The Night Buffalo by Guillermo Arriaga

Synopsis from Amazon.co.uk:

The Night Buffalo by Guillermo ArriagaGregorio and Manuel were best friends. They both had a tattoo of a night buffalo, which Gregorio insisted was done with the same needle, so their blood would mingle. Since Manuel started sleeping with Gregorio’s girlfriend, the friendship had become increasingly difficult to live with. In the aftermath of Gregorio’s suicide Manuel struggles to get his life back on track. Everyone seems to suspect him of knowing more than he lets on and everyone seems to be keeping their own secrets, including his girlfriend. Most disturbingly Gregorio appears to still be watching him, letters from him appear through the post, containing enigmatic messages, ‘You won’t be able to run from the night buffalo’, they promise. Gregorio hadn’t finished dying yet. From the acclaimed writer of “Amores Perros” and “21 Grams”, this is the story of a passionate and destructive menage a trois and the tricks your mind can play on you.

Guillermo Arriaga is better known as a screenwriter, having collaborated with Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu in the films Amores Perros, 21 Grams, and, most recently, Babel. Those films are noted for their nonlinear narrative, resonant characters, and a lonely, desperate sensuality. Mr. arriaga brings this same distinctive touch to The Night Buffalo, his third novel.

Gregorio’s suicide is the catalyst of the story. Most shaken by this event are Manuel, Gregorio’s erstwhile best friend, and Tania, Gregorio’s ex- (and Manuel’s current) girlfriend. Manuel feels a sense of relief when Gregorio kills himself; the strain of Gregorio’s increasingly volatile behavior was beginning to wear on him and on his relationship with Tania, which was not exactly a stable one to begin with, as the two began their affair while Gregorio was going in and out of mental hospitals. However, Manuel’s expected respite does not occur as he planned; Gregorio has left him a box filled with notes and photos. These cryptic clues reveal more betrayals and more infidelity, and Manuel realizes that he still has not disentangled himself from Gregorio’s lies and manipulation. He seeks comfort from Tania, but Tania is wrestling with her own guilt and, naturally, questions her role in Gregorio’s illness and subsequent suicide. as Tania begins to pull away from him, Manuel begins his own exploration of betrayal and jealousy, culminating in a ghastly act of violence and the dissolution of their relationship.

The title of the novel refers to the matching buffalo tattoos on Manuel and Gregorio’s biceps, which they acquired to prove their loyalty to each other. When their friendship begins to fray, Manuel takes drastic measures – a knife and a rock – to remove the tattoo. The process leaves him with scars, and still the tattoo, though now diminished, remains. It’s a fairly obvious metaphor, but an effective one nonetheless.

The Night Buffalo starts off strong, as Manuel is a flawed, multilayered character. His struggle to understand Gregorio’s suicide while holding on to his fragile relationship with Tania is a guttural and visceral one; He is an easy character to sympathize with, despite his many faults and his obvious guilt. Through Nanuel’s eyes, the reader is taken through the nuances of his friendship with Gregorio: the lies, the deceit, the genuine affection, and also the fear one feels when someone they love has truly gone beyond their reach.

The women of the novel are not quite as clearly drawn, although this may have been a conscious choice to further illuminate the degree of Manuel’s internal turmoil. Still, this may have been a misstep, as Tania seems to be nothing more than the beautiful and elusive object of desire. Throughout the novel, I was unsure of her motivation. As with all the characters, a certain degree of guilt is implied, but is that enough to explain or, at the very least, excuse her actions? There are two women who Manuel says are madly in love with him, but other than a few lackluster couplings, there’s no other background given to support his statements. There is also a puzzling character introduced near the end of the novel, who seems to be nothing more than a filler designed to tie loose ends.

It is these shades of grey that lessen the novel’s impact. These unspoken nuances make the novel read better as a play; I couldn’t help but feel that it was raw material waiting for an actor’s interpretation. As a novelist, Mr. Arriaga is proficient; as a screenwriter, he is astonishing. Though “The Night Buffalo” wasn’t a total disappointment, I think I’m more excited to see the film version, as the writer has already proven that he is capable of incredible achievements in that medium.

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Filed under Postmodern Literature

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