Reviewed by Charlotte Whittle
In the 1970s, foreign debt, inflation, and political crises plagued Mexico’s previously strong economy, and the discovery of extensive oil reserves in the country’s rural Gulf Coast region seemed to many to offer a panacea for the nation’s ills. The resulting oil boom ushered in a period of speculation and prosperity that was followed by a catastrophic crash in the early 1980s. These economic and political changes form the backdrop against which Héctor Aguilar Camín’s first novel, Death in Veracruz, unfolds. First published in Mexico in 1986, the novel chronicles the era of José López Portillo’s presidency (1976-82), and its reconstruction of the period lays bare the workings of the political class in a world where surface appearances often conceal more sinister manipulations of power.
The novel’s plot concerns the relationship between its narrator, known only by the nickname Negro, his longtime friend Francisco Rojano, and Rojano’s wife, Anabela Guillaumín. As youths in Xalapa, the provincial capital of Veracruz, Rojano and Negro bond over a shared political idealism; later, as students in Mexico City, they share an infatuation with the same woman. Negro embarks on a career as a reporter, and Rojano on a career in politics. When a chance encounter brings them back together, Negro becomes embroiled in a romantic triangle and a political conspiracy, both of which threaten his safety and his sanity.
Rojano’s political ambitions lead him to run for mayor of the small town of Chicontepec, Veracruz, where Anabela has inherited a significant holding of land. Armed with a series of incriminating photographs depicting “the bloodshed typical of rural Gulf Coast politics,” Rojano requests Negro’s collaboration in tracking, and making public through his column, the potentially criminal activities of a local oil union boss (25). The dictatorial Lázaro “Lacho” Pizarro is eccentric and inscrutable, by turns taciturn and loquacious, and his portrayal as a colorful strongman stops just shy of caricature. At his headquarters in Poza Rica, streams of locals line up to request his assistance: Pizarro is a Godfather-like figure, feared and worshipped in equal measure, dispensing favors and disciplining his subjects, at times managing them like so many pawns in a game of chess. Aguilar Camín’s descriptions imbue even Pizarro’s inanimate surroundings with a menacing quality, and it is in evocations of setting such as this that Chandler Thompson’s translation is at its best: “A dense grove of India laurel trees filled much of the space. Their shiny roots snaked in and out of the ground like the tentacles of an octopus, and their fronds kept the fierce sun of Veracruz at bay” (54).
The oil union appears to have brought prosperity to the workers of Poza Rica and the surrounding region; the land is cultivated and well irrigated, and cooperatives, where union members buy produce at below market prices, are flourishing. Pizarro, the architect of this “civilized domain snatched from the wilderness” sees himself as nothing less than the founder of a new civilization, and baptizes the lands he oversees as “La Mesopotamia” (94). He tells the narrator:
From time immemorial these lands were meant to be shaped by human hands and were meant to be called La Mesopotamia. Civilization is said to have begun in Mesopotamia, right? It lay between two rivers, the Tigris and the Euphrates. I doubt those two rivers have anything these two don’t have. The soil here is as good as any in the world. Come on, I’m taking you to the dam we’re stocking with carp and trout. That’s another thing they didn’t know how to do in Mesopotamia on the Tigris. But fame is like that, paisano. And history’s the same way. If something is meant to happen, there’s nothing humans can do to stop it. (94)
For Pizarro, progress is inevitable, and he channels his megalomania toward the betterment of the lives of the people of Veracruz. But beyond the apparent signs of progress, Negro also sees the scars left on the landscape by the new “petro-civilization”: “eroded fields, flaring smokestacks, the footprint of the oil industry on the outskirts of Poza Rica, and several kilometers of factories, oil spills, machine shops and open space buried under a proliferation of metallic trash” (83). If the debris left by the oil industry casts doubt on Pizarro’s claims about the region’s prosperity, the dark side of his theory of history emerges when he addresses Rojano’s accusation that he has murdered local citizens in land disputes:
Don’t let that bother you. Civilization has killed more people than you and I could ever mourn. In my opinion, two lives are worth more than one, and three are worth more than two. That’s historical arithmetic and what equality is all about… there’s nothing personal about who dies and who lives. If at a given moment you had to choose between the development of penicillin and the death of everyone in Poza Rica, including yourself, which would you choose? I’d opt for penicillin because that’s what progress is all about. You always have to choose the many over the few … people are dying at the rate of two a day just from drinking mezcal…these are the deaths that must be stopped, the barren ones driven by mezcal and ignorance. There are always going to be violent deaths, that’s the law of history. It’s up to us to make sure they’re fertile and creative, that’s all. (98-99)
Pizarro’s cynicism seems to echo that of Orson Welles’s Harry Lime in the film The Third Man, but combines it with an almost Stalinist conviction that the collateral damage of progress is something to be taken in stride, accepted as an inevitable byproduct of the relentless march of history. After all, says Pizarro, how many died during the revolution so that Cárdenas could eventually become president? “Do the numbers, my paisano columnist, don’t be squeamish” (99).
Pizarro may exercise despotic control over the region, but as the narrator himself speculates, there is little to suggest that Rojano would bring beneficial change to the region as mayor of Chicontepec. The novel repeatedly highlights the breach that separates Mexico’s ruling class from most of the rest of the population. Anabela’s taste for fine dining and luxury furniture has its counterpart in Rojano’s pursuit of wealth and debauchery. Much of the political drama is played out in bars and restaurants where whiskey flows freely and members of the elite partake of a distinctly non-native haute cuisine. Rojano complains that Chicontepec is “a fossilized remnant from the nation’s past” where aspirin is all but unknown, babies are weaned on pulque, and bestiality is common practice (128). His hyperbole is all the more grotesquely effective for being delivered while he and the narrator dine on snails and salmon at Passy, an exclusive Mexico City restaurant synonymous with wealth and power. Their conversation makes a mockery of the supposed mission to rescue the region from “backwardness and injustice” (122).
Despite his skepticism about Rojano’s motives, Negro leaves his encounter with Pizarro ready to believe his friend’s accusations. However, more than his friendship with Rojano, the narrator is motivated by his attraction to Rojano’s wife Anabela, for whose favor he once competed with his friend, and with whom he soon reignites an intense affair. A gamine seductress, Anabela is perhaps the most compelling character in Aguilar Camín’s novel. When we first meet her, she wears the facade of a dutiful wife, but Anabela soon sheds her costume to become a willful femme fatale who would be at home in a classic work of film noir, with lines that could easily be uttered by Lauren Bacall or Barbara Stanwyck. Her dialogues with Negro are quick, taut, and playful, and stylishly rendered by Thompson. Take, for instance, the conversation that ensues after Anabela’s unannounced arrival at Negro’s apartment:
“Are you a corrupt journalist or do you just have a price?”
“I’m a journalist from Veracruz.”
“Is that an obstacle or do you make it pay?”
“I follow Arteaga’s rule to the letter.”
“And what is Arteaga’s rule?”
“If the money won’t corrupt you, take it.”
“And how do you know if it won’t corrupt you?”
“You don’t know.”
“So do you take it or not?”
“Only if it doesn’t corrupt you.”
“And who’s this genius Arteaga?”
“He’s a reporter for Excelsior, the author of the universally applicable
aphorism that ‘There’s no such thing as a small hangover or an idiot without a briefcase.’ And you?”
“What about me?
“Is being married an obstacle or do you make it pay? Are you a faithful
wife or just a wife?”
“I’ve always been a dutiful wife.”
“Night after night?”
“Child after child.” (31-2)
Anabela is provocative, immoderate, and prone to hedonism. But behind her playfulness lies a steely determination, and she may be more involved in her husband’s scheme against Pizarro than is initially apparent. The strength of her resolve to defeat the union boss increases her allure, but it is this quest that makes the love affair with Negro unsustainable. Indeed, Anabela’s most mysterious and perhaps unconvincing trait is her enduring loyalty to her husband, a boorish philanderer whose scheming and appetitive nature does little to endear him to the reader.
Death in Veracruz is full of cinematic echoes. The narrator’s contact in Internal Affairs, a Veracruz paisano with “the small eyes of a ‘40’s movie idol” and valuable information in his pocket, warns his friend not to make too much of Rojano’s claims: “Don’t make a movie of it, my friend” (49). But Negro is already in too deep not to become the noir dupe: the character in pursuit of truth, following the wrong leads, lost in a labyrinth of half-truths and appearances. He, and the reader, have more to learn from his paisano in Internal Affairs than from anyone else. His friend comments: “I said appeared, paisano. We have nothing to go on but appearances. The widow appeared to have ordered the killing of Pizarro, Pizarro appeared to have taken out the man the widow sent to do it, and he appeared to have threatened the widow by sending her the leather pouch. Sheer appearances, paisano”(258).
There is no tidy solution to all the intrigue. It is impossible to know the cause of Pizarro’s demise, just as it is impossible to know the true extent of Anabela’s role in provoking the novel’s central catastrophe. The narrative depends on a complex political context, and it is a tribute to Aguilar Camín’s gripping style that he can describe the machinations of government without lapsing into dry exposition. The political mesh is opaque, crimes unsolvable, and what seems to be indisputable proof may be falsified. In this respect, despite its historically specific setting, Aguilar Camín’s novel comes to seem prescient. It anticipates more recent statements such as this one by William Finnegan: “In Mexico, it is often impossible to know who is behind something—a massacre, a candidacy, an assassination, the capture of a crime boss, a ‘discovery’ of high-level corruption. Either the truth is too fluid and complex to define, or it remains opaque to anyone not directly involved in manipulating events… When Mexicans discuss the news, they talk often about pantallas—screens, illusions, behind which are more screens, all created to obscure the facts.” Even Rojano’s grizzly fate finds echo in recent cases of lynchings that have resulted from a mistrust of authorities and a general climate of fear.
The novel’s Spanish title suggests the devastatingly routine nature of the events described. While in English, Death in Veracruz seems to point to a single episode, Morir en el Golfo allows room for repetition: “to die in the Gulf,” or “dying in the Gulf,” just one way to die among many, one instance of what might happen when one dies in Veracruz. The political scene may have changed, and the enormity of current crises may eclipse those of recent history–under current conditions of violence and impunity, a journalist from Veracruz might not have lived to tell his tale–but thirty years after its initial appearance in Mexico, Aguilar Camín’s first novel shows noir to still be a fruitful mode for exploring an intricate maze of links between crime and power.
Aguilar Camín, Héctor. Death in Veracruz. Translated by Chandler Thompson. Tucson: Schaffner Press, 2015.
Finnegan, William. “Letter from Mexico. The Kingpins: The fight for Guadalajara.” The New Yorker. Condé Nast. 2 July 2012 <http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2012/07/02/the-kingpins>
Ahmed, Azam and Paulina Villegas. “As Frustrations with Mexico’s Government Rise, So Do Lynchings.” The New York Times. The New York Times Company. 23 January 2016 <http://www.nytimes.com/2016/01/24/world/americas/as-frustrations-with-mexicos-government-rise-so-do-lynchings.html?_r=2>
Imison, Paul. “How Veracruz Became the Most Dangerous State in Mexico for Journalists.” VICE News. 17 August 2015 <https://news.vice.com/article/how-veracruz-became-the-most-dangerous-state-in-mexico-for-journalists>