What else is new?

Jonathan Coe

  • The Long Night of White Chickens by Francisco Goldman
    Faber, 450 pp, £14.99, January 1993, ISBN 0 571 16098 0

One of the more disarming sentences in Francisco Goldman’s impressive first novel comes near the end, when his hero-narrator, Roger Graetz, takes a bus journey up into the Guatemalan highlands and stops off in a village just as the Indians are packing up their market in a dirt plaza. Brooding over what he knows about the village – how the army has only recently allowed nuns and priests back in, how the Indians have refused to return to the rectory because of all the people who have been tortured to death there – Roger finds himself tiredly incapable of outrage, and almost catches himself responding to the story with a jaded shrug of the shoulders: ‘Poverty, soldiers, nuns and priests, torture’ he reflects, ‘what else is new?’

This exhaustion of response is pertinent to the novel as a whole, particularly in its relationship to the rich and extensive body of fiction which has emerged from Latin America over the last few decades. The profusion of horrors and miracles which clutter the pages of Fuentes, Carpentier and García Márquez seemed at first merely fantastic to Western readers brought up in more genteel literary and political traditions, and so the concept of ‘magic realism’ was dreamed up to explain away features which García Márquez insisted really had their origins in simple reportage: ‘It always amuses me that the biggest praise for my work comes for the imagination, while the truth is that there’s not a single line ... that does not have a basis in reality. The problem is that Caribbean reality resembles the wildest imagination.’ Eastern Europeans such as Hrabal and Skvorecky – writing against the backdrop of a recent history founded entirely on the premise that ‘the unbelievable came true’ – faced similar difficulties of interpretation, but inheritors of the Latin tradition such as Goldman now have something quite different to worry about: a readership so wised-up to the natural wonders and political grotesqueries of this culture that a condition of satiety seems likely to set in. In literature, at least, it has all become very familiar, and initially there seems little enough to stop the prospective reader from glancing through the blurb to The Long Night of White Chickens and sharing the blank reaction of its world-weary hero: ‘Poverty, soldiers, nuns and priests, torture, what else is new?’

So, what is new about Goldman’s novel – apart, obviously, from its Guatemalan setting and the detailed and nightmarishly vivid portrait it draws of day-to-day life in that beleaguered country? Its principle theme – doubleness of cultural identity, the conflicting tugs of homeland and a comfortable exile – has been well mined by other writers: what sets Goldman apart is the analytical thoroughness which he brings to bear on this subject, his organic sense of its interconnection with other forms of duality (gender differences, in particular, and also the difference between romantic and family love), and above all, his attempt to express these concerns through a complex and multi-layered narrative structure which bears the outward guise of a detective story. The entire narrative (and this shows considerable restraint, given that violence is never far from the surface of the novel, with machine guns leaning against every table and death squads around every corner) is driven forward by the investigation of a single murder: that of Flor de Mayo Puac, a young Guatemalan woman who was until her death the administrator of an orphanage called Los Quetzalitos.

Flor, we learn, was sent over when she was only 13 to be employed as maid in a Boston household where the mother is Guatemalan, the father is a Russian Jew, and the son, Roger, a housebound five-year-old recovering from tuberculosis. Flor becomes something more than a maid to the family: the father, Ira, sends her through college, where she distinguishes herself, and inevitably her relationship with Roger, with whom she shares the basement of their house, becomes ambiguous as sisterly affection shades into something more powerful. Returning to Guatemala in the late Seventies, Flor surprises everyone by taking the job at the orphanage, and rumours begin to circulate (largely with the help of the tabloid press) that she is using it as a front for a ‘fattening house’, preparing orphaned children for profitable sale abroad. A journalist, Luis Moya – whose own life is constantly in danger thanks to the thinly-veiled liberalism which informs his articles – interviews Flor and falls in love with her during the course of a lengthy restaurant meal. (This is the ‘long night of white chickens’ of the title.) Moya and Roger briefly attended the same school, where they became close friends, and so when Roger returns to Guatemala to clear up the mystery surrounding Flor’s murder, it seems natural that they should combine forces, though they both want something different out of the investigation. As Moya puts it, they are in ‘separate labyrinths, each of us pursuing the same minotaur’.

The labyrinth – besides being a nod towards Borges, possibly – is one of several devices used by Goldman at once to draw attention to and make sense of the complexity of his material. (Another is the image of Flor’s ‘startling’ palms, which are described on various occasions as being ‘indecipherably’ or ‘impossibly’ crisscrossed.) This complexity, the book argues, has its origin both in the individual personality and in the national character. Towards the end of his search, Roger comes to realise that Flor ‘at times liked to live a double or even a triple life’, but this is more than just a consequence of her lifelong cultural displacement: it also goes to the very heart of what it means to be Guatemalan. Once when Moya makes some vaguely absurd remark about Flor’s relationship with chickens and how they ‘touched something deep inside her’, Roger watches him keep a ‘long, straight face’ and reflects: ‘Guatemalans! This Guat irony on top of irony, whole indecipherable jungles of it hiding their raw, disturbed hearts.’

In that sentence we have, perhaps, an implicit statement of the novel’s intent: the hacking away of whole indecipherable jungles of irony in order to uncover the raw, disturbed heart at the centre. One awkward side-effect, certainly in the early stages of the book, is that Goldman has been so scrupulous at rendering this indecipherability that he is himself occasionally indecipherable – or at the very least erratic at keeping his sentences under control: ‘A footloose brown girl-woman with a funny voice, an ex-servant, unmarried, inexplicably hanging around in Guatemala now, who’d so far gotten to live an eccentrically and remotely fortunate life thanks to her extremely coincidental connection to Mirabel Arrau de Graetz’s equally eccentric and remote and not so fortunate (they surely thought) existence in a United States becoming so undone now by rampant libertinism that they couldn’t even think of sending their own daughters to study there (Mercedes never went anywhere, but the next year Cathy would go to college in Canada and look what happened to her even there! She married the first guy who set eyes on her!) – that’s all they really saw.’

The reader soon gets the hang of Goldman’s stylistic thorniness, however, even if its restless erudition never quite squares with the idea of a narrator who is supposed to have been a dullard at high school and now works as a barman. But there is a more serious problem, and one which the novel never manages to resolve, with the often abrupt shifts of viewpoint. Sometimes there are gear-changes into the second person, when Roger starts addressing his words directly and emotively to Flor herself, and although this happens quite often, it’s always a surprise and it’s always affecting; but then Goldman also has a more opportunistic habit of abandoning Roger’s voice altogether whenever it suits him (i.e. whenever he has to describe events at which he wasn’t present) and slipping into an unannounced third person for which the rest of the novel provides no authority. Unlike so many of his other tactics, which seem designed to provide an oblique commentary on disorientation in all its various forms, this one is merely disorientating, and so it can only weaken the central analogy which the novel seems to be pressing: that between that convolution and apparent purposelessness of the narrative, and the endless frustration, gridlock and unreality of life in Guatemala itself. (For a while, Roger even suspects that Moya has roped him in to the whole investigation simply to prove this very point: ‘Come and investigate a murder in Guatemala. It won’t go anywhere! See? See what it’s like here, America?’)

These sporadic wobbles in Goldman’s narrative strategy seem to testify, all the same, not to any ingrained carelessness but to the daunting enterprise and ambition upon which the book is founded. Now and again, there is even some respite from the labyrinthine complexity and layers of irony: Goldman is also capable of some startling local effects, and has a particular gift for catching the truth of some emotionally taut moment and twisting it into an unexpected image. One of Flor’s lovers, pictured in the midst of a loud and protracted quarrel, is imagined ‘spread facedown over his bed as if he’d just been squeezed like paste from a tube’; and one of her schoolfriends, now possibly coke-addicted, turns up at Roger’s bar to dish some dirt on her wearing ‘the brightly opaque gaze of some tiny animal creeping up to the edge of a clearing’. And the long restaurant scene between Flor and Moya rises to a fine pitch of highly-strung intimacy as Flor, teetering on the edge of a romantic precipice, gives way to exhausted tears (‘She looked tired. Even her hair looked tired’) and Moya’s well-meaning seduction gets somehow derailed until he finds himself, at the end of the evening, ‘confoundingly deep into a discussion of orphanages’. It’s a draining yet beautifully modulated scene which reminds us, among other things, that sexual politics is very much the strong suit of this politically charged novel. In the charismatic figure of Moya – who is not above exaggerating the perils of his journalistic calling if it is going to impress one of the crusading women to whom he invariably finds himself attracted – Goldman offers a slyly penetrating critique of the Latin American machismo which Oscar Hijuelos celebrated with such gusto in The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love.

Even so, the book itself cannot quite escape that tradition, and if it just fails, in the end, to pack the emotional punch which it constantly seems to be promising, this is because Flor – although ostensibly the main focus of attention – is never allowed to become more than the sum of the questions which her (male) investigators ask of her. It looks as though there is going to be a strong female presence at the centre of the novel, but what we actually get is a knot of enigmas, contradictions and unsolved riddles: in this respect the task Goldman wants her to perform – functioning largely as a metaphor for Guatemala itself, maddening but at the same time irresistible – seems finally too reductive, too objectifying. He gets away with it, though, because The Long Night of White Chickens succeeds on so many other levels – as a detective story, a historical snapshot, a busy melting-pot of political ideas. It’s a remarkable debut altogether, and Goldman’s next book will doubtless be keenly anticipated: but this one took five years to write, and must have used up a lot of autobiographical material (like his hero, the author was raised both in Guatemala City and suburban Boston). So we may be in for a long wait.