Day of the Dead Reviews

Dallas News:

Book review: 'Day of the Dead,' by Manuel Luis Martínez

12:00 AM CST on Sunday, February 28, 2010

By ROBERTO ONTIVEROS / Special Contributor to The Dallas Morning News

Roberto Ontiveros has published fiction in the Threepenny Review, the Santa Monica Review and the anthology Hecho en Tejas. He lives in New Braunfels.

Manuel Luis Martinez's Day of the Dead is a stark tour through the atrocities of a war-torn Mexico.

It's 1913, when revolution was everywhere and the liberators could be as brutal as the oppressors. For narrator Berto Morales, the victim as well as perpetrator of deadly violence, the only way to make sense of the hell of his homeland is through fatalism: "Evil forces can't and won't be appeased. They simply are, much as the dimly lit stars."

None of the evil in this book is dimly lit: Wanton slaughter, corpse mutilation and altar desecration garishly footnote a dark narrative that contrasts its horrors with subtle scenes of brave children and courageous old men trying to look after one another.

Berto wants to kill. He has lost his wife and unborn child, as well as the use of his hand, to the chaos of war, and has gained in exchange the perspective of an avenging nihilist: "I brought war to those who ended my life. I am Executioner. I am guilty of sins that have no name."

Berto's trek toward revenge takes him from a rural ranch in Oaxaca to a Mexico City where everyone dresses Parisian and has a "false pride in indio forefathers whose legitimate children had long been forced into bondage." Here he comes to face the urban decadence of Diego Rivera's socialist dinner parties. The snide muralist tells him he looks like an assassin, while Rivera's wife, Frida Kahlo, sees something marvelous in Berto's mutilated hand and asks to do his portrait. As if to illustrate an alternate arch between desperate warriors and downtrodden workers, Day of the Dead presents a clique of intellectual and aesthetic elites who have replaced the idea of God with Justice, sip smoky French wine, discuss Zapata and yet seem to affect nothing.

After meeting an idealistic and lovelorn widow named Isabella, and lending the last of his compassion to protect her young daughter from military harm, Berto finds himself a paid soldier in Pancho Villa's army. The revolutionary sees something in the angry young man that Berto does not care to admit. "Doom. I am a doomed man." Doomed but motivated to kill.

Martinez, a PEN American honoree who grew up in San Antonio and now teaches at Ohio State University, offers in his third novel an attempt to rationalize the blood sacrifices of the old gods and the blood sacrifices of new states, while detailing a world where no one escapes guilt and everyone is implicated – "we are the barbarians and they are the barbarians," Berto says.

Darkly brooding on why the quest for redemption or justice must always become violent and vengeful, Berto concedes that "these are questions for philosophers and priests. And in war they are always the first to be imprisoned and killed."

Roberto Ontiveros has published fiction in the Threepenny Review, the Santa Monica Review and the anthology Hecho en Tejas. He lives in New Braunfels.

Day of the Dead/ Día de los Muertos

Manuel Luis Martínez

(Floricanto Press, $25.95)

'Day of the Dead': Novelist examines futility of war through events of a century ago

By Daniel A. Olivas / Special to the Times

Posted: 05/29/2010 06:44:00 PM MDT

"Day of the Dead" by Manuel Luis Martinez (Floricanto Press, $25.95 paperback).

In his new novel, "Day of the Dead" (Floricanto Press, $25.95 paperback), Manuel Luis Martinez shows us Mexico during the Revolution through the eyes of Berto Morales, an unremarkable man whose life crumbles when his wife, six months pregnant, is raped and murdered.

Martinez's narrative is tough and unsparing as we follow Morales on his quest to find his wife's murderers and exact a form of justice. But his journey becomes complicated as he develops friendships, and even falls in love, against the brutal backdrop of the Revolution.

Martinez is a native Texan who attended St. Mary's University in San Antonio, completed a master of arts in creative writing at Ohio State University, and then earned a doctorate from Stanford University. He is an associate professor at Ohio State University, teaching 20th-century American literature, American studies, Chicano-Latino studies and creative writing.

"Day of the Dead" is certainly a departure from Martinez's previous novels, "Crossing" (Bilingual Press) and "Drift" (Picador USA), both of which touched on contemporary issues.

"The reason I set 'Day of the Dead' during the Mexican Revolution was because I wanted, partially, to reflect on the morass that is the U.S. involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq, but I didn't want to write directly about the conflict," he told me.

"At the same time, Berto's story had been something I wanted to write for 20 years, but I hadn't gotten to it because I knew I needed to spend more time in Mexico and to educate myself a great deal on Mexican history and politics before I could start."

Martinez's research is readily apparent from the first few pages of the novel, particularly in passages depicting the almost-random violence visited upon Mexico's populace.

"I stayed close to the actual accounts of the battle for Torreon," he said. "It was a horrific war aimed largely at terrifying innocent people."

Through Berto's eyes, the Revolution offers no obvious delineation between heroes and villains.

"I think that history shows that most starters of wars have no idea how awful a price war exacts," Martinez said. "People get caught up in nationalist fervors, or they begin to believe the propaganda that war is justified, that it will be quick and decisive, a thing of 'shock and awe' that somehow rights great wrongs."

"So I do think (moral ambiguity) is a general aspect of war, but in Berto's case, I wanted to bring this principle down to the individual level. The moral ground is always shifting, and once one discovers that, the reason for war becomes almost impossible to grasp."

Regardless of a person's view of war and its repercussions, "Day of the Dead" tells a compelling story of an ordinary man's attempt to make sense out of staggering loss during one of the most violent chapters of Mexico's history. By any measure, this is a potent and enthralling novel.

Daniel A. Olivas is the author of five books including, most recently, "Anywhere But L.A.: Stories" (Bilingual Press). He shares blogging duties on La Bloga ( which is dedicated to all aspects of Chicano literature. His website is and he may be reached at