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Guillermo Arriaga: A Sweet Scent Of Death

A Sweet Scent Of Death is the second novel by Mexican author and screenplay writer, Guillermo Arriaga, although you probably sort-of know him better as the guy who wrote Amores Perros and 21 Grams. It’s one of those novels that you know from the start whether you are going to like it or not.

It is the story of a small Mexican village, Loma Grande, where one day the naked body of a teenage girl is found, and how the finger of blame, when coupled with hearsay, escalates to such a point that it ends with violence. A local boy, Ramon Castanos, had an unspoken of fancy for the murdered girl but his grief leads the villagers to believe they were actually secret lovers. The girl’s secret letters, peppered with coded messages, lead him to believe that she felt the same way for him. And the villages, wanting the murder avenged, force Ramon into killing her attacker. But who was it? One man claims to have seen frequent visitor, the Gypsy, frollicking in the bushes with the murdered lady but it was actually Gabriela, who is married to Pedro Salgado, and he would kill her if he knew she was cheating on him. So, unable to defend the Gypsy she can only watch on helpless, much like most of the implicated characters here, as events snowball to the denouement.

It’s a great plot, but it belongs in the movies. A Sweet Scent Of Death reads like a movie and it’s for that reason I knew I wouldn’t like it from the start – I did, however, press on. The translation, also, felt lacking, the prose sometimes feeling lifeless.

There’s too many characters in this novel, most with little to add to the narrative other than to goad Ramon into killing the Gypsy. And, due to its cinematic style, the author rarely gets within the heads of his players, preferring to describe their actions. Rather than someone swither over to kill someone, a shaky hand for illustration, it would have been far more satisfying to get inside their head and show the turmoil and guilt they felt.

Overall, a good idea with great plotting but let down by some really shoddy prose. If Arriaga ever gets round to it, then you’d be best served waiting for the film to come out.

May 31, 2007

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