Archive for the ‘Jose Emilio Pacheco’ Category

Battles in the Desert

July 14, 2022

Although Jose Emilio Pacheco was perhaps primarily a poet, Battles in the Desert is the work for which he is likely to be remembered. As Fernanda Melchor points out in her afterword to this revised translation by Katherine Silver, “for decades Battles in the Desert has been one of the most widely read novels in Mexico.” What we remember is also central to the story itself, which begins:

“I remember – I don’t remember: what year was that?”

Pacheco goes on to set the scene in a Mexico which no longer exists; “the first post-war cars were rolling through the streets”; “it was the year of polio”; pictures of President Miguel Alimán are ubiquitous (“Public adulation, incessant private abuse.”) The disappearance of this world is already evident as Mexico ‘modernises’, becoming Americanised in its language and diet – “Coca-Cola was burying our aguas frescas.” (This impacts on the narrator, Carlos, more directly as his father’s soap factory suffers from the competition of American brands). Even in the playground the wider world is visible:

“When we played, we divided ourselves into two camps: Arabs and Jews.”

The “battles in the desert” are the battles which take place there, “a reddish yard of brick and volcanic rock,” but also suggest the general violence of Mexico (his parents’ “childhood, adolescence and youth had been spent against a constant backdrop of battles and executions”) and the world beyond. Pacheco also gives us a child’s eye view of the inequalities which exist. A visit to one classmate, Harry, sees the parents discuss Carlos in English and Harry, the next day, advise him to learn how to use his cutlery; at the other extreme he finds “a neighbourhood built out of scrap lumber” and his fellow student, Rosales, sleeping on the floor as his mother’s new boyfriend has kicked him out of the only bedroom.

This detailed scene setting, in what is a short novel, might seem out of place as the story itself is not one of political awakening, but unrequited love. However, in recreating the time and place, Pacheco is emphasising the importance of memory which combines a number of strands to create an impression. He also no doubt creates, among many readers, a certain amount of nostalgia which mimics the feeling of unrequited love, and suggests that Carlos’ longing is, in part, for a simpler past – simpler, that is, from his child’s perspective. There is also a moral simplicity to his life, fostered by his father. His friendship with Jim, whose mother he will fall in love with, begins when he defends him from bullying, but even here his father will remind him not to use ‘indio’ as an insult:

“My father said that in Mexico we are all Indians, even if don’t want to know it or admit it. If the Indians weren’t, poor nobody would use that word as an insult.”

According to Jim, his father is an important man whose picture appears in the papers. This puzzles Carlos – why does Jim not go to a better school? live in a better neighbourhood? – until he is told that Jim’s mother, Mariana, is the man’s mistress, and, in fact, he may not be the father anyway. All agree, however, that she is “very young and very beautiful’” as Carlos discovers for himself when he visits Jim. Carlos identifies the visit as a turning point in his life – for example, hearing a bolero immediately afterwards, he understands the longing in the words. He makes a conscious decision to preserve the memory:

“I’m going to hold onto the moment of this memory because everything that now exists will never be the same again.”

Of course, he also understands that, at his age, “the only thing anybody can do is fall in love secretly, silently… Fall in love knowing that all is lost and that there is no hope.” Carlos accepts from the beginning that his love for Mariana cannot be returned, but at the same time he insists his feelings are genuine. It is this painful tension which gives the novel its poignancy. When he eventually decides he must tell her how he feels, skipping school to do, so she treats him kindly, again focusing on memory:

“Think of this as something amusing, Carlos, something you’ll be able to remember with a smile when you grow up, not with hard feelings.”

The reaction of the adults around him when they discover this visit are less understanding.

Appropriately, the novel ends with an older Carlos remembering, and a final scene which preserves the memory for him but ensures it remains untouched by the present. Battles in the Desert is a perfectly formed novella of impossible love that will touch most readers’ hearts.