Barbacoa by Erik Orrantia

A Review by Piet Bach

Barbacoa, by Erik OrrantiaErik Orrantia consistently writes fiction of high quality, centered on gay characters with interesting lives and credible life problems.  His latest novel takes the story telling farther in recounting two parallel lives nearly 600 years apart.

Diego is a professor of archaeology running a small dig at an obscure pre-Columbian temple site in Mexico when an anomalous burial is found:  two men, lying side by side with their hands entwined.  The fact of the burial is in itself odd, since the custom of the presumed time and area was cremation, and the very few artefacts found with the burial equally point to unusual circumstances.  As he and his chief assistant Gerardo work on uncovering and cataloguing the dig, and he works on the grant renewal application for it, they become closer and closer until intimacy is precipitated by Gerardo.

Meanwhile, the story of two Aztecs – Metzín, a young warrior in training, and Tototli, his servant slave – is told in sections that alternate with those of Diego and Gerardo, sometimes overlapping and sometimes diverging.

The writer’s admirable skill in giving us enough details to picture the scenes and delineate his characters while not over-writing is something I have mentioned in previous reviews.  In Barbacoa, he continues to demonstrate the art of the mot juste and takes it to a higher level than ever.  Crowd scenes in both the Aztec and contemporary worlds, intimate scenes involving two or three characters, the intellectual and emotional workings of his protagonists, are all presented with a sure hand and a steady eye.  The sights and sounds of two different cultures are vivid, and the religious backgrounds are carefully colored in as they, too, sometimes clash and sometimes converge.  How the dilemmas are solved becomes not only important but satisfying, although the two solutions could hardly be more disparate.

I have expressed enthusiasm for Orrantia’s writing in the past.  Now I do it again.  This was a fascinating look at love between men of different classes and backgrounds, set in contrasting eras.  Very highly recommended.

Four stars

Dreamspinner Press, 2014,220 pp.
ISBN: 978-1-63216-119-2 paper – $7.50
ISBN: 978-1-63216-120-8 e-book – $6.99

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