Comrades By Marco Antonio Flores – A Review of a Guatemalan Classic

Marco Antonio Flores
Aflame Books, 300

Marco Antonio Flores’ Comrades is a linguistically wild rush of sex, drugs and revolution that doesn’t care a damn about solving problems or raising great theories about political struggle (as if either were possible) and instead abandons itself to gutter crawl through dives and whore houses and fights and every last body fluid that comes with them. It’s as visceral explosion of rage and disappointment whose only outlet is in self destruction or exile and Flores delights in the detailed expression of those emotions, not in a subtle and perceptive search of the psyche, but the physical manifestation of men who have no other way to express themselves. The rawness of the book, sharing qualities with the works of authors like Henry Miller, Hubert Selby, or Charles Bukoswki, is a stark vision, but it is a vision that suffers at times for its single mindedness and despite its caustic criticism of the failed revolution in Guatemala, one could be forgiven for thinking Flores only had one thing on his mind.

Comrades is divided into a series of chapters narrated by 4 revolutionaries, all boyhood friends, each chapter, save one, taking place during the 60s. Boozer (all names are pseudonyms) is a poet whose sometimes poetry shows up in his stream of conscious impressions. He has returned to Cuba after fighting in the war and begins his escape first to Prague and latter England. Along the way we learn he was the fatherless son of a lower middle class family and raised by his mother and the house keeper. Rat lives in Guatemala City and has an office job and a wife and hates his sedate life that was nothing like the drinking and whoring they used to do. Skinny Dog is a fugitive from the communist party, absconding with party funds to go into exile in Mexico City, where he spends all his time making fun of Mexicans, complaining how little money he has, and trying to work corrupt officials for a residency permit. Finally, there is the Lad who is undergoing ceaseless torture, and who can barely remember the protest and police crack down that let the police catch him.

Over the course of the novel Flores reveals the little things that shaped them: the fights with bullies on the streets of Guatemala City, the first drinks, the first sexual experiences, the absent parents. But its core, though, the book plays their lives as if it were one long bender through the grittiest that Guatemala has to offer. If they aren’t going to a bordello, they’re making it with some women in the back of a car, or going to a bar where they get smashed and look for women. The sessions of drink and women are long and very little of the book has anything but sex. Even when describing Boozer’s upbringing in 1942 the culminating event of the chapter is discovering the house keeper masturbating. Even Lad, in the midst of torture remembers back to a moment in a bar when a woman rubbed against him. And it’s all visceral and extreme, at one point he describes the biologic remnants of the four men having unprotected sex with the same woman right after each other, but that’s normal in a book that is constantly dripping with sweat, urine, feces, semen, blood, old beer, booze, and anything else that can rot.

You’ll be hard pressed to find much about war or politics in the book, and that is the point. The men didn’t want to have anything to do with revolutions, they were toughs and kids more interested in partying. One could make the case they were just doing what soldiers always do, and soldiers seldom are interested in politics. But Flores takes farther, destroying any sentimentality between duty or the cause, and what the men want. All they are is a mass of raw physicality unloosed by war and a society that has little out for them. Their lives are an attempt to escape into the hedonism that makes one forget. There are several disparaging references to Cubans who encouraged and trained the men, left them to their fate fighting a war they had little interest in fighting. For Flores the whole thing is a joke. The men are anything but saints, Guatemala is a cesspool, and the Cubans are just in it for themselves to get some revenge over the Bay of Pigs.

All that would be quite the statement, but there is a problem, and it comes in the chapter I neglected mentioning earlier: Tatiana. Tatiana is the girlfriend of Boozer in Cuba. They have had a passionate affair, at first platonic, but Boozer moves her slowly to her first encounter just as he is about to leave Cuba for Prague. When she finally relents they sleep together one night where he takes her virginity. Perhaps that might be a big deal but the chapter, unlike the others, switches voice and begins to talk about Tatiana in second person describing her growing desire, her willingness to face a scandal, and finally an ecstasy filled first time. It is in this narrative turn that Flores tips his hand shows his real interest. This isn’t about Tatiana, the person she is, it is about what Flores can describe, how he can take those darker things of the men, and try it another way, but always staying true to the dominate power of lust and sex in all its fluidic and graphic power. But that cliche of the perfect first encounter is nothing more than the working out of yet another sex scene in a book already loaded down with them. And it isn’t just the egregious assertion of narrative control that he shows in silencing Tatiana for his own uses that weakens the book, but his insistence on showing women as nothing but something to fuck. Yes, it is a novel primarily about men, but there is something off-putting in the way he does it.

It is too bad that the novel suffers from these flaws because he ultimately he wraps the novel up in the most damning statement that crystallizes all that comes before and partially explains why the men care so little about anything; there is nothing left to care about.

Here I’ll stay and from here I’ll leave, but I’ll never return to my mother’s side, to my mother’s country, to the country of my non-existent fther, to my country where you can never be alone or free, because you know everybody and everybody knows you and you kill and are killed and you have to flee and go into hiding because otherwise they ‘disappear’ you they imprison you kill you torture you cut off your balls stab out your eyes cut off your left hand fuck you rape you attack your house steal everything that you possess never let you live in peace leave you no solitude advise you direct you tell you what to do and what not to do because they all know you and love you and respect you and meddle in your life and mortify you and kill you by degrees or with a bullet and where your mother is and the dictator of the day and the police who at any moment and for any reas put your name on file persecute you pursue you and kill you


Here I’ll stay



Listening to the bongos

A final note on the translation.  Leona Nickless has done an impressive job with this novel and from the first sentence you will know how difficult the book must have been to render in English and to keep some of the rhythms it must obviously have. I wasn’t able to get a copy in Spanish to check the original, but it doesn’t matter as you can tell from the quote above it was an amazing work.