A valuable lesson was learned on the treacherous road that led to the creation of this month’s column, a journey that began as a review of Amigoland, the debut novel by Oscar Casares, and ended with the vow that I shall never again attempt to understand Mexico, not through literature and history and scholars, nor through the field and clinical data compiled by sociologists and ethnologists.
The Mexican psyche and character is a slippery beast that defies understanding. Before the 300-year Spanish occupation, the indigenous peoples of Mexico were comprised of the Maya, the Zapotec, the Olmec, the Aztec, and the Mixtec, advanced civilizations that thrived for over 4,000 years before the Europeans turned the nation into their own Extended Stay hotel, bringing along a foreign religion that they were more than eager to share with the native populace.
T.C., a Mexican-American friend of mine, a man immensely proud and aware of his Mexican heritage, put it more bluntly: “How can anyone try to describe the Mexican experience or modality without mentioning the indigenous historic culture and its Spanish medieval Catholic conquerors who, through painful birth, gave the world Mexico and Mexicans and Mexican-Americans, who have influenced so much American culture yet remain, by and large, invisible and misunderstood.”
The majority of Mexicans (60-80 percent according to the latest census figures) are Mestizos, those of mixed European and Amerindian ancestry, living in a federation of 31 free and sovereign states, with each state divided into municipalities. The municipalities can be even further divided into boroughs in many states.
Despite all those tangled bloodlines and administrative divisions in the nation of Mexico, certain collective and nationalistic behaviors can be isolated and explored exhaustively. And one will come away from the experience more confused than when the journey began.
A few days before my deadline, Vaughn Croteau, a New Mexico artist whose work with exotic woods and precious metals has been displayed in galleries throughout the American Southwest, sent along a note of support after I informed him that the topic of my new column had me in a stranglehold and was not letting up.
“Years ago a good friend of mine was an elderly Spanish gentleman – an incredible man of letters – who was a historian,” Vaughn wrote. “His primary study was Spanish colonial history, particularly in New Mexico; we spent many hours discussing the gamut of topics within his knowledge while drinking and eating fine regional meals. I learned an awful lot during our association, but I really came no closer to understanding or being able to articulate anything definitive about Latin culture in the Americas. The history can be incredibly harsh, but without it the world would be a much sorrier place.”
The Plight of Jesus Christ
The nation of Mexico, Malcolm Lowry writes in Under the Volcano, boasts “some extraordinary land… but the name of this land is hell.”
Long before and long after Lowry’s 1947 masterwork, born of his own experiences in Cuernevaca in the ‘30s, writers from all points of the globe have fixed their gaze and their miles of bleeding typewriter ribbon upon the murky interior of America’s troubled nation to the south. Many have peered at the interior of Mexico’s dark heart – indeed, American writer Ambrose Bierce literally disappeared in it in the middle of a 1914 revolution led by Pancho Villa – but very few have penetrated its contradictory mazes and chambers.
Mexico is like the dispassionate cantina whore one might encounter in a Cormac McCarthy novel or a Sam Peckinpah western. When you ask her name she blinks her long black lashes, smiles coyly and mysteriously, then she takes you by the hand and leads you to a room above the bar where you will find a bed and a wash basin. The most conspicuous object in the room is a large crucifix hanging by a rusty nail on the wall above the bed.
That crucifix is a big part of the problem.
In The Silver Christ of Santa Fe (Portions From a Wine-Stained Notebook, 2008), Charles Bukowski essays his clumsy attempt to sustain carnal knowledge with a friend’s houseguest:
… There on the wall opposite to my sight hung a life-sized silver Christ nailed to a life-sized silver cross. His eyes appeared to be open and He was watching me… His eyes seemed to grow larger, pulsate. Those nails, the thorns. The poor guy, they’d murdered Him, now He was just a hunk of silver on the wall, watching, watching…
According to a 2009 census, 95 percent of the population of Mexico is Christian, with Roman Catholics making up 89 percent of that figure, and 47 percent of citizens polled say they attend church services weekly. One would be hard pressed to find a more theistic, heavily Catholic human population outside the walls of the Vatican.
In Mexican culture, as presented in literary works like Kerouac’s poetic mini-masterpiece Tristessa, and Lowry’s booze-soaked and hallucinogenic novel Under the Volcano, God, Jesus, and the Virgin Mary are always watching. One can never escape their punishing or forgiving gaze, not even at home. From Tristessa by Jack Kerouac:
…the mother, the woman, the Virgin Mary of Mexico—Tristessa has a huge ikon (sic) in a corner of her bedroom.
It faces the room, back to the kitchen wall, in right hand corner as you face the woesome kitchen with its drizzle showering ineffably from the roof tree twigs and hammerboards (bombed out shelter roof)—Her ikon represents the Holy Mother staring out of her blue charaderees, her robes and Damema arrangements, at which El Indio prays devoutly when going out to get some junk. El Indio is a vendor of curios, allegedly—I never see him on San Juan Letran selling crucifixes, I never see El Indio in the street, no Redondas, no anywhere—The Virgin Mary has a candle, a bunch of glass-fulla-wax economical burners that go for weeks on end, like Tibetan prayer-wheels the inexhaustible aid from oru Amida—I smile to see this lovely ikon.
“The plight of Jesus Christ,” my friend T.C. points out, “is a perfect icon for the Mexican raison d’etre: scorned, tortured, and crucified by his own people, only to rise again and become legendary for over 2,000 years. His suffering mother, in the role of the Virgin of Guadalupe, appeals to all Mexicans as Mother Earth and is maybe even more popular than Jesus himself.”
There is no doubt that T.C. is culturally and theologically correct in his assessment but theology, as the late Roberto Bolano argues in his mammoth masterpiece 2666, can breed not only superstition and paranoia – God is watching you at all times – but also a more than vague suspicion of God’s honesty at the poker table.
In a tangential moment in Book Five of 2666 (The Part About Archimboldi), a German infantryman becomes hopelessly lost in the tunnels of the French Maginot line during combat in World War II. In his sleep, God visits the soldier and tells him that the pathway out of the maze will be revealed if the man surrenders his soul (“Which I already own,” God reminds the man) in a blood oath. The infantryman agrees to the pact and upon awakening he finds his way out of the tunnels and returns to the 79th Infantry Division unscathed.
“Four days later,” Bolano writes, “the soldier who sold his soul to God was walking down the street when he was hit by a German car and killed.”
The anecdote may be about a German soldier but the story’s dark humor and sense of fatalism – not to mention a higher being who is a greater trickster than the slick coyote – is pure Mexican and Mexico, of course, is Bolano’s focus in his final epic novel, a book that rivals James Joyce’s landmark Finnegans Wake for its scope, complexity, and enigmatic narrative, which is no small literary accident.
Like Joyce, Bolano draws upon an encyclopedic range of literary works in 2666, everything from Graham Greene’s 1940 parable The Power and the Glory, set in Mexico during a period of anti-clerical violence and persecution, to William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist (1971), a nightmarish plunge into the dark side of the Jesuit faith where demons really do exist.
The motivational spark for Finnegans Wake, taken from the 18th-century Italian philosopher Giambattista Vico, is that history is cyclic (Finnegans Wake begins with the end of a sentence left unfinished on the last page). Looping Mexico’s current human homicide crisis around the sins of the Nazis – ghosts of the German war machine appear and merge and disappear in 2666’s 900 pages – Bolano invokes the same philosophy but takes it one step further to suggest that God is a human construct and the cyclic loop of man’s depraved crimes against his fellow man cannot simply be dismissed as anomalies in an otherwise ordered and structured universe.
Chilean-born Bolano – who spent many years living in Mexico – posits that the barbaric, unsolved murders of the factory girls of Ciudad Juarez in the northern Mexican state of Chihuahua, where the bodies of more than 1,000 women, some raped and hideously mutilated, have been found since 1993 (with scores of others still missing) must be seen as incontrovertible proof that human existence is governed by the laws of chaos and that theocracy – the kind of suffocating Roman Catholic theocracy that hovers over Mexico like a dense layer of smog—gets in the way and leads to the sort of perversity it aims to prevent: After all, if God is watching everything you’re doing and you’re going to hell for it anyway, why not descend into absolute deviance in the process and slice off a nipple or torture the genitalia of your innocent victim with shards of broken glass if you’re intent on killing them (for whatever nefarious reason) in the first place?
“Modern man likes to pretend his thinking is wide-awake,” Octavio Paz, the first Mexican writer to become a Nobel laureate with his 1990 prize for literature, writes in The Labyrinth of Solitude. “But this wide-awake thinking has led us into the mazes of a nightmare in which the torture chambers are endlessly repeated in the mirrors of reason.”