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Carlos Fuentes, who died in May 2012, is one of Mexico's most celebrated writers. He has written more than a dozen novels and story collections and has won many prestigious prizes and awards.
In this short (122 pages) novel. Fuentes takes the classic Bram Stoker tale of Count Dracula, sets it in modern-day urban Mexico, and gives it a major twist. In this story, Fuentes answers the question, "Where and how would an ancient vampire live in today's world?" Vlad's homeland of Eastern Europe is in a state of war and civil disruption, and he's desperate to find a place where he can just disappear. Mexico City, with its vast population and its corrupt police force seems just the place. This vampire is not one of the modern boy-friend vampires that we see on True Blood. This one is based on the tales of Vlad the Impaler: "Vlad liked to cut off noses, ears, genitals, arms, and legs. Burn, boil, roast, crucify, bury alive...He sopped up the blood of his victims with his bread." (p. 89)
Unlike the Victorian-age vampire in Stoker's tale, this modern-day vampire—Count Vladimir Radu ("My friends call me Vlad.")—needs more than just his creepy valet to smooth his way through his undead life. He needs a lawyer and a real estate agent as well, both of whom he finds in a single, prosperous, middle-class family. Yves Navarro and his charming wife, Ascunción, are seemingly content in their comfortable suburban life. Navarro is a smug, self-satisfied lawyer who works for the eccentric Eloy Zurinaga, and Ascunción is a successful real estate agent. When Zurinaga asks for Navarro's help in finding appropriate housing for his friend, Vlad, Navarro is happy to assist. During their conversation, Zurinaga warns Navarro, "As you know, it's preferable to be the master of your own downfall rather than to find yourself the victim of forces beyond your control," (p. 20) but what Navarro doesn't realize until too late is that as soon as he agrees to help Vlad, he is no longer the master of any aspect of his own life.
Although Navarro thinks that Vlad's housing requests are a bit strange—no windows, floor drains in every room, an escape tunnel out the back to a ravine—he goes along with the client's wishes, wanting to please his employer. The tension in the novel comes from the fact that the narrator (Navarro) is totally ignorant of what's really going on, but the reader—and most of the other characters—know everything. Fuentes builds on this knowledge gap as he gives Navarro a number of interior monologues about his lovely daughter (Magdalena), his satisfying sexual relationship with Ascunción, and their long, rhapsodic daily breakfasts. The only sad part of their life is their continuing grief over the drowning death of their young son. Navarro muses, "The sea never returned him....I am incapable of hearing the break of a wave without thinking that a trace of my son, turned to salt and foam, is coming back to us, after circulating incessantly, like a ghost ship, from ocean to ocean." (p. 27)
As soon as Vlad arrives on the scene, everything changes in the Navarro household. First, Navarro suspects that Vlad has been spying on them in their bedroom. Then, he finds a photograph of Ascunción and Magdalena hidden away in Vlad's closet. Navarro is just beginning to piece together Vlad's true identity when Ascunción disappears, and Navarro has strange after-effects from a dinner with Vlad that comes close to being a cliché of vampire legends. When Zurinaga gives Navarro a written history (with a twist) of Vlad the Impaler, all of the pieces finally fall into place, and as the inevitable events play out, they destroy the mirage of Navarro's happy life.
The story contains some scenes that are truly scary and some that are disgustingly nauseating, particularly the sickening one that features the wanton use of squirrels by little girls. Those scenes, contrasted with the everyday episodes of Navarro's daily life, are extremely jarring. The tone veers sharply back and forth from dark humor to outrageous gore to quirky characterizations to sweaty fear. Descriptions of creepy Vlad and hunch-backed Borgo are darkly humorous. Borgo, with his obsequiously ghoulish behavior, could be a character created by Mel Brooks channeling Charles Dickens. Vlad first appears as a wannabe urban fantasy hero, wearing the requisite all-black ensemble right down to his black moccasins, but with a comically ill-fitting hairpiece and a droopy fake mustache. Fuentes uses any number of traditional vampiric images and expressions, all to great effect. The reader groans when Vlad murmurs, "I never drink...wine," (p. 37), but poor, naive Navarro initially accepts the comment without further thought.
This novel is definitely not for everyone, but if you enjoy offbeat vampire fiction produced by a master writer, you'll get a chill from this one. Click HERE to read Jeff Vandermeer's excellent review of this book in the NY Times.