Who doesn’t enjoy a good star-crossed love story? Two people from different backgrounds, standing fast against the prejudice of friends and families to claim his or her soulmate. This isn’t that kind of book.
In Lima Nights, middle-aged camera salesman Carlos Bluhm spies Indian dancer Maria one night at a tango bar and is instantly smitten. Maria, who works at a grocery store during the day, lives in a shanty in a slum next to Peru’s largest prison. She’s 15.
Whether she’s equally enamored of Carlos is an open question, but she’s definitely taken with the idea of getting out of Lurigancho.
Marie Arana’s follow-up to her well-received 2007 novel “Cellophane,” is the tale of a “Lolita” affair gone stale rather than a Latin American update of “Romeo and Juliet.” Instead of the florid magic realism and epic scale of her first novel, “Lima Nights” is a terse, sparsely populated story about an affair that was never supposed to be life-changing.
Carlos, considered Peruvian upper class by dint of his Teutonic heritage and family’s vanished wealth, hasn’t exactly been faithful during his 21-year-
marriage, but he’s always limited himself to one-night stands – the better not to get caught.
But his lust for Maria makes him stupid, hiding pictures of his teenage lover in his desk along with lists comparing her to his wife, Sophie.
Then he fakes a trip to Germany so he can take Maria to the rented beach house that was supposed to be a summer treat for his family. Sophie finds the pictures and the list and initially assumes she’s looking at her husband’s illegitimate daughter.
When she learns the truth, her reaction is swift and final. Carlos comes home from his vacation idyll to a house that’s been stripped of furnishings, wife, sons, and mother – who, understandably, decides she prefers Sophie to Carlos.
The story then jumps 20 years.
The boys are grown, Sophie and Carlos’s mother are both dead, and Maria and Carlos are still living in the same house, now furnished with castoffs.
He’s in his mid-60s, still working as a salesman for an electronics store.
She lives in a separate room, watching telenovelas. She wants him to marry her; he’s not sure why they’re still together.
“He was keenly aware of the stiffness in his knees, the shrinking girth of his chest, the soft little pot of his belly, but he couldn’t quite say why he had lived with the woman upstairs for 20 years, or even how he felt about her, really. The days had slipped by. That was all.”
Decades away from the slums of Lurigancho haven’t given Maria a sense of security.
She longs for a permanent commitment, and makes a last-ditch effort to get Bluhm to marry her.
As Maria explains to Oscar, Bluhm’s least-prejudiced friend, “All I’ve ever known in life, I learned on a dance floor. It takes work to move with a man. You watch his feet, you hear the music; you give it everything you’ve got. If he doesn’t do the same, the dance is over. You can’t fix a lack of feeling. You can only walk away.”
Meanwhile, Carlos’s three friends offer him help in the form of a lawyer, a shaman, and a psychiatrist, as Bluhm tries to reclaim his life.
“He has no regrets,” he maintains (making him both boring and self-deluded) – although he’s not sure what he has to show for the past 20 years.
Arana, the former head of The Washington Post Book World, is a smart writer. The second half of the novel, with its question of whether the sheer weight of time and sacrifices inadvertently made can turn the couple’s relationship into a permanent commitment is much more interesting.
But Carlos is so banal and self-absorbed, he begs the question: If the unexamined life isn’t worth living, is it worth reading about?
There are few other characters to occupy the imagination. Even the Shining Path terrorist movement, which was at its height during Carlos and Maria’s time together, just provides some muted background noise.
“Lima Nights” is a stark work – coolly assessing and intelligent, but hard to love.
Yvonne Zipp regularly reviews fiction for the Monitor.