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La casa pierde.

La casa pierde, by Juan Villoro. Mexico City: Alfaguara, 1998.

The characters who populate the stories of Mexican writer Juan Villoro are so familiar they seem like neighbors, yet oddly distant. They chatter and banter, yet fail to communicate. They are detached, alienated. They seem to suffer from an unrelenting ennui. They view their daily existence as role playing. At times, we have the impression that they don't really live, but just go through the motions. They engage apathetically in banal activities--cocktail parties, card games, horse races--but beneath the surface they are playing out their own private dramas.

These men and women seem to slip in and out of each other's lives without rhyme or reason. People meet and make love, then sit down to coffee the next morning as though nothing had happened between them. And yet, love isn't dispassionate, but, as one character says, an "incommunicable joy." Villoro's characters seem locked within themselves, unable or unwilling to open up. They bring to mind Octavio Paz's now classic Labyrinth of Solitude, in which the author describes the inability to communicate as a fundamental characteristic of the Mexican personality. Like the people Paz describes, Villoro's characters wear masks, but those masks hide a complex interplay of emotions.

In "El domingo de Canela," for example, two old friends, Echeverry and Marcos, go to dinner, to the races, and then back to Echeverry's apartment. Throughout their carefully contrived conversation, in which Echeverry plays the rich benefactor and Marcos the starving actor, the reader has the impression that some unidentified wound is festering unattended. The key is Sandra, a second-rate actress who wanders in and out of Marcos's life as though she were changing scenes. When he acts, she watches with "studied indifference." Marcos finds her more authentic on stage than in real life. Their relationship is defined through references to plays. Then one day, Sandra disappears for good. If Echeverry has brought Marcos home with him, it is to reveal that Sandra has switched lovers and now shares his bed. Echeverry has prepared the afternoon's drama--the dinner, the horse race--for the purpose of hurting Marcos and humiliating Sandra as much as possible. When the actress returns home, she is stunned to find her ex-lover in the apartment, but before Marcos can explain that he is as much a dupe of Echeverry's as she, Sandra has disappeared. As in many of Villoro's stories, it is what is left unspoken that is at the crux of the tragedy.

In this world of trivia and deafening silence, no one really knows anyone else. Lovers and strangers occupy the same space without really ever being together. In one story, a man slips up his wife's dress, contemplating her back as though it were an isolated, unknown object. Trapped in their labyrinths of solitude, characters invent imaginary offenses while remaining oblivious to real ones. In "La estatua descubierta," an artist who works for the Mexican Embassy in Berlin constantly runs into an Argentine diplomat at official affairs. In his mind, he creates a rivalry between the Argentine and himself for the affections of his wife, Maura. Every time the man wants to talk to him, the artist assumes it concerns his wife and refuses. He interprets every word and gesture of the Argentine's as a menace. Eventually, the artist becomes so obsessed with his "rival" that he requests a transfer and gets it. Finally, settled in his new home in Bulgaria, he receives a letter from the Argentine--but instead of reading it and clarifying the situation, he simply throws it away.

Occurrences such as this one launch people into new and unexpected situations. Maura suddenly finds herself in an uufamiliar country but decides, finally, that "you can adapt to anything," and carries on. Likewise, in the title story, Guadalupe settles in a border town of drug smugglers and gamblers after having had a few adventures on the other side of the Rio Grande. How did she wind up there? Does she even know? Her companion, who runs a tiny radio station, not only doesn't know, but doesn't think to ask. In many of these stories people wind up where they are through twists of fate. Not that they're trapped. They could leave, but somehow they're too indecisive, lethargic, or fatalistic to make a move.

Villoro, like Paz, presents a disheartening, sometimes chilling view of the modern Mexican. His characters are from all walks of life, yet they share a common outlook--especially the men, who tend to be gloomy and misanthropic. And yet, this book is not without humor. Some of Villoro's characters--for example, the artist who refuses to read his "rival's" letter--are so extreme they are almost caricatures. However, in the final analysis, Villoro's stories transcend national stereotypes, for in our high-tech, increasingly urban societies, alienation is too often the norm.

An essayist, novelist, and short-story writer, Barbara Mujica is also a professor of Spanish literature at Georgetown University. She is a regular contributor to Americas.
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Author:Mujica, Barbara
Publication:Americas (English Edition)
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Nov 1, 1999
Words:829
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