Tag Archives: Mexico

The Listening Walls: Margaret Millar (1959)

Margaret Millar’s The Listening Walls begins in Mexico City with two American women, married, quiet Amy Kellogg and hot mess Wilma arguing in their hotel room. Wilma is busy bitching about Mexico which is odd since she’s the one who decided she wanted to vacation there, but then it becomes clear that Wilma, a spoiled rich woman who suffers from “nerves,” bitches about everything.

Wilma had had a bad year, a divorce (her second), the death of her parents in a plane wreck, a bout of pneumonia. She had planned the holiday in Mexico to get away from it all. Instead she had taken it all with her.

The argument is overheard by hotel maid Consuela who, thanks to a stay in America, speaks and understands English. She likes to listen in on guests and if she has an opportunity, she steals what she can. One evening the two American women spend the evening in a local bar with a ne’er-do-well drifter American named O’Donnell, and that night, Wilma falls from her hotel room balcony. She was drunk, and her death is ruled a suicide.

the listening walls

Amy’s husband Rupert flies down to Mexico to deal with the situation and bring Amy home. That would seem to be the end of the story, but it’s just the beginning. Gill, Amy’s over-protective brother wants to see his sister when she returns home, but she simply vanishes. According to Amy’s husband Rupert, Amy wants some time alone and will shortly be in touch. To Gill, things don’t add up, and suspecting Rupert’s motives, he hires a private detective.

This is my second Millar novel. Margaret Millar doesn’t seem much read these days, and she’s faded in comparison to her husband, Ross Macdonald. The Listening Walls was initially hard to get into due to the cringe-worthy portrayal of Mexicans (immature, dishonest, sleazy), but once the novel moves back to America, things pick up. This is mostly due to the characters, which is ironic since that’s the very thing that weakened the novel in the beginning.

There’s Dodd, the determined, no-frills detective who digs deep for information, a veterinarian whose single-minded devotion to animals always comes first (my favourite scene), an all-too devoted secretary who ballroom dances, dodging the geezers who might drop in the middle of a tango, Gill a man whose primary relationship is with his sister–not his wife, and then there’s Gill’s far-from-loyal wife, Helene who hopes her sister-in-law never reappears:

She munched in a piece of crisp bacon, listening to Gill the way one listens to the waves breaking on a beach, knowing the noise will always be the same, only varying in volume now and then with the tides and the weather.

So often the noise was about Amy, and Helene listened out of habit. without interest. In her opinion, Amy was a dull little creature, invested with wit by her brother and beauty by her husband, and having, in fact, neither. 

I didn’t buy the ending but I preferred The Listening Walls to Beast in View.

Blogging amiga Jacqui also reviewed the book, and we more or less felt the same about it.

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Still the Same Man: Jon Bilboa

In Spanish author Jon Bilboa’s taut, tightly written ominous novel, Still the Same Man, middle-aged Joanes has a chance encounter which leads to a terrible appointment with fate. Joanes was once a top student with a promising career ahead of him, but now in middle age, Joanes, the owner of a dying air-conditioning company, is facing failure. Dependent on the charity of his bombastic, wealthy artist father-in-law, Joanes, his patient wife and his teenage daughter, find themselves in a Mexican resort to attend the “teeth-grindingly tasteless” destination wedding of his obese father-in-law and his new wife, the employee of a tanning salon.

still the same man

On the night of the wedding, a hurricane alert changes everyone’s plans. Tourists are “desperate to fly out,” and with overcrowded airports, the wedding party has no choice but to move inland. Right before they leave, Joanes is ordered to take a sauna with his loud, crude, father-in-law where he is grilled about a promising looming air-conditioning contract:

The sauna was, in fact, a typical Mexican temazcal sweat lodge. Right next to the pool, there was a small, dome-shaped adobe construction that looked like an igloo or a bread oven. You entered by a door so tiny you had to crawl in on all fours, so tiny the father-in-law’s great carcass almost got stuck in it. From outside, Joanes spent a moment staring at that fat, tanned, waxed ass, only partially covered by its yellow Speedo, fighting its way through the door, then he averted his gaze.

While everyone else evacuates to Valladolid, Joanes is sidetracked and finds himself driving alone to join his family who are already on safe ground. Along the crowded roads where he joins thousands of other people also trying to escape the hurricane, Joanes spies a couple by the side of the road–an older man and his wheel-chair bound wife. Incredulous, Joanes realizes the man is none other than his old professor–the man he holds responsible for scuttling his career.

The professor has a tale about being ejected from an evacuation bus, and his version of events seems to be missing some salient details. The professor, an autocratic man who sails through life with the attitude that everyone is inferior, at first, doesn’t seem to recognize Joanes–even though Joanes was a stellar student.

Joanes, the professor and his wife, find themselves fleeing the hurricane and seeking refuge in a rudimentary Mexican hotel. With no power, and dying cell phone batteries, tensions between the hurricane evacuees explode. Ironically danger doesn’t come from the hurricane, although the hurricane exists as an unpredicatable background driving our characters relentlessly towards their violent fate. The savagery of nature seems nothing compared to the savagery of humans.

This compulsively readable, shocking novel takes an extremely dark, twisted path in its exploration of damaged psyche, simmering resentments, and horrific revenge. Author Jon Bilboa describes the professor’s absolute, tyrannical power in the classroom and his “aristocratic indifference” towards the students with a painful echo of accuracy. Many of the students hated the professor for the way he demeaned his students. Joanes admired him–a reflection perhaps on the hidden side of Joanes’s nature. But when Joanes’s promising career is snatched away, over time “the professor became
the virtual stooge for Joanes’s problems.” In an apparent act of kindness, Joanes gives the stranded professor and his wife a lift. How can this possibly end well?

The professor became a vessel for all his frustrations and rage. And the vessel gradually filled up, and its contents grew more and more viscous, until eventually they became as hard as stone; the professor was no longer a mere emotional device, a fantasy for self-exoneration, he’d become the one true culprit of everything bad that had ever happened to Joanes.

Translated by Sophie Hughes

Review copy.

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