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Tobar hits a nerver
on May 18, 2003
Hector Tobar's depressing but masterfully-written The Tattooed Soldier is a compelling story of tragedy and revenge, and provides a deep insight into the poverty-stricken lives of immigrants to Los Angeles.
Several background stories, each focusing on a different major character, intertwine to tell the tale of Antonio Bernal. Antonio, a bookish young man from a lower-class family, attends a university in Guatemala. This is where he meets his future wife, Elena; a passionate revolutionary, fearless and irreverent of the government's attempts to quell such actions, Elena worries that the ones she loves will suffer for her actions. One day, a "death squad," with leader Guillermo Longoria (the title's "tattooed soldier"), takes the lives of Antonio's wife and infant son. Forced to leave the country, Antonio moves to Los Angeles, seeking a better life. What he finds there is not opportunity, but rather homelessness and poverty.
Evicted at the start of the book, Antonio and his roommate live on a hill with others like them. Purely by chance, Antonio sees Guillermo again, and works up the courage to confront him.
The true focus of the story, however, is not Antonio; it is everything around Antonio. It seems that everywhere he goes, he sees nothing but poverty and despair. In Guatemala City, there were army groups created to fight freedom of expression. In San Cristobál, there were funerals for babies at least twice a month. Los Angeles is no different, despite the common perception that it is a land of opportunity. "Perhaps they could move to Mexico. Save enough money to move to Mexico or the United States. A place where they could be safe and their daughter, or son, could be educated. A place where you could speak your mind and there were no soldiers on the street." (118) In truth, the soldiers that roam the streets of Los Angeles are fellow immigrants. Everyone must compete for the limited jobs and money in the city, and there is apparently no room for sympathy.
Antonio learns the truth of the world, that revenge against those who have wronged him does not solve anything. He regrets his actions several times in the book, and realizes that the only thing he can do is suffer.
This sense of hopelessness is the book's core. Tobar himself said that, "at its root, The Tattooed Soldier is the story of the conflict between the idea of Los Angeles as a place of unlimited freedom and opportunity, and the truth of the poverty and decay that have come to eat away at the very heart of the city." The fact that immigrants can seemingly do nothing to improve their lives in the U.S. often leaves them no better off than where they were.
A powerful and deep story, The Tattooed Soldier does not give the feeling that everything will be okay. Tobar's incredible presentation of the immigrant's eternal struggle makes this book most definitely worth reading.