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The Good Cripple by Rodrigo Rey Rosa

The Good Cripple (1996)

by Rodrigo Rey Rosa

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The name Rodrigo Rey Rosa appeared in a few of the essays by Roberto Bolaño compiled in Entre paréntesis, and I decided to look for some books by him. Within days I'd checked out one book, this short novel, and scooped up a used copy of another book of short stories, El cuchillo del mendigo. I decided to read this one on a Sunday afternoon and ended up going from cover to cover in a matter of a couple of hours. It's the story of the kidnapping of a young Guatemalan named Juan Luis Luna whose father is very wealthy. Four men, two of them former classmates of Juan Luis, conspire to kidnap Juan Luis and force his father to pay a large ransom. A kidnapping didn't seem to me the most unique or inspired of choices: the Latin American kidnapping abounds in books, movies and TV shows from the region, reflecting how common these sort of things are in places with large income gaps. Who knows, perhaps in another generation the kidnapping will enter into the thematic canon of North American literature. It wouldn't surprise me if this became a problem someday in the United States, in fact I'm almost surprised the children of wealthy people aren't kidnapped more often here in the United States. In any case, while the central event of the story wasn't terribly new or surprising, the ways the characters fit into the story, the way the lives of the kidnappers and the kidnapped intersected years later in the opening scene, and the emotions of the crippled victim were not typical of the books and movies I'd read and seen about kidnappings before this one. You don't expect a kidnapping story to start with one of the kidnappers calling the other, freaked out because their former victim had come years later to pay him a visit and have a calm, quiet conversation. You don't expect Juan Luis to act the way he does at a lot of different moments in the story. You keep waiting for him to do something, and instead he does something else that makes sense too, but you weren't expecting it.

As I finished this book, I decided it reminded me a lot of a movie. It took somewhere around two hours to read. there was an opening scene, the type that might go before the credits, followed by a shift backward in time to tell the story that propelled the characters from the opening scene to reunite decades later. The story jumped around, from Guatemala to a brief spell of globetrotting in the United States and Europe, followed by an interlude in Morocco and a return to Guatemala for the closing chapter. There were twists and turns that kept me on the edge of my seat. And there was a somewhat enigmatic ending, the type of ending that would give the audience one last surprise, one last jarring image in a story where a grenade is thrown at an occupied car and a young man has bodily members cut off and sent to his father to encourage the father to pay his son's ransom. It's a book that could totally be made into a movie, you'd hardly even need to adapt it into a script, and I imagine some young, influential Latino actor or director throwing his weight behind a project based on this book after reading and enjoying it. I actually had this same feeling after reading a few of Roberto Bolaño's books, that someday I'd be seeing them on the big screen and they'd either be critical successes or they'd be mildly disappointing. I usually don't ask too much of the film versions of the books I love. You name the Vonnegut novel, I've loved the movie: Slaughterhouse Five, Mother Night, Breakfast of Champions (which was apparently critically panned)...It's always fun to see a book you've enjoyed on screen. Just today I was watching an old Leopoldo Torre Nilsson production of Roberto Arlt's Los siete locos and Los lanzallamas. I thought maybe it wasn't that great of a movie, but boy did I enjoy seeing those characters that I knew so well talk to each other and come to life on my computer screen. I digress. If this were a movie, I'd definitely see it and I think it'd be a pretty good one.

I've read other books that I've imagined being adapted into movies. They had the twists and turns that Hollywood audiences and film critics love. They would earn Oscar nominations if they were done right. I'm pretty sure we'll see movie versions of Life of Pi and The Shadow of the Wind in the future. I read on the internet that M. Night Shyamalan was once attached to a film version of Life of Pi and I can't help thinking that M. Night 2011 must wish that M. Night 2003 had decided to make that movie instead of Lady in the Water. We've already seen a movie version of The Kite Runner, although I did not see it because I did not enjoy the book. With those blockbuster books, I ended up feeling almost offended by the thought that the authors were writing books with Hollywood movie dollar signs running through their heads. The film adaptation seemed like the logical and profitable next step, and I wondered if they had it in mind the whole time. But those books were different than this one, they took the customary six to eight hours or so to read and they'd need to be adapted to fit the two hour movie time. They just played with emotions and tugged on heartstrings in oft-predictable ways that made me think of million dollar scripts and test screenings. This book flowed like a movie. I sat down and 100 minutes later I was done. Maybe Rey Rosa was dreaming of movie deals and money too, and maybe this book isn't too much different than the others I vaguely disliked due to their imagined ties to future movie rights. I think what made the difference in this case was the commitment to the experience, the way that the book fit the temporal parameters of a trip to the theater. I read the book as I could have watched the movie on a Sunday, and later that evening I went to sleep. ( )
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0811215660, Paperback)

This muscular, starkly impressive novel from Guatemala's premiere young writer fiercely addresses the seemingly endless violence of Latin America. A young man, Juan Luis Luna, is kidnapped in Guatemala City and held at the bottom of a rusty, empty underground fuel tank in an abandoned gas station. The kidnappers demand a ransom; his rich father does not reply. The kidnappers threaten to cut off his son's foot and still hear nothing. They then slice off one of Juan Luis's toes and send it to his father, who still refuses to act. So the next day...

The Good Cripple—obsessively focused, chilling, allegorical—is stunningly explosive. With its enigmatic beginning, however, and its circular relentless structure, the novel is also dense with ideas: can one be whole after mutilation? Can the injured transcend violence? Rodrigo Rey Rosa's style is of a lithe pristine clarity, but beneath that calm surface cruelty, revenge, and diffidence churn darkly away. The Good Cripple is an astonishingly intense book, and as unforgettable as the sight of "the place where the foot had been severed, where a circle of red flesh, now a little black along the edges, could be seen, with a concentric circle of white bone that was both milky and glassy..."

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:15:28 -0400)

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