Young, illegal, and all alone in New York

Colombia's novelists turn from magic realism to urban grit.

They are all around us and yet much of the time we don't even really see them: the army of illegal immigrants who wait tables, deliver groceries, and scrub floors. Paradise Travel by Jorge Franco, however, has the power to change that for its readers. After picking up this book, it's hard not to wonder at every subsequent encounter with a nonnative: "What did this person sacrifice to get here?"

But heightened awareness of the plight of the alien (illegal or otherwise) is not the only reason to pick up this compact and compulsively readable novel, translated from the Spanish by Katherine Silver.

Jorge Franco is a Colombian novelist on the rise, a leader of what is being called the "McOndo" school of fiction, a group of writers seemingly intent on upending the magical realism of Gabriel García Márquez. (McOndo is a play on words that fuses García Márquez's fictional town of Macondo with McDonalds - denoting a gritty, noirish writing style that one critic has labeled "magical realism dragged into Burger King.")

"Paradise Travel" (Franco's fourth novel and his second to be published in the United States) tells the story of Marlon Cruz, a guileless young Colombian dragged into the world of illegal border crossings by his troubled and wilful girlfriend, Reina. The two live in Medellín, where Marlon entertains no higher ambitions than hanging onto his girlfriend and gaining admission to the university (a hope rendered virtually futile by his lack of connections).

But Reina, a sexually beguiling creature with eyes of two different colors, will not let Marlon rest. She has decided that the path to fulfillment runs only through the United States and she is willing to use any means necessary to arrive there. When her hopes of obtaining legal visas are crushed, she quickly accepts the offer of an agency known as "Paradise Travel" (a darkly humorous moniker if ever there was one) which promises (in secret meetings at cafes) to ferry the young couple to New York for $10,000 in cash.

Reina wastes no time raising the money by stealing the honeymoon fund of Marlon's aunt. Marlon, enfeebled by his passion for Reina, is reluctantly drawn into the scheme and, after a horrific journey, the two find themselves - now broke and without possessions or papers of any kind - in a safe house somewhere in New York City.

But the very evening of their arrival Marlon wanders outside for a cigarette and unwittingly sets in motion a chain of events that separates him from Reina, leaving him alone in a city he does not know, utterly bereft of rights, support, or even comprehension of what is going on around him.

The rest of the novel is the story of how Marlon painfully makes his way in New York - never for a moment ceasing to obsess about Reina. She seems to have vanished without a trace, breaking the heart not only of Marlon but also that of her elderly father in Medellín.

The narration cuts continually from past to present, with the tale of the couple's humiliating voyage to New York twinned with the story of Marlon fighting for survival in the underbelly of New York. At the same time, the novel's emotional center neatly fuses the drama of Marlon's struggle for life with his absurd drive (absurd, that is, to everyone but him) to find Reina.

It's all quite slickly done and (warning!) readers of this slim volume will most likely refuse to put it down until they discover where fate will lead Marlon.

However, despite its readability and Franco's obvious skill as a narrator, there is something disappointingly empty at the core of this tale. For one thing, it's hard to sustain belief in Marlon's naive passion for Reina throughout the course of his harsh adventures. (The boy gets treated to a crash course in Life on the Mean Streets 101 and yet learns almost nothing about who can or cannot be trusted?)

But it's not just Reina who fails to convince. All the women in this story fall a bit too neatly into basic categories (sexy saint, sexy sinner, unsexy saint, unsexy sinner, etc.) and the scenes that include them too quickly ring hollow. Unfortunately, that includes the encounters with the restaurant owner's wife who is Marlon's savior in New York - interjecting an awkward and not terribly credible scenario into a plot that up until then had been spinning like a top.

And then, a second warning about this novel: There's sensitivity in the writing, but this is not a story for the sensitive. The novel is, after all, billed as urban realism and there is some ugly language and gritty detail to match. (If you don't really want to have to think too much about what it would be like to clean toilets in a restaurant, don't read this book.)

However, for readers who want to dip into the dark urban currents emerging in Latin literature as well as to enjoy a survival tale (and the love story here is a survival tale as well), this tight and skillfully plotted novel would be the book.

Marjorie Kehe is the Monitor's book editor.

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