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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.
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on May 22, 2012
This is the 2nd book I have read by Mr. Tobar, the first being Barbarian Nurseries. In contrast to Barbarian Nurseries, which I read in about four days, this book took me several weeks even though it was much shorter. And, I would say similar to Patrick Symmes' nonfiction book "The Boys from Dolores", which also took me a long time, this was a worthwhile read.

First, I really appreciate Mr. Tobar's taking me into characters' lives that I would never know how they thought or how their lives were otherwise - the soldier from Guatemala, the University-educated immigrant from Guatemala who has lost everything that mattered for no reason other than fate. I also appreciate the fact that he uses Latino and Latin American characters in fiction. There aren't many authors I know of in English who do this (creating Latino and Latin American characters) using the third-person voice - Sebastian Rotella's book Triple Crossing (2011) does this, as does Tobar in his newest book.

Second - Tobar takes us on a tour of Los Angeles' history and the history of neighborhoods I will never know and would never have thought about.

In any event - this is a great read. I don't think the characters are thin at all - for the most part, the protagonists are pretty believable - Guillermo, Antonio, Elena, many others. If a character seems thin, it's not a main character. Even the chess players I thought were absolutely believable. I feel like I see some of the people Tobar writes about when I walk around many cities.

Bottom line: a great read. I loved it and hope Tobar considers writing more fiction. I will definitely read it.
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on February 16, 2011
This is a beautifully written book that tackles the profound issues of our times with characters you won't forget long after the book is over. The book starts in Guatemala and covers a period of history that was suppressed in the US for decades. A psychological thriller with close intimate portraits of inner lives that will get under your skin.

Should be on HS curriculum in all the US.

His latest book is excellent as well, a much more incisive look at immigrant issues than the popular The Help.
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on July 22, 1998
The last novel I read at one sitting, a long time ago, was Dreiser's An American Tragedy. This more modern American tragedy may be even better. This story literally pulls the reader along, and ever more deeply into lives seldom acknowledged in American letters. Without being in the least didactic, Tobar also brings us closer to the human face of secret wars abroad and homegrown homelessness. As someone who has spent some time in the neighborhoods Tobar depicts, I was impressed by Tobar's fine eye and ear. No doubt most readers will be most impressed with The Tatooed Soldier as an exceptional tale of the most unexceptional human qualities: love, anguish, guilt, revenge, and -- if we are lucky -- liberation. An extraordinary accomplishment.
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on April 23, 2002
This beautifully constructed novel has everything:
profoundly moving characters and situations; penetrating
vision into the political economy of the United States and
Latin America; an invaluable history lesson; social realism
of the highest order; psychological and ideological
profundity; a revelation of the true meaning of the so-called
"global village." I am now assigning it in both graduate
and undergraduate courses here at Rutgers University in
Newark.
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on February 17, 2016
Love Hector Tobars writing. This is the second book I have read by him. This is based on the story of a soldier of Guatamala and a young man whose wife & child were killed by the politicos.......very interesting
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on April 25, 2016
This beautifully written story leaves the reader sadder and wiser about conditions in Central America and the U. S., and with greater understanding of parents who are sending their children on the dangerous trip north. It left me with questions about solutions to political and social problems, and vengeance.

I followed "The Tattooed Soldier" with "Into the Beautiful North." Both books are required reading for a Latino/Chicano Literature class I am auditing at PSU. "Beautiful North", kind of a Don Quixote story, eases the sorrowful mood of "Soldier." I highly recommend both.
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on December 21, 2011
A very powerful, gripping novel.
I was most impressed with the development & depiction of the characters- believable & complex, living in a world so foreign to many of us. No character is minor, none ever falter, and even the most despicable among them arouse sympathy & a deeper understanding of their predicament & of humanity.
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on September 10, 2013
Recently I was invited by the California Writers Club to attend a talk at their Long Beach location. This club was founded in 1909, is one of the oldest clubs in the nation, and some of its honorary members include: Jack London, John Muir, and Joaquin Miller. The scheduled speaker was Hector Tobar, who would be presenting and signing his most recent work, The Barbarian Nurseries, a book about class and conflict in contemporary Southern California. His previous works include: Translation-Nation and The Tattooed Soldier, and he is currently a book critic for the Los Angeles Times. I first came across his work in 2005 at Libros Revolucion/Revolutionary Books in Downtown Los Angeles around the time renovation construction began in the area. The bookstore focuses on scientific and poetic radical literature that revolves around building a grassroots movement that challenges the current political agenda. At the heart of the bookstore is Bob Avakian's work, Chairman of the Communist Party USA since 1975, and whose Marxist work has been defined as a "new synthesis", which is a new theoretical framework for carrying forward a communist revolution.

I used to frequent the bookstore regularly during those days. It was something about the propagandist element of anarchist Spanish Civil War posters, Russian militant imagery and literature, and Latin American heroes of the left that always seemed romantic, and that have always influenced my work. The bookstore has since relocated to Hollywood. That being said, I stumbled upon Hector's The Tattooed Soldier one afternoon because the cover and title grabbed my attention. Like I've mentioned previously...do judge a book by its cover, since it is the first impression and often its the only opportunity you get. I liked everything about the book when I first saw it. It was a Penguin edition, it had Americana-style tattoo images, the size, and it was written by someone whose name sounded like mine. I found out he was the son of immigrant parents, like me, and was a Los Angeles native, like me. So when I got on the metro that evening and began reading the story, I connected to it at once for several reasons. One of the main character's had my mother's surname, the lyrical poetry of the way Los Angeles was described, the Spanish-speaking immigrants and their relationship with the city, and above all the '92 Los Angeles Riots.

In all my years in the public school system, I had never read a novel so pivotal, dramatic, realistic, and captivating. We read Shakespeare, Mark Twain, and Poe, but never any work with a Latino spirit, or whose names sounded like ours, or with protagonists that looked like us. Moreover, I had recently graduated from college, had been reading mostly political science and public administration reference books, and had just finished writing my Urban Politics civil philosophy book. When I finished the book, it influenced me to see literature in a different way and I knew instantly that I could write novels too. For us writers, we read and analyze others' work and are inspired by such, thus taking our style in different directions. The book was gripping throughout the whole process. From the romantic relationship, to the stories in Latin America, to the death squads and military abuses in Central America, to the symbiotic relationship and conflict of the main characters, to the burning of Los Angeles. I took the book with me to the talk to get it signed and I found that Hector and I shared a lot of similarities. Afterwards, upon reflection, I understood with the utmost simplicity that the writer writes because he or she has no choice. It is what we do, even when we sometimes don't want to do it. The Tattooed Soldier helped me see that the majority of my work should be centered around my city, to let others view it from a landscape that's on the bottom, and from a perspective that represents common people from the abyss.
[...] Urban Politics: The Political Culture of Sur 13 Gangs, Revised Edition]]
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on June 10, 2016
A true drama set during the Rodney King Riots in California and in sometime during Guatemala's civil war. It is a story of revenge, tragedy, love and hate.......Tobar is the modern day William Shakespeare who peppers a serious narrative with cultural anecdotes, humor and irony. The story moves you and the ending will leave the reader breathless.
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