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Book Review : Briefly Watching Some Unexplored Creations

August 13, 1986|JUDITH FREEMAN | Freeman is at work on a collection of short stories

Spectator by Rachel Salazar (Fiction Collective: $14.95)

This very short first novel is set in the 1970s and relates the events surrounding the marriage of Mara and Rafael, an American woman and a Mexican artist who meet at a dinner party in New York City, where both are living. After two years together, they travel to Mexico where they are married in order to appease Remedios, Rafael's mother. So taut and episodic is the prose that all this occurs in the first 10 pages.

A word about style here, since "Spectator" relies heavily on the method of storytelling for its effect. The novel moves rapidly in scenes that are brief. It's like viewing a slide show, where images are more loosely related than in moving pictures where things connect fluidly. An air of detachment is created in these scenes; surface description takes over. In this sense, the title is appropriate: Each reader becomes a spectator to the events recorded.

Lassitude Infection

In Mexico, Rafael's mother accompanies them on a journey through the countryside. Lassitude seems to infect them. The pyramids elicit marginal interest. What really gets their attention is the television in the lobby of a hotel in Tehuantepec, where the "screen alternates between close-ups of a tense, pale face and a shiny black one." "Mission Impossible?" Mara asks.

Mara would like to escape her mother-in-law. Back at her house in Guadalajara, she spends listless days in a room overlooking a warehouse. "Mexico is tiring her--living with Remedios, keeping out of her way; the cafes and parties and dinner parties where people talk too quickly for her to understand completely, the afternoon rains, the heat." As the mosquitoes settle on the wall, Mara makes her decision to return to the States. Rafael, who feels that his mother needs him, will stay on.

Back in New York, Mara has no difficulty getting used to being without Rafael. "She rarely thinks of him until someone asks her when he is coming back, and she realizes, as she tries to answer, that she does not know." Shortly, a new interest presents itself in the form of Soseki, a Japanese performance artist. By the time Rafael does return months later, the stage is set for the violent dissolution. In the end, all that remains of their attachment is the "proof," a photograph that shows them in an attitude of affection.

Shortchanged Feeling

What's wrong here? Why does this novel leave you feeling short-changed? It isn't only the length (98 pages). What really harms the book, which is not without its considerable strengths, is the rather vague characters. Mara is passive; Rafael, chauvinistic. One aimless, the other aggressive, they are largely unexplored creations, described with the same cool detachment the author brings to a landscape or food. From their first meeting, Mara feels she would "rather have been with someone else," yet she marries him. She has no problem deceiving him while he's away, yet is ready to serve him in an almost sadomasochistic fashion when he returns.

Rafael has no less complex feelings: "Most women are putas ," he tells Mara, "especially married women." (A puta , in the most printable form, translates as "prostitute.") There are plenty of writers (Milan Kundera for one) who take essentially tragic and antagonistic figures and make them into characters for whom we care deeply, but they do so by getting beneath the characters' skins, or beneath the surface of the cultures they inhabit, in order to make them comprehensible. This, Salazar fails to do. The novel has a very sad, haunting quality, but the characters are only specters, superficial and estranged.

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