Checkmate

Héctor Tobar
The Tattooed Soldier
Delphinium Books

Another hot day in Los Angeles. Sun behind smog. More sun in the forecast. The city of angels a city of random bodies crisscrossing the burning pavement--each with a million possible futures, a secret biography, an ultimate fate poised to happen. It's 1992, and everywhere in America people are hooked by satellite to the Rodney King trial and the riots the night of the verdict. Héctor Tobar, a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer for the Los Angeles Times, reported on the conflagration in a series of ground-zero dispatches: the glass storm, the bystander beatings, looters on the prowl scoring stereos and sneakers in a night lit by flaming cop cars.

Tobar's debut novel, The Tattooed Soldier, backtracks several months from that chaos to another hot day in L.A. when the story's core character finds himself evicted, relegated to the street and a nomad's life among the homeless. Antonio Bernal, a Guatemalan expatriate with expired papers, carries with him a single garbage bag stuffed with soiled socks, unopened letters, a tattered photo of his wife and infant son. He takes up camp with a cast of other loose-enders playing out their days in a hand-to-mouth limbo, under cardboard shelters on a decimated hillside in the heart of the metro. As chance or luck or extraordinary misfortune would have it, Antonio kills time one day by wandering into MacArthur Park. There, at the chess tables, he spots a man about to be checkmated. As the player reaches across the board in a final wrong move, Antonio spies a familiar tattoo on the player's forearm: a jaguar with its yellow hide taut over muscle.

From that chance sighting, Tobar--the son of Guatemalan immigrants--takes us back to Guatemala during some of the worst violence of that nation's long civil war. But this is not a history primer, nor does the narrative trip on crude pedanticism in the way many inferior works of political fiction might. Characters here don't stand in for theories; to his due credit, Tobar eschews preaching any sort of bald morality that might, in the hands of a less imaginative writer, cast the figures in this drama as simple mouthpieces for scripted propaganda. We don't learn, for instance, that at least 100,000 Guatemalan citizens died during the decades-long war, or that nearly 40,000 were "disappeared" by the U.S.-backed military death squads. We aren't privy to documented acts of murder, village burning, and assassination (for one of the best such accounts, the reader might turn to the autobiography I, Rigoberta Menchú). Instead, Tobar's strategy is cinematic in scope and tragic in structure--fiction in the service of dramatizing the cruel effects of fascism on its survivors, whatever their allegiances.

The account to be settled in The Tattooed Soldier--its anchoring predicament--is the death of Antonio's immediate family. His wife, Elena, counts among the thousands of student dissidents in the capital, several of whom are kidnapped by paramilitary thugs, and are found dead days later with their hands and ears sliced off. Antonio and a pregnant Elena flee to a remote village, meaning to slip into anonymity. He returns from work one afternoon to find his wife and son slaughtered--a scene Tobar makes all the more obscene by juxtaposing her point of view with the killer's. Antonio escapes to the bus station, and as the bus idles at the curb he glimpses a man described by neighbors as the murdering soldier, sitting on a park bench. It is Guillermo Longoria; he has a gold jaguar on his forearm.

At its root, The Tattooed Soldier is a story of what-ifs: What if Longoria, a dirt-poor campesino, hadn't been recruited by force at age 14 (at a matinee of E.T.--The Extra-Terrestrial) and turned, by way of Fort Bragg and the School of the Americas, into a brutal mercenary? If his path hadn't crossed with Antonio's, at the station, at the chess table in Los Angeles nearly a decade later? If the tattoo hadn't been etched in indelible ink like a brand? If Antonio weren't able to lay his hands on a .22-caliber pistol? If the riots after the verdict hadn't reached critical mass--providing a cover of chaos for Antonio to settle an old score?

In Tobar's taut prose, each move, each moment of contingent fate, takes place like a masterful play on a great chessboard. The complexity of this fatal game becomes all the more unnerving as the author draws sure parallels between the killing fields of Guatemala and the killing streets of Los Angeles: both decimated landscapes peopled by gangs and refugees and bystanders; both ruled at the height of crisis by the anarchic logic of violence.

 
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