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.

6 thoughts on “Book Notes: Guillermo Arriaga’s Salvar el fuego

  1. I wish my Spanish were up to that, it sounds fantastic.

    This reminds me that I recently finished a book that you might find interesting. The book is “The Hummingbird” by Kati Hiekkapelto. It’s a Finnish crime novel/thriller. The crime story is only so-so and some of the main killer’s motivations seemed a bit far fetched to me, but the novel has an interesting take on immigration.

    I read lots of European crime fiction and immigrants usually show up as poorly developed characters whose main purpose in the novel is to serve as the victims of racists and skinheads. There are a few racists in this, but the basic take is that immigration really sucks for most immigrants because immigration is a REALLY hard thing to do. It’s hard to learn a new language, it’s hard to really understand and navigate a new culture, immigrants lose their careers because their degrees and skills aren’t relevant in the new country, immigrants can’t find jobs (mostly because they can’t speak the language very well), immigrants wind up depressed and disillusioned because their vision of life in a rich country did not involve living on welfare in a drab apartment in a sketchy neighborhood on the outskirts of a small city that no one has ever heard of, the weather sucks, the food is weird, depression and disillusionment lead to a variety of other problems like drinking and drug use, immigrant parents don’t get along with their partially assimilated kids, etc. Even the most successfully integrated immigrants still don’t quite fit in and feel torn between the two languages and cultures. The “happiest” immigrant story in the book is the main character’s mother who hated life in Finland and moved back to her village in Serbia after the war in Yugoslavia was over and it was safe to go back.


    1. Gosh, I’m so glad there are finally writers who are ready to say all this. Because it’s true! Immigration is traumatic even in the most comfortable cases. Let’s see if the narrative finally gets more nuanced.


      1. I have downloaded the second novel in the series. It has much better reviews than the first and was nominated for several prizes. I am quite interested to see if she keeps this perspective.


    2. “European crime fiction and immigrants usually show up as poorly developed characters whose main purpose in the novel is to serve as the victims of racists and skinheads”

      That is a trope that needs to be kicked in the head by many skinheads until it is well and truly dead… (irony, yes). It’s so boring in European detective series when they bring on a non-European suspect you just know they’ll be innocent and it destroys any possible tension. I remember in one of the Forbrydelsen series that did that and later just glossed over the idea that daughters from middle eastern immigrant families might be killed by their relatives if they behave in way that displeases them…

      I remember an icelandic mystery where there was an engaging (unfortunately very minor) Filipina immigrant who was maybe the most likeable character in the book amidst the stolid Scandinavians….

      “Let’s see if the narrative finally gets more nuanced”

      I wouldn’t hold my breath… on a different site where I had argued that a large majority of Poles in the UK were not “immigrants” in any real meaning of the word (any more than most Ukrainians in Poland are) and was met with a lot of pushback including one hoping that many more Polish “immigrants” would arrive. I asked if that was a wish for Poland to remain under-developed and got some romantic, sentimental (and completely nonsensical) crap about how Polish peasants are close to nature blah blah blah….


      1. Elizabeth George had a very good mystery with well-developed and believable Muslim immigrant characters. Deception on His Mind. It really stood out to me for these exact reasons.

        It’s a great hope of mine that Ukraine will stop pushing out so many people to go work in indentured servitude, or worse, in the EU. I guess my sudden interest in the plight of Salvadoran migrants is about that, too.


        1. “hope of mine that Ukraine will stop pushing out so many people to go work in indentured servitude, or worse, in the EU”

          I don’t think the example of Ukrainians in the EU is anywhere near as horrific as the Salvadoran scenario although it’s not as benign as Polish people in the UK or Ireland (which were not as positive as the media has generally portrayed).
          We’ll see what happens as the corona-panic passes, Ukrainians in Poland have been very important to the economy of both countries but it’s obviously not a model that can or should be sustained long term and the goal needs to be for more to be able to find reasonable employment at home.


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