One of Spain’s leading writers, Javier Marías, undertakes quite a flight of the imagination in this skinny little novel—technically a long story or novella—Bad Nature, or With Elvis in Mexico. The fact is that Elvis Presley was never in Acapulco—or at least not during the filming of Fun in Acapulco (1963), his thirteenth film, late in his movie career, and totally formulaic (unless you want to cite the presence of Ursula Andress as providing gravitas to the film). The movie was shot in Hollywood, though obviously some exterior scenes were taken on the assumed location.
What Marías has undertaken is a broad re-envision of what might have happened to Elvis had the film been made in Mexico. The narrative is comparable to, say, Philip Roth’s The Plot against America, which speculates what might have happened to the United States if Franklin Delano Roosevelt had not won reelection in 1940. Obviously, Marías’s scope is nothing of the magnitude of Roth’s speculation of an alternate history for that presidential election. But that hardly matters, since Marías’s narrative is just as profound as Roth’s when the issue becomes societal differences: popular culture and cultural narrow-mindedness.
Thus, in Bad Nature Elvis does go to Acapulco for the filming of his musical and to Mexico City as well. And because Elvis knew no Spanish (some people wondered if he even knew English) and because the big number in Fun in Acapulco is the King’s singing of “Guadalajara,” Marías speculates that Elvis needed a language coach. And that language coach, whose last name is Ruibérriz, travels with Elvis and also the entire film crew to act as a translator whenever necessary. The first instance of American ignorance comes early in the story, after Ruibérriz pronounces his name. Everyone on the set calls him Roy Berry because they can’t get the accents right.
Thus Roy is there, trailing the great singer around from place to place, not only translating for him whenever Elvis needs to speak to a local but, more importantly, to get him out of cultural predicaments. We are lead to believe that those incidents are frequent because, as Roy states of Elvis, “He was restless and needed to be doing something all the time.” After a day of shooting, Elvis typically wanted to fly to Mexico City for a little action. During one of these nights in a bar outside of the city with his usual set of followers, Elvis says something he shouldn’t have after one of his flunkies embarrasses himself on the dance floor. Roy, unfortunately, translates Elvis’ remarks literally and that’s when Roy’s own life becomes threatened—instead of Elvis’s.
Up until this incident, Roy has provided quite juicy insights about the famous singer he’s been assisting. If I haven’t already made this clear, Bad Nature is quite a hilarious story, at least until Roy’s life is threatened. Here, for example, is his take on Elvis’ flamboyance: Since Elvis “was a hard and serious and even enthusiastic worker, he couldn’t see how his roles looked from the outside or make fun of them. I imagine it was in the same disciplined and pliant frame of mind that he allowed himself to grow drooping sideburns in the seventies and agreed to appear on stage tricked out like a circus side show, wearing suits bedecked with copious sequins and fringes, bell bottoms slit up the side, belts as wide as a novice whore’s, high-heeled goblin boots, and a short cape—a cape—that made him look more like Super Rat than whatever he was probably trying for. Superman, I would imagine.”
The cultural issues in Bad Nature peel off like the layers of an onion, slowly with a certain number of surprises as they become complications not for the gringos—who are oblivious to their slights and misunderstandings—but to the Mexicans and, most obviously, to Roy Berry, who as a Spaniard and not as a Mexican almost loses his life. And Elvis in all this? And the other gringos? Sadly, what might have been a moment of insight becomes totally lost on them. That is also Javier Marías’ brilliance: swipes at ugly Americans who don’t have a clue about how dangerous the situation is that they have just narrowly avoided.
Bad Nature, superbly translated by Esther Allen, shows us poor judgment with both the Americans and the Mexicans. Sit back and enjoy this little gem during a roller coaster ride of an hour.
Bad Nature, or With Elvis in Mexico
Translated by Esther Allen
New Directions Pearl, 57 pp., $9.95
CHARLES R. LARSON is Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C.