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31 december 2015
A few years ago, I reviewed about a half-dozen new "supermarket westerns" here, but then they stopped appearing in supermarkets. New mass-market paperback Westerns still appear, of course, but they don't make it into the stock on the magazine racks of Anglo groceries near me. But in the Fiesta Mart, I still see tiny pulp paperbacks from time to time bearing the name of the phenomenal Spanish author Marcial Lafuente Estefanía. These aren't new – Estefanía has been dead for thirty years – but they continue to appear in fresh editions. Bibliographical information is at a minimum, as you'll see from the citation below. The covers also don't tell you much about the contents. I bought Meditación Tenebrosa mainly because it had a picture of a horse. On the back cover Estefanía, genially grabbing a big shiny revolver, promises me from the beyond that this will be one of his 100 best novelas. Not a bad percentage risk. In all, he wrote over 2,600.
Meditación Tenebrosa is of typical Estefania length, clocking in at 92 pages. It has a bewilderingly large cast of characters, none of whom has much of a personality. Violence abounds. There are horses. There are guns. There is Texas.
The story begins when a large bad man named Joe Cowl enters a prison in Houston. Joe quickly takes up with Nick, Gregory, and Charles, the worst of the many bad men there. Bad as they all are, they are better than the brutal prison guards and the craven warden. Some free bad men, led by a certain Gordon, coerce the warden into letting Nick go, and he coerces the warden into letting Joe go, and pretty soon all four are free. They track down the worst of the prison guards and kill him. They wander over to San Antonio, picking up a grubstake of $500 when Joe cheats and then kills a couple of cardsharps. All this only takes about 25 pages.
Joe, Nick, and company become popular in Santone (which, the narrator informs us, is what locals call San Antonio). Nick kills another three cardsharps, and Joe rescues a local beauty named Norma from a runaway carriage. Meanwhile our heroes have broken with Gordon, who runs murderous errands for the baddest guy of all, a certain Melvyn Shoot. Shoot is in cahoots with a certain Ferris, who is in love with Norma, who is the daughter of Bowers the oilman, who has hired our four ex-cons to help him find a gusher. It comes in handy that Nick, before taking up a life of gunfighting and prison breaks, has a university education.
One day, Ferris tries to kiss Norma on the street. The sheriff stops him, but news of this affront sends Bowers to the hospital. The medical picture is grim:
—Otro disgusto como el que acaba de sufrir puede matar a su padre, Miss Bowers —informó el doctor—. Deben procurar por todos los medios que no vuelva a disgustarse. (68)The best precaution, really, would be to send Nick and Joe out to murder all the bad guys, and eventually the law in Santone hits on that excellent expedient. Joe punches Ferris to death with his bare fists, and then he and Nick make short work of shooting all the other bad guys, including Gordon and Shoot and their henchmen. "Tendré muchas cosas que contar a nuestros hijos cuando crezcan [You'll have a lot of stories to tell our kids when they grow up]," Nick's new wife Helen kids him (96). If they grow up, at this rate.
["Another incident like the one that just happened to you could kill your father, Miss Bowers," said the doctor. "You ought to take every precaution so that something nasty like that doesn't happen to you again."]
I'll say that Estefanía has some narrative chops. He doesn't mess around with anything but dialogue and one-sentence paragraphs that get characters from X to Y. If Zane Grey had written like Georges Simenon, the result might have been something like this.
Estefanía was an officer in the Republican army and spent time in Franco's prisons. Loath as I am to practice biographical criticism on an author I've read 92 pages of and whose life I know from a single Wikipedia page, I do find it interesting that in this novela at least, Estefanía's good guys are men who forge bonds of silence and solidarity in prison, and when they get out they devote themselves to avenging wrongs and succoring the weak.
The book gets its title from Nick's habit of brooding darkly whenever he's in trouble, which is constantly. He takes some ribbing for his dark thoughts, but it's better not to interrupt him in the course of his meditations or he might shoot you dead. He does little enough else. Nobody in the book does, actually. As you read on, you become less clear about when this novela is set and what kind of world you're in. The only public buildings are saloons and jails. Yet a flourishing oil industry exists just on the outskirts of town. There don't seem to be any autos, even trains: everyone goes around on horseback. The countryside consists of oil wells; it isn't even described. The gunfights aren't described; for a story with a death rate of about one corpse for every three pages, the novela avoids any suspense when it comes to main streets at high noon. Shots just ring out and bodies drop.
That same Wikipedia page tells me that Estefanía researched his stories of the U.S. from three sources: a history book, an obsolete atlas, and a phone book (the better to get authentic American names like "Melvyn Shoot.") He seems to be in the great tradition of Karl May, another writer who imagined a Wild West he'd never been to. And at the rate of 2,600 novelas.
Estefanía, Marcial Lafuente. Meditación tenebrosa. n.d. n.p.: Debuks, 2011.