BOOK REVIEW / Dial Guatemala for murder: Eva Salzman on an ambitious novel about a poor little orphan that brings together literary traditions from two continents: The long night of white chickens - Francisco Goldman: Faber & Faber pounds 14.99

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The Independent Culture
NOT FOR THE first time an author's reputation has preceded his public debut. The Long Night of White Chickens has already been published in the United States to some acclaim, the book recommending itself as one which 'synthesises the literary traditions of two continents . . . in a genre-busting way'.

Actually, the genre is familiar; Roger Graetz, with an American Jewish father and a Guatemalan mother, is suspended between the two cultures which have formed his personality - a situation paralleled in the repressive Guatemalan regime of the 1930s, which had its paternity in rich America. The orphan Flor De La Mayo Tuac moves to the suburban Boston home of the Graetz family; she is hired as a maid, but raised as a daughter. When she returns to her homeland she is murdered.

Only on page 342 is some justification given for the chronological Rubik's-cube method of storytelling; 50 pages on from somewhere, advanced perhaps a single turn, one returns to a scene only to find that events have hardly progressed except by juxtaposition with one another. This practice fails to add much suspense to what is hardly a nail-biter anyway; thus does the 'long night' unfold - a conversation between Flor and Moya, briefly her lover and also the friend with whom Roger embarks on his intellectualised investigations into Flor's death. This mostly involves the routing and re-routing of past and present in search of historical certainty and perspective, proof of Flor's innocence of illegal baby dealing. Throughout, what Goldman presumably intends as a deja vu effect ends up as mere repetition.

Goldman's authorial loitering makes for memorable passages: 'I took it in . . . the slash in (Flor's) throat . . . so cleanly, precisely, delicately stitched that it smacked of her own fastidiousness, as if she'd sewn up her own mortal wound in defiance of the many forced indecencies of death (I mean here we were, looking at her). The floor was tiled in pale colors, wet, blood sheened, here and there petaled with blood . . . flies flew in and out of them . . . not preferring any mouth to the others, lightly touching down and riding up. (The soul leaves through the mouth? . . . It takes a long time to leave and flies impartially love it, they play in that slow exhalation like dolphins in waves.)' However, the novel fairly dismisses those voyeurs who secretly desire their violence explicit, even if only to be able to raise hands in horror at it. This worthy instinct on Goldman's dart may also explain the somewhat muted reactions of his protagonist - odd in a chronicle of obsession; a case of too much rosin, too much resistance.

Roger's myriad thoughts on the numbing domestication of torture and death are intermittently exhausting and interesting: 'The worst nightmare the country has to offer could begin just like thing with a seemingly chance encounter . . . and all the years you were going to have left to live vanishing right in front of you, draining from the room like a sudden hush in the idle chatter of a cake shop's crowded mezzanine.' In such an emotionally muffled style; the peripheral details can seem the most apt - take Moya's remark about a certain kind of 'vivid woman': 'They seem always to trail behind them so much undeserved rancor and suspicion. No one can watch a woman like that leave a room in that way without feeling dully left behind.'

The book lives mainly in its tireless descriptions of Guatemala and its environs, both Mother Nature and Father Military inspiring some vivid writing. The more engaging Boston scenes are those which illustrate Flor's ambiguous status within her new family and community, which she weathers with her own peculiar charisma and wilfulness (despite a 'squeaky' voice the narrator evidently finds appealing).

Admittedly, poor little orphan anecdotes are always a compelling read, especially when basic plot propulsion is lacking. Despite its intellectual vigour and impressive ambition, the novel is strangely unimpassioned, as if Goldman's intensity had burned out his capacity for real feeling. The story is positively swollen with complexities, already difficult ideas expressed in syntactically vertiginous sentences. Eventually, nearly everything is covered: heritage, life under tyranny, friendship, love. With intelligence there sometimes comes a certain kind of impracticability.