This War Called Love by Alejandro Murguia

by Nithya Krishnaswamy

16 September 2002


Vivid Portraits

This zesty collection of nine stories, This War Called Love , a slim paperback edition, is both funny and sad. The stories concern the lives of Latino men but the experiences and emotions of the characters are universal. Murguia writes with such fervor, honesty and vivacity that one feels drawn into the stories at once. His writing represents the passions and vulnerabilities of Latino men in the Mission District in San Francisco and Mexico City. They are stories of love, life, growing up, and the lessons that one learns along the way.

Most of Murguia’s characters attempt to rise above their situations, whether it concerns love or material circumstances. His women characters are mostly strong and earthy, with panache for life, and strong ambitions. Many of his stories are tinged with irony and reflect Murguia’s compassion towards his characters. His narratives are crisp and filled with vivid descriptions of street life, reminding one of a painting that is packed with minute details. His lavish use of Spanish words and local place names add to the effect and don’t distract the reader.

cover art

This War Called Love

Alejandro Murguia

(City Lights Publishers)

His most touching story is the first of the lot, “A Boy on the Wooden Horse” which is told from the perspective of six-year-old boy, Mundo, who lives with his grandmother, Le Guela because his mother has gone away to achieve stardom. Movies feature a lot in this story both literally and thematically. At one point in the story the narrator says: “All my childhood memories unwind in black-and-white, as if my life was either light or shadows, without a middle ground. I recall those years like a series of cinematic dissolves and fade outs?.”

Mundo’s father is a staid accountant. He obviously feels out of place in the glamour world of movies. The six-year-old Mundo adores his mother although he is not blind to her human frailties, “Her first role barely lasts three minutes, but she is swept up in the glamour and make-believe of the movies,” he observes at one point. Mundo’s childhood passes him by as faces tragedy after tragedy.

Another vivid story is “Ofrendas.” It portrays a celebration of the Day of the Dead in the Mission District, complete with the descriptions of costumes and an altar in the barrio. The narrator, a radio show host, describes the scene, “Everyone in La Mission is here dressed in some kind of skeleton costume. I can’t tell who’s who except for the obvious beer belly of Tono’s or the unmistakable broad nalgas of an ex-girlfriend.” Amidst the celebration, the narrator is trying to cope with his cousin’s death, who died that morning. “On the Day of the Dead laughter is the only cure for dying.” This sentiment of the narrator is very reflective of the significance of the celebration of the Day of the Dead in the Latino community. The descriptions are vivid with minute details of street life in the Mission District and it is impossible not to get engrossed in the story.

A squabbling couple who incessantly hurt each other make up and admit their love for each other after being attacked at a bar in the story “El Utimo Round.”

Another story, “Barrio Lotto,” is filled with humor and irony as a bus driver and his psychic wife try to rise above their circumstances by buying lottery tickets and winning one. But finally they don’t know if they can keep it.

Plot lines vary in all the stories. In “Lucky Alley,” a man squanders his wife’s savings on a risky investment in a movie theater without telling her, and loses the money and her in the process. He forgets her warning that “not telling is also lying.” “Rose-colored Dreams” briefly and poignantly captures the struggles of a young Mexican immigrant, Jaunito, who sells flowers while his mother and sisters sew dresses late into the night. “A Lesson in Merengue,” tells the tale of an animated dance maestro who teaches the forbidden dance. He claims it will wash away problems and it is the cheapest aerobic workout in town.

The title story “This War Called Love” is my least favorite, because it borders on machismo portrayal of broken love, alcohol, recovery and hope. Murguia’s zesty narrative is not lost here, though, and the writing is still strong .

Although the content of many of the stories are melancholic, the narratives are gritty and fast-paced while exploring the human emotional condition with compassion and lightness that makes this collection highly readable. It is entirely memorable for its language and depiction of life in the Mission District, which is both ordinary and exciting, and in Mexico City, which is an exhilarating cultural experience.

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