Reviews, Vol. 2.2, June 2008
Omnidawn Press, 2007
Paperback, 160 pp., $12.95
Reviewed by Cynthia Reeser
Randall Silvis, author of eight previous works of fiction, takes center stage with his latest novel. In a Town Called Mundomuerto is a pure delight of fabulist fiction from start to finish, and a must-read for anyone who appreciates a good story. Set in a fictional modern-day South American coastal town, known at the time of the tale as Mundosuave, a grandfather tells a boy he calls his nieto a story.
The boy is drawn to Alberto time and again to listen to his tale, which develops more with every telling. The old man’s story takes on a life of its own, evolving from memories that constantly change and are newly born to him during narration. No one would now guess that Mundosuave was once a place where fish and fruit could be found in abundance, where happiness thrived and magic was a thing that lingered at precipices, that could be found even behind walls and borders.
Life was peaceful in Mundosuave until the night the dolphin man came to town. His treacherous dance with the beauty Lucia Luna, an anti-Calypso figure who will later spend her days staring out from a rock at storm-swept seas, brings a dark wind that sweeps over the town, transforming it into what comes to be known as Mundomuerto. The fish in the sea cannot be caught, the fruit spoils on the trees, and the villagers believe their town has been cursed and Lucia is the responsible party. When a storm sweeps away the husband and children of the town’s most bitter resident, the people become a mad crowd crying “witch”—a cry filled with a dangerous fear.
Lucia is blamed for everything that goes wrong in town, from the stubbing of toes to senility in the old, and fear and mystery gather around her. With the appearance of a jaguar at the Luna household one dark day, the mob feels justified in their hunt of the unknown. Only Alberto cares enough to risk his life to save Lucia’s and to remain her companion, guitar always at his side, ready to pluck out a song for her to sing.
Music is both transformative and has powers to communicate feelings and ideas that words won’t justify. But as the proverbial wind changes in Mundosuave, Alberto’s tune falters and by the end of his life, Lucia’s voice has become a memory and his guitar a tuneless crutch that he uses in place of a cane.
Eventually, when Lucia has enough of the townspeople’s superstitious madness and goes into hiding, she makes herself a prisoner in her own home in an attempt to quell the fear of the mob. But things only become worse. Months pass, and one day, a shocking discovery is made. Lucia now has reason more than ever to fear for her life, and sends Alberto on a vital mission in the thick, tangled jungle. He gladly takes up the mission out of love, and it is his love that will sustain him through the unthinkable. The jungle whispers him awake with its own song: “Vivir y morir por amor.” When Alberto returns to Mundomuerto, a ghastly surprise awaits him.
A compelling work of fiction that is as much about storytelling as it is a love story, Silvis’ book yields surprises with each phase of the sickly moon’s cycle. He illustrates the importance of the storyteller’s questioning of reality while exploring the development of storytelling itself.
Storytelling becomes revisionist history. The story is a kind of machine that relies on the forward motion of the narrative for its power. “To stop is not a choice we have the right to make,” Alberto tells the boy. The story will go on, whether or not the teller wishes it to cease. Alberto’s tale is one of wonder, enchantment and a descriptive language so rich that the reader can nearly hear the strings’ pluck from the weather-beaten guitar.
The grandfather tells his tale as though it cannot be helped, even worrying that it will taint the listener with its poisonous lore. He tells the boy, “I fathered nothing but dreams, and all of them were stillborn.” In spite of this, the reader comes away with a sense of hope and wonder and how, in a world full of pettiness, jealousy and death, life can be beautiful. It all depends on the way a person chooses to see things—we make our own histories.