Author, Book review, Colombia, Fiction, literary fiction, Patricia Engel, Publisher, Scribner, Setting, USA

‘Infinite Country’ by Patricia Engel

Fiction – paperback; Scribner; 191 pages; 2021. 

If anything positive is to come out of the Covid-19 global pandemic it is that Australian citizens, locked out of their own country (or even their home state) thanks to border closures, might gain a better appreciation of what it is to have freedom of movement.

Perhaps they might even develop greater empathy and compassion for migrants and refugees struggling to find a new homeland in which to make a better life for themselves.

This was front and centre of my mind when reading Infinite Country, a timely novel about immigration, by Patricia Engel, because so much of it charts the despair, frustration and anxiety of families separated by borders.

In this case, the family is from Colombia. Young married couple Mauro and Elena and their infant daughter Karina flee the violence in Bogotá to make a fresh start in the United States.

But over the course of the next 15 or so years, things don’t always go according to plan, and their hopes and dreams are stifled by racism, exploitation and, when their temporary visas run out, fear of arrest and deportation. This fear later spreads to their US-born children who are “undocumented illegals”.

On the run

The story opens with a killer first line:

It was her idea to tie up the nun.

This is where we meet Talia, a 15-year-old Colombian, making her escape from a correctional facility for adolescent girls high up in the mountains. Talia has been sent to the facility for committing a horrendously violent, but spontaneous, act that may or may not have been warranted.

But now she’s on a mission to get back to her father’s apartment in Bogotá so that she can pick up the plane ticket that is waiting for her — that ticket will get her to the US, where her mother and two older siblings live.

Talia’s frantic road adventure, hitchhiking across the country while avoiding the authorities, is interleaved with her parent’s love story, including their journey to the US to begin afresh long before Talia was born.

These two narrative threads come together when we discover that US-born Talia was sent back to Colombia as baby to be raised by her grandmother. This decision, based on economics, means the family now straddles two countries — and two different worlds — and because of legal issues there is no freedom to move between them.

Exposing the myths

Infinite Country is excellent at exposing the myth of the US as a golden land of opportunity and as a place of safety.

What was it about this country that kept everyone hostage to its fantasy? The previous month, on its own soil, an American man went to his job at a plant and gunned down fourteen coworkers, and last spring alone there were four different school shootings. A nation at war with itself, yet people still spoke of it as some kind of paradise.

As the family struggles to find work and accommodation, moving from one unsecure job to another, from one lot of overcrowded accommodation to another (at one stage they live in their car, in another they share a single room above a pizza shop with a Pakistani couple), their situation never seems to improve.

Both Elena and Mauro are exploited as cheap labour, unable to afford a decent place to live and constantly on guard for potential deportation. Social and economic mobility is non-existent. Even educational opportunities are limited.

And the option to go back is not an option at all.

Going home was never an option for these women. When Elena brought up the possibility of packing up, taking the children to Colombia […], Norma [a fellow immigrant] warned: ‘This is a chance you won’t get again. Every woman who has ever gone back for the sake of keeping her family together regrets it. You are already here. So are your children. It is better to invest in this new life, because if you return to the old one, in the future your children may never forgive you.’

Despite this, Elena is torn. She would love to go back to see her hardworking mother, to raise her daughter, and is “never sure if she’d made the right decision in staying”. She is plagued by guilt.

Eventually, she’d understand that in matters of migration, even accidental, no option is more moral than another. There is only the path you make. Any other would be just as wrong or right.

The price of migration

And, as much as immigrating is seen as a chance at a better life, it comes at a cost. This is how Mauro wants to convey it to his daughter Talia just as she’s about to board the plane to be reunited with her mother after 15 years:

What he wanted to say was that something is always lost; even when we are the ones migrating, we end up being occupied. […] What she didn’t know, Mauro thought, was that after the enchantment of life in a new country dwindles, a particular pain awaits. Emigration was a peeling away of the skin. An undoing. You wake each morning and forget where you are, who you are, and when the world outside shows you your reflection, it’s ugly and distorted; you’ve become a scorned and unwanted creature.

Infinite Country is eloquently written and brims with humanity, compassion and cold, hard truths — it’s completely free of sentiment and yet it is powerful and moving.

I ate it up in a single day. And I love that it ends on a hopeful note.

If you liked this, you might also like:

‘The Book of Unknown Americans’ by Cristina Henriquez: A story about two immigrant families from Latin America facing racism, victimisation and poverty as they try to forge new lives in the US.

‘Signs Preceding the End of the World’ by Yuri Herrera:  This occasionally violent novella focuses on a young Mexican woman who illegally enters the US to search for the brother who had gone there to “settle some business” for an underworld figure.

‘The Tortilla Curtain’ by T.C. Boyle: A compelling story that showcases the stark difference between the haves, in this case a rich American family living on a gated estate in California, and the have nots, a young Mexican couple hiding out in a nearby canyon having crossed the border illegally.

Africa, Author, Book review, Books in translation, Fiction, Morocco, Publisher, Scribe, Setting, Tommy Wieringa

‘The Death of Murat Idrissi’ by Tommy Wieringa

Fiction – hardcover; Scribe; 102 pages; 2019. Translated from the Dutch by Sam Garrett.

This is the kind of slim book that you think won’t take very long to read, but I found Tommy Wieringa’s short, sharp novella, The Death of Murat Idrissi, so shocking in places I could only read it in intermittent bursts. I’ve been mentally processing it ever since.

It was longlisted for this year’s International Booker Prize, which is how it came to my attention, but it was this review on Dolce Bellezza that made me really want to read it. When I found it in the library I couldn’t resist borrowing it.

A fable for our times, it tells the story of two young women from the Netherlands, on holiday in Morocco, who agree — somewhat reluctantly, it has to be said — to help smuggle a young man across the border into Europe. The man’s name is Murat Idrissi and, sadly, he dies en route — hence the title of the book.

The women, abandoned by the men who set up the arrangement, have to figure out what to do with the body. They have next to no money — for food, for fuel, for overnight accommodation — and must make a perilous journey from the Spanish coast to their home in Amsterdam in their (expensive) hire car without alerting the authorities to their predicament.

A compelling read

This is a compelling read, gruesome in places, but Wieringa prevents the narrative from sliding into farce by the clever use of flashbacks, showing how the women got involved in the smuggling operation, detailing the fun aspects of their holiday beforehand and then contrasting this with Murat’s life of poverty. It’s easy to see how the guilt of a Western upbringing may have lead them to this situation.

But there’s an additional “twist” — for want of a better word — because the women, Ilham and Thouraya, are the children of African immigrants themselves and have spent their lives being regarded as Other. Visiting Morocco on holiday was supposed to be a way of discovering their roots, but they’re shocked — perhaps naively so — to find that their usual freedom as young Europeans isn’t available here. There are “rules” for women, and even if they’re European born, they still look like the locals.

This confusion over identity is a key component of the novella and Wieringa asks some important questions about what makes us who we are: is it our skin colour, our country of birth, our belief system, our education, our cultural traditions, our language, our parentage?

She stares out of the window. The trees flash by. It’s the world of her mother, a world she can’t accept. It depresses her, the quick prayers whenever death is mentioned, when there are portents. All those dos and don’ts. The countless fears her mother covers up with invocations. The things you’re not allowed to say, not allowed to think, not allowed to do. Her mother is a farmwoman — she went to the airport on the back of a donkey, as Thouraya puts it; she has a certain control over the new language. She is fairly independent, but there is no use trying to combat her primitive ideas — her reply is always that her daughter is rude, and that rude girls end up badly.

It’s written in prose that mixes long, elegant sentences with short, fragmentary ones, and the descriptions — of the landscapes, of the sights seen on the road — are vivid and beautiful:

They take the new toll road to Tangier; there’s almost no traffic. The sun comes up in a wash of peach-coloured light. They pass greenhouses and plantations, the fields full of sweet, round watermelons, ready for the harvest. The melons rest nakedly beside their furrows, like eggs the earth has pressed out.

Not much is resolved in the ending, which means I’ve been thinking about Ilham and Thouraya ever since I reached the final page. What happened to them when they got back to Amsterdam? What stories have they told themselves about this incident? How have they reconciled it in their minds? And what of Murat’s family back home in Morocco? Do they know he’s dead, or do they think he’s just been too busy to get in touch?

It would make a terrific book club read for that reason — although there’s much more to discuss than that open-ended final chapter.

As you can probably tell, I thought The Death of Murat Idrissi was a really powerful book. Free from judgement and free from sentiment, it’s about the haves and the have nots and the risks people are prepared to take to bridge the gulf between them. It will stay with me for a long time.

& Other Stories, Author, Book review, Books in translation, Fiction, literary fiction, Mexico, Publisher, Setting, USA, Yuri Herrera

‘Signs Preceding the End of the World’ by Yuri Herrera

Signs-preceding-the-end-of-the-world

Fiction – paperback; & Other Stories; 114 pages; 2015. Translated from the Spanish by Lisa Dillman. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

At a time when the world seems increasingly more divided between people who are free to travel around the world, seemingly on a whim, and those who cannot, Yuri Herrera’s Signs Preceding the End of the World is a timely story about illegal border crossings and people smuggling.

This short, sharp and occasionally violent novella focuses on Makina, a young Mexican woman, who crosses the border between Mexico and the United States in search of her brother, who had gone there to “settle some business” for an underworld figure. She carries two messages with her — one from her mother, and one from Mr Aitch (presumably some kind of crime boss) — but her journey is not straightforward.

Along the way she must fight off lust-filled young men (the way she deals with them is quite extraordinary) and gun-toting policemen who patrol the border. But that’s only half her problem: the other half is trying to find her sibling in an unfamiliar country based on sketchy details and few resources — she has no money, no change of clothing, nowhere to stay.

She asked the way to the city and they told her Over there (finger pointing to where the sun comes up).
She asked farther on for the way to the suburb and they told her There’s four with that name, but maybe she wanted the one by the bridge.
She asked farther on for the way to the bridge, but they told her she didn’t want that suburb but the one with the zoo.
She asked farther on for the way to the zoo and they told her it was near the statue of a man in a frock coat.
She asked farther on for the way to the statue of the man in the frock coat and they said Can’t you see, it’s right behind you.
Then she asked for the way to the street written down and they said This is it.
She asked for the way to her brother, perhaps too urgently, and they shrugged.
She asked finally for the way to the promised land and that person looked annoyed before responding.
There was still some light in the sky but it was turning dark, like a giant pool of drying blood.

From the above quote, you can see that much of the prose reads like poetry. It’s very stripped back and to-the-point, but without sacrificing beauty or power (clearly a triumph of translation). It plays with language, too — all the underworld figures, for instance, are named after letters of the alphabet, so that you get Mr Aitch, Mr Double-U and Mr Q, and there are “invented” words, such as “verse”, which means to exit — which the translator explains in a highly readable and intriguing note at the end of the novella.

And while Signs Preceding the End of the World is mainly an adventure tale, this is also the kind of book that has layers of deeper meaning — about immigration, patriotism, the black market, exploitation, prejudice and war. In many ways it would make a terrific companion read with T.C. Boyle’s wonderful novel, The Tortilla Curtain, which examines similar issues. Like that book, it looks at what it is like to be a second-class citizen in (supposedly) the world’s richest country — and it doesn’t pull its punches:

We are to blame for this destruction, we who don’t speak your tongue and don’t know how to keep quiet either. We who didn’t come by boat, who dirty up your doorsteps with our dust, who break your barbed wire. We who came to take your jobs, who dream of wiping your shit, who long to work all hours. We who fill your shiny clean streets with the smell of food, who brought you violence you’d never known, who deliver your dope, who deserve to be chained by neck and feet. We who are happy to die for you, what else could we do? We, the ones who are waiting for who knows what. We, the dark, the short, the greasy, the shifty, the fat, the anaemic. We the barbarians.

The story is also ripe with metaphors — the underworld is a constant refrain; the story begins with a sinkhole opening up and ends with a visit to a tunnel — and could be read as an allegory. But for me, it was just a wonderfully rich and tension-filled read.

I also loved the muscularity of the prose. I loved its feisty, determined protagonist. And I loved its themes — epic, biblical, universal — about journeys and belonging and culture. Yet it’s not an easy book to like: it’s confronting, sometimes brutal, often sad and constantly unsettling.

You can find other excellent reviews of Signs Preceding the End of the World at The Guardian and Bookslut.

Author, Bloomsbury, Book review, Fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, TC Boyle, USA

‘The Tortilla Curtain’ by T.C. Boyle

TortillaCurtain

Fiction – paperback; Bloomsbury; 355 pages; 1997.

So this particular Tom Coraghessan Boyle novel is my friend JB’s favourite novel of all time. I read it on the strength of his recommendation and knew, pretty much from the first line, that I was going to enjoy this critically acclaimed book. The writing is accomplished, the characterisation is superb, the plot is rivetting and the detail is like nothing I’ve ever read before, but it’s the moral message — without ever resorting to preaching or moralising — that elevates this book from the excellent to the extraordinary.

Set in America — California to be precise — the story is essentially about the haves and the have nots. There are two view points throughout, told in alternate chapters, which reveal the contrasts between the protectionist middle classes who live with a fortress mentality and the poverty-stricken illegal immigrants (from Mexico) who struggle to put food on their plate on a day-to-day basis despite the obvious and abundant wealth around them.

It all begins when Delaney Mossbacher, a stay-at-home house-husband who writes a naturalist column, knocks down a Mexican pedestrian, Candido, on a busy road near his home. Candido, shocked and unable to understand English, “refuses” any assistance offered by Delaney. Instead he accepts the $20 guilt money handed to him and limps off into the canyon he now calls “home” where his pregnant 17-year-old wife, America, awaits him.

The rest of the book follows the plight of Candido and America’s battle against deprivation, racism and the “law of the jungle”. Meanwhile, Delaney’s comfortable existence on a private estate is shaken by wild intruders – of both the human and animal kind – and his liberal left-wing ideas become slowly eroded because, when push comes to shove, all he wants to do is protect his family and his property.

The book, which moves along at an ultra-quick pace, is littered with ironies: Delaney’s upmarket estate comprising Spanish Mission-style houses has a Spanish name, Arroyo Blanco, but is out of bounds to anyone with a Spanish-sounding name; and Delaney loves the great outdoors and spends a lot of time hiking and camping, while Candido and America are forced to “camp” because they have nowhere else to go and can’t afford food let alone proper accommodation.

The contrasts between rich and poor are also stark: Delaney’s wife, Kyra, is so afraid that her dogs will be gobbled up by wild coyotes that she orders an 8-foot high fence to protect them, while America, destitute and living in the relative shelter of a canyon, has no money to seek the medical assistance she so desparately needs during her pregnancy; and, as Kyra sips her coffee and washes “down her 12 separate vitamin and mineral supplements with half a glass of fresh-squeezed orange juice” each morning, Candido and America are reduced to eating wild birds, and later someone’s pet cat, just to stay alive.

While all this might sound a bit heavy, Boyle has such a great writing style that you never feel as though you are being hit over the head with any IMPORTANT message. In fact I chuckled quite a lot when reading this book, mainly at the ridiculousness of Delaney’s actions and his wife’s (I couldn’t help associating Kyra with Annette Bening’s character in American Beauty) and the sheer pomposity, holier-than-thou attitude of Arroyo Blanco’s residents.

But be warned: admid the laughter there will also be tears. There are two particular incidents in The Tortilla Curtain which broke my heart, they are so gut-wrenchingly, painfully sad.

I *ADORED* this book, and while it hasn’t usurped my own favourite novel of all time it has come pretty damn close! If you are looking for an intelligent read then this is one you shouldn’t miss.