The Tattooed Soldierby Héctor Tobar
Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Hector Tobar's debut novel is a tragic tale of destiny and consequence set in downtown Los Angeles on the eve of the 1992 riots. Antonio Bernal is a Guatemalan refugee haunted by memories of his wife and child murdered at the hands of a man marked with a yellow tattoo. Not far from Antonio's apartment, Guillermo Longoria extends his arm and reveals a tattoo--yellow pelt, black spots, red mouth. It is the mark of the death squad, the Jaguar Battalion of the Guatemalan army. A chance encounter ignites a psychological showdown between these two men who discover that the war in Central America has followed them to the quemazones, the "great burning" of the Los Angeles riots.
"A suspenseful novel . . . Tobar has a fine storyteller's instinct and moves his characters toward the climax with the skill of a chess master." --Los Angeles Times
"A chilling revenge story." --People
"An important and unusual contribution to the Latin experience in American literature." --Newsday
• Finalist for a 1999 PEN Center USA West Award
The son of Guatemalan immigrants, Hector Tobar is a National Correspondent for the Los Angeles Times and was part of the writing team that won a Pulitzer Prize for coverage of the 1992 riots. He holds an MFA from the University of California at Irvine.
“Tobar succeeds in bringing into focus both the civil turmoil that racks Guatemala and the inner turmoil that can consume people anywhere.” People
“Suspenseful...Tobar has a fine storyteller's instinct and moves his characters towards the climax with the skill of a chess master.” Los Angeles Times
“[The Tattooed Soldier] casts a subtle light on the Third World terror which lies behind the faces of people on the pavements and in the parks of Los Angeles....Dazzling.” Thomas Keneally
“Héctor Tobar's accomplished first novel affords a perspective that is overdue and urgently needed in North American literature--an insider's vision of L.A. as a Third World city. The Tattooed Soldier is a riveting book that manages to be at once politically informed and at the same time a psychologically astute study of that most elemental of stories: revenge.” Stuart Dybek
- Penguin Publishing Group
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Read an Excerpt
The Tattooed Soldier
By Héctor Tobar
PicadorCopyright © 1998 Héctor Tobar
All rights reserved.
ON CROWN HILL
Neither man could claim English as his mother tongue, but it was the only language they shared. The tenant, Antonio Bernal, was from Guatemala. Through the narrow opening of a door pushed slightly ajar, he was speaking to the building manager who was about to evict him from his apartment, a Korean immigrant named Hwang. Both men squinted, each confused by the other's diction, trying to decipher mispronounced words. After several minutes of mumbled exchanges, they began to toss night-school phrases back and forth like life preservers: "Repeat, please." "Speak slower." "I don't understand."
Los Angeles was the problem. In Los Angeles, Antonio could spend days and weeks speaking only his native tongue, breathing, cooking, laughing, and embarrassing himself with all sorts of people in Spanish. He could avoid twisting and bending his lips and mouth to make those exotic English sounds, the hard edge of the consonants, the flat schwa. English belonged to another part of the city, not here, not downtown, where there were broad avenues lined with Chinese pictographs and Arabic calligraphy and Cyrillic, long boulevards of Spanish eñes where Antonio could let his Central American ches and erres roll off his tongue to his heart's delight.
"What?" Antonio said.
"I ask what you say?" replied Mr. Hwang, a squat man in khaki pants and a freshly starched shirt.
"I said, How much time? More time. Time, Hwang?"
"What time? Say again."
"Say what again? Time?"
"I don't understand."
Antonio was tired, and his accent felt a little thicker than usual. Mr. Hwang crossed his arms impatiently, as if he suspected that this confusion of tongues was only a stalling tactic, a ruse to postpone the inevitable eviction. Or maybe he was just callous, maybe he didn't care that Antonio had stayed up most of the night worrying about what he would do this morning. Antonio loosened the chain on the door and opened it wide to show Mr. Hwang that the floor of the apartment was littered with clothes and old paperbacks, proof of what he had been unable to communicate with words: he and his roommate were not ready to leave, because they had just begun to pack.
"We are trying, Mr. Hwang," Antonio said slowly. "We are trying."
"If you don't leave by two," the manager blurted out, "I have to call police."
Antonio took a deep breath and tried to compose himself, pushing his glasses up the bridge of his nose, a habit of his at moments when he felt close to violence. They were circle glasses, and when he caught a glimpse of himself in the mirror he would sometimes remember the day he first put them on, a decade ago, when he was a student at the university in Guatemala. "These are my intellectual glasses," he told a friend once. "I can't decide if they make me look like a chemist or a Maoist. What do you think?" He had kept his circle glasses through all his travels, all the way to Los Angeles, and had worn them at his last job, as a bus boy at a now defunct diner on the Westside. One of the cooks made fun of him and called him "professor." Somehow, the ideas and learning that made him strong in Guatemala had slipped away once he crossed the border, lost in the translation.
Granted, he did not speak English well, but who did? That in itself was not an explanation for what was happening to him today. Spanish was as good a language as any other. In Spanish, I sound like the intelligent person I really am. In English, I am a bus boy. But even that was dignified work. To have lifted dirty dishes, poured coffee, and worn a servant's brown uniform was nothing to be ashamed of. The little brown cap did not demean him, nor did the name tag that had begun to fade after so many months until it read ANT NI.
Voy a ser uno de los "homeless." It did not seem right to him that a man who loved to read, a man with Crimen y Castigo and El Idiota and countless other works of real literature scattered on the floor of his apartment, would be called this ugly word. And at the same time it made perfect sense, the logical conclusion to years of living in this cold, alien country. No Spanish equivalent captured the shame and sooty desperation of the condition, and so this compound, borrowed word would have to do: home-less.
"You are making me homeless," Antonio told the manager.
"If you don't leave," Mr. Hwang said in suddenly perfect English, "I will call the marshals."
Antonio pushed his glasses up again. He really would like to hit this coreano. There would be some satisfaction in that. But no, he could only blame himself for this fiasco, for having failed at the mathematics of his finances. He had decided to be polite to the building manager, apologetic, because he thought he detected a note of regret in Mr. Hwang's voice when he first knocked on the door to say, "You must leave." But now Mr. Hwang was threatening to call the marshals, the police of evictions. To have the police come here and treat me like a criminal. I was a bus boy, but that doesn't make me a criminal. He imagined himself being led away in handcuffs, his arms pulled behind his back, the public indignity of being marched past the neighbors.
"Call the police!" Antonio boomed six inches from the man's face. "Call the police!"
"Thirty minutes!" the manager yelled after taking a step back. "You have thirty minutes!"
"¡Come mierda!" Antonio shouted. "Hijo de la gran puta."
"Sip sae ki!" the manager hissed in Korean.
The neighbors began to appear almost immediately. Down the length of the first floor, doors snapped open and heads popped out—a dozen nameless acquaintances, people Antonio knew from hallway chitchat, glances and nods on the stairs, their startled, anxious, amused faces illuminated by the severe light of two naked bulbs that hung at either end of the corridor. The man who lived in the adjacent apartment, a lonely-looking and hirsute Mexicano, was standing bare-chested in his doorway, one foot in the hallway, the other in his room, grinning as if he expected to be entertained soon by a fistfight or shoving match. Antonio stared back at him and the other neighbors with his best impersonation of a madman, eyes ablaze, nostrils flaring.
"¡Me está sacando a la calle!" he shouted. And then, in English, so that everyone would understand: "He's throwing me on the street!"
More doors opened, and the hallway audience grew. A dozen people were standing in the buttermilk yellow corridor now, along with three children who had been playing with toy cars on the grime-stained carpet of the lobby, next to the rows of mailboxes without any names on them, just numbers. A crowd of brown eyes was trained on Antonio and the building manager, who was known to the residents, depending on their mother tongue, as "el chino," "the manager guy," "el manager," or "Mr. Chang." Antonio, who had lived in this building for a year, was one of the few people who knew Mr. Hwang's real name.
"Chang is getting really pissed," said a voice in the corridor. "I never seen him like that."
Mr. Hwang drew back as if to spit, then seemed to think better of it and walked away, leaving Antonio to the fire drill of trying to fit everything he owned and wanted to save into a black plastic Hefty trash bag. His roommate, José Juan, was dumping a large collection of plastic spoons and forks out of a dresser drawer, unperturbed by the shouting. Exhausted and depressed, he and Antonio had fallen asleep just before dawn, only to be startled awake by the pounding of Mr. Hwang's fist on the door and the bright sunshine of midmorning. Then they had argued about what to do with the four-burner hotplate José Juan insisted on keeping even though it was clear now that they wouldn't have anyplace to plug it in.
"Never mind that chingadera," Antonio said, using one of the vulgar Mexican expressions he had picked up during his years in Los Angeles. "Leave it behind."
"But it cost me forty dollars."
After half an hour, Mr. Hwang returned and stood in the open doorway with his hands on his hips, watching Antonio sift through a pile of papers scattered on the dark brown rug. Behind the manager, a crowd of tenants had gathered again.
Antonio glared at him, then picked up a stack of unopened letters from his mother in Guatemala. In between two of the envelopes he discovered a forgotten photograph of his wife and son, taken years ago in Quetzaltenango against a painted backdrop of fanciful lakes and volcanos. Of all things. He raised the photograph to his lips and tried to fight off the rush of memories that began to gather and rumble like thunder behind his eyes. This picture is the sadness of me, the tragedy of me.
"Hurry," said the voice above him. "Hurry, please."
It struck Antonio as an outrageous invasion of his privacy, to have the manager standing over him as he packed away this photograph.
"I'm doing the best I can," he said.
"You supposed to be out at eleven o'clock."
"We don't have anyplace to go," Antonio shot back. "What are we supposed to do?"
"I don't care," Mr. Hwang said curtly. "Go sleep under the freeway."
Sleep under the freeway. Antonio had heard this phrase more than once in the weeks leading up to this humiliation, as the money in his wallet slowly disappeared and the prospect of eviction became a certainty. Sleep under the freeway. It was almost a refrain in the neighborhood. José Juan had said it once, just five days ago, when Mr. Hwang slipped the final, final eviction notice under their doorway. "Podemos dormir debajo del freeway." It didn't sound any better in Spanish.
Elvira Gonzales, the elderly Mexican-American widow who lived down the hall, and who was now toward the back of the crowd staring at Antonio with a sad and disapproving motherly frown, had repeated it too. "Well, muchachos, if they throw you out, I guess you'll have to sleep under the freeway. That's what everybody else does. I guess it's warmer there."
Why did people persist in repeating this horrible little phrase? No matter which way Antonio turned the situation and looked at it, he knew he would still be out there in the open, with only a shrub or a piece of cardboard to protect him against the wind, the cold, and the junkies. And now this chino was saying it to him. Go sleep under the freeway. It was too much. Antonio wanted to grab Mr. Hwang's plaid shirt and shove him against the very walls within which he and José Juan were no longer welcome. At least that would be poetic justice.
Antonio lunged for Mr. Hwang, his fingers gripping the manager's collar. Seams ripped in his hands.
"You go sleep under the freeway! You! ¡A ver como te gusta!"
"Mister Manager!" yelled a voice in the hall. "Do you want me to call the police?"
At this, Antonio surrendered to the arms that were pulling at him, separating him from Mr. Hwang.
The crowd completely filled the hallway now. People had come from the other floors to watch the spectacle. They probably expected the police to arrive at any moment. Car crashes and altercations always drew an audience. Antonio had seen this sort of thing before, had been part of the crowd himself on more than one occasion. The promise of real-life violence or chaos was just about the only thing that could entice the apartment dwellers to break the burglar-proof seals on their doors and venture into public space. Fires, gang shootings, marital slugfests that spilled out onto the street: friendships were made and love affairs ignited in these magical moments when people gathered in the hallway, on the sidewalk or the front steps, tugging at the yellow police tape, whispering under the pulsating blue and red lights of an ambulance or patrol car.
But there would be no police cars, no flashing lights today. A few minutes after Antonio ripped the manager's shirt, he and José Juan were ready to go. They left a collection of newspapers, letters, books, immigration forms, and check stubs on the floor. On a wall they left a life-sized poster of Hugo Sánchez, the mop-haired Mexican soccer star. José Juan and Antonio both loved soccer; it was how they became friends in the first place, talking about fútbol in the diner where Antonio had been a bus boy and José Juan a dishwasher. When they had steady work, they saved to see games at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, El Salvador versus Guadalajara, Mexico versus Guatemala. Now they would leave their room to Hugo Sánchez. He seemed to be having a good time, anyway, with his foot on a soccer ball, a beer in one hand, and the other around the waist of a pretty brunette.
Goodbye, room. Adiós, Hugo.
At 3:00 p.m. they picked up the black Hefty bag and walked down the corridor, which was now empty and quiet. The neighbors had returned to their apartments, but Antonio could hear the murmur of their voices passing through the closed doors, wooden rectangles that breathed words in a jumble of English and Spanish.
José Juan closed the black iron door of the lobby behind them, and the voices of the Bixel Garden Apartments grew silent. They stood on the bubble-gum- and oil-stained front steps, pondering their options. Go sleep under the freeway: it seemed as good a choice as any. They began walking the nine blocks from their apartment building to the overpasses of the Harbor Freeway.
Antonio and José Juan carried the Hefty bag downhill along Third Street, straining to keep it from scraping the ground. The bag was heavy because it contained everything they owned: clothes, shoe boxes filled with letters from Mexico and Guatemala, two blankets, a framed picture of José Juan's wife, and the four-burner hotplate.
"We should get rid of this stupid hotplate," Antonio said.
"We're not going to be out here forever," José Juan answered defensively. "When we get another apartment you'll be thankful. I'll be eating hot food and you'll be begging me to let you use it. Ya vas a ver."
They walked through a neighborhood of tumbledown wood-frame houses with damp clothes draped over the porch railings, then a street of squat brick apartment buildings. Someone tossed a bucket of water from a third-story window behind them, bringing the merchants out of the first-floor storefronts to complain and hurl insults skyward. A mother pushing a stroller hurried past the scene. The sidewalks were thick with people, but no one seemed to pay any attention to Antonio and José Juan with their plastic bag. They passed a crowded bus stop, mostly women watching the traffic go by with weary, end-of-the-working-day stares. No one bothered to cast them a glance.
Antonio was living on the streets, carrying everything he owned in a plastic bag, and no one would look him in the eye. He was used to being unseen. There was the invisibility of being a bus boy, of walking between the tables unnoticed, a shadow rolling the cart, clearing the dishes. But this was another kind of invisibility. People now made a point of turning away from him, just as Antonio had turned away from the hopeless men he saw in this same condition. Those men pushed their belongings around in shopping carts. Now he could see how practical it was to have a shopping cart.
"I'm tired of this," Antonio said suddenly, dropping his end of the Hefty bag. He felt disoriented, as if someone had spun him around in circles. He wanted to scream at José Juan, at the people on the sidewalk who would not look at him. There was a word the Americanos used when they were angry, a word Antonio liked because it sounded so harsh and mean and ugly.
"Fucking bag," he said in English. "Fuck it."
José Juan let out a sigh and looked up at the sky. The sun was low, but his face was covered in sweat. The freeway was within sight now, an overpass just down the hill, only two blocks away. Without a word, Antonio picked up his end of the bag, and they began walking again.
They reached the freeway and stood underneath it, dwarfed by the immensity of the structure. This overpass was higher than most, an underbelly of concrete covered with a fine network of leafless ivy branches that spread out like capillaries across the gray surface. Water oozed like blood from the cement, and the damp air around them smelled of feces and urine. Antonio could hear trucks passing overhead with hurried rattling sounds, hydrocarbon winds rushing by in their wake.
"Now what do we do?" José Juan asked.
Antonio decided that they should walk a little farther, to the spot where a series of overlapping concrete spans vaulted and curved in the air, the interchange of the Harbor, Hollywood, and Pasadena freeways: inside the shadows cast by all these overpasses and underpasses, on-ramps and off-ramps, there had to be, surely, a place to sleep.
Excerpted from The Tattooed Soldier by Héctor Tobar. Copyright © 1998 Héctor Tobar. Excerpted by permission of Picador.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Meet the Author
Héctor Tobar is a Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist and a novelist. He is the author of The Barbarian Nurseries, a New York Times Book Review Notable Book, Translation Nation, and Deep Down Dark, now the major motion picture The 33. The son of Guatemalan immigrants, he is a native of the city of Los Angeles, where he lives with his wife and three children.
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Hector Tobar¿s depressing but masterfully-written The Tattooed Soldier is a compelling story of tragedy and revenge, and provides a deep insight into the poverty-stricken lives of immigrants to Los Angeles. Several background stories, each focusing on a different major character, intertwine to tell the tale of Antonio Bernal. Antonio, a bookish young man from a lower-class family, attends a university in Guatemala. This is where he meets his future wife, Elena; a passionate revolutionary, fearless and irreverent of the government¿s attempts to quell such actions, Elena worries that the ones she loves will suffer for her actions. One day, a ¿death squad,¿ with leader Guillermo Longoria (the title¿s ¿tattooed soldier¿), takes the lives of Antonio¿s wife and infant son. Forced to leave the country, Antonio moves to Los Angeles, seeking a better life. What he finds there is not opportunity, but rather homelessness and poverty. Evicted from the start of the book, Antonio and his roommate live on a hill with others like them. Purely by chance, Antonio sees Guillermo again, and works up the courage to confront him. The true focus of the story, however, is not Antonio; it is everything around Antonio. It seems that everywhere he goes, he sees nothing but poverty and despair. In Guatemala City, there were army groups created to fight freedom of expression. In San Cristobál, there were funerals for babies at least twice a month. Los Angeles is no different, despite the common perception that it is a land of opportunity. ¿Perhaps they could move to Mexico. Save enough money to move to Mexico or the United States. A place where they could be safe and their daughter, or son, could be educated. A place where you could speak your mind and there were no soldiers on the street.¿ (118) In truth, the soldiers that roam the streets of Los Angeles are fellow immigrants. Everyone must compete for the limited jobs and money in the city, and there is apparently no room for sympathy. Antonio learns the truth of the world, that revenge against those who have wronged him does not solve anything. He regrets his actions several times in the book, and realizes that the only thing he can do is suffer. This sense of hopelessness is the book¿s core. Tobar himself said that, ¿at its root, The Tattooed Soldier is the story of the conflict between the idea of Los Angeles as a place of unlimited freedom and opportunity, and the truth of the poverty and decay that have come to eat away at the very heart of the city.¿ The fact that immigrants can seemingly do nothing to improve their lives in the U.S. often leaves them no better off than where they were. A powerful and deep story, The Tattooed Soldier does not give the feeling that everything will be okay. Tobar¿s incredible presentation of the immigrant¿s eternal struggle makes this book most definitely worth reading.
The novel gives us a good idea of why many Guatemalans left their country to seek asylum here back in the late 1980s. It makes one think of what is happening throughout our world and how people have treated other people.