Thursday, September 18, 2014

"Night of the Jaguar"

Joe Gannon, writer and spoken word artist, was a freelance journalist in Nicaragua during the Sandinista Revolution, writing for The Christian Science Monitor, The Toronto Globe and Mail, and the San Francisco Examiner. He spent three years in the army, graduated from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, and did his MFA at Pine Manor College.

Gannon applied the Page 69 Test to Night of the Jaguar, his debut novel, and reported the following:
From page 69:
It had begun as envy, Malhora knew it. But it had transformed into something else that May Day party at the Cuban embassy (in Mexico) when he’d felt compelled to not only lie about knowing Montoya, but to regale one and all with tales of their friendship. And he had pursued a friendship with the ungrateful son-of-a-bitch – had teamed up with him in State Security in the early days of the Revo, only to discover the “great man” was a wild-eyed dreamer, the worst kind of romantic bourgeois. And then that night in Los Nubes when Malhora had killed for the first time. Montoya had come running out of the darkness and struck him! Not even a manly blow but a backhanded him like a servant who’d broken a family heirloom. Malhora’s feeling had hardened into cold hate, and he had filled a file with Montoya’s drunken fall since. And who was the great man now?
It is so amazing that on page 69 is single most important scene for what is really happening in the novel – in the deep back-story, but also in the deepest recesses of Ajax Montoya’s heart.

Vladimir Malhora is the villain in the novel – a bureaucrat who sat out most of the insurrection against the Ogre in Mexico doing vital clandestine work, but who was never a grunt on the ground in the mountains where the dying and killing was done. All of Ajax’s loyalties are based on those he shared the hardships with all those desperate years in the mountains, the men and women who made the Revo.

This p. 69 paragraph recalls the very moment when Ajax realized that the Revo he fought for was not the Revo he was living. It is the moment he drifted away from his old comrades, from his then wife, a star of the Revo, and slowly settled into isolation, drunkenness and despair.

Hemingway, in Spain in the 1930s, was supposed to have said that communists make the best rebels and the worst governments. Malhora is the guy – the kind of person – who flourishes during peace time when the quotidian choices to be made in governing, that is to say the compromises of politics, can turn the stark black and white of war into the wooly grey of peace.

Nicaragua in the 1980s was a football to be kicked about in the Cold War between the American and Soviet superpowers—the Marxist Sandinistas sided with the Soviets and America’s Ronald Reagan set out to punish them for their temerity. It was a hot proxy war in a dirt poor country. Malhora represents those who embraced that role, Ajax is of those who still pined for the earlier, simpler goals.

At one point he is called to task by his best friend and now ex-wife for putting his own agenda before the Revo’s.

Ajax replies, “I didn’t fight all those years to be a pawn, anyone’s pawn in some Cold War chess game.”

“Then what did you fight for?” his friend asks.

“Flu shots and flush toilets... Equality before the law.”

“Well, what you got was superpower Cold War chess games.”

How that switch occurred, and its cost in blood and souls, is all laid out on page 69.

On a side note, it is right on this page where my 11-year-old daughter, Valentina, gave me a great piece of advice -- the passage quoted had begun with "Malhora hated Ajax Montoya, he always had." She said she found that line "cliched", said "I've read that before, Daddy." So I cut that line and the paragraph now reads in the book as you see it here. It was an improvement and she is my first reader now!
Visit Joe Gannon's website.

--Marshal Zeringue