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Luis Arturo Ramos: Este era un gato [This Was a Cat]

In 1914, US troops illegally occupied Veracruz in Mexico. This was prompted by the arrest of nine US sailors by the Mexican authorities for entering off-limit areas. Initially, the US troops were meant to only occupy the port area but this extended to the whole town when they met resistance. With the Mexican Revolution still raging, the Mexican government was limited in its response and, eventually, the US troops withdrew. This novel is primarily about Roger Copeland, who was one of the US troops. Copeland was not his real name. He had been born and brought up on a remote farm in Oklahoma. He was eager to leave and, in particular, eager to see the sea. He left for Texas (but not the coastal area) where he enlisted in the army. At this time he decided to change his name and enlisted under the false name of Roger Copeland. We never learn his real name. Ironically, the army sent him to Oklahoma for training. However, he eventually did see the sea as his troop was sent as part of the expedition to occupy Veracruz.

Copeland’s story and the other stories we get in this novel are all related by a twenty-three year old Mexican called Alberto Bolaño, who is as unreliable a narrator as his Chilean namesake can be. Early on, he tells us that Copeland has been found dead in a seedy hotel room in Veracruz, shot in the head. The novel is basically about the life of Bolaño, his friends and his family but, more particularly about Roger Copeland. The information about him we gradually learn during the course of the book.

When the US troops arrived in Veracruz, they knew little Spanish but one phrase they did know was ¿Dónde están las putas? [Where are the whores?] Like his comrades, Copeland soon found his whore. Her name was Teresa Triana but he called her Tirana. They illegally spent three nights together onshore (he was meant to stay on board the ship). However, when the US troops moved further into the city, he was part of a patrol sent to weed out snipers. Ramos gives us quite a bit of detail about the actions of Copeland’s troop and, in particular, their hunt for a specific sniper, tracked by Copeland. Copeland eventually kills this sniper. When he returns to the port area, he tracks down Tirana/Teresa. Instead of welcoming him, she pulls out a gun. The first shot hits him in the knee. He will continue to have problems with the knee for the rest of his life. Her second shot misses and she flees. Copeland is rescued by his comrades, taken back on board ship and sent to Galveston, where his knee is surgically repaired. He does remain in the army, eventually becoming a captain, and settles down to married life. He does not return to Mexico, though does spend time in Cuba, where he learns Spanish.

Sixty years later, after his wife has died, he decides to take a cruise around the Caribbean area, which passes by (but, of course, does not stop at) Cuba and elsewhere, and goes to Veracruz, where the ship, The Sunflower is to dock for seven days. The cruise director tells the passengers, they may, if they wish, stay in a hotel in Veracruz but he does not advise it. When Copeland picks a specific hotel, the director warns him off, saying that it is a whores’ hotel. This, as we learn, is part of the attraction for Copeland. The Sunflower leaves after seven days. Copeland does not. Two months later he is still there, hardly going out. At this point we have met Bolaño and several of his friends, particularly Miguel Angel (known as Minino). Minino is rather more brash than Alberto. At school, for example, he bravely stood up in biology class and asked the teacher what the plural of clitoris was. (She sensibly replies that that is a matter for the Spanish teacher, not the biology teacher.) Miguel Angel’s father is the editor of the local paper La Opinión. To his father’s disappointment, Miguel Angel does not want to become a journalist. However, Alberto does and it is Miguel Angel’s father who gets him a position. Initially, it is two other journalists that track down Copeland but Miguel Angel and Alberto take over and visit him regularly, learning the story that we have heard and hear more of.

Copeland has, of course, come to Veracruz to find Tirana/Teresa. This is where Alberto becomes somewhat unreliable, as we get various accounts of what happens. Copeland claims to have seen her, according to Alberto, on a park bench and spoke to her. She left but he followed her. (He recognised her because she had a cloudy eye.) He lost her in the maze of streets. He is now sure that she will come to his hotel room to see him, which is why he is waiting there. Alberto and Miguel Angel apparently track down a brothel madam called Teresa and think that she might be Tirana/Teresa. She denies it but is she telling the truth? And who is the mysterious elderly lady that the other journalists saw on the stairs in the dark and who clearly was not a whore? Two of the local whores, wittily called Flora and Fauna, claim that they did see Tirana. Why did Tirana shoot Copeland? Is she still alive, sixty years later? And who shot him and why? All is (sort of) revealed. Before that, though we get an account of Alberto’s early life: the death of his father, his upbringing by a very religious and strait-laced widowed mother, the influence on him of Macrina, the young woman who came to work for them, the career choices of both Alberto and Miguel Angel and, of course, Micifuz, the cat.

What matters, of course, is the main story, the story of Roger Copeland and Tirana. Ramos leaves us guessing for a long time, filling in the details slowly but surely. We are never entirely sure if Alberto is telling the truth or the partial truth. However, it certainly is a fascinating account. Only one of Ramos’ books has been translated into English and this, sadly, is not it.

Publishing history

First published by Grijalbo in 1988
No English translation