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José Agustín: De perfil [In Profile]

This book, Agustín’s second novel, had considerable success in Mexico, both critically and commercially. However, it was not translated into English and only translated into French, some forty-three years after it was first published. It is not difficult to see why. It is a very Mexican book. It assumes a detailed knowledge of the geography of Mexico City. A knowledge of Mexican culture and politics is also assumed. It makes extensive use of Mexican slang, and had me frequently consulting my dictionary of Mexicanisms.

It tells the story of four days in the life of a seventeen year old Mexican boy. He is not named, though when he steals the diary of his friend, Ricardo, we learn that Ricardo calls him X. When he challenges Ricardo on this, Ricardo is evasive. So I shall refer to him as X. (X will also later on steal his father’s old diary.)

X is the son of Humberto and Violeta. He and his (also unnamed) younger brother call their parents by their first names, at the request of the parents. Humberto is a psychiatrist (and not, as we are told several times, a psychoanalyst). To X’s annoyance, Humberto uses psychiatric techniques on X, often successfully. To his even greater annoyance, his younger brother also sometime uses these techniques on him. Violeta is a housewife.

X is a keen smoker. He thinks his parents are unaware of his habit but not only do they know of it but they do not seem to mind. This is part of Humberto’s psychiatric strategy, not criticising the bad behaviour of his son and, indeed, letting X confessing his sins. He does not seem to receive pocket money, though Humberto frequently gives him hand-outs. When he has no money, X steals cigarettes and money from his mother. His favourite place to smoke is behind a large rock in their garden. Again he thinks that they do not know he smokes there but they, particularly, his brother, do know.

X suspects that things are not going well with his parents and thinks that they might divorce. He hears them arguing and finds his mother crying. She denies that there is anything wrong. X has a cousin, Esteban, who is four years older than him, and who is aggressive and often behaves badly. Esteban has told X a story about his (X’s) parents. He maintains that Violeta had a previous relationship, which resulted in her getting pregnant. She had an abortion and now can no longer have children. Apparently, X was adopted because of this but because he was not a success, his younger brother was also adopted. He, too, was not considered a success. X is not sure whether Esteban is telling the truth. Nevertheless, he is on good terms with his parents.

X’s best friend is Ricardo. Ricardo looks up to X and X looks down on Ricardo, who is a bit silly at times. Despite this, they remain friends. Ricardo is planning on running away from home and wants X to accompany him but X adamantly refuses to do so. They have another friend, Pascual, whose house they visit, though the visit goes disastrously wrong when Pascual’s parents return unexpectedly, while the boys are drinking the parents’ alcohol and looking at Pascual’s father’s porn magazines.

The first key event involves Octavio. Octavio is the nephew of neighbours of X and his family and has just come to live with his aunt and uncle. X meets him by chance and he invites X to a party. Ricardo will tag along. There he meets members of a band called the Suásticos (suástica is the Spanish for swastika) for which Octavio considers himself the reserve drummer, though he is never accepted into the band. A riotous night ensures but, in particular, X meets the lead singer of the band, Queta Johnson, and they soon start a brief affair. Indeed, the next day, X goes to her house and they have sex, though seem to quarrel a lot. Queta even says that he has to marry her, as he took her virginity, though it seems likely that it was X and not Queta who was the virgin.

Towards the end of the book, he has to the university go to register and soon gets involved with a group of politically active students, which clearly prefigures the events that we know took place in Mexico two years after this book was published.

There is no real plot to this novel but it clearly shows X growing up, leaving childhood and preparing for manhood. He loses his virginity, learns a bit about life from Esteban, is somewhat but not too rebellious and prepares for life at university, both as regards studies and political activity. The life of his parents is something of a model for him for though he thinks that they might be divorcing, it seems clear towards the end that they have simply had had something of a disagreement as adults do and that their relationship is sound. In short, he is getting ready to face the world on his own as we all have had to do.

While not a bad book and certainly interesting in seeing a close-up over a short period of time of a boy starting to become a young man, I did not share the enthusiasm of the Mexican reading public for this book. Perhaps it was because X was not a particularly sympathetic character, somewhat weak, somewhat unsure of himself (as, of course, many of us are at that age). He spends much of his time arguing, with his father, with Ricardo and with Queta. But if you like a book that focusses on a close-up of a short period in the life of a person, with all the gory details, then you might enjoy this book more than I did – if you read Spanish.

Publishing history

First published by J. Mortiz in 1966
No English translation
First published in French as Mexico midi moins cinq by La Différence in 2009