The Mexican--US Border: Where the Imagination Flourishes…
Born in Sydney, Tim Baker lived in Rome and Madrid before moving to Paris, where he wrote about jazz. He has worked on film projects in India, China, Mexico, Brazil and Australia, and currently lives in the South of France with his wife, their son and two rescue animals. His debut novel, Fever City, was published in 2016. In his new novel, City Without Stars, as a deadly war between rival cartels erupts in Mexico, and a shocking sequence of serial killings continues unabated, a female activist and a renegade cop team up to try to bring down the narcos. Below, exclusively for Foyles, Tim reflects on the literary impact of the Mexican-US border and lists some of his favourite novels set in this notorious region.
Borders – those arbitrary invisible lines where one nation stops and another starts – are always the most dramatic marker of the beginning of a great journey; or its end. Crossing borders evokes both expectations of immediate change and the hopeful confirmation of the universality of core human values.
For some of us, slipping across a border is a rare opportunity to start a new life; for others it’s simply a shopping expedition. History, geography; the mathematics of exchange rates, tariffs and duty-free bargains: borders are born out of rudimentary schooling and basic tribal understanding. Yours. Ours. Welcome. Danger Minefield. Some borders encourage exchange and friendship, others rivalry and exclusion. They are as necessary as they are absurd, these shadow lines of diplomatic triumph and failure.
Borders are rarely equal. Passage across them often implies the loss of a nationality, a language, a way of life – and if we’re lucky, the acquisition of another.
But at the end of the day they become whatever the crosser wants them to be, which is why borders provide such powerful terrain for fiction. For the last thirty years, no border has inspired more stories than the tumultuous 3,145km boundary separating the USA and Mexico. Here is a selection of some of the best novels set in this simmering frontier of privilege and disadvantage, opportunity and denial, gratitude and resentment, dream and reality . . .
2666 by Roberto Bolaño
The mother lode of US-Mexican frontier books, written by a Chilean novelist whilst he was dying in Barcelona. The opening is whimsical in its portrayal of three literary scholars all in love with the same female colleague. But when the subject of their collective research – a writer who makes J D Salinger look like a publicity hound – is spotted in the fictitious border town of Santa Teresa, they decide to leave the comfort of their European homes and investigate. What happens next is both extraordinary and brutal, as the town’s wretched history of criminality, corruption and serial killings is interspersed with a bloody Mexican boxing match, life in a local prison and survival on the Eastern front during World War II. An immense and complex tale about the mysteries of evil in the 20th century.
The Crossing by Cormac McCarthy
Not as well-known as some of his other novels, The Crossing bears all the hallmarks of McCarthy's flinty poetry: the meticulous attention to the details of a hard life; the care taken in the performance of an exacting task; the unexpected suffering and bad luck that the poor are forced to suffer. The scenes of working with horses, and forging a trusting relationship with a wild wolf are authentic and moving; the sting of loss and hardship haunting; the feel for the land portrayed in all its beauty and cruelty memorable. The border here is a porous space, where actual markings are indistinct, but the destinies waiting on the other side are immense, daunting and transformative. A modern classic.
Pedro Páramo by Juan Ruflo
Local landowner and tyrant, Pedro Páramo, is not the most popular person in the town of Comala. One of his neighbours describes Pedro as 'living bile', which is not quite accurate as Pedro, along with all the other inhabitants of what is literally a ghost town, is dead. This of course doesn’t stop his story being told in this astounding tale of the ultimate frontier – between the living and the departed. Written with a severe clarity that contrasts perfectly with the magic realism elements, it reads like a user’s guide to the border region, where petty insults lead to stubborn annihilation and where that most outrageous of commodities – redemption – always comes at a price: not just for the buyer but especially for the seller.
The Power of the Dog by Don Winslow
Part one of a trilogy, this taut, explosive crime novel seamed with a black humour as bitter as Colombian roast, is rightly considered The Godfather of the War on Drugs. A roman à clef that examines the hopelessness of America’s policies towards drugs, it gives us inflamed, fictionalised portraits of historic narco leaders Miguel Ángel Félix Gallardo and Amado Carrillo Fuentes, and ends with a dramatised reference to the real-life assassination of Cardinal Posadas Ocampo at Guadalajara airport in 1993.
Signs Preceding the End of the World by Yuri Herrera
From its startling opening scene, where people are swallowed by a huge sink hole, the theme of a lurking underworld with Orpheus-like characters battling to escape into the world of the living across the border is announced. A teenage survivor of the catastrophe, Yukina, is sent by her mother on the perilous journey to the border, where she is expected to find and retrieve her brother, who is working in the States. A lyrical meditation on hope and disillusionment.
Into the Beautiful North by Luis Alberto Urrea (currently out of print in the UK)
Most novels about the Mexican-US border have the protagonists heading south to have their minds blown or their will tested (Under the Volcano; On the Road; Old Gringo), but this gently satiric tale of false promises and real hopes inverts the journey. When a Mexican town is taken over by narcos, the teenage protagonist, Nayeli, seeks inspiration from her favourite gringo film and sets off on a picaresque quest to find her own Magnificent Seven to liberate her town – and maybe even find her father, who abandoned the family for his own selfish shot at the American Dream.
Author photo © Colin Englert