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Emiliano Monge: Las tierras arrasadas (Among the Lost)

It is no secret that in recent years that there has been a large number of migrants, trying to enter richer countries, such as the United States and Western Europe. Sometimes, they are escaping political repression or war, in other cases they are economic migrants, looking for work that they cannot find back home. All too often, grim pictures on TV, in the press and on the web show the suffering they go through to reach their goal. Many do not make it and die en route.

This novel is about  a few of these migrants. In this case, they are from many countries – we have no idea which – and are in Mexico, en route to the United States from Central America. They are not going to get there because they have essentially been kidnapped by a group of people traffickers. We follow the people traffickers and people associated with them as well as their victims. The main couple are Epitafio and Estela (Spanish for grave stone). They are not the only characters to have a name related to death. There are Cementaria (cementario is the Spanish for cemetery), Mausoleo, Osaria (Osario is Spanish for ossuary) and Sepelio (Spanish for burial). There is a former quarry called Infierno. In short death is everywhere.

Epitafio and Estela are trafficking migrants. The women are all too often raped, by soldiers to whom they are given as bribes, and by others. The migrants themselves are sold but not before being brutalised. In some cases, they are killed before they can be sold. They are entirely expendable.

We follow a day in the lives of Epitafio and Estela. They have not had an easy time. Epitafio was abandoned as a child by his parents and brought up in an orphanage run by the sinister Father Nicho, who takes trafficked children from the couple. It was father Nicho who persuaded him to marry and he has a child by his wife, whom he has now left for Estela. The poor wife is also a victim of the violence as Epitafio knocks her unconscious during the course of the book.  Estela had an equally difficult childhood, brought up and abused by nuns, which has had the advantage of making her tough. Epitafio and Estela appear to be very much in love as both they and the narrator constantly remind us. Despite this, they often quarrel and give each other a hard time.

They set off with an unusually large number of migrants – sixty-four – as well as their hired guns. The two take different routes, which causes problems, not least of which is the problem of staying in touch as it is difficult to get a phone signal. We follow their adventures, which involves problems with the vehicles, problems with their guides and problems with the migrants. However, their problems with the authorities are limited. The Border Patrol does not seem to care and the soldiers are bribed with a few girls. Indeed, at one unexpected road block, Estela more or less forces the Captain to come along with them, to help them get through the next road block. She continues to give him a hard time and the army is no match for her.

At the same time, we are aware that there is some conspiracy going on involving Father Nicho and Sepelio (Epitafio’s assistant).  This conspiracy, which gets very murky, takes up much of the latter part of the book.

What makes this novel, and makes it very harrowing are the Dantesque description used by Monge. It really is like a circle of Hell, with the women raped, the children branded, the men beaten and killed for no reason and all of them subject to random cruelty. Much of this takes place in a jungle, with its own problems, including rock falls.  What is perhaps as bad is that the only humans we really get to know are Epitafio and Estela, and partially identify with, as we follow their relationship, their struggles with getting their cargo through and sold, and the gradual revelations about their early life. With one exception, the migrants remain anonymous, shadowy figures shadowy victims.

Apart from the evil triplets from Infierno, few of the characters come out in good health in this book.  Quite a few are killed, all violently.  Most of the rest, good and bad, suffer – from brutality, stabbing, shooting, beating and. raping.

Monge does not hold back in showing the horror that migrants have to suffer.  Nor does he hold back how wantonly cruel and vicious the people in Southern Mexico who traffic the migrants are.  None of them has any redeeming features.  They are all out to make money from the migrants, whether by trafficking or stealing, and consider them totally expendable.   Any of the migrants who causes any trouble is immediately and brutally dispatched.  Those who do survive are treated as badly the slaves were treated in the nineteenth century.

You will not come away from reading this book without having some sympathy for these migrants, whatever your view on the justification of their actions.  However, I doubt very much that it will change anything at all.

Publishing history

First published by Literatura Random House in 2015
First English translation by Scribe Publications in 2018
Translated by Frank Wynne