Rafael Reig

On the evening of the Fourth of July, I was lying on a blanket behind a local highschool -- neither mine nor the one my sons will go to -- waiting for the sun to go down and reading a novel translated from the Spanish and narrated by a dead woman. Not as patriotic as I could be, I guess.

That novel is Rafael Reig's A Pretty Face, which was published as if it were a noir, or a mystery novel, by the British press Serpent's Tail. It does feature a murder -- of Maria Dolores Eguibar, our narrator and main character, on page two -- but it's not about low-lifes or detection. A Pretty Face is short but diffuse, so it's difficult to give a phrase to sum exactly what it is about, but it's a novel more concerned with the messy lives of the living -- and with the messes that the dead leave behind -- than it is with justice and righteousness for the dead.

Maria, after her unexpected death, finds herself invisible and intangible, able to witness and comment on the living world, but completely unable to affect it. Her only companion is Benito Viruta, the Eyeball Kid, preteen hero of a series of novels for young readers that Maria wrote under the name Lola Lios. Maria tells us that Benito is crass and crude, but Reig doesn't really show that -- the novel is driven entirely by Maria's contradictory, changing voice and memories, and all of the other characters are seen only darkly through the eyes of the dead woman.

Benito is also just the first of a long series of elements that Reig throws into A Pretty Face without adequately explaining them; he shows up long before Reig mentions the novels. Her husband's career, and that of her father also figure in the novel, as does a half-explained alternate history in which the USA conquered Spain and outlawed the Spanish language after a coup in the wake of Franco's death. So the reader gets a confused, jumbled view of Maria's life, driven by flashbacks and her memories, as she follows her body to the morgue and then pieces of the investigation of her death. We learn that she's estranged from her brilliant scientist husband, Fernando -- famous head of the psychiatric clinic previously run by Maria's equally famous father, working on a neuroprotein that can "cheat death" -- and that she spent the night before her death with a lumpish English ex-patient of that clinic. And one or both of those men -- and that neuroprotein -- were responsible for Maria's death.

But Maria isn't really interested in finding out who killed her and why -- in fact, it's hard to say what she is interested in. She floats along on the stream of her own consciousness, and either the translation or the original cultural referents leave the result murky and opaque to North American readers. There are events -- a few within the timeline of the novel, after Maria's death, and more that are shown in flashback -- but their greater significance never quite comes clear.

A Pretty Face is short, and it contains many interesting scenes and lines. But it doesn't entirely make sense, or cohere as a novel. And the significance of the title -- Maria was fat in life, though slim as a spirit, and so the standard complement for her was that title -- also escaped me. I read this book entirely because of a good review I read -- I believe in Publishers Weekly -- but I can't really pass on that favor. It is an afterlife fantasy, so readers who particularly love those may want to seek it out.

No comments:

Post a Comment