The Shrine at Altamira

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

In the prologue to this disturbing book, L’Heureux warns us that what we are about to read will be terrible. He says that when we hear stories like this one on television or read about them in newspapers we turn away because we know there are people in the world who are mad with love, but because we are decent men and women we refuse to know any more than that.

Although THE SHRINE AT ALTAMIRA compels us to know more than that, the first half is simple and stereotypical: Maria, a young Chicano in San Jose, California, meets Raymond, a blue-eyed Anglo, at a high school dance. They fall in love and marry, but as Maria’s love for Raymond fades, his love for her becomes all-consuming. When their son John is born, all of Maria’s love centers on the child. The novel progresses predictably: Maria gains weight and lies around the house watching television; Raymond begins to drink and stay out late. Then in an effort to become a modern professional woman, Maria loses weight, gets a job, and gets a divorce.

Half way through the novel, however, the pedestrian becomes perverse. In the central, terrible event, based on an actual incident in California in the 1980’s, Raymond takes his son to a motel where he drugs him, soaks the bed with paint thinner, and sets the child afire. What follows is a series of excruciating episodes describing the boy’s years of plastic surgery and the father’s years in prison where he is raped, beaten, and partially blinded.

Yet this is not a novel about heartlessness and hatred; it is rather a modern-day fable about passion, love, and suffering; thus it must move irresistibly toward forgiveness, penance, and redemption. The ending is a shocker, but, given the book’s fable-like nature and primal theme, it can end no other way.