Week 2: Mucho Macho

by Maria Bustillos

Unfortunately, the reaction of Espinoza and Pelletier to the Pakistani cab driver’s insults came as no surprise to me. The admirable Anglo technique of dealing with insults from other men by means of contempt, ridicule or boredom (q.v. The Scarlet Pimpernel) requires a certain detachment uncommon among those of the hotter blood. And in this case, the offense was huge, manifold: the cab driver insulted the woman under their protection,* as well as each man’s own moral character, and then, that of his friend. My first thought as I read was, oh no no, yikes, I wonder if this cab driver would have said such stuff if he’d had the faintest clue about that difference. Did American readers know, as I did, that there was going to be a fight as soon as the word “whore” was spoken? It was inevitable, any of the men in my own family would have done exactly the same thing, though they’re not alike in much else. This is about the worst thing you could say to a Latin guy, crazy as that may sound, and it is no surprise whatsoever that the first blows administered (predictably, by Espinoza) are described as “Iberian.”

That complex of characteristics both admirable and deplorable, composed of pride, sensitivity, insecurity, potency and belligerence, that is called machismo in Spanish–this exists in every culture, of course, but the Spanish flavor is very pronounced. I think that Bolano is saying, here, that machismo is a literally uncontrollable source of violence; that no matter how “civilized” a man is, he will always be in some danger of a catastrophe like Espinoza’s (pencil “v. true” in the margin on that one, I reckon.)

The dry, sardonic humor in this passage really is a torment, in kind of a Solondzian way. Why the hell didn’t they stop kicking the guy?! Oh god, why bring Salman Rushdie into it?! The thing that made me really nuts was Espinoza’s subsequent rationalization of the whole thing. The Pakistani guy “had it coming.” If we had a nickel for every time we’ve heard that one!

What a wonderful passage though, 100% insane and 100% credible, funny, terrible, sad. It’s a very deft thing to show us these guys, clownish and absurd and even unhinged and dangerous as they are, and yet evoke sympathy. That to me is the mark of the most skilled novelist: Dostoevsky territory.

* You bet that is how these two think of it, no matter how “modern” they are.

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