Friday, August 20, 2010

Short-a-Day: Nam Le's "Cartagena"

Originally published in A Public Space 02, Summer 2006. Personal enjoyment rating (out of 100): 100.

A flawless, tense story about a fourteen-year-old and his "respectable" "office job" as a sicario, i.e., a hitman. Le is very careful about the order in which he reveals information, and even when he does, we still often forget that Juan, our narrator, is so young, given the responsibilities that have been thrust upon him and his gallada (posse). At the opening, we are introduced to Luis, who is now leading the gang; Claudia, the oldest, but also a woman; Edwardo, the dumb shit-stepping muscle; and little Pedro, "who walks behind the group with his hands in his torn pant pockets in order to fondle his testicles. It is not even funny any more." There is just enough humor to make us actually mourn Juan's remembrance of other comrades, which are presented as matter-of-fact events, like: "Carlos was shot in the throat outside the Parque del Poblado: it was night and he was selling basuco to the crackheads when the rich kids came in their yellow Jeep and cleansed him." There is plenty of disassociation going on in this story, and Le's greatest strength is in looping us in despite and because of that.

The title of the story comes from a dream: Cartagena, a fishing village where Juan can flee and restart his life. But it's no mistake that the opening line compares the beach's grayness at dawn to the steel gray of a G3 gun, and there's a brilliant foreshadowing in this line: "And when the sun comes up on your right, man, it is a slow-motion explosion like in the movies, a big kerosene flash and then the water is sparkling gray and orange and red." These hopeless children think in the exaggerations and swagger of films; what do they really know? Flashbacks explain Juan's connection to another former crew-mate, Hernando, who saved him from being molested (and probably killed) by a corrupt cop and his business partner: that's their world, which is why Cartagena must be an otherworldly land. It comes full circle by the story's end, in which--in the clutches of his boss--he remembers another description of that land, of all the fishermen, working in harmony, yes, but in order to run a giant net through the water, blotting out and catching all the fish.

So, the descriptions are tops, but so's the pacing and characterization. The flashbacks really pack a punch, not just because they show us growth, but because we already know where that growth is headed. Like in Sondheim's Merrily We Roll Along or the French film Irreversible, these small moments of experience and hope only heightens the pending tragedy. The drama of "Cartagena" stems from Juan's refusal to complete a hit on his old friend, but by the time we see him put down his gun (in the past), we have already learned (in the present) that he's been killed anyway (by another hitman). So much for dreams. 

This evocative precision extends to the little details, too. When Juan hides at his mother's house, he jokes that she doesn't need to dye her hair to look younger; people already think she's his sister. It's not mere flattery, though: she's 28 to his 14. Juan's boss, El Padre, is summed up as one who gets "eyebrow revenge"--that is, he responds to small, accidental slights against him, like spilled wine, with deadly force. There's this great description, too, which contrasts Hernando's attempts to do good for the community (post-attempted molestation) with Juan's falling in with the rich, corrupt murderers: "His clothes were faded and worn, his left shoe ripped at the toe. I became conscious of my Nike Mercurial Vapor shoes and my Adidas Squadra jersey with its ClimaCool fabric and mesh panels." Juan's life seems like the appealing one, no? Best of all, it's all in the language; each line adds to the atmosphere, and for a story that's fairly long and fairly tense, that's high praise.

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