Book Notes: Guillermo Arriaga’s Salvar el fuego

Before Hollywood buys rights to this novel and craps all over it, everybody who reads in Spanish (and can survive 700 pages of hardcore Mexican slang) should read Salvar el fuego.

And here’s why.

The protagonist of this novel is Marina, a very typical representative of the cosmopolitan elite. Marina inherited a fortune and then married a hedge fund manager. But that’s not the worst part. She also considers herself an artist. In a dance school she buys with her inheritance, Marina puts on modern dance performances where dancers pretend to be tampons soaked in menstrual blood. That kind of thing. Obviously, these performances bring Marina nothing but ridicule, and she is casting about for a way to strengthen her brand.

The way Arriaga mocks the pretentious “creative” types of Marina’s ilk is absolutely delicious. Half of the novel is narrated in the first person by Marina, and Arriaga manages to make her completely real and not just a facile parody.

In search of new experiences that would make her “art” pop more, Marina starts an affair with a convict serving a sentence for two premeditated homicides. She goes out of her way to conduct the affair in settings as grimy as possible because she hopes this manufactured suffering will make her a better artist. It’s all absolutely hilarious and an incredible fun to read.

Marina’s story is just one part of this extraordinarily entertaining novel. There’s also an explanation of Mexican machismo and violence that’s unmatched by anything since Octavio Paz. There are cartels, violence, corruption in the Mexican government at every level, the atrocious conditions in Mexico’s prisons, sex, jealousy, the idiocy of the Mexican rich, and the dark side of the indigenous legacy. It’s the most Mexican novel I’ve read in forever.

Arriaga is a screenwriter, and that’s both bad and good. The architecture of the novel is impeccable. It’s rare that you see such a massive novel that’s so meticulously planned. But the ending unfortunately shows the negative side of Arriaga’s career in the movies. I won’t say more but I’m sure everybody understands what I mean.

I couldn’t tear myself from this novel for days. It’s definitely going to be one of the biggest reading experiences of the year for me.