Las batallas en el desierto
Jose Emilio Pacheco
Scott Esposito at Conversational Reading turned me on to this book. I have always loved Mexican writing and his reviews of the book were quite intriguing. Although, there is a translation from New Directions, I read the book in Spanish, a Spanish is actually quite easy to understand and any third years Spanish student could read the book with few problems. Yet the simplicity belies an insightful understatement.
Ostensibly, the book tells a coming of age of age story set in Mexico City of the late 40s and early 50s. Carlos, the narrator, is the youngest son of a middle class family that has fallen on hard times. His father owns a soap factory but now that World War II is over the American corporations are beginning to take over the Mexican market. The family is forced to live in a neighborhood inhabited with people who have been left behind in Mexico’s rise in prosperity. Carlos isn’t aware of the socio-economic changes in Mexico, but he notices the influence of American culture everywhere. American culture has become the in thing and those with money want more an more of it.
With Carlos’ new status he finds him self at a school whose kids come from a mix of economic ranges. He becomes best friends with a boy named Jim. Jim is a mystery because he says his father is from the states and he visits him occasionally, yet his father is never seen. He even has an American sandwich maker that takes bread and ham and creates round sandwiches that look like flying saucers. Despite the exotic link to the United States, it seems so strange he is stuck in Mexico. Why isn’t he in the US? To make the mystery stranger, he says his mother is the lover of a Mexican official, a former general, one of those heroes of the revolution that found wealth in power after the war in the government. The general, though, can’t leave his wife, but pays for everything. She spends much of her time looking good for him. The general is never seen; he is always just of screen, as if he is about to arrive or leave.
The friendship falls apart when Carlos decides to tell Jim’s mother that he is in love with her. While she finds it touching, Jim gets mad at him. Soon Carlos’ mother also finds out and decides he is one step away from hell. She takes him out of the school and moves him to another, better one. The next opportunity he has to visit them he finds they have moved and no one in the building seems to know who he is talking about. A few years latter when his father’s fortunes have changed and he is now driven around in a limo, he sees an old classmate who is polishing shoes and he treats him to lunch. He asks about Jim and the friend says something bad had happened to him.
Throughout the story Pacheo plays with the inequalities of a fast changing Mexico and questions the myth of the Mexican Miracle of the 40s and 50s. He describes the meal Carlos eats at a friend’s home as greasy brain tacos, something Carlos, even in his reduced circumstances, is not used to. At the same time there is the interplay of American culture, the round sandwiches, the movies, the magazines with American stars, which gives one a sense of a culture on the move, yet also separating into the foreign and native. Are these changes really a miracle, or are they signaling the beginning of the undoing of Mexico? Moreover, the mystery of Jim and his mother suggest something dark and troubling about the power structures. If the the boyfriend really was part of the government, did he have her taken care of in some way? If so what does that say about the myth of the revolution and those who served in the revolution? Given what came latter in the late 60s and 70s, starting with the Tlatelolco massacre and the dirty war it is not a stretch to think the boyfriend may have done something.
The mysteries are never resolved–that is part of growing up. What is true is the mysteries of the novel make one question the certainties of the time.