Balloon in the Wind


By Luisa Valenzuela Translated from the Spanish by Toby Talbot
Simon & Schuster
220 pp.;$20

By Michael Harris,  Harris is a regular contributor to Book Review
Los Angeles Times Sunday June 14, 1992Home EditionBook Review, Page 12Type of Material: Book Review
In New York City, an expatriate Argentine writer named AgustinPalant buys a pistol for protection. One evening he takes a walk on thewild side. Among the pimps and drug pushers lurking in doorways is amysterious man who gives him a ticket to one of the theaters thathoneycomb the slums. An actress in the play he sees invites Palant to herapartment. The script seems to call for seduction, but instead Palantshoots her in the head.
Why? The question, like the echo of the shot, reverberates in Palant'smind and almost shakes it apart. This is a murder without a motive.Nothing in his life, he thinks, has led up to it. He takes refuge in thehome of his sometime girlfriend, another Argentine writer named Roberta,who doesn't completely believe his story but finds him, if even morepreoccupied and distant, more interesting than before.
At first, Luisa Valenzuela ("The Lizard's Tail," "Open Door") seems tobe writing a standard psychological novel--and an acute example of thegenre, at that--but soon things give her away. Her language, forinstance. It's as antic and unpredictable as a balloon bobbing in thewind. Also, Palant's search for the truth about the murder, and Roberta'ssearch for the truth about Palant, go off on crazy tangents. This is nomeditation on guilt, like Paul Theroux's "Chicago Loop." Nor is it anexistentialist celebration of a "gratuitous act." It's something else.
Something theatrical. "I've completely lost myself," Palantthinks, hiding in Roberta's apartment with his beard shaved, trying outaliases (they settle on Magoo). "Reached the point of not knowing wherelife begins and theater ends, or even worse, where theater begins andlife ends, where life begins to end with all this theater."
For when Palant wearies of playing the fugitive (because nobody seemsto be hunting him) and Roberta wearies of playing the gangster's moll,they go out to find all New York in a state of continuous performance.Businessmen playing victims patronize a torture chamber where aspike-heeled friend of Roberta's, playing a sadist, administers carefullycalibrated doses of pain. A "sublime old man," a ballet master ofNijinsky's era, lies dying behind a transparent wall, viewed byparty-goers on the other side. Even the homeless in parks and sheltersseem to be acting out some half-conscious drama.
Like stage sets taken down and reassembled for the next act, New Yorkkeeps on shifting. Palant can't find the warehouse theater he visited onthe fatal night. The store where he bought the pistol may havemetamorphosed into an antique shop run by a black man who becomesRoberta's next lover. Palant even wonders if the murder itself wasn'telaborately staged, if he wasn't given the ticket and led to kill theactress--or believe that he was killing her--for the secret amusement ofsome rich and powerful spectator.
At this point, we discover that Valenzuela's balloon, howevercolorful, however wildly gyrating, is tied by a long string to somethingas dark and heavy as an anvil. Palant and Roberta are not justexpatriates. Like Valenzuela herself, who spent several years in NewYork, they are self-exiles, haunted by Argentina's "dirty war" of the1970s and early '80s.
Back home, they know, the rich and powerful could arrangemurders to their liking. In the torture chambers of the military regime,pain had no limits. New York may be dangerous, but for Argentines itsdangers seem somehow unserious, even desirable, "dangers you were lookingfor because that after all is what it's all about."
Palant experiences New York as theater in part because he got used toplay-acting in Buenos Aires, ignoring friends' "disappearances," fearingto speak out. The key to the murder, Valenzuela suggests, isn't a quirkin his individual psychology so much as his infection by the "dirty war"which, like the AIDS virus, can hide for a long time in the system beforethe delayed trigger clicks.
Yet "Black Novel" isn't standard political fare, either. This is awitty, sexy, literary book by a highly sophisticated writer, one wholikes to play with male and female stereotypes and themes of dominanceand submission, love and creativity. Some readers will groan: "Not another novel about novelists writing (or suffering writer's block)about events that may be real and may just be made up." Those who willenjoy Valenzuela are those who can play along--and follow that bouncingballoon.

Copyright, The Times Mirror Company; Los Angeles Times, 1992.

Harris, Michael, Balloon in the Wind; BLACK NOVEL (WITH ARGENTINES), By Luisa Valenzuela Translated from the Spanish by Toby Talbot (Simon & Schuster: $20; 220 pp.); Home Edition., Los Angeles Times, 06-14-1992, pp 12.