But George Szanto’s second installment in his Conquests of Mexico Trilogy is no magical realist trip, no New Age guide to clairvoyance. Listen to the voice:
I heard machine-regular splashing. In his pool, Ernie the Chilango, swimming laps. Butterfly up. Crawl back. A lap of backstroke. Dull as a pendulum, but impressive energy. And determination – the water would be chilly. Well, good for him.
Szanto reads like Hemingway edited by Raymond Chandler. Is that a compliment? I don’t know. All the fragments. Terribly macho. Yet Szanto’s hero Jorge (George), a criminology professor from the North, ain’t no cowboy. And he’s got a soft spot for unspoken poetry.
Jorge’s good friend Pepe has been elected mayor of Michoácuaro, but on Jorge’s arrival Pepe has been disappeared. Welcome to Mexico, and all its attendant corruption and upheaval. Now no one seems terribly dedicated to finding out the truth about Pepe’s absence. Jorge asks questions without end and never gets the answers he wants – not from the police, not from Pepe’s lovers, not from his housekeeper or friends. We’ve seen this before: the white man banging his head against the ancient stones of Mexico.
But maybe we haven’t understood it. In Szanto’s remarkable dissection of Mexican culture, however, we just might this time. Here Pepe’s housekeeper scolds him for innocently asking, What’s new?
“This isn’t a good question, señor. What is new is not good…The Holy Jesus sends us good health, this is normal. If something is new, then I’m not healthy. Work, to have work, this is normal. If Our Lord lets me work in my house, or in your house, or in the field, this is good. But no work means no money. You see?”
Szanto winds his story through the usual suspects in Mexico – brujas and superstitions, ghosts and curses – with his criminologist always doubting in a good Norteamericano way, but inevitably submerged in those mysteries himself. That’s the way Jorge appears to the villagers near the end: a marriage of Northern logic and Southern magic. His friends even try to get him to wear the clichéd safari jacket and Australian outback hat, symbols of a jungle he’s never visited.
It’s a beautifully woven web that Szanto spins along the way, forcing us to know this could really happen. “Coincidence becomes cause,” one of Jorge’s friends explains, “and cause is proof.” So we find out how a statue can shoot out the lights in the town square, stopping only when its own stone gun is destroyed; we see why our hero can speak to the dead, including his own wife; we finally understand how Mexican drivers can pass trucks on blind corners and come out alive. Most of the time.
I suppose it’s Szanto’s love of Mexico that makes him throw in Aztec and Mayan agriculture, and maquiladoras, and PRI politics, and hell-fire bishops, and beaten dogs, and bad tequila, and that most hoary of clichés, police corruption. But he scatters them throughout the book like so many corn seeds tossed by a campesino, and they take root, and grow into something you couldn’t imagine.
Readers may feel like a frustrated American tourist when they find nobody answers any questions directly, and turning the pages only brings more puzzles; but the payoff does come in the end, with the loose threads throughout the book neatly woven into a charming blanket. It’s another trick Szanto must have picked up south of the border – how to write about indecision and doubt without getting the reader all antsy. Jorge picks it up, anyway. “Northern research methods didn’t work in Michoácuaro. So why bother? Indirection, the only way left to go.” mRb