You love life. I covet life.

Vlad, by Carlos Fuentes and translated by E. Shaskan Bumas and Alejandro Branger

A few years back or so Lee Rourke kindly sent me a review copy of one of Dalkey Archive’s books. Vlad was popped in as an unexpected extra on the basis he thought I might like it. This shows two things: firstly that Lee has an eye for interesting books; secondly that I’m a terrible person to send review copies to because literally years can pass before I get to them.

Vlad is a strange one. It’s a cross (an unholy contamination?) between literary fiction and horror. Vlad the Impaler, Dracula, comes to contemporary 21st Century Mexico City. As he notes, licking his lips, it’s home to “twenty million delectable blood sausages!” Where better for a vampire to hide and feast?

At the same time it’s a surprisingly compassionate novel about class, sensuality, life and loss. That’s the thing about vampires, as myths go they’re very flexible.

vlad

Yves Navarro is a successful law firm partner. Zurinaga, the legendary senior partner of his firm, asks him to take care of a European client as a personal favour. Zurinaga is old school, Mexico City’s elite. Navarro is delighted to be able to help him.

The mandate is a simple one. The client is a Central European count who wishes to move to Mexico City and has a particular kind of property in mind. Navarro’s wife Asunción works in real estate so Navarro can handle the legals and she the house-hunting and between them it’s a complete service.

The Navarros are a perfect middle class couple. They have good jobs, money, and a 10-year-old daughter Magdalena whom they both adore. By day they’re sober and responsible, and at night they delight in each other’s bodies with a passion their daytime professionalism never hints at.

Life is good then, but no life is ever truly perfect. Some years past they lost their other child, their son Didier, to a drowning accident. They’ve survived his loss as a couple and as a family, but the absence stays with them. Didier’s body was never found, a fact Navarro was grateful for and which Asunción felt robbed her of a chance to say a proper goodbye. It’s an old wound, never healed but which together they’ve learned to work around. Didier’s gone, but always present:

Didier dissolved into the ocean, and I am incapable of hearing the break of a wave without thinking that a trace of my son, turned to salt and foam, is coming back to us, after circulating incessantly, like a ghost ship, from ocean to ocean…

Zurinaga’s friend has some odd stipulations for his new house. There must be no neighbouring properties. It must be “easy to defend”. It needs to have a ravine out the back, and a tunnel between the house and the ravine. Oh, and there must be no windows …

Navarro is a polite man, urbane, he facilitates without asking questions. Asunción finds a suitable house and Navarro manages the paperwork and before long the count has set up home together with his peculiar hunchback servant and apparently a little girl around Magdalena’s age.

The count is a grotesque. Ancient, wrinkled, bald. His ears are curiously malformed and he wears mirrored sunglasses even in the shower. He takes an interest in Navarro who acts as if everything is normal even when he notices that every room in the house has a gutter built into it; even when he finds a picture of Asunción and Magdalena tacked up inside a cupboard.

The whole motif of a lawyer at the home of a mesmeric but malignant count is of course a shout-out to Bram Stoker’s original Dracula. Fuentes knows his source material. However, Vlad also works as social commentary. Part of the reason Navarro asks so few questions is that the count was introduced as a friend of Zurinaga’s. He comes with the highest possible social pedigree and introduction.

Most people on finding themselves in a house with the windows bricked up and gutters along the walls would be looking to leave immediately. Most would have questions if they then found a photo of their family. Navarro is too polite, too professional. He also lives two existences: at night one of passion with Asunción; by day one of bloodless professionalism.

Vlad is in places very funny. There’s a scene where the count invites Navarro over to dinner and Navarro finds him still in the shower. The emaciated and disturbing figure of the count emerges, absolutely naked, and launches into conversation quite ignoring Navarro’s discomfort:

Standing next to a naked Central European count who liked to discuss the philosophy of life and death, I tried to lighten things up a little.

Despite Navarro’s efforts things quickly darken. Magdalena sleeps over with a schoolfriend, but days pass and Navarro doesn’t see her. There’s a plausible explanation from everyone he speaks to but no matter how many good answers you get there comes a point you start to worry. The count asks Navarro “Do you know where your children are?”; Navarro misses the horror implicit in the plural. Soon after Navarro finds his comfortable life and assumptions sliding ever-quicker through his fingers. Control was only ever an illusion.

By the end we’ve left comedy far behind and we’re into questions of mortality and the price worth paying to preserve your child’s innocence. It’s a descent into horror that terrifies more through temptation than intimidation.

Vlad is a short novel. My copy is a physically small hardback with comfortably sized margins and even then it’s only a little over 100 pages. Really it’s more of a novella, but it packs a lot into its space. It unfolds after reading and leaves an impression greater than its size would suggest.

As you’d expect, the count dominates proceedings once he arrives. It’s always the monsters who bring the glamour. But Navarro’s failings are human ones and it’s that which brings the interest. Come for the black comedy. Stay for the melancholy compassion.

Other reviews

Grant reviewed this at his 1st Reading’s blog here. I also found online this fascinating review by an Australian professor of political economy who discusses the book in the context of Mexico City’s politics and urban geography. It’s a short piece and more readable than that makes it sound. I recommend it.

Separately, Stu reviewed Carlos Fuentes’ The Eagles’ Throne here. I included it because I thought it illustrated Fuentes’ range, and because it’s worth linking to  Stu’s blog which holds an absolute treasure-trove of Mexican literature worth exploring.

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22 Comments

Filed under Fuentes, Carlos, Mexican Literature

22 responses to “You love life. I covet life.

  1. A Fuentes I haven’t read!! What news! Thanks for the pointer. I loved “Aura”, which sounds similar-ish descent into horror, and the Chac Mool short, which I don’t think you will find in translation (my lecturer had done the only trs I ever came across and it was oop when I was at college in the 1990s).

  2. Sounds rather good. Oddly enough, I was thinking about Vlad (the person, the legend) the other day as I watched a truly awful film called Bathory. The idea behind the film was good. The execution was poor.

  3. If I knew you’d studied Fuentes/Mexican literature I’d completely forgotten. Apparently this is a lesser Fuentes, which speaks well to the major Fuentes because I thought this pretty good.

    Which would you recommend out of interest?

    It’s funny, but writing this piece reminded me in part of why I started blogging. It was only on writing this that I realised Navarro was a bloodless creature who only truly came alive at night. Clearly that’s quite intentional on Fuentes’ part, but it’s subtle and easily missed. It was the act of thinking about the book to write about it that made that suddenly apparent to me.

    Guy, it is rather. The book does touch on the real Vlad’s atrocities, which of course are worse than anything any vampire can manage. It’s why horror tends to avoid real life acts of terror – the human is always worse than the monstrous so we need a setting where human horror is absent.

    Re films, have you seen Daughters of Darkness? It’s a very stylised Euro-horror from maybe the 1970s? It features a vampiric Countess Bathory, or implied such, and is actually pretty good. I’ll avoid Bathory, though I think I remember it being a film and hearing it wasn’t so good.

  4. Gosh, this sounds excellent! And I’ve never read Fuentes so it might well be a good place to start. Strange how Dracula still manages to chill, even after all the rubbish and derivative spin-offs!

  5. As I say, it’s a flexible myth. Also though Fuentes goes back to the roots of the horror. To be honest, it’s worked for me as an entry to Fuentes and if it is lesser Fuentes all the better as it leaves his best yet to discover.

  6. No Max I haven’t seen it. It’s considered a cult film, isn’t it? The Bathory film was a mess–not the least being that either everyone mumbles or the sound quality sucks.

  7. It is, deservedly so I’d say. It’s not the best film in history or anything, but it has definite character and atmosphere. Plus you can at least hear the dialogue…

  8. Have never read Fuentes, but this sounds great (and short).

    The conjunction in the comments of vampires / movies / Mexico City reminds me of the very fine Cronos.

  9. My book group have chosen Central America as our theme for February – I think I may throw this title as my input into the discussion of which book to read – I certainly want to read it.

  10. Sendra

    I wonder why the concept of the vampire is something that survives. Apart from Varney, I don’t think there was that much interest until Stoker came along. Now, you can’t get rid of them.

    I don’t feel that curious about a retread of Dracula set in Mexico City and yet, I am slightly drawn. And it’s none of that romance stuff that now serves as a motor for the fanged ones. As I recall, Stoker’s vampire was sexless, more of a blunt parasite but the story, read when young, stays.

    I hate Anne Rice and her ilk but perhaps, despite ignoring obviously poor work, I’m always looking for something that matches that first kick of fear. It isn’t Salem’s lot. That book is really bad though, again, some of the images from the not that great mini-series do stay.

    Is our interest in the ‘vampyre’ something to do with being a kid and learning through metaphor that the world is a dangerous place? I get the fascination with ghosts. That’s an eternal myth, even primal. But vampires seem a rather specialised analogy. I don’t know. Disease? Murder? Why do they chime? What do you think?

    I might get the book. I’ll Google Fuentes.

  11. Ian, it’s interesting and I think pretty well done. Also, it’s short.

    Cronos is a great little movie, nice comparator.

    Annabel, great, and I’d be interested to hear what else gets thrown into the mix that you think might be interesting. Do let me know if the group read it.

    Sendra, I think it’s a fairly flexible myth. A being that exists by stealing the life of others, a parasite, it mixes elements of sexuality and fear of disease and mortality. You can do a lot with it.

    This isn’t romantic. The count differs in some respect from Stoker’s, but is very much a monster rather than someone you’d want to date.

    I think the vampire myth has a seductive element – it’s transgressive (or was pre-Rice anyway) because it’s the purchasing of further life oneself at the expense of the lives of others and at the expense of human connections. I’ve seen it as metaphor for plague, mortality, sexuality, it’s a bit of a swiss-army knife of a myth in some ways.

    If you do get it again please do let me know what you think.

  12. Sendra

    I will. It is a hard one to pin down, isn’t it?

    I think, back in the day, when Hammer Films were scary and I did not question pigtails, what frightened me the most was that the drained changed afterwards and could not be trusted. So the innkeeper’s daughter would clamp down on the innkeeper. Who could you trust? A big question for a child.

    In terms of the fear factor, perhaps we personalise what we first see because you’re right. It’s all bad out there in Vampireland but it’s loose enough to be pick and mix. Maybe that’s why creative types keep returning to it.

    I think Romero came up with a genuinely new kind of horror myth even though it was a reinvention of the Zombie. When I think of how dull that has now become I feel a little more respect for the vampire.

    But is Vlad magic realism or grown-up horror? I’m easier with the latter. Though at 100 pages, I’m sure I can risk the former.

    Reading Nostromo. Really good. Just as impressive as The Secret Agent. Hope you find the time to get round to it.

  13. Good point. The idea that someone you know, perhaps love, can be changed is a fairly fundamental fear. The body snatcher movies play to the same thing.

    I don’t hugely like the term magical realism, which always smacked to me slightly of not knowing how to handle books that didn’t hue to a fairly narrow concept of realism, but I don’t think Vlad is that. The vampire in Vlad appears to obey internally consistent rules. Those are only partly and lightly set out, but they do appear to exist. Stuff doesn’t happen merely because it’s thematic, or at least not within the fiction it doesn’t.

    So I’d call it literary horror, which is another way of saying well written horror.

    Thanks for the tip re Nostromo. I’m sure I shall, though less sure when.

  14. Glad you enjoyed this. I actually preferred this to some of his later novels which seemed, in contrast, wordy. There’s still at least one more to come – the intriguingly titled Nietzsche on the Balcony. I’m reminded, though, I still haven’t read his magnum opus, Terra Nostra.

  15. I’ve never read Fuentes, I’d like to read him but I’m not sure about the vampire theme.

    PS : why typical French names like Yves and Didier?

  16. Grant, interested to hear that. One certainly couldn’t call this wordy. Are there others you’d particularly recommend?

    Emma, it is fairly central here, but it’s a rich piece of symbolism (as well as literal reality within the fiction, it operates at both levels). I suspect the names are a commentary on class, indicating that the characters are of the Mexican aspirational middle class, but I could be wrong on that.

  17. Sendra

    Not really the place, but I recommend Burnt Offerings. A horror film that is really good despite Oliver Reed. The scene with the chauffer is very unnerving but it all swings along in a lovely, low-budget adult manner. It has Burgess Meredith being finely creepy in it. And that is recommendation enough. Have ordered Vlad and will start it after Nostromo. If you have seen the above, I’d love to now what you think of it. It does get under your skin.

  18. Anywhere on this blog is always the place for recommending good horror films. Particularly if they feature Oliver Reed, though I grant his output was variable to put it kindly. Also, Burgess Meredith is always a pleasure.

    Anyway, thanks. I hadn’t even heard of that and will look it up.

  19. Sendra

    Seriously, it’s a great little film. I shall now recommend Reaminator on your next post on Proust.

  20. Honestly, as if I wouldn’t have seen Reanimator.

  21. Sendra

    Bet your followers are a bit curious now, eh? Actually, probably not . .
    Even though it was Dirk Bogarde’s favourite and last film. Herrmann did the score. Back when he was in Tangerine Dream. Why don’t they make films like that any more?

  22. Pingback: 2016 end of year roundup | Pechorin's Journal

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