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Héctor Aguilar Camín: La Guerra de Galio [Galio’s War]

There are many, too many, novels on this site that, for reasons that are not readily apparent to me, have not been translated into English. And this is one. Only one of his books has been translated into English and that is a work of non-fiction. The book is chaotic, fast-moving, has some sex and violence (but not too much), gets right into the heart of the politics of a country, in this case Mexico in the 1970s, and is profoundly intellectual in a way that too few novels are. It is also one of the best political novels of the second half of the twentieth century but, because its politics concern Mexico, rather than the USA or Europe, it has been too much ignored.

The novel starts with the report of the death of Carlos García Vigil, whom everybody calls simply Vigil and who is the hero of the book (rather than the eponymous Galio Bermúdez). Much of the book recounts Vigil’s life, primarily in the 1970s. At the beginning of the book, in 1971, he is married with a daughter but has just separated from his wife, Antonia Ruelas. As a result he is sleeping in friends’ apartments. He has a complicated love life. His true love is Mercedes Biedma, who will later die in Los Angeles, but he is also having an affair with a married woman, Oralia Ventura, who will later say of him that the problem with their affair was that they were both in love with the same person – him. Much of the early part of the book involves his love life and the complications arising from his love life, with the addition of his colleague, Romelia, will continue throughout the novel. He is a professional historian, writing a book on Mexican history, and also a part-time writer for the newspaper La República. At a party organized by La República, he meets the editor of the paper, Octavio Sala. Sala is wittily known as la conciencia de la República, which can be translated as either the conscience of La República (i.e. the newspaper) or the conscience of the Republic (i.e. Mexico). Indeed, it is Galio Bermúdez who uses this witticism.

Vigil first meets Galio at a club, when they are out drinking. He knows of Galio, who is a well-known intellectual, who only writes for a right-wing paper, who has written books and who is connected with and, indeed, a supporter of the government. Sala invites Galio to join the paper as a leader writer which he reluctantly does and, as a result, he comes to know Galio better, lunching with him, Sala and the President. Though the President is never named, it is clearly, judging by the dates, Luis Echeverría Álvarez. Sala is a fascinating character. He is determined to do what is right and fight against Government corruption yet, at the same time, is on intimate terms with the likes of Galio and the President. He is always on the go, making decisions and pushing the agenda of the paper. While there are various key issues the paper fights for, there are two main ones. The first concerns the guerrillas fighting the government. Vigil and many of his friends were involved, if only peripherally, in the Tlatelolco massacre and have connections with guerrillas. Indeed, two of Vigil’s good friends are very much involved in the guerrilla movement. La República‘s sympathy towards the guerrillas leads not only to condemnation from the government (though this is done quietly) and, in particularly from Galio (hence the title of the book), but also huge dissension within the paper. Their involvement in the presidential elections which will lead to the election of José López Portillo was also controversial. Much of the novel concerns the political activity of Sala, aided by Vigil and others, with the opposition of Galio and the government. Galio, for example, is the only one to give a bad review of Vigil’s book on Mexican history.

Eventually, Sala is ousted from the paper, causing its circulation to drop. He immediately forms another paper and Vigil joins him but gradually drops out. He is even asked back to La República, when a new regime is set up in that paper. Vigil’s involvement with his guerrilla friends and the death of Mercedes and one of the guerrillas, a very close friend, have a profound effect on him and his death is no surprise, at least to the anonymous narrator.

Camín tells a superb story of the political machinations in Mexico during the 1970s and does it brilliantly by showing them through the eyes of a journalist but a journalist who is also something of an insider. The character of the somewhat sinister but brilliant Galio who is even more of an insider is a master stroke and a very effective counterpoint to Sala and to Vigil. But, ultimately, Vigil is just an ordinary man and cannot live in the stratified air in which Galio and Sala live and must pay the price, with two bullets in his chest. If only someone would translate this book.

Publishing history

First published by Cal y Arena in 1990
No English translation