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Héctor Aguilar Camín: Morir en el golfo (Death in Veracruz)

Good political novels written in the twentieth century are not too common. To be sure, there are the satires, from Animal Farm to a whole range of current Russian novels, as well as those set in the future, such as 1984, but good political novels dealing with contemporary events, not using satire, are still relatively rare. Indeed, the two novels of Camín reviewed on this site are the best that I can think of in the twentieth century. Both deal with the contemporary situation in Mexico, particularly the corruption but also the political machinations, which are both interesting, even if you know little of Mexican politics but also superbly written.

The narrator is a journalist. The big tragedy of his life is that he was in love with Anabela Guillaumín but she was in love with and married his friend, Francisco Rojano. Our unnamed narrator remained single, focusing on his work, while Rojano (which is what everyone calls him) went to make a career in politics in Vera Cruz. He follows Rojano’s career, sometimes meeting him but often following his career from a distance and while our narrator’s career progresses, Rojano’s has a certain upheaval. Then Rojano wants to meet him and takes him back to the house. While Anabela is looking after the children, Rojano shows the narrator a series of leather folders. Each one contains details – news clippings and photos – of what appear to be massacres. In each case it seems that one or more gunmen had attacked an individual while sitting in a café and, in doing so, killed or seriously injured the innocent bystanders. All this has taken place in relatively rural areas of Vera Cruz. But Rojano is suspicious about the deaths. Were the gunmen, in fact after the man they claimed to be or were the innocent bystanders the real target, as they owned property that the politically connected wanted? Rojano is concerned, not least because he and Anabela both own property in that area and he is worried about being targeted. In all cases the beneficiary of the deaths, that is the person who obtained the properties, is the same, the local oil union head, Lázaro Pizarro.

Rojano wants our narrator to investigate these events. Only when Anabela, with whom he is clearly still in love, persuades him, does he set off in pursuit. Against the background of political events in Mexico – presidential elections and so on – we gradually learn the story of Lázaro Pizarro. Through a fellow reporter, the narrator manages to make contact with Pizarro and goes and visits him. Pizarro and his staff are charming and helpful. The narrator is shown round and manages to see many aspects of Pizarro’s operations. What is most interesting is that Pizarro is something like a sultan of old. People queue up to see him and elicit (and often get) favours, from help with the bureaucracy to loans. He drives around in an armoured vehicle with an entourage and, like presidents, has a codename, which his staff use when speaking to other staff members about his whereabouts. The narrator is impressed but can find out little about what really happened with the shootings. All he does find out is that Pizarro is adored by the locals and has apparently done a lot of good, in helping with development and employment.

Rojano, despite his mistrust of Pizarro, is helped to obtain a political post in Vera Cruz which has Pizarro’s support. From there, things start going drastically wrong for Rojano and the political complications get greater. Is Pizarro really like a Mafia godfather or is he really only interested in helping the local people? What exactly is the role of Rojano and Anabela? How much is PEMEX, the Mexican oil company, aware of what is going on? Is our narrator blinded by his love for Anabela and unable to see what is really going on? And who is carrying out the various killings or, indeed, did they take place at all? Behind it all stands the figure of Pizarro, good man or evil man, it is difficult to say. Camín tells a wonderful story that keeps us guessing to the end so that we never really know who is doing what or why. But, at the same time, he shows the corruption and political manoeuvring within Mexico, which seems quite extensive. This novel has finally appeared in English, albeit thirty-five years late.

Publishing history

First published by Editorial Océano in 1980
First English translation by Schaffner Press in 2015
Translated by Chandler Thompson