Vaillant brings Mexico to Vancouver
May 22nd, 2015
On June 10, at the Carnegie Centre Reading Room, best-selling author John Vaillant will read from his latest novel, The Jaguar’s Children – a literary thriller that follows Hector, a young Zapotec who flees Mexico illegally, becomes trapped in a truck and reflects on the trials of his life in Oaxaca and the events leading to his present circumstances.
John Vaillant: The Jaguar’s Children
Wednesday, June 10, 6:30 p.m. – 8 p.m.
Carnegie Reading Room, 401 Main St., Theatre
Here is a review of Vaillant’s book by John Moore.
The great 19th century writers of social realism—Dickens, Hugo, Balzac, Tolstoy—understood that some social, economic and political issues are so overwhelming and so profoundly disturbing to their own culture that they can only be portrayed effectively in fiction.
In his first novel, The Jaguar’s Children, Vancouver-based journalist John Vaillant follows a trail broken by the masters to dramatize an economically and politically challenging—and tragic—social crisis facing North America today.
The border between the United States and Mexico is more than a muddy river, a line in the dust or miles of chain-link fence enhanced with razor wire, cameras and thermal sensors. It is the border between hope and despair, between a failing state and the wealthiest and most powerful nation on earth.
Every day thousands of people from Mexico and other marginalized Central American countries risk their lives to cross that border, seeking a better life. Many are interdicted by U.S. Immigration and border patrols, la migra, and repatriated. Others, not so lucky, find only miserable deaths, suffocated in stifling, hidden compartments in vehicles or exhausted and dehydrated by walking through the desert.
One character in The Jaguar’s Children grimly observes that thousands of desiccated bodies of men, women and children are scattered along invisible trails of tears.
Vaillant’s articles have appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, National Geographic and The Walrus and he is the author of the multi-award-winning non-fiction book, The Golden Spruce (Vintage 2006). It was a year in Oaxaca, Mexico that sharpened his awareness of the illegal economic migration issue by letting him see it from the other side of the border. He might have fallen back on well-honed journalistic skills to write about it. If he had, he might have produced something like Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago, a factual catalogue of human suffering so vast and unrelenting it defeats its purpose by rendering readers emotionally numb.
Instead, Vaillant dramatizes the story of Hector, one young man making his desperate bid to reach el Norte, the land of promise. The 1983 film El Norte, about a Guatemalan brother and sister trying to get to the U.S., has addressed the same issues but it can’t match The Jaguar’s Children for desperation and claustrophobic horror worthy of Edgar Allan Poe.
Welded into the empty tank of a water-hauler, Hector, his boyhood friend Cesar, and a dozen other migrants are abandoned in the desert by venal ‘coyote’ guides when the truck breaks down. As the air sours with carbon dioxide and bottled water runs out, Hector clings to a pipe that admits a small current of fresh air.
Hector also sends text messages, like SOS signals from a sinking ship, to AnniMac, a contact he finds on the injured Cesar’s cell phone. Using the somewhat over-extended device of these lengthy texts, Vaillant has Hector narrate his short life story into a device whose batteries are dying as slowly and surely as everyone in the tank.
From files stored on the phone, Hector discovers that Cesar, formerly the token Zapotec researcher for the biotech company SuperMaize, is on the run from corporate and government interests promoting genetically modified corn that will irrevocably destroy the bedrock cycle of Mexican culture by using the lure of high-yield profits to displace traditional maize.
While the GM food conspiracy lends Ludlum-like urgency to the plot, it’s Hector’s account of his family, the lives of his parents and grandparents, and their struggle as indigenous people on the bottom rung of Mexican society, that keeps the pages turning.
Thirty years ago, revisionist politically-correct critics would have attacked Vaillant with shrill accusations of ‘appropriation of cultural voice,’ as they delighted in doing to books like Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea (Nobel Prize winner) and Pearl S. Buck’s The Good Earth. For good measure, such critics attacked fictional books about First Nations’ characters by B.C. authors Anne Cameron and W.P. Kinsella.
Fortunately most of these twits clammed up when their self-righteous moral stance obliged them to argue that Shakespeare shouldn’t have written Hamlet because he wasn’t Danish or Macbeth because he wasn’ae a Scot.
Writers not only have the right to use their imaginations; they have an obligation to tell stories that need to be told using whatever voice, journalistic or fictional, that makes them most likely to be heard.
I don’t usually read novels at one sitting; this one I did.
John Moore writes on a regular basis for this publication from Garibaldi Highlands.