It is rare for me to find a writer who knows how to cause a story to flow with ease. A month ago I discovered a work quite by accident by Cristina García (Link to my review of “Dreams of Significant Girls”) and my exploration cause me to look at other items that she has written. I came across The Lady Matador’s Hotel and was thoroughly impressed once again.
Suki Palacios has come a long way to this spired hotel in the tropics, to this wedge of forgotten land between continents, to this place of hurricanes and violence and calculated erasures. She arrived yesterday from Los Angeles, trading the moody squalor of one city for another, the broken Spanish for one more lyrical. In a week she will compete in the first Battle of the Lady Matadors in the Americas. Suki is here early to display her skills and generate enthusiasm for the fight. By the time the other matadoras arrive in the capital, its citizens will be clamoring for blood.
Every window of the hotel looks inward to a crosshatch of courtyards and fountains, banyans and Madeira palms. The pool is visible beneath Suki’s window, a glazed and artificial blue. A cascade of bougainvillea brightens the patio. Aviaries with raucous jungle parrots outmatch the mariachis in volume and plumage. The lady matador is tempted to submit to the hotel’s shielding niceties, to ignore the afternoon torpor awaiting her in the ring. She’s grown accustomed to the jeering spectators who come to spit at her and provoke the bulls. They would gladly banish her from the sport altogether – interloper, scandalous woman playing at being a man.
García has the ability to be both lyrical and frank in her writing. The story deals with a group of people whose lives have intersected at a luxury hotel in an unnamed Central-American city. Readers get deeply inside the thoughts of each of the six characters (three men and three women) and experience their fears, their desires and even their cruel indifference. This is a great book that not only looks at life in Central America, but at the human condition in general.
The lawyer doesn’t feel her usual sens of triumph after a morning’s testimony before Congress. Los Mohosos – the moldy ones, her catchall name for her political adversaries – are lobbying to abolish private adoptions and put the government in charge. A politician on Gertrudis’s payroll had the audacity to condemn foreign adoptions, citing that Korea had stopped exporting its babies. “It’s imperative that we follow suit,” Senator Silvestre Jimenez demanded. “Are we any less of a culture?”
His tirade wasn’t about saving children but about making money – and boosting his sagging popularity with a distracting new cause. He and the other politicians want a bigger cut of the lucrative adoption business under the guise of more regulation. They couldn’t be more transparent. The lawyers, equally transparent and let by Gertrudis, are fighting to preserve the profits. As far a she’s concerned, there’s no downside to sending a fraction of the country’s underprivileged children overseas. Nothing awaits them here but misery.
After her testimony, lobbyists of every persuasion surrounded Gertrudis, vying for her attention in competing clouds of brilliantine. She estimates that her payroll will swell considerably by week’s end. There is nothing read about realpolitik here. Everything masquerades as something else.
While this book may be a slim volume, it is complex. While spanning a week, we witness a multitudes of scenes and emotions that are descriptive and intense. García has brilliantly compartmentalized each section of the book into having a single character deal with their thoughts and actions alone. The characters may be sensitive people but situations beyond their control have made them into hard and difficult people with strong emotions.
A bellboy delivers a telegram to Won Kim at the bar. He tips the boy and carefully opens the envelope. The message is from his mother, pleading with him (again) to return home to Seoul and bury her like a proper son. I cannot die in peace with you so far away. Won Kim folds the telegram, his face burning with shame.
“I want your biggest steak!” he shouts to the bartender.
Other customer turn to look at him but Won Kim no longer cares what anyone thinks. Let them speculate about his transgressions. Let them revel in his sins. Let them strip him bare and see him for who he is. At the bar, Won Kim recognizes the barrel-chested colonel but cannot remember his name.
The television drones on behind the mahogany bar and Won Kim tries to distract himself with the weather report. A hurricane, apparently, is churning its way toward their shores. If only he could be swept away by its purging winds. How he would relish tumbling through the air with the pelicans and dusky fish, their gills opened and red as new wounds. Just as a report begin on the lady matador, the same colonel orders the TV turned off.
Won Kim cuts his rare steak. It is juicy and delicious, better than the chicken, but he cannot force himself to eat more than one bite. His stomach flip-flops and the burning in his lungs spikes down to his knees. He smokes another cigarette to settle his nerves. Then he pays for his food with two twenty-dollar bills and heads upstairs to his mistress.
The Lady Matador’s Hotel by Cristina García is a great exploration of the human condition. It is well-crafted, lyrical and emotional. A very impressive book and – no doubt – I will be looking at other works by this writer soon.