[excerpt]

A week ago my grandmother gave me a dry-eyed hug at the San Francisco airport and told me again that if I valued my life at all, I should not get in touch with anyone I knew until we could be sure my enemies were no longer looking for me. My Nini is paranoid, as the residents of the People’s Independent Republic of Berkeley tend to be, persecuted as they are by the government and extraterrestrials, but in my case she wasn’t exaggerating: no amount of precaution could ever be enough. She handed me a hundred-page notebook so I could keep a diary, as I did from the age of eight until I was fifteen, when my life went off the rails. “You’re going to have time to get bored, Maya. Take advantage of it to write down the monumental stupidities you’ve committed, see if you can come to grips with them,” she said. Several of my diaries are still in existence, sealed with industrial-strength adhesive tape. My grandfather kept them under lock and key in his desk for years, and now my Nini has them in a shoebox under her bed. This will be notebook number nine. My Nini believe they’ll be of use to me when I get psychoanalyzed, because they contain the keys to untie the knots of my personality; but if she’d read them, she’d know they contain a huge pile of tales tall enough to outfox Freud himself. My grandmother distrusts professionals who charge by the hour on principle, since quick results are not profitable for them. However, she makes an exception for psychiatrists, because one of them saved her from depression and from the traps of magic when she took it into her head to communicate with the dead.

My name is Maya Vida. I’m nineteen years old, female, single – due to a lack of opportunities rather than by choice, I’m currently without a boyfriend. Born in Berkeley, California, I’m a U.S. citizen, and temporarily taking refuge on an island at the bottom of the world. They named me Maya because my Nini has a soft spot for India and my parents hadn’t come up with any other name, even though they’d had nine months to think about it. In Hindi, maya means “charm, illusion, dream”: nothing at all to do with my personality. Attila would suit me better, because wherever I step no pasture will ever grow again. My story begins in Chile with my grandmother, my Nini, a long time before I was born, because if she hadn’t emigrated, she’d never have fallen in love with my Popo or moved to California, my father would never have met my mother and I wouldn’t be me, but rather a very different Chilean girl. What do I look like? I’m five-ten, 128 pounds when I play soccer and several more if I don’t watch out. I’ve got muscular legs, clumsy hands, blue or gray eyes, depending on the time of day, and blond hair, I think, but I’m not sure since I haven’t seen my natural hair color for quite a few years now. I didn’t inherit my grandmother’s exotic appearance, with her olive skin and those dark circles under her eyes that make her look a little depraved, or my father’s, handsome as a bullfighter and just as vain. I don’t look like my grandfather either – my magnificent Popo – because unfortunately he’s not related to me biologically, since he’s my Nini’s second husband.