Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie has said, “The problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.” Less reputable speakers have said less insightful things recently about the kind of immigrants Latin America (and specifically Mexico) is “sending” into the United States. At its most violent, Edmundo Paz Soldán’s writing can be near indigestible, but throughout Norte it’s also masterful and magnetic, and this year has demonstrated that the American imagination could use another dozen novels with the defiant honesty of Norte.
Norte is a tale of subtlety and shades of gray in a moment when the US-Mexican border is a divisive political sledgehammer with no room for either. Soldán does something that otherwise eludes America culturally: navigate the porous space with an honest, realistic eye. Soldán writes of the unshakeable fantasy of the border, and of its weight in the lives of those who cross it.
Where Norte succeeds most incredibly is in demonstrating the power of inventions like a “border” across a continent that has survived and will persist long after the United States and Mexico have come and gone. Near the end of the novel, one character considers American efforts to secure the border: “It made him laugh because the only ones they’d be getting rid of were the innocent ones, the honest workers.”
While Norte begins with what seems, at first glance, as utterly superfluous sexual violence, it’s ultimately revealed to be anything but. This initial act of savage brutality is Jesús. He is violently, sadistically criminal; and at the same time, he’s impossible not to be captivated by. The scenes of his violence that follow this first one are explicit and painful to read. They sit with the reader long after they’ve passed. But they’re critical to the story Soldán is telling. They do eventually descend into a Sadean madness that tracks consistently with the very madness consuming Jesús himself. The scenes become more and more difficult to read as the book draws on until it all seems too obscene.
Still, one of the most powerful moments comes early and is short and quiet. Between Jesús and perhaps the only one who might have been able to redeem him, to draw him back from the gruesome path upon which he was about to embark, is his sister. It is, after all, his sister that sits at the heart of Jesús’ descent. It was always Maria Luisa — or the image of her he kept with him throughout the years — who could draw him back from the bloodshed (or justify it, depending on his mood). It’s from the initial act of disconnected, and unexpected, brutality that Soldán shows us what it means to descend, step-by-step, into utter incomprehensibility. He’s a masterful storyteller as demonstrated by the magnetism of the novel’s most morally irredeemable character, a man Soldán is able to make simultaneously unfathomable and frighteningly easy to follow.
The reader’s first instinct is to be repulsed and turned away by Jesús’s graphic violence but overcoming that instinct is greatly rewarded. Soon the reader is as captivated by Jesús as Sam, the radio host recounting tales of serial killers on his nightly broadcast.
But Norte is not only one man’s story. It also tracks the life of Martín Ramírez, the real world artist herein fictionalized, as he becomes lost in his own madness (or perhaps only mute lucidity), falls into institutionalization, and fails to recognize the renown that the world would bestow upon him (both in the novel and real life) for his art. In a way, Martín’s muteness somehow allows him (the most famous and only undisguised real-world character) to best embody Soldán’s purpose for writing Notre (i.e., to write a story of “the Latin Americans lost in the immensity of the United States”).
Michelle, the graduate student whose life is perhaps less scintillating than the mens’, recedes into the other characters’ shadows. As the only character aware of the other two, it’s her perspective on the two men that invites us to partake in her ruminations on both. Having woven the three stories together despite their different chronologies (Jesús: 1984-2009; Michelle: 2008-2009; and Martín: 1931-1963), Soldán is able to tie up the loose ends in the last scene as two of the characters occupy (more or less) the same room (the real-life Martín Ramírez had died in 1963). Michelle’s narrative intersects both men’s only briefly — at least on the surface — but all three fold within the larger tale Soldán is telling about those who have navigated not only the literal border but the cultural divide and the inability of its travelers to always recognize its power.
Near the end of the book, Sam explains his obsession with serial killers to Michelle: “…it’s impossible to understand all of what’s inside of them. How they breathe, what they think, what brings them to kill this one or pardon that one.” Soldán has achieved something remarkable by doing just that — giving his readers access to this seemingly impenetrable space; if he is, in fact, relishing that accomplishment in this passage near the end of it all, he’s earned it.