Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Tres libros

I recently read three short books, all fiction about Mexico: the novel Signs Preceding the End of the World by Yuri Herrera (trans. Lisa Dillman), the collection of short stories Barefoot Dogs by Antonio Ruiz-Camacho, and the play so go the ghosts of méxico, part one by Matthew Paul Olmos. Olmos is an American Latino, Ruiz-Camacho is Mexican but now lives in the US and writes in English, while Herrera is Mexican, now lives in the US, but continues to write in Spanish. All three books deal with the themes of family, machismo, violence, and loss within the shady underworld of border crossings and drug cartels. In each, what is lost (or never had) weighs upon the protagonists, compelling them northward and beyond.

I became interested in Olmos' work because I had bought a season subscription to Undermain Theatre. Last month Undermain produced the world premier of part two, so I read part one before attending. Part one tells the story of the bravest woman in Mexico who becomes sheriff after a drug cartel murders the last sheriff. She is haunted by several ghosts of Mexico, including her decapitated predecessor as well as the daughter she will never have now that she's become a sheriff herself. Olmos' stage directions read like poetry, and the words his characters deliver are built on a bedrock of melody and rhythm that at times surpasses mere content. Music shifts between ambient sound design and catalyst, at times, even character. I eagerly await Undermain's production of part three next season; it promises to be just as important, necessary, and accessible.

Barefoot Dogs came to my attention when the Texas Institute of Letters awarded it the prize for Best Work of Fiction. A collection of related stories that revolve around the extended family of a Mexican patriarch who goes missing, the characters suffer their loss in personal grievings that continue to connect them together as a family despite the geographic and emotional distances between them. The writing is elegant while remaining excruciatingly raw. Familial and erotic love trip along the tightrope stretched over a chasm of apathy that threatens to swallow the characters whole should they make one wrong move. The stand-out story in my opinion is "Better Latitude," about the patriarch's mistress and their son: twenty-one pages with twice as many emotional gut punches.

Herrera's novel continues to haunt me days after finishing it. So simple a story: a woman is sent in search of her brother who had gone north and had gone missing. But its simplicity is a cover for the book's mythic proportions. And I'm still not sure where exactly in the text the transubstantiation takes place, if it ever really did. Maybe it is really just a simple story after all. But ohmygod this story is everything. Lisa Dillman has done the Lord's work by translating it. Her short Note (the entire book is only 114 pages) is eye-opening. I envy her the levels at which she's read the original and the hours of thought gone into each translated passage. I want another translation, though: this work needs to be adapted for the stage, serve as the basis of a film or of an opera. Makina needs to become one of the great archetypes of literature: the perfect blend of saint, prophet, messenger, bad ass, party girl, switchboard operator.