Emiliano Monge: El cielo árido (The Arid Sky)
We first meet Germán Alcántara Carnero as he is about to retire. Not surprisingly, not only do we learn about the reasons for his decision to retire but about his life both before and after the retirement. Indeed, we follow his life from conception to death, 1901 to 1981.
The narrator claims to have some involvement in the story but, as a participant, he keeps a very low profile. However, as a narrator, he is decidedly interventionist, commenting on the characters (he is generally unimpressed), the story and his narrative technique. He claims that it has no beginning (which it does) and that he is telling it like knots in a thread, focussing on certain key details, all too often not in chronological order, and ignoring the bits in-between, which he considers (relatively) unimportant.
Germán Alcántara Carnero is often known as El Gringo so I shall use that name here. (The narrator tends to name him ourman possibly a reference to Conrad‘s Nostromo, though also gives him other temporary names according to the situation.) His conception is as messy and violent as the rest of his life and, indeed, as his death. His mother is deaf. His father has lost one eye, is diabetic and, at the time of his son’s conception, ill with fever. The couple have two daughters. The youngest, María, has a tongue the wrong size for her mouth, so she cannot speak. The mother is busy when her husband seizes her wrist, makes her sit on top of him and essentially rapes her. The whole business last under a minute but it leads to El Gringo.
His birth is no less pleasant. The mother is alone and in agony but she manages to produce her baby. The narrator spares us no details of these two events, and nor will he spare us the details of the many subsequent violent events that litter this novel.
We do not see much of El Gringo as a boy. What we do see is, when aged eleven, he sees an attractive looking insect crawling out of his dog’s eye. He plans to give it to his sister, whose fourteenth birthday it is. However, a worker kills the insect. At the same time, the local boss arrives and gives an order. The worker answers back and the boss shoots him. El Gringo is convinced that his death is because he killed the insect. The boss is particularly impressed when El Gringo plunges his fingers into the wound to see what it is like. The boss will remember this in later years and it will stand El Gringo in good stead.
When his sister dies in mysterious circumstances – his father seems to be to blame – El Gringo runs off. We follow his adventures with a group of thugs, in the army and a stay in the United States. He returns home with a US girlfriend and two young men who will form the basis of his gang. We then follow his rise, as a thug for the boss, and his gradual rise to become the local boss.
Being the local boss means keeping both the priests and the indigenous population under control. This means a lot of violence, invariably brutal, from burning down a church with ten men locked inside to torturing opponents and then putting them in a large metal trunk till they die a few days later. El Gringo gets great pleasure from this. As mentioned, the narrator spares us no details.
It is not all one way. El Gringo pays a certain price. He is injured more than once. His US girlfriend is killed. His close associates are killed. Indeed, everyone close to him dies, often because of his rash behaviour. So, at the age of fifty-five, he decides to retire.
However, there are a few problems with retirement. Firstly, what is he to do now? What does he want, what is he looking for? Secondly, how does he calm his anger, which has driven him all this time? Thirdly, will his enemies come looking for him, particularly the priests? He is unable to answer these questions or, indeed, get his life on track for a year, till he finds the solution.
One day, out walking and distracted, thinking about what he is to do with himself, he bumps into a couple. The woman is hurt so he takes her to the clinic. The man, a previous victim, recognises him and flees. El Gringo marries her and starts a family. But he has too much baggage, too much history, too much evil in him, for it to be a fairytale ending. A man may escape his life but never his shadow.
Mexico, we know, is a violent country and has been for some time. Monge clearly makes his point that it is violent and that the violence comes from the bosses, while the indigenous population are the victims. El Gringo is cruel, vindictive and relentless. He is not entirely bad. He is devoted to his sisters, to his wife and to his son. Moreover he has inherited a legacy from his father and from the place and era in which he lives. But Monge is not going to let him get away with it. Violence begets violence and a man who is violent has a price to pay sooner or later.
First published by Mondadori in 2012
First English translation by Restless Books in 2018
Translated by Thomas Bunstead