We’re all very familiar with Bram Stoker’s Dracula, even those of us who have never read the book. Through various radio, film, and cartoon iterations as well as simple word of mouth, we know the basic story of the innocent, newly-wed solicitor called to help a strange client in Transylvania move to London. Interestingly, in Vlad (2004; tr. from the Spanish by E. Shaskan Bumas and Alejandro Branger, 2012), Carlos Fuentes opts not to become trendy and reimagine the basic structure of the myth or original story. But while he presents us with something familiar, he does so from a unique perspective, searching some new shadows in the old material.
I admit to being a traditionalist when it comes to my vampire fun. (How can I say that having never read Stoker’s book? Anyway . . . ) Most of my joy has come from old films like F.W. Murnau’s brilliant Nosferatu and Carl Theodor Dryer’s eerie Vampyr, so I admit that a certain degree of skepticism I had going into this book was washed away when Fuentes’ fidelity to old conceptions of the vampire became apparent.
On the first page, our terrorized solicitor introduces us to the horrific story he has already lived. Navarro is an attorney in Mexico City. In his forties and relatively senior in his law firm, he’s not as young as Stoker’s Jonathan Harker, but, importantly, the love and intense passion he feels toward his wife, Asunción, has never died down. It appears they make love every single night and reflect on the bliss during breakfast in the morning. While young Harker’s love for Mina is pure and innocent and filled with adoration, Navarro’s love for Asunción has matured, allowing room for bright lights and shadows to co-exist. They have one daughter, Magdelena, and one son, Didier, who has unfortunately died, creating one of their darkest shadows. “This is our everyday life. I need to emphasize, however, that this is not our normal life, because there can be no normal life for a couple that has lost a son.”
Other than the death of his son, Navarro is content. He is successful in his practice and in love with his family. One morning he is mildly surprised when his boss, Eloy Zurinaga (R.M. Renfield in Dracula) says, “I wouldn’t trouble you, Navarro, if Dávila and Uriarte were available.” Don Eloy, the old, eccentric partner, wants Navarro to help an old friend, “displaced by wars and revolutions,” immigrate to Mexico City. We know where this is going, of course. But in this iteration, the attorney is not simply an unlucky man with an equally unlucky young wife; this plot of terror has been circling the content attorney for some time. Dávila and Uriarte are subordinates in the law firm, and Navarro initially (until the terror is over) assumes their absence was simply chance, that he was given this task simply because he was at hand. Why else, after all, would he be asked to find a house (with no windows) for his boss’s friend?
We understand immediately why Navarro is uneasy during his first meeting with the hairless, creepy Vlad, and Fuentes doesn’t need to give any specifics when Navarro begins to feel disoriented during his usually peaceful nights with his wife. Fuentes can simply say, “In my dream someone had been in my bedroom but then that someone walked out of it. From then on, the bedroom was no longer mine. It became a strange room because someone had walked out.”
So, as is apparent now, the basic structure of the story follows Dracula, so I want to hone in on one thing that makes Fuentes’ work worth reading: the mature love between Navarro and Asunción, which has survived the death of their only son. The children also add a new dimension to the seductive powers of Vlad. For Harker and Mina, the appeal may be lust and eternal youth, but since Navarro and Asunción are no longer particularly young, how can Vlad upend their world? They have had children:
“You don’t want to sentence children to old age, do you Mr. Navarro?”
I protested with a helpless gesture, slamming my hand down, spilling the remnant of my wine on the lead table.
“I lost a son, you old bastard . . .”
“To abandon a child to old age,” the Count repeated impassively, “to old age. And to death.”
Borgo picked up my glasses. My head fell to the metal table.
Just as I lost consciousness, I head Count Vlad continue, “Didn’t the Unmentionable One say, ‘Suffer the little children, and forbid them not to come unto me’?”
Vlad is not essential Fuentes, but it’s fun Fuentes, and, given my expectations, surprisingly deep (which is not to say it is particularly deep). I’m a fan of the myth of the vampire as it emerged in the early part of the twentieth century, so I may be predisposed to enjoying this more than others. That said, Fuentes gives the material reverence and respects it with his fine writing. Also, it’s short and, with Fuentes’ unfortunate recent death, we know getting “new” Fuentes will soon end.