The Lady Matador's Hotel
by Cristina Garcia
Reviewed by Helena Maria Viramontes
Dictators and their aftermath continue to dominate the literature, and the lives, of the Americas. Writers from Gabriel Garcia Marquez to Julia Alvarez to Junot Diaz chronicle the force of grief these regimes leave behind, as well as the hopeful resiliency of citizens suffering under the greed and corruption of leaders who fear nothing but the loss of power. The winds of change in these fascist governments are measured by which way the United States' Latin America policy weathervane is pointed. What doesn't change is the ferociousness inevitably directed at the innocent.
An ex-dictator is campaigning for president in Cristina Garcia's lyrical, bewitching fifth novel, The Lady Matador's Hotel. Over the course of a week in the Hotel Miraflora, Garcia switches between the intersecting lives of Suki Palacios, a vibrant and no-nonsense bullfighter competing in the first "Battle of the Lady Matadors"; Aura, a hotel waitress and former guerrilla whose family was murdered by the military; Colonel Martin Abel, an organizer of a military gathering that expounds the usual rhetoric about "weeding out the insurgents...monitoring university students...infiltrating the unions..."; Won Kim, an unhappy Korean textile-factory owner with employee problems and a 15-year-old mistress who is eight months pregnant with his child; Gertrudis Stüber, a calculating lawyer made wealthy in the adoption business; and, finally, the Cuban-American poet Ricardo, who arrives in Garcia's unnamed country from New York City to adopt a baby.
One might think such a cast could fall prey to stereotypes, but Garcia hasn't won almost every writing award for nothing. Her amazing talent is to depict psychologically complicated characters against the backdrop of a complicated society, in this case one made more unstable by upcoming elections. The novel is slim by today's standards, yet Garcia's subject matter is epic: civil war, assassination attempts, historical amnesia, godly messages dispatched from a canary, xenophobia, communication with the dead, the redemption of art, you name it. After every chapter, she inserts reports from newspapers and magazines, the Weather Channel, television celebrity and news shows and feminist radio programs regarding events in the fragile nation. These banal entries offset descriptions of horrific destruction, and the reader can't help but laugh.
The metaphor that permeates the novel is the bullring. Garcia implies that sometimes, in this "wedge of forgotten land between continents, to this place of hurricanes and violence and calculated erasures," the only goal that one can strive for is to look directly into the eyes of death. Without the bull, "there's no drama, no spectacle, no poetry...no glory. No immortality." Garcia is at the height of her imaginative powers, and The Lady Matador's Hotel is a tour de force, at once hopeful and hopeless.
Helena Maria Viramontes is director of creative writing at Cornell University and author of Their Dogs Came With Them (Atria, 2007).