Luis Jorge Boone: Las afueras [The Outskirts]
Most contemporary Mexican novels mainly tend to be set, not surprisingly, in or around Mexico City or occasionally, in some other large city. This one, as far as I can recall, does not even mention Mexico City. It is mainly set in the state of Coahuila, in the North of Mexico, adjacent to the US border, near Laredo, though much of the action takes place in the centre of the state, in Cuatrociénegas and Monclova, Boone’s home town.
The novel has been described as fragmentary by Mexican critics and it certainly is. There is no real plot, though we do, to some degree, follow the lives of two brothers, William and James, who have very little to do with one another and who are both very solitary men. However, we also follow the lives of others as well as the general life of the region.
If there is a hero of this book – and there really isn’t – it is the region. On the surface, much of it seems like monotonous desert and that is how the outsiders see it. Visiting Americans come for the climate and the desert. However, underneath, as Boone is keen to show us, there is something special about the area. What is not interesting is the towns. Most of them have lots of roads so people can get out of them quickly. However, outside the towns, there are various strange things. The area used to consist of huge lakes and, before that, was under the Tethys Ocean. The lakes gradually disappeared and the area was populated by mastodons, elephants, sabre-tooth tigers and camels. While most of them disappeared, some large animals, such as the pronghorn remained. There are still animals and plants around today that are unique and which scientists come from all over the world to study. One of these was Arturo Woodrow, who was a professor at North Dakota State University. He features in one of the stories Boone tells, as his widow and a priest scatter his ashes off a church tower and, as they do, we learn of Woodrow’s love of the region and his scientific study of it.
However, it is not just about the biology of the region. We learn of a mysterious pyramid. A local farmer had been instructed to build it by beings from space. They gave him the plans and a large stone slab (which they pulled from a hill like a conjurer pulling a card from a pack). The pyramid has mysterious symbols on it. Strange animals attacking lorries are also found in the region. There is a strange house in the region. There are various stories about what happened. Maybe the owner went mad and killed his wife and children or perhaps some armed men attacked the house, raped the mother and twelve year old daughter and then killed the rest of the family. No-one is sure. The house is exactly as it was at the time of the crime: the food is still on the table and has not rotted and nothing has decayed. Or maybe there is a huge area under the house, much bigger than the house. Nobody has been there but they are sure that it exists.
When not describing these strange phenomena, Boone gives us various stories of William and James and others. In a way this is a road novel. Both brothers spend a fair amount of time travelling round the area, sometimes knowing where they are going, sometimes not, sometimes sober, usually not, sometimes alone, sometimes with friends or girlfriends. James works as the host of a radio programme but has to spend time travelling around working for the radio station. He had been married, to Barbara, but she left, presumably because of his infidelity. He has various girlfriends but, in particular, we meet two: Sagrario and Natalia. He spends much time with Sagrario but, he says, she reminds him of a corpse, a corpse with a Machiavellian smile. Natalia we meet when he has the car crash. The details of the car crash are decidedly ambiguous, not least because James and Natalia have very different views of what happened. James is convinced that the driver of the other car, an old man, died but Natalia does not see that. Whatever happened, James flees the scene. This is by no means the only vehicle accident we will see.
The first vehicle accident in the book involves William. He and James occasionally speak by phone but do not seem to meet. He is on the bus, imagining writing to James, apologising for not being a good brother and wanting to get closer to him. He stands up and walks to the front of the bus. An old man tells him it is dangerous and tells him to sit down. A minute later there is a headlong collision and William is dead. (We will see earlier parts of Will’s life, including the knife fight he has.) We also learn about Rebeca. The school she attended was near a busy road along which lorries travelled at high speed – there was a speed limit but it was not signed – and five of the pupils had been killed. Rebeca was killed and Boone spares us none of the details of her death and the others. The vermilion stain of her blood could still be seen on the stanchions of the bridge. Was she distracted as? some said. It was rumoured that she had been having an affair with Aubert, one of the teachers, and this might have distracted her.
The next victim is Aubert. We learn that he had been having an affair with Rebeca and was about to break it off. He is driving on the road to Laredo and is furious because of the traffic jam he faces. Eventually, he learns that there has been a major accident and sees a bus and a lorry on their side. Again, Boone spares us few details. A man comes and warns people to be careful as something was leaking out the lorry. Boone turns away and walks back to his car. This saves his sight, as there is a gigantic explosion, with limbs and blood all over the road. He is injured but not blinded.
It is not just vehicle accidents and the landscape that lead to a depressing outlook. James seems constantly depressed. He has bad dreams – these are often described – feels no closeness to his girlfriends but stays in bed several days, barely able to move, When Barbara leaves. He constantly tells us how solitary and depressed he feels. He felt as though he were the last man on Earth. He recalls all the places he has been and will never go back to, the people he will never meet again, the thoughts he will never have again. He feels as though he is coming to the end of a journey. Our lives are shit, he says. (His brother, in his letter, has said that their lives have a sad and cruel emptiness.)
Then there is Leónidas Hierro (hierro is the Spanish for iron). He is the richest man in the area and is ruthless. He is involved in major corruption. However, he loved his son and, after his son died after an operation, he had him embalmed, bringing in an expert from the United States, and has the embalmed body with him when he drives around, sitting in the front passenger seat.
I have read many gloomy books but this must rate is one of the gloomiest. No-one is in this book seems to be happy, except, occasionally, when having sex or listening to or playing rock music, and even then not too much. Violence abounds. Most of the people feels lonely and depressed and, when they try to reach out to others, be it as friends or in romantic liaisons, it generally does not work. Boone shows us this not only in the people but in the strange landscape and even in the traffic. Death is frequent and casual. No-one seems to care too much. It is part of the natural order of things. The most interesting things to happen, says James, are those that happen without warning. What you are not expecting.. In this book, that tends to be violence and death. He adds the most important thing is to keep moving blindly through the universe, which is maybe what most of us do.
I thought this is a most interesting book, not least because I do not mind, indeed, often enjoy a bit of gloom and doom. Maybe this is what Mexico looks like, at least to an insider. Corruption does get mentioned and drug trafficking as well, the two plagues (at least pre-Trump) of contemporary Mexico but they are not key to the book. Just living is what makes these people miserable.
First published by Ediciones Era in 2011
No English translation