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Tryno Maldonado: Teoría de las catástrofes [Catastrophe Theory]

This novel starts as though it is going to be one of those novels about a relationship that is fading out. Are they are going to revive the relationship or is it going to fade out and they move on? While this book is certainly about this relationship, it turns out to be about a lot more. Anselmo Santiago is from Zacatecas but has moved to Oaxaca, where this novel is set. He is a maths teacher. One day, at a party, he met Mariana Hernández. The two immediately fall for one another. That night, they were in bed together and three weeks later they were living together. Mariana has Type I diabetes. She is a specialist in children’s learning disorders. Despite her diabetes, she managed to travel to the United Sates, where she got a few part-time jobs but no employer would give her a full-time job because of her condition. Eventually, her visa ran out and she had to return to Mexico. However, she still dreams of travel and one of the agreements she made with Anselmo is that they would save up so that, one day, they could travel abroad. They even deny themselves a TV, to everyone’s surprise. However, several of their neighbours are prosperous US nationals who have flats as holiday destinations and visit only occasionally. Their immediate neighbour was one of these, George, a man who would appear every so often, each time with a younger girlfriend. When he left (for the last time, as it turned out) he bought them a TV.

That was then. It is now three years later. Anselmo has not had a job for a year and has been to interview after interview, always without success. Their travel dreams are very much on hold. Their relationship is that stage where it could easily crumble. Anselmo is getting tired of going to innumerable interviews and is becoming less and less enthusiastic about life in general. One day, he gets another interview. It is very hot but he cannot afford public transport so he walks. The interview seems to go very well, as they offer him the job on the spot, at a salary higher than he had expected. They ask him if he believes in God and he says that, for that salary, he is prepared to believe in anything they want him to believe in. However, when they tell him about the job, they tell him that he will be teaching literature. He points out that he is a teacher of maths, not literature. The HR person tries to persuade him that he should switch to literature but he feels unable to do so and has to decline the job. On leaving, he sees a man in a van, who appears to be lost. They start talking. The man is Roberto, an Italian now living in Mexico with his wife and two children. They run a restaurant. They have a six-year old son, Devendra who has had considerable problems at school. Roberto suggests that Anselmo could help coach him. Anselmo and Mariana are invited to lunch to discuss helping Devendra.

On the way back home, Anselmo passes through the main square and is stunned to see a huge crowd there. It turns out that there is a teachers’ strike. He sees a group of teachers playing football against a team of young people in black shirts. He is impressed by one of the players and eventually notices that it is a woman. He asks to join them but is firmly rebuked. However, after continuing to ask and when it becomes apparent that their goalkeeper is not bothering, he is accepted. The game is tough. The teachers are large and strong and, as there is no referee, they attack hard. However, when Anselmo goes into a flying tackle and injures a teacher, they all jump on him and he is hit in the face. At the end of the game, he talks to the young woman and learns that she is called Julia. When he gets ready to leave, he finds that his bag, containing Mariana’s insulin prescription and the money to pay for it and his CVs are missing and that his only smart clothes are torn and dirty.

A few days later, Julia turns up at his flat, when Mariana is out. She has been a drifter but is now involved with an anarchist group – the ones on the football team. She also has his bag. She invites him to join them. They go out on late night expeditions, spraying graffiti and sticking posters on the walls. Eventually, he is allowed to participate. Things take a more serious turn when they bomb a bank. Anselmo, to some degree, and Mariana, mainly, are helping Devendra. Mariana is pregnant. Meanwhile, the confrontation between the police and the teachers and anarchists is becoming more violent, with deaths on both sides. We follow all three main plot threads, even though they are mixing in together. Anselmo is becoming more and more involved in the anarchist activities and Maldonado gives us detailed descriptions of the conflict between the teachers and anarchists on the one hand and the police and authorities on the other. It seems to be, essentially, a civil war, with the anarchists making explosives and using them. We learn a lot more about how (primarily) Mariana is helping Devendra but also about Devendra’s history. After Mariana’s failed pregnancy, the relationship between Anselmo and Mariana deteriorates, not least because Mariana no longer wants to have sex and Anselmo seeks comfort elsewhere, with Maldonado giving us detailed descriptions of his various encounters.

But things start to go badly wrong. The authorities turn up the pressure. Anselmo and Mariana, helping others, are trying to get out of the police enclosure. The police are being difficult, often only letting people out if they receive what they consider an appropriate bribe. Suddenly, there are two large explosions. Anselmo is hurt, though not too badly, though he is partially blinded. They try to get out of the centre and back to their flat and a nightmare journey ensues. We turn from a rather unpleasant union/anarchists versus police/state authorities confrontation to a vicious and brutal scenario with Oaxaca looking like something out of the worse of the Middle East and the authorities behaving as badly and as nastily as various parties have behaved in that part of the world. Maldonado holds nothing back in his descriptions, which go on for a couple of hundred pages. It ends, as these things must, but absolutely none of the main characters comes out of this without being very badly scarred, both physically and mentally and, in some cases, dead.

I do not how much Maldonado saw himself of the events of 2006 in Oaxaca. At the end, he dedicates this book to my friends in Oaxaca who lived through it. Clearly, a considerable part of the book is based on actual events, particularly the final part, based on the events of late November 2006. It is also equally clear that Maldonado very much sided with the teachers and anarchists and sees the Mexican state or, at least, the Oaxacan authorities, as vicious and cruel and using illegal means to impose their will. This is a very direct book, holding back little and giving detailed descriptions of the events, as well as of the coaching of Devendra and the fraught relationship of Anselmo and Mariana. Enjoyable is perhaps not the right word but it is certainly a book well worth reading if you can read Spanish to get a picture of what is happening in Mexico. Oh, and yes, he does discuss catastrophe theory, in relation to these events.

Publishing history

First published by Alfaguara in 2012
No English translation