Friday, December 29, 2006

Book Review: The Night Buffalo By Guillermo Arriaga

Manuel loves Tania, his best friend Gregorio’s girlfriend. He is also having recreational sex with Gregorio’s sister. Tania has been sleeping with Manuel for a long time and may or may not love him, but is certainly obsessed with Gregorio. And Gregorio has committed suicide.
What could have been a trite story of youthful passions and betrayal becomes far more haunting and disturbing under Guillermo Arriaga’s pen. Gregorio is insane and brilliant, a doomed genius who manipulates his doctors, friends, and family and is fascinated with death and pain. Alongside, Manuel and Tania thread a delicate razor-edge of sanity, and never succeed in untangling themselves from the maze Gregorio has set for them. As Manuel recognizes, “Gregorio has not finished dying.” Within the scope of this book, he never does.
There are no chapters, no cleanly labeled time frames to ground the reader. Instead, the novel follows Manuel’s frenetic, desperate tumbles through past and present. The short, tense vignettes shade in the relationships between the characters and reveal most of all Manuel, tortured, desperate and tragic. Through his eyes, the women of this novel remain mysterious and merciless, uninvolved in the passionate angst of the men around them. They are an excuse for the actions of the men, not always the true reason.
Arriaga is more famous in the United States for his screenplays: the Academy Award-nominated Amores Perros, 21 Grams, and The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada. Fans will find the same edgy, urgent pacing and troubled kaleidoscope of characters in The Night Buffalo, the first of three of Arriaga’s novels to be published in the United States.
The flawless English translation is just an added bonus. Alan Page, who has worked with Arriaga on all his screenplays, is a poet. His blend of sympathetic understanding of Spanish linguistic rhythms and taut, meticulous selection of their English counterparts creates a work beyond language barriers. This version will evoke the visceral response of the original text without ever allowing the reader to forget that this is Mexico City in all its tarnished glory. It is a work of art in itself.
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