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Book Review : A Stunning Allegory of Corruption in High Places

June 30, 1988|RICHARD EDER | Times Book Critic

The Two Deaths of Senora Puccini by Stephen Dobyns (Viking: $17.95; 246 pages)

"Pursued by threat of war and violence in the streets, we came to a friend's house for dinner."

So begins Stephen Dobyns' sinuous and insidiously compelling tale of passion and corruption. In a nameless Latin American city, a bloody insurrection is going on. And in one of that city's mansions, four friends gather for a grotesque banquet at which a succession of revelations will lay bare a state of moral murderousness that is the exact counterpart of what is taking place outside.

Blood in the streets, blood in the hearts of men. Before the long night is over, the war will have repeatedly invaded the house without more than echoing the awfulness of the story that unfolds inside.

The banquet is the remnant of a larger ceremony, the twice-yearly reunion of a high school class of 30 years earlier. Its dozen boys were all more or less under the domination of the most brilliant, handsome, athletic and enterprising among them. Pacheco, seducer and revealer of mysteries, roamed the city freely; legends follow him.

A Rite of Passage

On one occasion, he summoned the whole class to a room where an enormous prostitute deflowered them, one by one. It was a blood rite, a brotherhood bond. Afterward, they celebrated with chicken sandwiches and chocolate cake, also furnished by Pacheco.

The sandwiches and cake; they prefigure the banquet held 30 years later by Pacheco, now a wealthy surgeon, and still a mysterious seducer. But they also strike a faintly comic note; one of many that Dobyns introduces here and there, not to mock the highly mannered style of his grim and well-honed allegory, but to ventilate it. Airlessness is the danger of such allegories; it is one of Dobyns' remarkable accomplishments that he avoids it.

Only three of the class have braved the violence in the streets to play out the harsh ritual of discovery that will take place. Ostensibly, it will consist of Pacheco's tale of sexual obsession and domination. Its victim is Antonia Puccini, the housekeeper who serves them course after lavish course, taciturn and stony-faced, as Pacheco reveals the details of his perverse menage.

Upon their arrival, the guests notice a photograph of a beautiful young girl. It is, Pacheco explains when he joins them, "the woman I chose to destroy."

Years ago, she had sat behind him at a concert. Pacheco fondled her surreptitiously and felt her respond; this aroused a destroying passion in him. He began to pursue her everywhere, despite her repeated contemptuous rebuffs and her evident devotion to her fiance. He climbed into her bedroom at night, chased her on horseback, and got her fired from her job, hoping to make her dependent upon him. Nothing worked, though; and finally, he rammed the fiance's motorcycle with his car, leaving him paralyzed for life.

Unable to take care of the injured man, Antonia struck a bargain. She moved in with the invalid, and made herself available to Pacheco whenever he desired. Pacheco tells his friends of the mutual torture that has gone on ever since.

Physical Passion

Senora Puccini is doubly enslaved; by her need to care for her fiance, and by the physical passion that Pacheco arouses in her. But Pacheco is equally enslaved. He loves her; sex is only what he uses to try to reach her. And he fails. She displays cold contempt, and he retaliates by humiliating her before his guests, telling them each erotic detail of their connection, and stripping and fondling her in their presence.

Pacheco's twisted and artfully told story gains fascination from its periodic interruptions. Soldiers burst in from time to time, bringing their wounded for the doctor to treat. An arrogant captain beats him with a gun butt.

The mark it leaves, the narrator notes--he is one of the guests--is exactly the color of the strawberries on the cake they are eating. It is one more of the comical and sinister touches by which the outside and inside violence are linked.

A classmate who is now a policeman and the regime's chief torturer, turns up briefly to drink a toast to their childhood friendship; and to draw a pistol when they hesitate. Later, they will see his corpse driven by in a truck.

Through the incursions, through Pacheco's lubricious tale, Puccini continually reappears, seemingly indifferent, to serve grotesque quantities of food. And as they eat, they hear the groans of the wounded just outside the door and, after a while, the dying stertor of the cook, who has been shot as she tried to leave to go home.

It is an allegory of corruption, stunningly told; and Dobyns progressively widens its focus.

Innocence and its loss is the theme. To be alive is to desire; to desire, ultimately, is to court corruption. Outside, soldiers, students, armed workers are killing each other for power. Inside, other murders are taking place.

As school children, Pacheco says, they thought of themselves as good. Even at 20, despite their failings, they still had an image of innocence.

Dobyns is a poet and the author of a number of detective stories. He has written a work whose seeming coldness is redeemed by its elegance and wit, whose artifice is animated a stirring sense of life and whose didactic note is entirely integrated into the vividness and complexity of a splendidly told tale.

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