Reading Mexico: Stories by Josh Barkan will make one think that Donald Trump’s demand for the border wall is justified. Mexico comes across in these 12 stories as a country of drug dealers and their mafia along with prostitutes and quite many people who resort to violence without too much provocation. The stories are set in the capital city where “To live ... you have to pretend there aren’t many dangers” [‘Everything else is going to be fine’].
Each of the twelve stories shocks us with a different variety of danger. In the very first one, ‘The Chef and El Chapo’, we meet “the most badass narco in the country” who is ushered into the Chef’s restaurant by a retinue of his AK-47 swinging guards for a uniquely tasty meal. The Chef is under duress to prepare that exquisite meal the type of which the Boss has not tasted so far. The reputation of the Chef is at stake. Worse, his life as well as those of the clients present in the restaurant is in danger as the Boss’s ego can be provoked dangerously and too easily. The Chef finds a way. He mixes his blood with the dish. But his blood has certain bitterness that comes with age and experience of the world. So he adds the blood of a little innocent girl whose thumb he cuts in order to procure the blood. The Boss who does not know of the secret ingredient yet relishes the meal. But the subsequent knowledge does not bother him unduly. He cannot go back on his promise to reward the Chef if he relished the meal. The Chef’s ego is comparatively diminutive and hence he regrets what he did.
The violence and darkness notwithstanding, each story has much humanity too in it. Each story throws light on both sides of human nature: the dark and the bright; sin and the potential for redemption. This makes the collection eminently rewarding in spite of all the darkness that may nauseate the reader occasionally.
I found the story ‘The God of Common Names’ particularly profound. “This is a Romeo and Juliet story.” Thus begins the tale which goes on to narrate the tragic end of two adolescents in love. The boy and the girl were the offspring of two notorious drug dealers who are each other’s rivals. Their teacher, a non-religious Jew, tries his best to save his students but fails. The teacher himself married a woman against her father’s fervently religious appeals. The very religious father, according to the teacher-narrator, negates life (not very unlike the drug pusher) while wrapping his self in a small bundle of virtue, blind to essential things of life. Like most religious people, the father wants the teacher to “denounce who he was” for the sake of God and religious traditions.
Every story is a gem by its own right. The drawback, however, is the violence in which each is steeped. Each story is narrated by a first person narrator which makes the story very convincing and personal. But as we move on to the second half of the book we may feel a sense of déjà vu in spite of the fact that the narrator is an entirely different person, belonging to another walk of life that we have not seen so far.
We meet a whole spectrum of narrators in this collection ranging from a retired nurse to a drug peddler, musician to plastic surgeon, painter to architect. But all of them present a rather dark picture of Mexico City. The book deserves to be read, however, if only to realise that there is much potential for redemption in spite of all that wretchedness.
PS. I received this book from Blogging for Books for this review.
Visit Josh Barkan, the author, at his website HERE