To brand The Tattooed Soldier as a simple tale of revenge is to sell it short. In it, Tobar’s first novel, he writes a passionate and painful narrative of the lives of Antonio and Longoria. The story gives a historical vantage point of Guatemala during its decades of civil war and Los Angeles in its equally bloody and chaotic post-Rodney King riots.
It begins as a love story. Antonio meets Elena as a young and impressionable university student. Elena is pillar of strength compared to Antonio, often feeble and awkward. He is taken by her ideas, independence, and distinct Central American beauty. They become smitten as only young lovers are in a time when being free spirited and outspoken was cause to be labeled a guerrilla. Forced to flee to the rural San Cristobal, Antonio hopes that their marriage and young son will tame Elena’s revolutionary and radical impulses. Instead, Elena makes them a target by investigating the lethal practices of the local sanitation company. Antonio returns home from work one day to find his wife and son executed. He catches only one glimpse of his family’s killer before fleeing to Los Angeles to save his own life.
Longoria, a member of an elite unit within the Guatemalan army, has made his career being a ruthless executor of army orders. Proud of his membership in the prestigious Jaguars, he tattooes his forearm with a menacing jaguar. This is the last impression Antonio has of the man who took everything from him. Longoria is not only the executor of Antonio’s family, but has played a large part in the genocide that razed the Guatemalan highlands during that era. Ashamed of his own indigenous and humble roots, he is constantly trying to rid himself of emotion, memory, and remorse. He moves to Los Angeles in the hopes that he will not find the same disorder and filth he feels infects his native Guatemala. Instead, he is dismayed to find Los Angeles a haven for disorderly conduct and gang members that disgust him. To make matters worse, he is recognized and confronted by Guatemalan refugees that demand answers to his actions in Guatemala. These are what he would rather soon forget. One of those refugees is Antonio.
Antonio recognizes Longoria playing chess one afternoon in MacArthur Park. Antonio is now homeless, unemployed, and befriended only by his squatter companions. He survives on meager scraps that his Mexican friend Jose Juan is able to steal or find for them. He is forced from one squatter camp to the next. After seeing Longoria, Antonio becomes overwhelmed by memories of his murdered wife and two year old son, Carlitos.
Outraged that Longoria is able to run free in the United States and never pay for his hideous crimes, Antonio becomes obsessed with the idea of killing him. He begins to stalk Longoria’s every movement and plan with his friends on how to kill a professional murderer. Los Angeles sits on the brink of disruption. Overnight the city turns chaotic from the verdict of the Rodney King trial which sent the city into the now infamous L.A. riots. Antonio watches as people of all races begin to break windows, loot, and claim what they believe is rightfully theirs. Normally cowardly and struggling with self esteem, Antonio gets swept up in the emotion of the riots and finds an inner resolve. He believes that he must kill Longoria not only for his own family, but the countless victims at the hands of Longoria and the Guatemala army that will never see justice.
Very different in content and format than his most recently published book , Translation Nation, Tobar takes the reader through an array of emotions in this novel. There is elated joy that soon drops to fear, hate, and depression in their ugliest forms. This rise and fall manner of Tobar’s writing leaves latent effects for the reader. The backdrops for the narrative are accurately written based on Tobar’s experience writing for The Los Angeles Times during the riots and as a son of Guatemalan immigrants. This vivid amount of detail gives the reader reason to pause and rethink what they thought they knew about the immigrant homeless in Los Angeles and the victimized in Guatemala. Tobar’s characters tackle issues of ethnicity and class structure in both settings that have relevant lessons in today’s climate. The novel is an introspective look at both the minds of the aggressor and the avenger when so many complicated issues are involved. The human rights violations, refugee undertones, military tactics, and personal and emotional conflicts are what make the true ability and lasting wonder of this novel.