Saturday, April 6, 2013

Contemplating Pancho: More About Fiesta of Smoke

 At the feet of my hero, at his ranch near Parral, Chihuahua

A large black-and-white photo of Pancho Villa sits on my desk. He’s on horseback, riding straight toward the camera, bandana around his neck, hat pushed back so strong light floods his sweaty forehead and big black moustache. His horse is at a gallop, lathered with sweat, and dust rises under its hooves. Behind them, horse-drawn caissons rumble and a crowd of horse cavalry, guns and banners jutting, gathers in the distance.

I am stunned by the drama of this photograph. No matter how often I glance at it, or gaze, as I do many times a day, an urgency and a terror grips me. This is war, the Mexican Revolution of 1910. This man and those who followed him put their lives on the line for an ideal: freedom.

For more than thirty years I’ve traveled in Mexico, into the interior where the anguish of the Mexican people is unvarnished by tourist trappings. It’s become clear to me that the freedoms gained in the Revolution are being lost and that the desperate plight of the poor remains. In many ways, the Conquest of the 1500s is on-going, with the pillaging of land transferred from the Spaniards to multi-national corporations and corrupt politicos.

Fiesta of Smoke was born out of these observations and ponderings. How does social transformation occur? What are its mechanisms, driving forces, psychology? Who are its leaders and what motivates their incredible sacrifice? Does every age produce a Pancho Villa, willing to ride through the night from one battle to the next, to live lean and forego rest for an ideal? These questions began to congeal into images. And thus the insurgent Javier Carteña entered, tracked by international investigative reporter, Hill, who asks the same kinds of questions:

         Staring up from the flap of the book’s dust jacket was Dr. Javier Carteña. Hill bent over the small black and white photo like a virologist discovering a new germ.
         The face that stared back at him was handsome in the way that fighting bulls are--full-boned, brave and powerful. The eyes did, yes they did indeed, smolder. The mouth was full-lipped and slightly drawn down in the corners, as if at any moment he might bark an order that would carry no compassion but strike one senseless like the stooping of a falcon. It was the face of a monastic--solitary, disciplined, tortured down deep. Calypso had called him a "warrior-priest," his wife and children notwithstanding. A head of glossy black hair filled what was left of the photo.
         He buttoned the top button of his overcoat, gathered up the book. The first thing to do, of course, was to call the publisher. He set off down the street quickly, smiling to himself. Now he was in his element! Now, there was a scent to follow.

Caught between the two men is Calypso Searcy, a successful writer, whose adolescent love affair with Javier Carteña has impacted her life for twenty-five years, and whom Hill has just met:

         Hill fished some ten-franc pieces from his pocket and began to push back his chair when his eye lit again on Pont St.-Louis. A woman stood there, mid-span, facing the cathedral. She was wearing a yellow dress and the afternoon sun slanting through it gave hints of a long and lithe body. But more remarkably, she had one leg stretched out on the railing and was rhythmically lowering and raising her torso to her extended knee, in long, balletic stretches. Intrigued, Hill left a five-franc tip to propitiate the gods and threaded out through the metal chairs.
         A red fox coat, heaped on a big oxblood-colored leather bag, glowed like a fire at her feet; and she was humming the strains of Zum reinen Wasser: “Where streams of living water flow, He to green meadows leadeth...”
         Leaning casually against the railing about four feet away, a distance he deemed friendly but not overpowering, Hill ventured: “I love Bach, myself.”
         “Truly,” she said.
         Thirty years of savoir-faire melted and Hill was a fuzz-faced lout from Denver again, all elbows and size-16 shoes. “One of his loveliest . . .” he managed to stammer, “his finest cantatas.”
         Time for pure out-West charm--ingenuous, all-man, no horseshit.
         “Listen,” he said, “I know just from looking that you and I are as different as hog wire and harp string. But if you’re not otherwise engaged, I’d be honored to take you to an early supper.”
It quickly becomes apparent to Hill that Calypso is in some kind of trouble, and when she disappears, he sets out, using his investigative skills to track her, first in Paris:

         The room Hill entered was a perfect exemplar of early seventeenth-century architecture, long and narrow, with a high ceiling, windows at the end giving onto the street, and a marble mantle framing a small fireplace. Orderly, it would have been a lovely room. The degree of disruption alarmed him. Rugs were pulled up, sofa cushions slit and books pulled from their shelves into splayed heaps. He bent and picked one up at random. Ombre et Soleil, the poetry of Paul Eluard. It had been so badly manhandled that the center pages fell out with a thunk.
         Oh non, monsieur!” Madame Pouillon shrieked. “You must touch nothing!”
         “But, what possible difference . . .” he broke off, gesturing at the incalculable mess.
         “Yes . . . but no. You must not touch Mademoiselle’s things. On this I insist!” Hill nodded, trying to keep down his frustration. He had to work fast, before she insisted he leave altogether.

Then to California, New Mexico and Arizona, following Calypso’s swiftly vanishing trail, and finally arriving in southern Mexico. Meanwhile, Javier and Calypso recall their youthful bonding in Berkeley in 1966:

         Javier would never forget the afternoon he brought Calypso home from the hospital, so agonized she could barely breathe. He laid her on the bed and gingerly removed her sweater and jeans. It was his first full view. Her entire body was a patchwork of bruises and lacerations. Only her ankles and feet seemed to have escaped unharmed. "My God, Caleepso! My God!" was all he could mutter. He sat on the end of the bed and massaged her feet, the only part of her he dared touch, until she fell asleep.
         Her general demeanor impressed him. She was calm, serene and patient with herself, and grateful, although not servilely so, in her reliance on him.
         "Caleepso, I am impressed with you. You are very strong."
         She was sitting in her big armchair with a mug of steaming tea. Late afternoon sun streamed obliquely, setting her long dark hair ablaze with red highlights.
         "Something happened to me, in there."
         "Obviously . . ." He waved a hand at her, as if to ask if she thought he was blind.
         "No. I mean something . . . wonderful. Something . . . sublime."
         "Tell me."
         No words for the ineffable, he thought, as he listened to the stammering account of her experience after the rape. Had she been delirious? Dying? Mere language could never convey the wonder he saw sweeping her face. Something profound had happened to her. Who knew better than he what lovers pleasure and pain can be, how intimate their dance and how seductive?
         "I see you, Caleepso," he said when she had lapsed into silence. "I see your soul."
         The room was in cloistered darkness. They sat, with the hiss of the radiator and the background roar of evening traffic, in silence. At that moment, they both knew the truth: there would never be another human being as intimately, inextricably bound to them as they were to one another.

Revolutionary fervor heats up, then boils over:
         She ran. Lights swept across the ground, and in the strobe effect, Calypso saw running figures, then blackness, then again, people running, pulling sleepy children behind them or carrying them in their arms, and then again, blackness. A shot rang out. Then another. In one of the sweeps of the lights she saw someone lying on the ground. Then another.
         Suddenly the selva rose before her and she slammed into a wall of vegetation. A searchlight swept across the foliage to her right, its arc about to encompass her. More shots. Calypso dove to the ground. Pulling herself forward on her arms, she clawed beneath the forest understory like an animal desperate for safety from the madness of humankind. . . .

. . . Sleep evaded Javier. He was cold. He suspected it was not just the wind that was making him that way. A knife of ice had been inserted in his guts, the moment he stood on the empty lakeshore. If anything should happen to Calypso, he would never be warm again. But it was so careless of her to do this! She was causing him trouble when he had enough already. She was risking the safety of the operation. When she finally came wandering back, he’d send her packing. She had no business in this place, where she didn’t have the slightest understanding of the seriousness of things.
         He tried to make his anger heat him. It failed.
         Sometime in the darkest part of the night he finally must have dozed, because when he jerked awake, Pedro was standing by the bed, ghostly through the mosquito netting. “Boss! Wake up! There’s trouble! Get your boots on. We gotta go!”
         Javier threw aside the blanket and netting and was on his feet in an instant, reaching for his shotgun. “What?”
         “It’s the village, Boss.”
         “What village?”
         “The one where Calypso is.”
         “What about it?”
         “Come on, Boss! It’s under attack!”

         I sit gazing at Pancho Villa. His eyes are inscrutable. There is no hint of what drives a man so fiercely to risk his life in a cause that could just as easily fail as succeed. As Fiesta of Smoke gestated and grew, it became clear that love is a motive force the power of which is incendiary and unfathomably profound. Fiesta of Smoke is a study in history and cultural transformation, yes. But even more, it probes those vulnerable, wounded places haunted by Eros: romance, sexuality, friendship, patriotism, and the passion for freedom at all costs.
         In the thirty years it has taken to write this book, the love between Calypso and Javier has demanded to be recorded, and so has their passion for social justice. During those three decades, actual events in Mexico have demonstrated that these two were not misguided: the people are rising up, acting out one of the great dramas of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries,  offering their lives to the dance that is a fiesta of smoke.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

I'm Back!

I'm back! I thought you'd like to see a photo, to be sure I'm for real after all this time, so I just snapped this one in the bathroom mirror. That's why I look a little fuzzy--although it may also reflect my mental state. Please excuse the 9-month silence. I'll explain later. For now, I have an announcement: my second work of literary fiction, Fiesta of Smoke, launched March 5th with Fiction Studio Books! 

Fiesta of Smoke is a love story set against fifty years of political turmoil in Mexico, and takes on the critical social issues of disenfranchisement of indigenous peoples, political corruption and the increasing encroachment of powerful drug cartels. Fiesta of Smoke is available in paperback or e-book on Amazon and Barnes&Noble. And in case you're wondering: yes, I'm currently working on a sequel.

People have been asking me what motivated me, thirty years ago, to begin writing Fiesta of Smoke, and what kept me motivated through so many years and distractions. One searing image bears responsibility for it all.

 I was traveling in a dilapidated VW bus from Mérida, the capital of Yucatan, to Xumal, an ancient Mayan city of the classical period and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. We wound along a narrow road bordered by fields and areas of low trees. It was the dry season, just on the cusp of the coming rains, and the trees and grasses were dry and shriveled.

Suddenly, I spied a large group of people, between seventy-five and a hundred I estimated, sitting in a field of yellowed grass and bracketed by forest. The women were all in traditional dress of flounced skirts and colorful huipils, the hand woven and embroidered blouses of the Maya. The men and children, too, wore the simple clothing of the indigenous Maya. The group was unusually still, forming an unmoving tableau on the field’s proscenium as we labored past in our noisy old bus.

“Who are those people?” I asked my Mexican companion, for the utter lack of movement struck me as odd and somehow disturbing. My friend answered that these were Guatemalan refugees whose home village had been destroyed by a paramilitary death squad. “They have nowhere to go,” he said sadly, “and so they are sitting here.”

At that moment, Fiesta of Smoke was born. As surely as if I had received a certified letter from On High, I knew I was called to write about their plight. Thirty years intervened. I wrote three other books in the interim, completed masters and doctoral degrees, worked as a university professor, divorced and married again. Still, the image of those humble, disrupted people never left me. Many of them must be dead by now. Their children will be grown and have children of their own. Tardy it may be, but Fiesta of Smoke is for them—those nameless, despairing people in a field by the side of the road in Yucatan.

As if to put a seal upon my decision, the instant it was formed the skies suddenly opened and the first rain of the rainy season commenced. I opened the van window and thrust out my arm. Rain ran down it, into my lap. It splashed my cheeks and dribbled down my chest. I hope it is like this for the readers of Fiesta of Smoke—that the love that is poured through its pages will anoint them in a downpour that revives everything. 

For your enjoyment, the opening pages of Fiesta of Smoke:

            The story I am about to tell you is true, as I myself was a participant. Some parts come from the accounts of my contemporaries, as alive and vivid as a basket of eels. The rest, rising from the dust of centuries, is open to conjecture only to those who lack a certain kind of faith that we, who made this story by our doing, held as our deepest fiber. To participate with us, you must consider that illusion is the veriest truth and reality can play you false in a heartbeat. There is nothing more you need to know, except that in matters of this world--and no doubt the next--the only real thing is love.
. . . .
Sierra Madre Occidental, Chihuahua, Mexico

            In a house ringed with guns, the couple is dancing. Courtyard walls condense fragrances flying on night wind sighing down the Sierra. Nectar and smoke lace with the smell of tortillas on the comal. From the open kitchen door a trapezoid of yellow light illumines, on a tilted chair, a blind guitarist whose gypsy rumba entwines the soft splatter of the fountain. White moths circle the musician’s head like spirits of inspired music.
            The dancers scarcely move. He holds her close, his forearm across her back, her hand curled into his crooked wrist, the other warm on the back of his neck. He scoops her into himself, their hips pressing, slowly rotating to rhythm as one. He submerges himself in her hair, its scent of apples and sandalwood, brushes his cheek against its softness, and gazes into the darkness, alert for signs.
            She rubs her cheek against the rough hand-woven cloth of his white shirt, breathes his essence--rich as newly-churned butter, sweet as vanilla, feral as a jaguar. It rises into her brain like a drug. Her head against his chest, she feels his heart pulsing powerfully, tuned like a guitar string to its own primal note. His whole being vibrates with what he senses: the closeness and surrender of her body, the sultry beat of the music, the luscious fragrances of the night, the invisible ambling of the guards on the walls, the inevitable approach of ruin.

It's great to be back! You can thank my friend Susan Coster for prodding me every day until I got this blog posted. Thanks, Susan. Please keep it up!