Wednesday, August 8, 2012

"My friends call me Vlad..."

Among the many things that have bothered me about the vogue of vampire stories that have been generated for the last five years or so the one that has bothered me is how safe the creatures of the night seem. Yes, there is a sensual, sexual tension involved with all that blood, but in the end the vampire as a romantic fantasy neuters their true horror. I'm not saying writer's can't play around with characters and genres, but there comes a point where you have to stop calling them vampires.

The late Carlos Fuentes' Vlad delivers a modern tale of Count Radu who has come to Mexico to, well, his reasons are baroque and complicated. As narrated by Yves Navarro, the young lawyer is charged with helping the Count get settled into his new home on the edges of Mexico City with some unusual modifications to his home: a tunnel from the house to a ravine, windows bricked-up from the sun, trees removed from the back of the house, drains in the floor of every ground floor room...

By the end of the first chapter the familiar reader will recognize Fuentes taking Bram Stoker's Dracula for his outline. By the end of the third chapter something else is simmering in the story, a tragedy in N's personal life, the details of middle class Mexican life, the too-good-to-be-true marital bliss described in detail, all suggesting that horror to come will take on a double edge. 

My only expectation going in was to enjoy a quick read by an acclaimed writer who I haven't read anything by since the 1980s. Half way through I was chewing my nails and actually feeling dread grow in the pit of my stomach as I realized that Fuentes may have begun with a familiar story but clearly wasn't going to deliver a predictable ending. As the final meeting unfolds the true horror that awaits Navarro is matched by the unsettling thought that Vlad is alive and well and feeding in Mexico City.

After finishing this novella I felt more satisfied than I have in a long time with any fiction, and it took me a few days to understand why. Fuentes knows how to slow down at the beginning and set the scene with careful details, not just about things but about society and social strata. Navarro is also a reliable narrator insofar as he isn't deliberately deceptive, but the reader can quickly see that the world isn't exactly as he describes it. There's richness and depth, and in a fraction of the space most writers would use. Fuentes doesn't waste the reader's time and tells a more rewarding tale as a result.

My only caveat is that the book can only be recommended for the most mature readers; Fuentes doesn't shy away from describing marital relations in great detail, but does so only to underscore the depths of Navarro's delusions. There is also a brief scene involving young girls and squirrels that made me uncomfortable as an adult, but these details are on par with the sudden shocks in movies like The Exorcist.

For older teens who might be jaded by the glut of substandard vampire fare, looking for something with a little more literary heft, Vlad ought to satisfy (and haunt them) for some time.

by Carlos Fuentes
Alejandro Branger, Ethan Shaskan Bumas translators
Dalkey Archive Press 2012


Liviania said...

I haven't heard of this one, but it sounds awesome. I'll have to find a copy.

Man of la Book said...

Great review, I liked this one as well ( I just happened upon it in the library.