Out of the gate, "Rosario Tijeras", is in your face and demanding to be taken seriously. The paragraph above could have come from any number of American hard-boiled novels from the fifties. But this one is taken from a novel published in 1999 by Columbian author, Jorge Franco. Written originally in Spanish (the translation by Gregory Rabassa is wonderful) and published in english by the excellent Seven Stories Press, "Rosario Tijeras" is a tale of L'Amour Fou told against the backdrop of the drug cartel wars in Medellin, Columbia. The "Rosario" of the title is immediately situated in the "femme fatale" tradition with the opening sentence and it's promise of death and sex. She will be both lover and destroyer to the men in her life. While this concept is pretty stupid when you consider the real women you encounter in life, I can attest to the power of a "mad love" in my own life. Reason, logic, common sense; all of them go out the window when you become obsessed with someone who is on the path to hell, so to speak.
Our narrator, poor Antonio, tells his sad, sordid tale in the waiting room of the hospital where Rosario has been taken to die. In a series of beautifully constructed flashbacks, we learn that she got her last name by castrating the man who raped her as a young girl (Tijeras in Spanish means "scissors"), we discover that Rosario is a kept woman by high level members of the Medellin drug cartel and that she is simoultaneously having affairs with Emilio and Ferney, both local "hit men" for the cartel. Antonio is the young, reticent man who becomes her confidant and friend. After one night of sex, Antonio is besotted with her and spends a good deal of the novel trying to understand why. The ending of the novel (nope, I won't give it away here) is poignant and absolutely perfect. I could hear the Warner Bros. score well up as the camer pulls out the door and into a wide shot of the night lit city.
This novel won the Premio de Novela Dashiell Hammett prize in 2000 (for best literary excellence in crime fiction) and has been made into a film. All of this praise is well-deserved since the novel is well-written and intriguing. What is troubling is that most reviewers fail to point out that the mix of love/melodrama and drug violence is not always a good one. The author strains credibility at times when he has Rosario embark on senseless killing only to have our young narrator explain it all away in a gush of self-deception. In fact, that's the basic problem with this novel: it simply isn't deep enough. In his effort to create the instantly interesting femme fatale, Rosario, he doesn't spend enough time with Antonio and he becomes a much less interesting character than her. His story structure is in keeping with the noir tradition, but it's clear he wants to step beyond those tropes and comment on the social issues of Medellin and the people in the drug trade. The novel suffers from the authors balancing act between noir and the social realism. It just never quite comes together in an original form. When the novel is tough, it's very tough and is completely convincing. But the softer, more ruminative passages are not as convincing and slow the novel down. And I wish the author would have abandoned the flashback structure and simply told the story as it happened to Antonio. We could have developed more sympathy and understand of this character and it would have added more weight to the story.
Still, this novel is very good. It packs a punch believe you me. I was cringing in a scene where Rosaria shoots to death a motorist she has crashed into because of her own reckless driving. There is wonderful detail through out the novel that puts you right into the shoes of the characters and their various obsessions. And, as I've mentioned, the translation by Rabassa is brilliant. You don't have to know hard-boiled mysteries to enjoy this novel.
Last note: the cover of this edition is a still from the film. While this Rosaria is beautiful, she's nothing like the character in the book. I like the Spanish cover much better. Here it is: