When Max Costa signed up as a ballroom dancer for the Cap Polonio in 1928, he didn’t know he would meet a woman who would haunt him for the rest of his life. To be fair to Mecha Inzunza, she didn’t know she was going to meet the love of her life on a trip to Buenos Aires, either. Arturo Pérez-Reverte’s What We Become (translated by Nick Caistor and Lorenza Garcia) follows Max and Mecha over forty years, from Buenos Aires in 1928 to Nice in 1938 to Sorrento in 1964. What We Become is the story of two different kinds of scoundrels who keep getting caught up in their own schemes, though there is always the hope that this time will be different.
What We Become jumps back in forth in time, with Max as our lodestar. He’s not a first person narrator, but the story stays tightly focused on him throughout. The bulk of the novel takes place in 1964, in Sorrento, Italy. Max has, finally, settled into a steady job at the age of 64. He’s a chauffeur for a Swiss psychologist. When the psychologist leaves for an extended business trip, Max is left at loose ends. It is pure chance that he spots Mecha with her son and future daughter-in-law in town. They are there for a chess tournament. Seized with the desire to see Mecha again and relive the old days, Max “borrows” his employer’s car and clothes, empties his own bank account, and sets up like the playboy he used to be. Then he arranges to bump into Mecha again.
While Max and Mecha get reacquainted, the narrative takes us back to their first and second meetings. We see them tangoing in Buenos Aires before Max takes off with Mecha’s pearls after a brief and disturbing sexual liaison. We also see them in Nice, France, in 1938. Max has been blackmailed by agents of both the Italian government and the Spanish Nationalist government to steal some papers that would make everyone look bad if they were made public.
Again and again, Max and Mecha gently torment each other. They are always terribly polite and well-mannered (except in bed), but the subtext of their relationship is heartbreaking. Ever since their first tango on the ship to Buenos Aires, they’ve had a connection. No one else has been right for either of them and they’ve spent many lonely years apart.
The hope that the third time is the charm keeps us going along, even though both Max and Mecha have changed a lot since 1938. Mecha is now devoted to her son, who may be the next international chess champion if he can defeat the current holder of the title. Max is weary after years of financial failures. Don’t get the wrong impression, however. What We Become is not a romance. Rather, this book is a psychological portrait of two characters who have lived very unusual but unhappy lives. Further, because we learn about Mecha through Max’s life, she remains very mysterious. I’ve just spent almost 500 pages with her and I still don’t understand the woman.
What We Become is masterly in its characterization—even with Mecha’s unexplored motivations. Not only are the characters amazingly well-drawn, Pérez-Reverte has truly captured the lost world of old Europe and Buenos Aires. (Both Mecha and Max are creatures from a different age when we see them in 1964 Sorrento.) The descriptions of clothing and manners and places are richly detailed, so much so that I thought I could smell the spilled alcohol in the Argentinian dives and the cigarette smoke at the dinner party in Nice. This book is an immersive experience.
I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley for review consideration. It will be released 7 June 2016.