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In 1938, on the eve of the nationalization of Mexican oil, federal anti-corruption officer Tomás Ortiz goes to a Gulf Coast oil port to find his estranged son.

He learns from a new friend that his son is living with a refugee from the Spanish civil war and that they have two little girls. His friend, an Irishman and oil company enforcer, claims to be the young woman’s father.

But Tomás Ortiz suspects he is Stalinist secret police and that he has followed her from Republican Madrid, intending to assassinate her.

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Front (top) and Back (bottom image).

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The pitch I’m giving in New York to a bunch of editors and literary agents changes constantly. As they warned it might. You have 90 seconds to explain the novel and entice interest. This is its current form:

“On the eve of the nationalization of Mexican oil, the darkness of the Spanish Civil War— as in Stalin’s secret police liquidating anarchists and Trotskyists—spills over into a 1938 Mexican oil port…( space for a pause, while you try to think how it goes from here)…

…a place where federal anti-corruption officer Tomas Ortiz is looking for his estranged son and hoping to regain his wife’s love.

Tomas slips into deeper water, when he learns that his son is living with a young refugee, that they have two little girls and that she—an anarchist and defender of petroleum workers’ rights—is the object of a suspicious search by a man who has followed her from Madrid and claims to be her father.

In all this, Tomas is guided by a highly developed moral compass, which comes with a few flaws; namely, that he’s been unfaithful to his wife, he hallucinates and he’s a kleptomaniac.”

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Soon, Dianne and I are off to a writers’ conference in New York to pitch our new novels to an organized swarm of literary agents. We get 90 seconds in front each one. They get 90 seconds to raise their eyebrows.  Try to imagine me sputtering the following in front of a complete stranger who may be hoping for something about vampires, knights or unicorns.
“The novel The Queen of the Pánuco, 90,000 words, is a Philip Kerr-like mystery mixed with the Deep Mexico of Juan Rulfo. The darkness of the Spanish Civil War – Stalinist secret police liquidating anarchists and Trotskyists among the Republican ranks – spills over into a 1938 Mexican oil port, where federal anti-corruption officer Tomas Ortiz is looking for his estranged son and hoping to regain his wife’s love. Tomas enters deep water when he learns that his son lives with a brave young woman with a Spanish past, who is the object of a hostile search. In all this, Tomas is guided by a highly developed moral compass, which comes with a few flaws. Namely, that he’s been unfaithful to his wife, he hallucinates and he’s a kleptomaniac.”

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Dressing up for a Lindy Hop “social,” I thought I’d bring out my only bow-tie, which had been slumbering, inverted, in my wardrobe for years. And I mean years. Maybe thirty or forty. And, of course, I found out I had forgotten the motor memory in my hands and had no idea anymore how to tie it. My love of many years figured it out in seconds, and so we cast off for the social with me flying my “moño,” which is what my fellow dancers called it in Spanish. Although I thought, from quick research, that that meant “bun,” as in a woman’s hair. Waitresses in the famous restaurant Cafe de Tacuba in Mexico City wear large white moños, and those are bows. My dictionary calls it a “pajarito.” A little bird. I think of it as a bat that has come out, taken on color and reformed. You can see the effect it has on women fifty years younger than me. The lesson was taken, and at the next social, in the space of a day, two young men showed up to Guanajuato Swing wearing moños or pajaritos or murciélagos, the latter being my favorite word in all of Spanish. That made the three of us leaders in Mexico’s newest, most important revolution, one that brings hope to partners everywhere.

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I’m sitting in my favorite café in my colonial Mexican city. I think of it as a very small Paris. I am going over the Spanish translation of my first novel Playing for Pancho Villa. I must have started this project a year or more ago. My wonderful translators, a Mexican poet and a French professor of French, have long since finished the translation—an enormous job. And then I have to come after them, checking each word for its fullest correct equivalent. I am on my last two chapters out of thirty-two. I am hoping the huge Spanish speaking world will read this novel more than English readers have. Its plot and general flavor may seem less foreign to them.

The dog, a bitch, tail wagging and delighted to see us all, a sort of Labrador mutt—I have since learned her name is Chia—comes through the always open door. She goes to everyone in the big room, mostly university students working at things and drinking tea. Several young women are hanging an exhibition of photographs and calling out adjustments across the room. A small film crew comes in and sets up in the middle of the gentle chaos. A young woman sits across from me, brushing on makeup. What? To make her more pale, remove any blemishes? Perhaps they are making a one-day movie. It is the end of the annual Guanajuato International Film Festival, and little groups of young filmmakers are competing to win in that category.

Everyone—including myself—reaches down to Chia, who I now realize is attached to a familiar young painter family and their two children, several months and two-or-so years old. Chia obits around this attractive young family. What strikes me is how each of us in the room wants the same thing: contact with this happy, tail-wagging ambassador. And then, after a half an hour or so, everyone except for the one-day filmmakers leaves, including Chia and her family. And I am left to listening to “Belle Nuit, Ô Nuit D’amour,” Les Contes D’Hoffmann by Jacques Offenbach and to continue with the translation Playing for Pancho Villa. When I finish, we will sit down together, the three of us, the translators and me, and we will decide on the final changes and adjustments in another quieter café.

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IMG_2108.jpgMy friend has escaped from the local prison where we had visited him nine or ten times. He was there for eleven months, and then he could no longer bear the thought of a capricious ten-year sentence. What he loved most, beside his family, was his horse and riding in the mountains with his companion horsemen. They went on cabalgadas, seeing themselves as cavalry battalions in the war against Lucifer, led by the Saints San Miguel, Cristo Rey, the Virgin of Guadalupe, and the Virgin of Guanajuato. Sometimes, on such rides, as many as 1,500 men will participate. This afternoon, as an exuberant church band played and the afternoon sun beat down, we watched as a graveyard mason sealed my warrior-friend into a crypt at the Panteón (Cemetery) of the Pueblito de Rocha. My friend died of a broken heart. A heart that broke.

For more context, please scroll down to the post titled “Returning to Mexico and its Forgotten Prisoners,” published here on April 15, 2016.

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2015 in review

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2015 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

A San Francisco cable car holds 60 people. This blog was viewed about 3,100 times in 2015. If it were a cable car, it would take about 52 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.

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