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Set in '80s Guatemala, this suspenseful spy story succeeds as a thriller, as a love story, and as an indictment of human rights violations in that troubled country. Tom Wright is a CIA agent who has been sent to Guatemala to rescue Mr. Gray, an Australian banker who has allegedly been abducted by the EGP, a guerilla organization. Wright must work with the Guatemalan government to achieve his objective, but he must also survive a personal conflict, in the form of Sandra Herrera, the first love of his life, who has married into one of Guatemala's most powerful and wealthy families. When she drops into his life again, he loses his equilibrium and exposes himself to a host of dangers. A mysterious woman with murky motives and multiple connections (to the oligarchy, to the military
|Publisher:||Northwestern University Press|
|Product dimensions:||5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.70(d)|
About the Author
Arturo Arias is director of Latin American studies at the University of Redlands. Co-writer for the screenplay for the film El Norte (1984), his most recent novel in English is titled After the Bombs (Curbstone Press, 1990). Author of six novels in Spanish-Despues de las bombas (1979), Itzam Na (1981), Jaguar en Llamas (1989), Los Caminos de Paxil (1991) Cascabel (1998), and Sopa de Caracol (2002)-he is also widely known for his literary criticism. Show More
Translator Seán Higgins was born in New York in 1961 and has traveled extensively in Latin America. He has translated many works of Latin American literature for magazines and anthologies in the U.S. Currently he is a bilingual resource teacher at Grant Elementary School in the San Jose Unified School District.
Translator Jill Robbins is an associate professor of contemporary Spanish literature and culture at the University of California-Irvine.
Read an Excerpt
By ARTURO ARIAS
Copyright © 1998
All right reserved.
The squealing of the car tires told him that the driver had
taken the first curve way too fast. Jerked abruptly by the
unexpected whipping of the vehicle, Tom Wright held onto
the door handle in a desperate effort to keep his balance. A
more tolerant Captain Pacal simply let his body weight shift
gently in the front seat until he was pressed against the door.
As he leaned against the window the sunlight hit his face,
highlighting countless scars. A sallow, purple-lipped soldier
with a singularly small forehead was driving. Mute, not
moving a single muscle as if hypnotized, he stared straight
ahead to where a yellow line should have been painted at the
center of the road. The smell of burning rubber hit Wright's
It was a solid car. Bulletproof, without a doubt, with
tinted windows. They'd taken every possible precaution. On
the rear window, there was a sticker displaying the triangular
head of a venomous snake within a red circle. On the outer
part of the circle, in black letters, it read, "Only the winners
have the right to live."
A scraggly white mutt with brown spots, its ribs amply
visible from a considerable distance, crossed the road. To
Wright's surprise, the soldier picked up speed. The dog
hesitated for a second. It raised a forepaw, then an ear. At
once it bolted to the left, with difficulty, as if it had arthritis
in its hind legs. The driver cut to his left and sped up even
more. Wright closed his eyes. It is the cause, it is the cause,
my soul. He heard a dry thump, like a sack of potatoes falling
from a truck, followed by the pained howl of the animal. It
began as a sort of high-pitched ambulance siren, then
decreased gradually like a TV set when turned off by a remote
control. The driver gave a slight grunt as if his hoarse laugh
were stuck in his throat.
Pacal turned back to look at him with a mocking grimace.
Wright felt uneasy. He'd known for quite a while that the
country had strange customs, but this? He had learned about
Guatemala long before, amidst the brimming joy of youth,
when a candied voice as thick as peach flesh told him all
about it. A voice whose fidgeting sweetness still choked him
He would have preferred to sit up front to take in the
landscape, to see all the motion of these short, gloomy, stiff
people and the savage awkwardness of traffic, to take account
of the whole situation, and to admire the smoking volcanoes
whose steamy allure imprisoned the entire city, an anarchic,
overgrown, erratic, modern metropolis struggling to evade
its volcanic suffocation by extending itself through every
nook and cranny, turning, teeming, sweeping everything
away. But he said nothing.
Pacal addressed him. "So, these are the ones I was telling
you about. And just so you don't think we don't know what
we're doing, we have it from a good source, a very well-placed
one, that they're the terrorists who have Mr. Gray."
Pacal passed him a dossier, referring to it with the
English word "folder." Wright didn't bother to mention the
dog incident. He was still somewhat upset, an emotion which
he would have preferred not to reveal. Inside the folder there
was a manila envelope holding an array of glossy photos, all
8x10's. Most of them were head shots facing the camera.
Some in profile. All black and white.
He didn't like the idea of dealing with Guatemalans. He'd
had one experience before and that was enough for him. He
didn't even know Gray. His mission was vague, with
confusing and contradictory instructions. But overall there
was his memory of her. In spite of all the years that had gone
by, she still hung over him like a dense, spring fog that
blocked the sun's rays, the slender shoulders and fine head
still fueling his lust. He hadn't seen another Guatemalan since
that cocktail party in Washington, where he met that
corpulent fellow with his expression of bemused indifference
and curly hair-Fuentes something-or-other. They'd talked
candidly about Mitterrand, avoiding extreme views. He
closed his eyes and let himself be lulled by seductive images
of an orange skirt swaying, kicking and whirling in the wind.
The afternoon sky was completely clouded over.
Regardless of the country's famed colors, everything seemed
hazy and dull, as if cloaked under a veil of mist, giving it the
appearance of a grainy black and white photo. Only the
tremulous, melancholic image of the woman, idealized by
the long separation, stood out in vivid color as the car moved
erratically in the direction of his nondescript hotel, as
impersonal as any other.
"They're ugly. Like characters in some cheap flick."
He voiced this with coldness, just to make conversation.
Wright couldn't focus on anything beyond the pile of photos,
a series of unknown people whose faces he didn't like-flat
noses, thick lips, slanted eyes, long curly hair-like dark
angels hovering over America's placid safety. The pictures
were an excessive repetition of unattractive anatomies. The
only thing clear in his mind was the fading image of the
woman. She was the only reason he had to come to this
inhospitable place, but the agency had no idea of her
existence. Well, almost the only reason. This job could be
the ticket to his promotion, so he could avoid these dreary
jobs and move up to a place where he could simply catch his
breath and his guts weren't in a constant state of turmoil from
the frenetic pace of the action. Not to mention a decent
paycheck that would let him put his kids through college.
But life is full of traps, he thought.
Pacal kept talking. He had a metallic voice, whiny, bossy,
and monotonous all at once. Just one more bit of cloying
excess on his part. Wright took scant notice but pretended to
listen, keeping a warm, shy smile in his face all the time,
occasionally uttering the conventional indicators of interest.
Pacal's ceaseless drone was giving him a headache. He
wished he had a couple of Tylenol, or a scotch on the rocks,
preferably both. If only that voice would be still, but Pacal
kept going as if he'd been given complete license.
"This is the one we saw nosing around the International
Exports office, where the Nugan Hand Bank office is located.
We suspect he's the ringleader. He commands the urban front
for the Guerrilla Army of the Poor. We just refer to them by
their Spanish acronym, EGP, for the Ejército Guerrillero de
Wright was just listening passively, but soon he would
have to say something so Pacal would not take him for
another stupid gringo, and so the image of the woman would
disappear from his head. Or at least to make that desire for
scotch and Tylenol disappear. Why should he care who the
head of some terrorist organization was? Those details were
unimportant. Why not just implement a total cleanup and be
rid of them all? The whole world had gone rotten. His face
took on a curious expression, a sort of disenchanted
frustration, and he said with hesitation: "Yeah, what's his
"His code-name is Kukulkán."
The Mayan Golf Club, she once told him, is an extremely
selective, exclusive club, the most difficult to join in the
country, even if it does overlook one of the most polluted
and filthy lakes on the continent. The club itself was located
high enough up the cliff, however, to escape the putrid odors
of the malevolent green heaps of garbage carried by the
Villalobos River from the poorly-planned, overpopulated
capital to this lake that fifty years ago was General Ubico's
private playground, but now was just a silent, wretched
shadow of its old self. The country club was reserved for a
self-selected elite, though, in any half-civilized country, its
building and grounds would have been considered strictly
middle-class. But in life, everything's relative. Even more so
in a small Central American country where most people had
not yet begun to live, and even the moderately well-off
thought that the squalid capital was the most important
metropolis of the isthmus, and that Miami was more
interesting than Paris.
Sandra belonged to that club, but, as she loved to say,
she didn't take it seriously; she didn't take anything seriously.
The only thing that mattered was the abject delight of playing
with her life and those of others because, the way she saw it,
there wasn't any better orgasm than the one you got risking
your frail neck, dissolving your wide-eyed fear in the liquid
invisibility of eroticism. She couldn't care less about the rest.
Her goal was to take care of her interests-not her family's,
but her own. She complied with the wretched social
formalities to appease the obnoxious circle of fat, old,
puckered biddies and to avoid the inevitable gossip that
would really anger her authoritarian father-in-law. She
considered herself smarter than everyone else, and, in an
extreme case, she could use her golden face, her hypnotic
gaze, to defend herself. She knew full well that any whim
could be fulfilled by manipulating the lustful dictates of male
desire, whose melodious symphony she conducted to
perfection, so her occasional concessions to this sordid
reality didn't really worry her much.
It started to rain. She had to go back to the city soon.
There was a delicate matter to take care of. In fact, was it
time? Yes, indeed, time to go. They were waiting for her on
El Camino Real. She thought briefly about the matter and
smiled to herself thinking about what her husband and father-in-law
would say if they only knew.
If any drivers were to pass by it on the badly named "El
Salvador Highway," in reality the entrance to the Eastern
suburbs of the city, they wouldn't even know that there was a
mansion a short distance from the Muxbal exit because it
wasn't near the road. You had to drive up a narrow, muddy
path that gave the impression you were approaching some
backwater dive or beggar's settlement. If you didn't know
where you were going, you would never guess that you were
headed toward one of the most luxurious houses in the
country. If by any chance you did wander through the
potholes and mud puddles that served as natural speed
bumps, you would come across a high adobe wall-or at least
it looked like one-brownish, dull and sad, like one you
might find anywhere in the country, except for two things: it
was much higher (also thicker, with steel framing, but you
couldn't tell that at first glance), and it had electric barbed
wire on top. Behind the wall you could make out a dense row
of trees. Diligent cypresses formed a woodsy barrier. Beyond
them came the terraces, the intensely green grassy lawn,
trimmed so smoothly that it looked like a carpet. The elegant
house was at the end, beyond the long terrace. It had red
bricks and Doric columns at the entrance, and a tile roof, so
that just about anyone would have taken it for a cross between
the Tara of Gone with the Wind and the Tzanjuyú Hotel in
Panajachel. The final result was as strange as the mere notion
of such a singular mix, typical of this country's artistic
Generally there wasn't much movement in the ample
gardens, except for that of the German shepherds, two or
three morose gardeners yanking some stubborn weeds out of
the flower beds, and bulletproof cars with tinted windows
coming and going on a regular basis. But inside the house,
noise and commotion were the rule. People came and went,
uniformed servants went to and fro with trays of ice-filled
glasses. At the entrance, there were at least three bodyguards
on watch at all times, their Uzis standing up against the wall
and their automatic pistols bulging in their pants like some
kind of phallic deformity.
The metallic opacity of the rainy afternoon made it
difficult to see the wall at the entrance from the living room
windows. The noise and commotion were even more intense
than usual despite the inclement weather, which had kept
away any visitors, be they family, government officials or
foreign businessmen. The problem was Don Leonel's molars.
He was a man in his fifties used to elegance, money, and the
power of having grown up ordering colonels to do whatever
he pleased. He still gave the impression of being "muy
macho," able to have all the women he wanted, and of being
unafraid even of God Almighty.
Don Leonel always dressed in black. He'd dressed the
same ever since he was taken as a boy to see Saint Simon of
Zunil. He had been impressed by that image and decided that
he would be Saint Simon when he grew up. So when power
finally came his way, after his father's death, he began
dressing strictly in black. Even his sunglasses were black,
and he never took them off, not even in the house. He'd walk
around with a cigar in his right hand, which lit up an
enormous amethyst ring that he flaunted on his index finger
and created white whorls of cigar smoke around him, as if
incense were permanently being burned upon his passage.
The only thing he stopped wearing as time went by was his
black cowboy hat, although he would still put it on when he
went to the countryside or horseback riding. But ever since
the country had begun to fall apart, those outings were less
frequent and more difficult. Now he could only visit the ranch
by private plane, and, at his age, he couldn't get over his fear
of those rickety little contraptions. He hated anything that
evinced weakness, and, since the worst humiliation he could
think of was to show fear, he preferred not to fly and even
less so on days like this, when the temperature changes could
shake the plane like a tiny insect.
The maid gave him the wad of cotton. He chewed on it,
allowing the mentholated vapors to reach up to the top of his
head where he was starting to go bald. Then he let out a
piercing howl that forced him to shut his eyes and feel the
hugeness of the bags hanging under them. Finally, he spit
out the chewed-up cotton ball, as one would an orange rind,
wetting part of the finely trimmed mustache under his
hawkish nose. The maid gave him another cotton ball, and
then, disregarding her intense lower back pain and the
descending inguinal hernia on her left side, she squatted to
pick up the discarded ball now on the floor and deposit it in
a bowl full of other bloody cotton balls smelling of the
abattoir, as if they were a sacred offering that would be
burned for the many idols that decorated the gigantic living
Alvaro, Don Leonel's son, insisted that they leave
immediately for the dentist.
"What, so the guerrillas can kidnap me? I guess I have to
remind you what Richelieu said about the male virtues of
making decisions ra-tion-al-ly. It's a hard word to pronounce,
I understand, but you have to use big words if you want to
play with the big boys."
He actually knew that his chances of being kidnaped
Excerpted from Rattlesnake
by ARTURO ARIAS
Copyright © 1998 by Arturo Arias.
Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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