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Book review: 'La Santa Muerte'.

In examining the angel of death's growing cult in his latest book, "La Santa Muerte," Mexican writer Homero Aridjis leads the reader on a frightening romp through a 24-hour party at a drug lord's bacchanalian ranch--along the way providing an exhilarating peek into the nation's criminal underworld and this "Thin Lady" to whom many gangsters pay tribute.

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Aridjis has been translated into 15 languages, received a pair of Guggenheim fellowships, countless literary awards and been shortlisted for the New York Times Book of the Year (in 1991 for "1492: The Life and Times of Juan Cabezon of Castile"). His latest work should satiate his fans' appetites, and it provides non-Mexican readers with a sensationally entertaining look inside the rarefied circle of the nation's drug-trafficking elite and the politicians and businessmen with whom they associate.

Reputedly based on a party that Aridjis himself attended somewhere just outside the Valley of Mexico, the narrator (a crime reporter for a national newspaper) receives a mysterious invite by fax one lazy afternoon in Mexico City and ends up taking it.

"Life begins at 50," reads the fax, an invite to the birthday party of the notorious Santiago Lopez Tovar. "Twenty-four hours of celebration without par. Not to be missed."

Our narrator reasons, "The temptation is too big--to be present at a party of drug lords and their families is a unique opportunity."

So he heads to the Rancho EI Eden somewhere off the Mexico-Puebla highway and enters a world in which the guests' menu includes a dazzling array of drugs, top-shelf liquor and high-class prostitutes from around the globe.

This voyeuristic ride into a world in which AK-47-toting bodyguards stand sentinel and a briefcase full of maximum-denomination bills is considered an appropriate birthday gift ("Checks are not welcome," the narrator realizes) sends readers on a vicarious binge, even if they are just turning paperback pages on a Friday night.

Aridjis' compact, conversational sentences help along the non-native Spanish speakers among us. Given Aridjis' inner knowledge of Mexican politics and the gossip within it (he is a former ambassador and his environmental crusades have brought him in close contact with political figures and local power merchants), readers will undoubtedly be guessing what characters are simply thinly veiled representations of prominent players on the Mexican stage.

The characters are rich and plentiful--one is called "Lord of the Rottweilers" because his ranch in Cuernavaca is home to 100 of them, while another reflects on his youth spent acquiring carnal knowledge from prostitutes that his powerful father supplied him and his friends.

Although Santa Muerte takes a while to appear in the story, this image of violent death is always there beneath the surface. When she does appear, it gets pretty heavy, and the surprise ending makes the reader realize why an investigative journalist would be invited to this type of gathering in the first place.

Five other tales close out this collection of short stories, but I am still stuck amid the wealth and devilish pleasures of Santiago Lopez Tovar's estate, wondering what the next offering at the party will be.
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Title Annotation:art watch
Author:Brayman, Matthew
Publication:Business Mexico
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Apr 1, 2004
Words:516
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