By Carlos Montemayor
Translated from the Spanish by John Copeland
113 pp., $8.95
Part worker, part gambler, a "gambusino" is the Mexican term for someone who goes looking for mineral deposits hidden below the surface of the earth - a person consumed with the risky business of mining.
This starkly lyrical novel, "Gambusino," is by prize winning Mexican writer Carlos Montemayor. It provides a mesmerizing account of the harsh, lonely, obsessive, yet courageous life of one such man, Alfredo Montenegro, who inherits his passion from his father.
For father and son, the business of seeking out mines and negotiating the deals necessary to get them working is a way of asserting their human dignity: "[D]uring the little time that we're here on earth," his father tells Alfredo, "we ought to ... try to do things, not allow them simply to fall on us."
It is an almost Sisyphus-like task, "to wound the subterranean darkness where all men will be deposited, the darkness that is opened by the luminous violence of having participated in the battle against life."
Alfredo's story covers a lifetime. It is told in a way that telescopes long decades of discoveries and deals that never quite pan out as hoped. Montemayor focuses on two salient periods. Chapters entitled "The Past" portray Alfredo's early efforts in the business. Alternating chapters labeled "The Present" deal with what turns out to be his last desperate venture in this realm, which has always allured him and always let him down.
The gambusino's world of continual uncertainty is rendered with an intense immediacy: the long hours of tedious negotiation and waiting, the sudden moments of discovery or disaster.
By the time Alfredo sets out on his last venture, feuds with disloyal associates and estrangement from his own family have left him a tragically isolated figure, with no one to help him but an inexperienced young farm boy.
It's a bleak story, luminously told in its minutely realistic yet strangely dreamlike depiction of a quest doomed to futile repetition.
"Gambusino" unfolds across a starkly beautiful, faintly menacing, Mexican landscape. But there are no ghostly voices or apparitions in the book. Only the ghostliness of a life spent in pursuit of vain hopes.
* Merle Rubin regularly reviews books for the Monitor.