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Carmen Boullosa: Texas (Texas: The Great Theft)

Watching Western films, we get a very distorted view of Mexicans. They are poor suffering peasants or they are figures of derision with funny accents or they are slightly sinister people, also with funny accents. In short, Western films show the then prevailing US view of Mexico and Mexicans, a view which, frankly, has not improved a great deal since. Carmen Boullosa’s novel aims to redress this.

She recounts the early history of Mexican colonisation by the United States and the treachery by which they stole the territory, which is now Texas, from the Mexicans. Indeed, the sub-title of the book is The Grand Theft. Her potted history of events is told in Boullosa’s usual style – direct, critical, witty and sparing no-one, particularly the US. Indeed, throughout the book, there will be references to US treachery and malfeasance. However, the real story starts in the town of Bruneville, a very thinly disguised Brownsville. Like Brownsville, Bruneville was founded in 1848. Bruneville is across the Rio Grande from the Mexican town of Matasánchez, Brownsville across the Rio Grande from the Mexican town of Matamoros. Boullosa points out that Matasánchez has a long history, predating Columbus by many years and is a sophisticated, clean and cultural town. Bruneville is not.

The sheriff of Bruneville in 1859, when the story starts, is Sheriff Spears. We never learn his first name. He is, according to Boullosa, a poor carpenter and a worse sheriff. He gets into a dispute with Don Nepomuceno, a Mexican landowner, and a man well-respected in the community and says to him Shut up, you greaser (Boullosa gives us both the English and Spanish.) We only learn the specific details of the insult later on. Nepomuceno is, in fact, helping a drunken cowboy, who has been caught urinating in the street by Spears and is then beaten up by him. Following the insult, there is a standoff between Spears and Nepomuceno, which lasts under a minute in real time but takes many pages in the book, before someone not connected with the incident shouts. Both men react, with the result that Nepomuceno shoots the sheriff in the leg. (The gringos say that it is because he is a bad shot but it appears he did this deliberately so as not to kill Spears.) This insult, which will lead to many of the events in the book, is witnessed by many and commented by many more. The Mexicans are, on the whole, shocked, while some of the gringos say that Don Nepomuceno had it coming. Boullosa gives us detailed descriptions of the many and varied reactions. The matter soon spreads, first around the town and then well beyond.

Initially, there are only two people who have not heard of the incident in Bruneville and Matasánchez. A man is lying in a coma in the infirmary in Bruneville, probably with yellow fever, while, in Matasánchez, a woman, an orphan who was married to a much older man, is effectively kept locked up by her husband. Boullosa tells us their stories in some detail. Immediately after the shooting, Nepomuceno realises that this could have unpleasant consequences, so he immediately rounds up his cattle, puts them on a barge and flees, before the gringos, primarily the Texas Rangers, react. The Rangers chase after them but cannot find them, not least because they do not know the local geography as well. The book recounts how the two sides battle each other. In fact, there are more than two sides, as Boullosa throws in the various local Native American tribes, as well as a few slaves and one former slave (wittily called Tim Black). Indeed, she has more fun with names. Spears’ replacement as sheriff is called Wheel. The drunken man Nepomuceno intervenes with Spears for is called Lázaro Rueda, rueda being the Spanish for wheel.

Boullosa tells a wonderful story, which scuttles back and forth between the various sides and between Bruneville and Matasánchez. She recounts the stories of many of the various participants – from Elizabeth Stealman (née Vert), daughter of a sugar millionaire and married to a rich lawyer who names both a ship and street after his wife, to Eleonor Fear, unhappy wife of the Methodist minister, who is more than thirty years older than her, from Sarah Ferguson (no, not that one), who dresses as a man and calls herself Soro, so that she can gamble with the men to Trust, a good-looking young man, with three slaves called One, Two and Three. While it is certainly a hilarious ride through Texas and Mexico, almost roller-coaster like in its ups and downs, with a large cast of characters popping in and out, it also has a serious intent and that is to expose the racism and hypocrisy of the United States side, even though Boullosa tends to use humour more than direct attack to castigate them. It is now available in English, thanks to Deep Vellum.

Publishing history

First published by Alfaguara in 2013
First English translation by Deep Vellum in 2014