Saturday, March 29, 2014

Michael Nava and The City of Palaces

Between 1986 and 2000, Michael Nava wrote seven California crime novels featuring lawyer Henry Rios. The series earned a devoted, admiring group of fans who were saddened when the author went silent for the next fourteen years. Nava has finally returned, not with a continuation of the Rios tales, but with The City of Palaces, an extraordinarily ambitious historical novel set in Mexico during the final years of president Porfirio Diaz and the revolutionary upheavals that replaced him. It was worth the wait, because the book is a masterpiece.

I stumbled across the Henry Rios novels in the late 1990s, and at their best thought them equal to the other great California detective novelists Raymond Chandler and Ross MacDonald. Nava also brought some rare personal qualities to the genre, being born gay and Chicano in a Sacramento barrio, before receiving scholarships to study writing at Colorado College and the law at Stanford. Nava's vividly rendered characters range in economic class from high to low, and the gay and Latino characters are unusually three-dimensional, ranging from closet cases to gay libbers and hypocritical Latin politicians to sympathetic workers. They feel written from the inside.

I recently reread the whole series and was happy to find they sturdily stood the test of time. Among other things, they are an invaluable portrait of California during the AIDS plague years, in a world teeming with political, sexual, ethnic, and economic tensions. The series gets stronger as it goes along as Nava gains more confidence in his overlapping narratives and emotional effects. The Death of Friends and The Burning Plain are brilliant and savage, while the final Rag and Bone gives Rios something of a happy ending, on his way to a judicial appointment with a new lover in a new town.

in 1999, Nava above moved to San Francisco where he was hired by the California Supreme Court to write legal opinions. In 2009-2010, he ran for a San Francisco Superior Court Judge position on a campaign of ethnic inclusion, which was covered extensively on this blog. Nava eventually lost the runoff election by a small margin in a campaign that was an eye-opening, dispiriting closeup for both of us of San Francisco politics at its most craven.

The silver lining in the electoral defeat was that Nava went back to work in earnest at the novel on which he had been ruminating and researching and writing drafts over the last couple of decades. The scope of the tale, with its potent blend of family, political, religious, and artistic histories, kept growing in his mind until he realized the original plan for a single book had become gargantuan, and it would probably require a quartet of novels to do it justice. The first installment, The City of Palaces, has just been published by the University of Wisconsin Press (click here for the Amazon link), and it's great both as a stand-alone novel and the beginning of a grand saga.

At its heart, the book is a story of marriage between a seemingly mismatched pair in upper class Mexico City in the final years of the four-decade reign of President Porfirio Díaz (above). Miguel Sarmiento is a handsome, guilt-ridden young doctor, an atheist and believer in modern science. Alicia Gavilan is an aristocrat with a face scarred from smallpox, a mystical Catholic who takes the Christian concept of charity seriously. They could not be more dissimilar but their pairing makes perfect sense, particularly as the world around them ruptures. There are dozens of other characters, some of them so marvelous they threaten to become the center of the narrative. There is La Niña, Alicia's mother entombed in a decaying Mexico City palace, who is alternately an ogre and a shrewd fairy godmother to her grandson José, an artistic, sensitive boy who feels like an answer to her prayers.

Historical figures such as Francisco Madero above are also important characters, and the depiction of his part in the Mexican Revolution and subsequent assassination during La Decena Trágica (Ten Tragic Days) in 1913 is masterful on Nava's part. He makes a complex series of events lucid and gripping, bringing to light a part of history very few people know or understand. There are exquisite set pieces throughout the novel, including Luisa Tetrazzini singing Aida at the Palacio de Bellas Artes, marvels and terrors in the back of a coffin factory where early silent films are projected onto a sheet, the workings of the underground railroad saving Yaqui Indans from slavery, battle scenes in Ciudad Juarez, and slaughter in the streets of Mexico City. It is a very rich stew where each strand informs the others.

A California Chicano writing an historical novel set in Mexico is something of an audacious act, but Nava has pulled the challenge off. My hope and dream for the book is that it is translated well into Spanish, becomes a runaway bestseller in Mexico, and is then transformed into a big-budget, six-month telenovela which conquers the world. ¡Que viva México!

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