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Book Review : A Colombian Puts On Marlowe's Shoes

December 07, 1987|CAROLYN SEE

Ten Percent of Life by Hiber Conteris (Simon & Schuster: $15.95 cloth, $6.95 paper; 167 pages)

If there is a heaven for hard-boiled writers, Raymond Chandler should be up there smiling. All through his life, Chandler--and Dashiell Hammett, James M. Cain, Paul Cain, Raoul Whitfield and Horace McCoy, as well as their mentor, Capt. Joseph Shaw, editor of the famed hard-boiled periodical, the Black Mask--maintained that they were all onto something far more than shotgun blasts and cyanide murders; Chandler and his colleagues swore up and down that the so-called hard-boiled novel was a metaphor for the savage life we live today.

In the epigraph of "Ten Percent of Life," Colombian writer Hiber Conteris quotes extensively from "The Simple Art of Murder," an essay in which Chandler postulates ". . . A world in which gangsters can rule nations and almost rule cities. . . . A world where you may witness a holdup in broad daylight and see who did it, but you will fade quickly back into the crowd rather than tell anyone, because the holdup men may have friends with long guns, or the police may not like your testimony. . . . It is not a fragrant world, but it is the world you live in, and certain writers with tough minds and a cool spirit of detachment can make very interesting and even amusing patterns out of it."

Why begin a review on Hiber Conteris with an extensive quote from Chandler? Because when Hiber Conteris was a political prisoner in a Colombian jail, he--according to the jacket blurb--"immersed himself in Chandler" (although Conteris himself says merely that he had possession of Frank McShane's 1976 biography of Chandler, and that it was "impossible to gain access to any other essay on Chandler" during the time he was in jail). It is also impossible to know whether Conteris read any of the original Chandler novels. . . .

A Huge Fictional Leap

What Conteris took, then, is a huge, imaginative, fictional leap. From the confines of a Colombian jail--experiencing a vicious life that Chandler had only dreamed of; the configurations of a world where murder really is a simple art--Conteris thought of California, Los Angeles, the Pacific, crime, glamour and a solitary private detective. In the saddest, strangest, most peculiar way, Conteris once again breathed life into Philip Marlowe, that taciturn and puritanical private eye who knew that "Down these mean streets a man must go," and even conjured up Raymond Chandler himself, holed up in his cabin in Big Bear drinking too much, as usual, and ruminating upon the art of writing the hard-boiled novel.

The reader can respond to this extraordinary effort in one of two ways: He can say immediately that Conteris has "got it all wrong," that Philip Marlowe would, for instance, never ogle nubile girls in a swimming pool, or go to bed with a beautiful woman (without feeling sick about it afterward), that Marlowe would never drive a Triumph, or live in a fancy penthouse apartment. And of course it would be a cold day in hell when an autumn in Los Angeles turned cold, cloudy, drizzly for the length of an entire adventure, when no one in Los Angeles knows where Big Bear is.

But if the reader also takes an imaginative leap, he might see an urbane South American putting on a Philip Marlowe coat. He might hear Marlowe speak in cultured tones about the larger world.

"Ten Percent of Life" is a dream dreamed behind bars about Los Angeles, about all of us and the way we are. In this dream there are none of the sleazy motor courts or gambling dens or ice-pick murderers that the real Chandler wrote about, but only the glazed beauty of a paradise in myth--a world where "gangsters can rule nations and almost rule cities" but which is still spectacular in its ability to offer solace and consolation.

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