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Carlos Cortés: Cruz de olvido [Cross of Oblivion]

Some novels whisper, some speak in a moderated tone and some shout. This one is a shouter. For the entire 344 pages, Cortés rarely lets up with his views or his aggressive story-telling. This is not necessarily a bad thing – he has points to make and a story to tell and he tells it well. Nor is this novel going to be welcomed by the Costa Rican Tourist Board. The opening line of the novel is In Costa Rica, nothing has happened since the Big Bang and he will repeat this refrain several times. Costa Rica is called Costa Risa (risa is the Spanish for laughter.) The term he uses for Costa Rican in Spanish is not the normal costariqueño or costarricense but costarrisible, which might be translated as costaridiculous. Despite this, a lot does happen in Costa Rica during this novel. Cortés even devotes an entire, very tongue-in-cheek chapter to what does, pointing out that Costa Rica has more car accidents than any other Latin American country, more cases of gastric cancer than any other country in the world and is fifth in the world in money laundering of dollars and then proceeds to give a rundown of news items (most of them trivial, such as a Costa Rican breaking the world record, together with someone from the Dominican Republic, for continuous broadcasting from radio booth, or nasty, such as a pensioner killing himself by eating an enormous number of hamburgers). In short, he does not seem very fond of his country or, at least, his hero does not.

His hero is Martín Amador. We only learn his name after about a hundred pages, as most of the book is narrated by Amador. We get a brief third person narration (where we learn his name) and then some narration by Amador’s former mentor, who is dead and riding in his coffin at the time. Amador is now forty. He had been a journalist in Costa Rica for sometime before joining the Nicaraguan Revolution. He had stayed there, playing a minor role, but has now returned to Costa Rica (on his way to Mexico, he claims) for two reasons. The first is that the Sandinistas have lost the election and are now out of power and the second is that he learns that his estranged son Jaime has been murdered. Amador has not seen either his son or his two ex-wives, including Marcela, the mother of Jaime, for a considerable time. However, just after telling us that nothing has happened in Costa Rica since the Big Bang, we learn that seven young people (four men, three women) have been brutally murdered and their headless and mutilated corpses have been found by the Alajuelita Cross (hence the title of the book). One of them is, apparently, Jaime, though it is almost impossible to identify the bodies because of the mutilations. Amador returns to Costa Rica and the rest of the book concerns his investigations into the alleged death of his son and his attempts at reconnecting with his past.

Cortés keeps up a frenetic pace as Amador makes his way around San José. The first thing that happens to him is that he finds a million dollars in his bank accounts. He has no idea who put it there or why. Then his room is burgled and his car stolen. At the morgue he bumps into two old friends from university days, Morales Santos, the current president of Costa Rica, known throughout the book by his nickname of Proconsul and, later, Edgar Jímenez, the attorney general, but known by his nickname of Seven Daggers. The president invites Amador out on a bar crawl and off they go on a night-long journey through the darkness, capped by the president and the police hounding transvestite gay prostitutes. Amador soon realises that the incident at the Alajuelita Cross is hiding all sorts of other dirty deeds going on in Costa Rica (here nothing has happened since the big Bang) and we soon get into a whole range of possible conspiracy theories, from drugs and money laundering, to the trafficking of children for adoption, a gay mafia and a whole range of dirty deeds in government. There is also, of course, a possible Nicaragua/CIA connection. Amador follows the president and attorney general through the bowels of government (literally, as they go through some underground tunnels beneath the main government buildings) and learns more of the strange goings-on in the country where nothing has happened since the Big Bang.

But is not just politics that occupies Amador. As mentioned, he meets his mentor who dies shortly afterwards. He tries to meet his ex-wife and is firmly rebuffed by his ex-brother-in-law. However he does meet his mother and her family. Her mother, unfortunately, seems to be going insane. Her pipes have burst and there is water everywhere but she won’t have a plumber in as she does not want a man in the house. He tries to get her taken to a psychiatric hospital but that is difficult. However, he does learn about his antecedents from his aunt and more about his father. Of course, things do not turn out as expected and Amador ends up learning a lot more about himself but not a great deal about what is going on in Costa Rica, apart from a lot of suppositions that may or may not be true. It is not a fun book but it certainly gives you a different perspective on Costa Rica from the traditional one.

Publishing history

First published in 1999 by Alfaguara
No English translation