Archive for the ‘Emiliano Monge’ Category

Among the Lost

September 13, 2019

Mexican novelist Emiliano Monge’s Among the Lost, originally published in 2015 and appearing last year in an English translation by Frank Wynne, begins as a group of migrants being led through jungle are suddenly stopped by spotlights:

“For their part, when the cage of light in which they find themselves ceases to close in, the men and women who left their land some days, some weeks ago, feel something drain from their entrails and huddle ever closer to each other, their tremblings merging into one, their hollow voices fusing into a single voice. The shock is passing and the terror is charged with questions.”

They have become the victims of human traffickers and are now nothing more than objects to their captors, “no more than prostrate creatures,” to be transported and used at will. They are not, however, the focus of Monge’s gaze; Among the Lost is a novel of the kidnappers rather than the kidnapped, as Monge has explained:

“Literature, I believe, is a portal to empathy, and empathy is one of the few means by which, as a society, we can dispose of violence. But to be empathetic with the victim is pretty easy. What’s truly difficult, what you need more courage for, is to find empathy for the victimizer. If we want to understand and change a pattern of systemic violence, we need to be empathetic toward both parties. I feel it’s really important to understand the victimizer in all his or her complexity: How is it that a man or a woman can kidnap and torture, and also love and protect their loved ones?”

Monge creates empathy for the victimizers through their tortured love story: the action takes place entirely in one day on which Epitafio (the names are all emblematic) and Estela plan, in the tradition of the best crime films, get out while they can. “When will he have the courage to give it all up,” wonders Estela of Epitafio, and, later, “I need to tell you we can’t go on like this.” Epitafio, meanwhile, has similar misgivings:

“I’m done with all this… I want the two of us to be together.”

That neither is entirely certain of what the other thinks is not only down to determined displays of violent nonchalance where anger is the other acceptable emotional response, but also to a lack of communication on the day involving a series of missed calls and no signal moments which would be comic were the consequences not so potentially tragic. (Mobile phones, so often a hindrance to writers, become a symbol of their relationship).

Monge also develops our sympathy by presenting both Epitafio and Estela as victims themselves, past and present. Our glimpses into their childhoods demonstrate that they, too, have been used. Estela remembers the wooden door at the orphanage “that kept her locked in her room, by the bed where she spent years tossing and turning, unable to sleep, by the window she spent hours peering through so she could escape her present.” Epitafio also remembers the moment he was taken from his parents:

“…his brothers pressed their terror to the windows, while their mother sobbed in her bed, and their father screamed and argued in the courtyard.”

They are also victims in the present as it quickly becomes apparent Epitafio’s lieutenant, Sepelio, and the priest who runs the orphanage, Father Nicho, are plotting against them, adding a further dimension to the lack of contact between them as the day progresses.

The link between victim and victimizer is best illustrated in the character of Mauseleo (the name he ends the novel with; in the beginning, as one of the immigrants, he is nameless). An ex-boxer, Epitafio is drawn to his giant stature among the victims and offers him the opportunity to swap sides – “It’s your lucky day,” he tells him more than once. Of course, Mauseleo must demonstrate he has the stomach as well as the physique for violence:

“Feeling his bravura heal the wounds opened up by his fears, the blind newcomer in the kingdom of the blind reaches the mass of tortured and humiliated men and women, and, for the first time today, his face relaxes.”

Mauseleo’s violence is a way of dissipating fear. “Stick out your chest,” Epitafio tells him, “I’ve freed you from having to be one of them!” For Epitafio anger has become his default, his driving force, beyond any immediate cause:

“Unaware the rage now propelling him towards the house is the result of many years and not the setback life has just visited on him.”

There are many things to love about Among the Lost beyond its fearless gaze into the world, and hearts, of violent, desperate men (and women). It is also stylistically impressive, not only in its observation of the classical unities (it began life as a play) but in the way the story is told, largely through dialogue. (Monge’s only other novel in English, The Arid Sky, though thematically similar, has an entirely different structure, retelling a life non-chronologically, and suggesting that Monge’s approach to narrative is carefully considered). Monge has also embedded quotations from Dante’s Inferno into the text, as well as extracts from the interviews of survivors. He also subtly uses the world the human traffickers inhabit to comment on events – the falcon, swooping “on a flock of birds and picking off the weakest”; the snake as Estela thinks of betrayal; the cow Epitafio runs off the road:

“Those dumb fucking animals never move… they just tense their bodies.”

Among the Lost is a terrifying, hopeless masterpiece which I fully expect to be also among my books of the year.