"The Movies of My Life"
(Reviewed by Poornima Apte NOV 28, 2003)
The incredibly creative plot device that steers Alberto Fuguet's novel The Movies of My Life centers around a list-a list of 50 movies that forms a brilliant vehicle to explore a lonely childhood.
Beltrán Soler, a young seismologist from Chile, is on his way to Tokyo for a conference when he strikes up small talk with a fellow passenger who shares Beltrán's interest in the movies. When Lindsay, the fellow passenger, mentions a young director who came up with a list of 50 movies that influenced his life, Beltrán is intrigued. His precise, clinical mind is enticed by the idea of a systematic list; one of his favorite books as a child, after all, was The Book of Lists by David Wallechinsky. As Beltrán manufactures his own list, he peppers the descriptions with details remembered from his childhood and in the process, writes a touching memoir of sorts.
One doesn't have to be a movie buff to appreciate the beauty of Fuguet's writing (and his list) or to understand the role movies play in our lives often even without our knowing. One of the great strengths of The Movies Of My Life is in reminding us of the role movies have as placeholders in marking our most important moments. True to life, the memories that some of the movies provoke in Beltrán are often very tangentially related to the actual essence of the movies themselves. For example, the movie Trapped (starring James Brolin and Susan Clark) always reminds Beltrán about the "dog incident" that his sister had when she was a child. The movie features ferocious Dobermans chasing after Brolin, and all it takes is this trigger to remind Beltrán of the time when his sister's cheek was bitten off by a Great Dane: "at the end of that summer, something dog-related happened that made me think immediately of Trapped."
Young Beltrán, we learn, was somewhat of a loner. Having been born in Chile, Beltrán spent much of his early years in California, specifically in LA in a neighborhood called Inglewood. "Inglewood was a run-down, semi-industrial neighborhood, stacked with bodegas and Laundromats," remembers Beltrán, "an inexpensive, itinerant area that attracted immigrants fresh off the plane." Beltrán's own family was one such set of immigrants-his mother came knowing no English and had "neither friends nor money." Beltrán remembers his father as a hard-working bread deliveryman forever enticed by the charms of the Golden State. Beltran likens him to the actor Steve McQueen: "McQueen smiled little and knew his limitations: he was no great actor, but he chose his roles well. Similarly, my father chose his location well: California. Outside of the Golden State, he was intimidated, out of context, as if he didn't know his lines, the language, the strange local customs. Chile managed to give him very little, and eventually he cast it off entirely."
Soon enough, many from the Soler clan migrate to California, all looking for a new place to call home and desperately trying to make their way in a gringo society. The pressures of the new world eventually take their toll on Beltrán's uncles and the family slowly but surely falls apart. Beltrán beautifully observes:
"Not having anyone besides family will end up breaking up that very family. If you put all your strength on a single plate, it will have to give way. And that's just what happened: the family cracked, and eventually the crack became a fault. Being left without a social class, without a circle of friends, the Solers had to invent new hatreds, angers, and fears to mitigate the fact that they had found themselves so far removed from the place that they once belonged to. The solution was as simple as it was drastic: stop being Latino. This, ultimately, condemned them doubly: it alienated them from those with whom they had a natural bond while at the same time precluding them from ever truly assimilating into the world of the gringos, who never considered them as equals."
Unfortunately for Beltrán, his mother can never "cast off Chile" like his father does. On one vacation visit back to the country, his mother decides that moving the kids back to Chile, to a place where they would be "safe," was the best thing to do. So Beltrán is uprooted from all that he holds dear in California, and brought back to Chile. His peripheral status in both societies (not quite a gringo, not quite Latino) makes him feel like the perpetual foreigner. As in California, movies continue to pepper Beltrán's life in Chile, and in them he seeks refuge, even enjoying visiting the movies alone. "Life in California was so uneventful that we turned to movies to give us everything we couldn't find in the neighborhood," says Beltrán, contrasting California to his new home, "in Chile, however, everything was so intense-so completely strange and inexplicable-that people went to the movies only when they wanted to kick back and relax."
Eventually the young Beltran grows up and becomes a seismologist in his grandfather's footsteps. The family slowly disintegrates-there are no violent upheavals, but gradual falling away of relationships. Beltran's father is forever restless upon his return to Chile and finds that the lure of California is so strong that he is willing to abandon his family to return to the Golden State.
Alberto Fuguet is one of the leaders of the McOndo movement, a literary taskforce of sorts that works hard to dispel the notion that most South American literature is "magical realism." Instead, the McOndo writers belong to the global village-their thoughts and works are very urban and are painted on vast modern canvases. The Movies of my Life is one such example.
Young Beltrán might be at sea in his real world, forever the outsider, but in movies, he finds refuge. The movies speak one language. Once the lights are dimmed, it doesn't matter if you are in Cine Providencia in Santiago, Chile, or the Cinerama Dome in Hollywood, CA. The magic the movies weave is the same. It is this one constancy that becomes an anchor in an otherwise erratic childhood.
"My father left-abandoned us-on August 5, 1978," says Beltrán, "the same night that Saturday Night Fever opened." The touching sentence captures beautifully the essence of Fuguet's delightful novel. It paints a picture of a young boy whose only way out of a miserable childhood was to mark its biggest upheaval with one of his favorite movies.
- Amazon readers rating: from 10 reviews
Read a chapter excerpt from The Movies of My Life at MostlyFiction.com
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Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)
- Sobredosis (1990)
- Mala Onda (1991)
- Por Favor, rebobinar (1994)
- Tinta roja (1996)
- Las Peliculas de Mi Vida (October 2003)
- Cortos: Cuentos (2005)
Movies from Books:
- Tinta Roja (2002)
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About the Author:
Alberto Fuguet, born in Santiago de Chile in 1964, spent his early childhood in California. He is one of the most prominent Latin American authors of his generation and one of the leaders of the literary movement known as McOndo, which proclaims the end of magical realism. Besides his work as an author and playwright, Fuguet has been a film critic and a police reporter. He lives in Santiago de Chile.