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Rodrigo Márquez Tizano: Yakarta (Jakarta)
I have to say that if you live present-day Mexico, the temptation to write a dystopian novel must be great, so I can fully understand Rodrigo Márquez Tizano’s decision. (And ,yes, there are many other countries, including the US and UK, where a dystopian novel may be the appropriate genre.)
The novel is set in the fictitious country of Atlantika. Things are not going well there. Firstly, it has to face up to regular epidemics of the Bug. The Bug. Â, B, Ć, and so on: every twenty or thirty years, it comes back. At times it stays away for as long as half a century, at others, outbreaks occur every half decade. It takes many, many different forms, which is why in this city it has never been properly dealt with. At the start of the novel, the Ź-Bug has – sort of – been dealt with but, of course, its virus vectors, carried inevitably by rats, are still around. This city has two great enemies: its inhabitants and the viruses they transport. I would add that he changes this view more than once on this issue: This city has two great enemies: Vakapý, and the industry that surrounds it and, later, This city has two great enemies: dogs and winds. In short, the city has lots of enemies.
Dead bodies (human and animal), rats and all sorts of unpleasantnesses are daily occurrences. The people do have their bread and circuses, in the form of Vakapý. It seems to be very similar to jai-alai, a game which is quite common in Latin America. The big difference is that it is played by robots. It is hugely popular, not least because of two features it has. One it is very much a statistical game, in that lots of features of it are measured statistically. Anyone who’s ever set foot in a Vakapý stadium knows that what the fans really get off on are the stats. This means that it is possible to bet not just on the outcome of the game, but all these various measurable elements of it.
Gambling is a huge industry and is regulated by the wittily named Department of Chaos and Gaming. Any establishment with a properly calibrated gaming station and a banking terminal has the right to register betters and become an official partner in the Department of Chaos and Gaming syndicate. There are a lot of these gaming stations around. Of course, it is all computerised. The modern game no longer has human bookmakers; computers have stepped in to calculate the odds— a computer, in fact, originally developed by the War Institute to analyze ballistics trajectories.
The unnamed narrator knows a lot about both Vakapý and the Ź-Bug. He spends a lot of his time and money on gambling on the game and does win some but also loses.
After school he managed to avoid military service but was placed in the reserves. He and Morgan, whom he had known at school, got a job at the dock, after Morgan’s boxing career failed dismally. They were caught stealing and fired. Fortunately (for them) the Ź-Bug out break occurred at this time. They both got jobs in a Hazmat team, dealing with infected rats, dead bodies and so on, which paid good money.
Since the Ź-Bug has been under control, he does not have a permanent job and does not want one, making money from gambling.
One day he met Clara and they are now together. Clara found a stone. What exactly this stone is or where it came from, is not clear. What it does is, firstly, to grow in size, and, secondly, to give Clara strange visions. Indeed, it eventually gives our narrator visions as well. Clara maintains that it has a message just for them. In his visions, he sees his friends from school and we get the story of his schooldays.
There is not really a plot to this novel. Yes, we follow what happens with him and his schoolfriends, the development of the visions from the stone and the story of the crew he belongs to, which deals with the rats and the dead bodies during the epidemic, including a major explosion, which almost kills them. But in general, it reads more as a description of the situation, albeit with some historical perspective. It tells us of the early settlers, the Albýnos, who, contrary to their name, are dark-skinned and were brought in as slaves many year ago, and also of the strange church, the Magnetiźed, which meets in an old ship.
Márquez Tizano’s intention is not so much to tell a story as to describe in all its misery and desolation a country which is obviously intended to represent modern-day Mexico, even if there are many differences. The picture is irredeemably bleak. The epidemic will come back again as it always does and just because the latest one is called the Ź-Bug does not mean that it is the last one. The only redeeming features, at least for our narrator, are that the next epidemic will bring more employment, he has won a large amount on Vakapý, though he may have difficulty collecting his winnings, and the stone may show a different future. But then it may not.
First published by Sexto Piso in 2016
First English translation by Coffee House Press in 2019
Translated by Thomas Bunstead