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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


The Reef

Juan Villoro

general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

To purchase The Reef

Title: The Reef
Author: Juan Villoro
Genre: Novel
Written: 2012 (Eng. 2017)
Length: 246 pages
Original in: Spanish
Availability: The Reef - US
Arrecife - US
The Reef - UK
The Reef - Canada
Récif - France
Das dritte Leben - Deutschland
La piramide - Italia
Arrecife - España
  • Spanish title: Arrecife
  • Translated by Yvette Siegert

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Our Assessment:

B : odd but reasonably effective mix of the edgy and the sentimental

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
El País . 31/3/2012 Amelia Castilla
World Lit. Today . 3-4/2013 Marcelo Rioseco

  From the Reviews:
  • "El fondo y la atmósfera de la novela tienen que ver con esa coreografía de la violencia, pero otra de las lecturas posibles de Arrecife se relaciona con la progresión de la contracultura. (...) Arrecife es también una novela sobre la amistad y el amor." - Amelia Castilla, El País

  • "The novel takes place in a saturated postmodern environment with an abundance of damaged characters who are eccentric or simply seeking a new opportunity in life (.....) Arrecife is also a novel about friendship and redemption. (...) With Arrecife, the reader has the impression of being in the presence of an author who exerts himself to be current, to be up-to-date with the themes that characterize any postmodern society. Villoro’s style, however, has nothing fragmentary or experimental about it. This is a great achievement because, on the contrary, it is rigorously conventional. Arrecife turns out to be a deliberate and paradoxically postmodern novel." - Marcelo Rioseco, World Literature Today

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Most of The Reef takes place at The Pyramid, a resort in Kukulcán, a fictional Caribbean resort town in the Yucatan in Mexico. The region is on the way down, the: "coastline was slowly devouring itself", hotel after hotel going bust. There's even a symbolic bridge to nowhere, one of the ambitious local plans that was never completed, the structure a grim reminder of what the place will never be. Still, The Pyramid, with its more elaborate offerings -- divided into tiers, depending on just how much visitors want to experience, and specializing in: "recreational paranoia" -- is still doing reasonably well.
       The novel is narrated by Tony Góngora. In his early 50s, he's: "an ex-rocker who's renounced the counterculture": he used to be in a band, Los Extraditables, with his childhood friend, Mario Müller. Already physically damaged before that -- accidents left him with a limp and missing a finger -- he descended into a drugged haze from which he has emerged having lost a lot of his memory.
       The Pyramid, run by friend Mario, is the safe haven where he got himself together again -- in good company: "We were all there because we had screwed up somewhere else".
       The business plan at The Pyramid is simple -- though not quite as simple as the apparently also quite remunerative surrounding empty 'phantom' hotels, literally shell companies now. At The Pyramid, they take advantage of the foreign, public image of contemporary Mexico:

Mutilated corpses, faces splashed with acid, heads rolling, a naked woman hanging from a post, piles of bodies. This causes panic. What's strange is that people who live in peaceful places want to experience that. They're sick of life without surprises. [...] If they're afraid, it means they're alive. They relax by feeling fear. What is horrible to us, is luxury to them. The Third World exists in order to rescue Europeans from their own boredom.
       An employee -- he handles the sound system in the aquarium, for example, Tony lives a fairly relaxed life holding on behind the scenes. He is a bit oblivious: as Mario notes: "You live in a bubble. [...] A bubble inside an aquarium". But the novel begins with things getting shaken up at The Pyramid: Tony hooks up with another of the lost souls on staff (an American who, ironically, is worried about being deported because her status in Mexico isn't quite above board) and then there are two apparently related murders. There's something of an investigation into the murders in The Reef, but it barely rates as a murder mystery: Tony learning why the two were killed is only part of him getting a better idea of the big picture -- one where much is staged, because that's how The Pyramid operates at pretty much every level.
       Circumstances also mean this is a time of transition -- only slightly hastened by the murders -- and it ultimately builds up to Tony moving on to the next stage in his life, which includes escaping from this not-quite-paradise, as well as some very big new responsibilities.
       Tony believes:
The Pyramid existed so you could leave your former life behind.
       He's been fairly successful at that -- though that has also meant working through some of that past, as he deals with the dubious disappearance of his father, in 1968, and his childhood and rocking days, which he brings up repeatedly. But the way station has served its purpose, and it's time to move on from what turns out to be an even darker little corner of Mexico than he had understood, as he is forced to emerge from his bubble and is confronted with some of the realities around him.
       Mario sums up the Kukulcán world:
This is the region's real ecosystem. All these plastic hotels. The destruction of the coast. It's saved thousands of people. The root of it is completely fucked up. But look at the Louvre ! It wouldn't exist without looting.
       It's a dark view of contemporary Mexico -- and the contemporary world -- and in some ways The Reef is darker still than your usual gritty, realistic novel in that so much of what goes on is play-acting, putting on a show. (Indeed, the scariest reality is a separate and very secure compound of a very different nature, a safe-house.) It's done quite effectively, complete with a sentimental ending (that works because it is open-ended: it's left entirely open how things might turn out), hopeful but not unrealistic ("I feel dead", is basically the last thing Villoro has Tony explain to his traveling companion, even as he is starting over).
       It's a reasonably successful contemporary portrait, even if Villoro heaps a bit much on his protagonist -- his injuries, his memory-loss, his general life-haze. The role of the murder-mystery -- central, and yet handled almost incidentally -- can be a bit frustrating, and there could have been more examples of The Pyramid concept in action -- though as is, it's perhaps a realistic account of the somewhat lackluster reality of such a resort.

- M.A.Orthofer, 12 July 2017

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The Reef: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Mexican author Juan Villoro was born in 1956.

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© 2017 the complete review

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