Books – The Queen of the South

the-queen-of-the-south-978033041314503I’ve just finished The Queen of the South by Arturo Pérez Reverte for the second time and it is no less enthralling for the intervening years.

Pérez Reverte, a Spanish former journalist, published the story in 2002 (2004 in the UK). It begins in Sinaloa, Mexico; Teresa Mendoza, the young morra of a “narco” (drug smuggler),  receives a phone call that warns that her boyfriend will not be returning home and that she should start running to escape the inevitable hitmen who will kill her too as part of the rules by which that underground world lives – that the “slate be wiped clean” as a warning to others.

The novel takes an epic 600-page plus narrative arc that follows Mendoza as she takes flight to hide in Spain, initially drifting through menial jobs but always with a sense of acuity for her surroundings and the players within it, a sense that will serve her well. Through circumstance and situation she finds her past does not leave her and she becomes a drug lord in her own right, commanding a huge transportation enterprise with ruthless and dispassionate efficiency.

What is compelling is the uncertainty that Pérez Reverte allows the reader to see within Mendoza; her confusion and the gradual separation of the young self of her former life in Mexico from that of the colder, more calculating businesswoman later in the novel. And yet, there are moments when she does not seem to have changed at all, but is wrestling with two different identities; an innocent and a battle-scarred warrior.

Two narrators guide the story; in first person, the author as a fictional journalist researching Mendoza’s story, and in the third person, flashbacks as we observe Mendoza and her thoughts throughout her flight. But, as do the characters that surround Mendoza in the novel, we never quite get close enough to get a good look at what makes her tick and that is what makes her such a cypher. She is at once vulnerable and impregnable.

There was an attempt to make a film of The Queen of the South some years back, starring Eva Mendes and Josh Hartnett, but threats to the lives of production personnel appear to have prevented it from filming. Part of me is happy that the miscast film did not go ahead. It’s such an introspective story, the Hollywood action treatment would probably not have done it justice. From what I’ve seen on YouTube, a South American telenovela seems to have achieved only a sense of melodrama and sensationalism. Much better that the mysterious Queen of the South slips into the shadows, never to be seen again.

As, for the second time, I read the final words of the story and scoured the brief author’s end note crediting the real people who helped in the research for the novel, I found myself gripped by one thought: that I want to know this mysterious woman, to meet Teresa Mendoza, a person driven from herself.

I can’t explain this visceral reaction. The novel is not an example of perfect prose, but it is an extraordinarily well-researched piece of writing with believable details of the Mexican and Mediterranean underworlds, how they intertwine with local and national politics and drug agencies, the technicalities of maritime navigation, rendezvous and high speed pursuits on water at night. There are moments when the writing is a little clunky; devices of Mendoza’s characterisation are repeated needlessly, but I love this book and it has the power to make me think, even hope… surely, out there somewhere, Teresa Mendoza exists in all her flawed regal glory.

Cover photography: Stefanie Hafner