Recommended Reads: The Good, the Bad, and the White Man’s Mexico Novel
By John Washington
Fresh off a Fulbright year in Mexico City, John Washington co-translated Óscar Martinez’s book of migration chronicles, The Beast, which is now available from Verso Books. Here, he shares some of the literature that has inspired his work, and some that hasn’t.
If you’re a white American male looking to write a “Mexico novel,” you probably think you have a lot of material to work with. You might be inspired, for example, by the ostentatious cartel violence of the past decade, or perhaps the exhibitionistic political corruption of the past century, or the harrowing migration stories of hundreds of thousands of Central Americans crossing Mexico every year, or you might even want to latch on to the guerrilla uprising of the Zapatistas in the 90s, or the surge in auto-defense and vigilantism in Michoacan and Guerrero today, or you might find inspiration in the crowded megalopolis of Mexico City or the guitar-lonely streets of colonial ghost towns or the cockfights in the Sierras or the bullfights in Tijuana or the explosion of kidnappings plaguing much of the country, or maybe, like Cormac McCarthy’s characters, you might be simply starstruck by a girl, or a horse, or a wolf. The material—Mexico (also the title of a Michener novel)—seems ready, ripe, nearly moaning for novelization.
But rather than spend your lucubratory late nights pencil-tapping, muse-channeling, or violence-gazing as you craft your masterpiece, you might just come to the country with a recorder. Because the story, let’s call it “your” story—of kidnappings, hunger, jungle uprisings, street shootouts, or Holy Death—is being lived right now probably better than you can plot it out. And the stories aren’t exoticized or eroticized. That’s to say, Studs Turkel would probably do better here than Thomas Pynchon; Upton Sinclair better than Stephen King. Because the story is of the humdrum quotidian violence that touches every part of the world, including Mexico, which means you are a part of the violence and you are exactly right to call the story “your” story. Because in this globalized-neoliberal-surge-border imperialistic economy, we are all part of the violence—like it, deny it, or be ignorant of it as you please.
The political umbrella we live under, our way of life, our drug habits, our consumerism, our driving habits, our year-round tomato salad, and our nights on the town are all—it’s a disturbing truth—leading to the violent exploitation and subjugation of our neighbors, as well as the marginalized in our midst. So, white American male novelist peering south, the Mexico story is your story. So you should write it. But there are examples to follow and there are examples to avoid.
What has drawn white men from B. Traven (Treasure of the Sierra Madre) to Brad Pitt (The Mexican) into America’s very own backyard “third-world” adventureland–where stars can go to Acapulco, writers to Mexico City, four-wheeler people to the dunes of Baja, hippies to the hills of Oaxaca, cruise-shippers to Los Cabos, and derelicts to Cancún–is a danger-lust mirrored as much in recent novels such as Richard Lange’s Angel Baby and Adam Mansbach’s The Dead Run, as it is played out in the absurd political maneuverings of the Mérida Initiative and the recently revealed Kiki-Quintero-Contra scandal, an Oliver Northless triangle of CIA drug sales funding right-wing guerrilla training with the logistical support of Mexican cartels. White American men, whether politically, leisurely, filmically, or novelistically, too often take a spoonful of the “Mexican story” and mix it with misconceived thrill-clichés only to end up perpetuating profiteering and paternalism: politically they name a sting operation “Operation Fast and Furious” and stand by as automatic weapons are ferried across the border to wreak havoc; novelistically, in both Angel Baby and The Dead Run, the principal characters make a mad dash to cross the border and enter the perceived safe zone of the Estados Unidos. To be fair, however, in neither novel does north-of-the-border prove to be the immediate haven the characters had hoped for. (Nor, politically, is the U.S. any sort of safe zone for the millions of Mexicans and Central Americans looking to escape violence or poverty.) And while neither Lange or Mansbach antediluvianely delineates a white-hat/black-hat, gringo/Mex dichotomy, both books wallow in generalizations, eventually tripping over themselves and falling into the mud of paternalism and exceptionalism.
Adam Mansbach’s The Dead Run is an absurdist-comical (if at times well-written) adventure farce starring an ex-football star sheriff facing off against an Aztec demigod about to take over the world from his subterranean Mexican prison lair. Sound laughable? I wish it were.
Richard Lange’s Angel Baby, while sticking to “realism,” borrows, at times heavily, from the much better but still whacky The Queen of the South, by Spanish writer Arturo Perez-Reverte. Both Angel Baby and The Queen of the South feature recently-raped, nearly-naked, effortlessly-beautiful heroines engaging in Commando-like shootout scenes. Filmic, perhaps. Cathartic, maybe. But the plight of modern Mexican women, as both authors seem pining to expose, is less sensationally cinematic, and also much more moving than the Hollywood-style victim/superwoman narrative. (See stories, for starters, on the pandemic of violence against women in Mexico, Mexican mothers marching for their disappeared sons, women marching against police violence against women, or indigenous mothers in Oaxaca not receiving medical treatment and giving birth to children on hospital sidewalks).
The problem is not that Lange’s or Mansbach’s voices are not worthy of discussing Mexico, but that when they assume the voice of Mexicans they resort to cliché. Here is Lange setting the tone of corruption in Mexico:
The police are always scared when they come to see El Príncipe. They know he’s connected to the cartel. They know about the beheadings, the dismemberments, the barrels of acid. They’ve mopped up the blood and hauled the mutilated corpses to the morgue. But still they sit across from him, desperation outweighing fear, and offer to violate their oaths and piss on their honor in exchange for an envelope stuffed with cash.
Perhaps there are indeed Mexican cops filled with unexplained (surely not unexplainable) desperation and who are willing to “piss on their honor” for cash. I’ve personally witnessed a cop take a fistful of pesos from a coyote driving a car full of migrants along the border. I’ve also seen a Mexican cop pocket 200 pesos to “heat up” a man who couldn’t pay his bar tab. So although he might be sometimes right, Lange’s stereotyping description of Mexican corruption reads like a pre-Civil Rights comic book; it’s also neither anything new or interesting. What would be interesting would be looking into the causes of corruption, into U.S. officials decrying the corruption in Mexico while they themselves deal daily in payola, or how many Mexican officials are forced to supplement unlivable incomes with bribes, or taking a minute (or a few sentences) to consider from where comes the desperation the cops feel. Lange’s description, besides taking a stab at Mexican honor, does nothing to clarify nor even complicate the tired boilerplate narrative.
Mansbach’s book does it a little better. Maybe we could even read its nuttiness as a comment on the absurdity of the violence in Mexico. And yet too often Mansbach falls into reductionist clichés, as well. There is a long scene of our white ex-military hero escaping north towards the border in a getaway car while dodging an army of undead virgins (he calls them “un-girls”) birthing themselves out of the desert sand. You might read the scene as an artistic critique on the femicides in Juárez, or the migrant deaths in the borderlands, but I think that would be an overly generous read. Not that I expect the same out of a novel as I do out of an op-ed, but I at least prefer the literature I read to break down clichés rather than just dress them up. Mansbach’s description of this “macabre ballet” in the desert is not comically cathartic; it’s sad (and also rather icky):
Dead girls were still making regular runs at the car, but Galvan had built up such a head of steam that they ricocheted off, flipping and crumpling and whirling like players in some elaborate, macabre ballet. . . . The windshield was a spider’s web of fractured glass, courtesy of some dead chick who’d gotten plowed, done a three-sixty, and come down face-first.
Compare the bathos above with the tragic, frightening, absurd, nihilistic, sometimes eerily funny and often deeply moving accounts of the borderland femicides by the late Roberto Bolaño, whose monster novel 2666 gets to the heart of the culture of violence in the borderlands, pointing a finger not at a dark arch nemesis, but at society itself.
There are exceptions, of course, and female American novelists and Chicanos often describe Mexico and Mexicans humanely, but it seems a shameful self-imposed racist curse how badly white American men portray nearly anything at all Mexican.
In 1940, Englishman Graham Greene tackled the story of Mexican corruption and social turpitude in his on-the-lam novel The Power and the Glory. His breakdown of the crookedness of “the mestizo” character, who turns the runaway priest in to the authorities, is far from facile or reductionist, and shows a more nuanced and humanized side to the story.
Greene’s description of the “mestizo” begins as if a caricature: his two teeth he describes as “fangs” sticking “out over his lower lip as he grinned ingratiatingly.” And:
He was wearing a shirt, a pair of white trousers, and gym shoes through which one big toe showed—plump and yellow like something which lives underground. He scratched himself under the armpits and came chummily up to the priest’s stirrup.
But Greene, whose book is based on the travel log The Lawless Roads published a year earlier, goes on to explain the venality of “the mestizo”:
“If you move, I’ll shout. I’ve got so many things to think about,” the half-caste complained bitterly. The priest waited: there was nothing else to do: he was at the man’s mercy—a silly phrase, for those malarial eyes had never known what mercy is.
“You see,” the mestizo carefully explained, “I’m comfortable here.” His yellow toes curled luxuriously beside the vomit. “Good food, beer, company, and this roof doesn’t leak. You don’t have to tell me what’ll happen after—they’ll kick me out like a dog, like a dog.”
“Listen, father, I’ll admit a lot. You don’t know how a reward will tempt a poor man like me.”
Lastly, the priest “bore no grudge because he expected nothing else of anything human…”
Perhaps it’s not a deep inquiry into the roots of corruption, but rather than just sketching out a cookie-cutter crooked character, Greene gives “the mestizo” both context and voice. Compare the above examples to Lange’s one-liner about honor-pissing. In Greene’s novel we get to know the mestizo. We learn about where and how he lives, about what drives him and what complicates him: he may have a toe like a slug and a malarial gaze, but he also has a home (which is lost to him), a hammock, and a history.
Though not just the characters in the novel, but sometimes Greene himself is racist, he is not nearly so offensive as his American coeval, James M. Cain, most famous for his noir Double Indemnity, who published his bizarre Mexican chase novel Serenade (an out-of-luck, closeted American opera singer falls in love with a Mexican prostitute and they run away together to the U.S.) just three years before Greene’s The Power and the Glory, in 1937.
Cain doesn’t stick to thinly painting the corrupted Mexican official as Lange does, but rather launches directly into attacks against Mexicans, especially the indigenous, with outright fury:
An Indian, he’s about eight thousand years behind the rest of us in the race towards whatever we’re headed for, and it turns out that primitive man is not any fine, noble brute at all. He’s just a poor fish. Modern man, in spite of all this talk about his being effete, can run faster, shoot straighter, eat more, live longer, and have a better time than all the primitive men that ever lived. And that difference, how it comes out in music. An Indian, even when he plays a regular tune, sounds like a seal playing My-Country-‘Tis-of-Thee at a circus, but when he makes up a tune of his own, it just makes you sick.
And here’s a still seething Cain taking another stab at something completely irrelevant to the plot, slipping in hateful and racist jabs seemingly wherever he can: “Mexican pottery means the worst pottery in the world.”
Why the extreme racial antipathy to Mexico? Perhaps what came out in Cain as blatant racism still exists in Mexican novelizing (not to mention American-Mexican politics) today, from McCarthy to Mansbach, though prettied up in political-semi-correctness: a continued subjectifying and exoticizing of our neighbors. Or perhaps the American novelist, as well as most Americans, just don’t have a clear enough idea what Mexico is (beyond its salsas, spirits, and cheap source of labor) to round out either a Mexican character or the country itself.
Don Winslow’s The Power of the Dog, another novel slingshotting both ways over the border, has gotten decent reviews and could be an exception to the white-man-saves-the-Mexican-day cliché, but the movie adaptation (by Oliver Stone) of Winslow’s earlier narco-novel, Savages, (starring John Travolta and Selma Hayek) was so bogus and caricaturistic (a memorably bad line: “Tijuana is coming here. It’s chasing us.”) I worry I’d have to put on Y-cream before cracking the novel’s spine.
It is not insignificant that The Power and the Glory, perhaps the best white man’s novel based in Mexico, was based on a nonfictional travelogue: and maybe more American novelists should follow Greene’s example of doing their research first, or simply stick to nonfiction altogether when dealing with Mexico.
The nonfiction books of Chicano-American author Luis Alberto Urrea, The Devil’s Highway and Across the Wire, are both much better, for example, than his corny migration novel, Into the Beautiful North. Likewise, John Steinbeck’s 1947 novella The Pearl, ham-handed and sappy (“My son will read and open the books, and my son will write and will know writing. And my son will make numbers, and these things will make us free because he will know—he will know and through him we will know. . . . This is what the pearl will do.”) is not nearly as good as his other south-of-the-border project, Sea of Cortez, a travelogue and science book. Even Nobel laureate Steinbeck, much later in his career, eventually falls straight into Lange/Mansbach territory with his screenplay ¡Viva Zapata!, a fictionalized life of Emiliano Zapata whose flippant storytelling is almost as painful as seeing Marlon Brando play Zapata in a costume mustache and brown face.
So rather than fictionalizing or fantasizing “the Mexico story,” white American men should do some listening first: a lá Studs or Upton rather than Pynchon or King. And listening, in the spirit of a few great white Johns writing journalism about Mexico (John(s) Reed, Steinbeck, and Womack) is exactly what John Gibler did, recently publishing his third book about Mexico, Tzompaxtle, which excels where all the above-mentioned novels fail, and yet still has some of the trappings of a thriller.
With Tzompaxtle, Gibler lays out the chilling life story of an indigenous guerrilla activist and soldier (whose name is also the title of the book) from rural Veracruz state. While part of a team escorting journalists to learn more about their movement, Tzompaxtle, member of the Popular Revolutionary Army (ERP), is kidnapped, disappeared, and subsequently tortured for months by the Mexican Army.
Through the detailed, very quote-heavy description of the background and occurrence of Txompaxtle’s kidnapping and torture, Gibler comes to a point at the very end of the book that speaks to the difference between cavalier gringo novelists writing about Mexican atrocity and a reporter uncovering hard facts about a case: “What Tzompaxtle wanted most after having escaped was that people would listen to him. It seems that very few people did.” Gibler here is the stark exception: even his shorter chapters explaining the origin and philosophy of the project are imbued with an open and yet critical attention. In short, he has a great ear, and not just for the rhythm and sound of the language (especially impressive in that he’s writing outside of his native tongue), but for the greater historical context. In contrast, when it comes to portraying Mexicans, Lange, Mansbach and O. Stone seem to have hardly any ears at all.
Gibler’s book relies not only on the written accounts of multiple interviews (including his own) of Tzompaxtle, but also dozens of other interviews with journalists and Tzompaxtle’s wife, recreating not only the horror of four months of torture and imprisonment, but the history of EPR, the established pattern of the Mexican Army extrajudicially kidnapping and torturing dissidents, and the situation on the ground that sparked the initial dissent. Here’s Gibler introducing the reader to life in the state of Guerrero:
Let’s consider: in 1996 the population of Guerrero was about 3 million. Two million of those persons had never seen a doctor. Nearly a million had never even been to elementary school. Half of the parents didn’t know how to read or write. Nearly a million worked every day without earning a cent. Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of tourists filled luxury hotels in the state for their vacations. Opium and marijuana were grown in industrial quantities for domestic and international markets. Three of every four roads were not paved. Hunger represented a mortal risk for one out of every three children in non-indigenous communities and for one out of every two children in indigenous communities. In Guerrero, dying of hunger neither was, nor is, just a saying.
Such a factual description might not have a place in a novel (especially one sticking close to genre expectations, as do Lange’s and Mansbach’s) but such shocking inequalities might be the spark for novelistic investigation and lead to some contextualization of a character’s “desperation.” Earlier in the book, in a break between sections of Tzompaxtle’s testimony, Gibler muses on the will to speak and the will to silence:
We say what we want to say—this is a kind of tautology. We are responsible for what is said precisely because we say what we want to, what we decide to say. Torture seeks to break this tautology: it seeks to force a human being to say what he or she profoundly does not want to say, and it does this by subjecting the victim to that which destroys language: pain.
American novelists writing about Mexico too often do something similar: they take perceived pain (of the Mexican victim) and try to use it to make their characters speak. They may not be torturing their characters, but they are forcing them to speak in stereotype. What they need to do, however, is listen—it’s what a novel, paradoxically perhaps, can do best. And real listening takes work, it takes research, it takes a tuned ear and an active, searching mind and heart. A white novelist writing about Mexico would do well to listen to Tzompaxtle, to listen to the “honor-pissing cops,” to listen to the migrants crossing the border, to the slum-dwellers, to the rural peasants, and to the narcos and the officials and the guerrillas all. Gibler’s book is a good place to start listening.
“Hate,” Graham Greene writes in The Power and the Glory, “was just a failure of the imagination.” Failure of the imagination, however, isn’t what makes bad fiction; sometimes it’s failure of the opposite of imagination: the failure of seeing the concrete reality on the ground.
John Washington is a writer and translator currently based in Mexico City. He co-translated, along with Daniela Maria Ugaz, Óscar Martinez’s book of migration chronicles, The Beast, available from Verso Books. He blogs at The Huffington Post and, seemingly deaf to his own bloviations, is currently at work on a thriller set in Mexico.