Review: Àlvaro Enrigue on José Emilio Pacheco

The year may have been 1999 and it happened while rambling around the aisles of the bookstore Politics and Prose. José Emilio Pacheco—then the celebrity professor of the Department of Spanish and Portuguese at the University of Maryland in College Park—didn’t visit bookstores, he raided them, walking around with a box that he filled as if picking apples. He would buy some books in multiples and give copies to you at the end of the ride. Then he would call a week later to discuss them. It was intense and, considering the reading requirements for a PhD student in that particular program, could become a nightmare too: José Emilio bought books of every possible kind and read from the pile at an impossible rate. He belonged to a very specific type of intellectual: the Mexican who has read it all.

It was there, in whatever aisle, that he told me, in the very mortified way in which he always evaluated the future—his face thrown forward with a sad frown, his index finger pushing up his super dirty glasses—“Like me, you will never make it to the encyclopedia, because we both were born in a year 9.” He was born in 1939, I in 1969. “Why?” I probably asked, when I should have said: “What are you talking about?” His mind reacted to the smallest environmental changes, so conversations always began with random-seeming sentences. “Because”, he answered, “you will be considered too young to be catalogued with writers of the sixties and too old for those of the seventies.” We didn’t know yet, of course, that printed encyclopedias—those well-guarded sanctuaries composed of articles written in Europe and the US—would become relics in the very near future. But at that time they were still a thing and the ultimate measure of literary success.

There was one fallacy in his formula. As happened many times when having a conversation with Pacheco, facts were altered to fit his sense of humility: by then his name was already in all the encyclopedias. But the general theory—a “Nescafé Theory,” as he called his own impulsive ideas, because they were instant and lacked substance—held true for him. José Emilio was never considered part of the Francophile, prone-to-experimentation set of Mexican writers born in the 1930s (known as the Casa del Lago generation—Inés Arredondo, Sergio Pitol, Margo Glantz, Salvador Elizondo, and a long untranslated etcetera), nor was he grouped with the Anglophile lovers of the Beats and everything psychedelic that followed. Those first Mexico City rock-and-roll kids would be called by Carlos Monsiváis, the monumental social critic and best friend of José Emilio, “the first generation of Americans born in Mexico.” Pacheco was somewhere in the middle: he found The Beatles childish—I don’t think he knew who David Bowie was—and he also distrusted the opacity of the Maoist Tel Quel crew. He considered the suits and ties he was forced to wear as a college student in the National University an abomination, but he never graduated to jeans—which he, symptomatically, called “cowboy pants.”

This self-positioning as a hinge writer, as a voice broadcasting in-between times, modulated José Emilio’s writing with the elegant ambivalence of a mathematical equation. He wrote vernacular stories in a prose of obsessive, classic precision. He described the vain, decadent, often perverse world of the battered Mexican middle class—mainly of European decent—in sentences in which every word, every orthographic symbol, and every stressed vowel was considered with the dedication of a cabalist. I once made the mistake, in his seminar on modernist Latin American poetry, of suggesting that his reading of one word in a poem might be imprecise. I proposed that maybe the word pajarera—which can mean “birdcage” or “noisy,” depending on the context—was used in Ramón López Velarde’s “La Suave Patria” as an noun—"birdcage”—and not as an adjective—“noisy.” He spent the rest of the class, the semester, and all the dinners we had in it, returning to defend his reading, as if my Nescafé Theory could unleash a global extinction event.

Educated in the years in which “writer” was not yet a middle-class occupation, José Emilio’s trajectory was marked by odd jobs. He was a translator, a critic, an editor, a historian of literature, a professor, and a journalist, but what held all of that together was his work as a poet. It was poetry that he began writing as a teenager and it was books of poetry that he kept publishing until the end of his life. This explains why fiction was necessarily short for him—he wrote guided by language's economy and by concentration—and why the construction of his sentences was so careful, transparent, and clean. There is a classic flair, conveyed very well by his translator Katherine Silver: sordid things told with ravishing dignity.

Reality is contradictory and in Mexico, often times, deliciously delirious. So it is not that weird that a very shy and clumsy poet with a love for formal precision and clear affiliation to the classics ended up being the author of what may be the most beloved fictional work to a nation of 130 million people. Battles in the Desert—recently reissued by New Directions to honor the fortieth anniversary of its first publication in Spanish—plays in Mexican culture a role similar to Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye or Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird in the United States. Everybody has read it. We the older read it because José Emilio was an essential writer and this his most successful book, and the younger ones because by the end of the past century it became part of the mandatory high school curriculum. All Mexican households have one comal to warm the tortillas, one TV to watch the soap operas, one Bible to elevate the spirits, and one copy of Pacheco’s Battles in the Desert to bring them down.

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The novel is a portrait of the still-very-provincial Mexico City that by the late forties was about to jump into the global capitalist storm, a local inventory of things and practices from the moment in which American culture was beginning to charm its neighbor with its seductive pragmatism and its faith in functional design. As always with Pacheco, the narration responds to a rigorous classic form: the story is written in three acts, the main character going through three stages of development that will erupt as tragedy at the end.

In the first part, the greater home of Mexico City is described by Carlitos, a child—the reference to the first chapter of Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is not obvious, but delicate and smart—who compares his traditional family in the Colonia Roma neighborhood to those of other kids in school. The affluent ones are already in a process of Americanization. The poor ones—recent arrivals from peasant towns—are having a hard time learning the ways of urban living. In the second part a pubescent Carlos falls in love and attempts a very ridiculous—and fun, and lovely–secret declaration that becomes public. The shaming that follows changes everything for him. In the third part, a death not seen—in tragedies the memento mori always happens behind closed doors—brings all the actors of the drama back together, while Carlos, now a fully modern young man, one of those “first Americans born in Mexico,” has to deal with the problems of an erased past.

There is a transparent political reading of José Emilio’s most beloved book. The kids of indigenous heritage in Battles in the Desert are forced out to the margins of the city as the locomotive of a whiter middle class runs madly toward globalization. The women, who promoted change because they were the most burdened by the weight of tradition, simply disappear. The American development model squashes the Mexican one instead of enriching it: a Republic of small, artisanal entrepreneurs becomes a nation of employees. Americans, let’s admit it, tend to inflict on others what they have already inflicted on themselves. At the end of the book, Carlos, now almost a man, understands that the names of those who have vanished have to be preserved—another classic motif—because the road to the promised land leaves behind too many casualties: “They demolished the school; they demolished Mariana’s building; they demolished my house; and they demolished Colonia Roma. That city came to an end. That country was finished … Everything came to an end just like the records on the jukebox.”

Battles in the Desert was first published across almost all the pages of a newspaper's cultural supplement in June 1980, when all the social and environmental wrongs had already been done to the town and there was no plan to rescue it. If read as entertainment, this small and mainly hilarious drama is a portrait of the hero in the city. As such, it is a clever piece of archeological research on the recent past of one of the grand—and the oldest—urban capitals in the Americas. But it is also a moral meditation on the costs of so-called progress. The adult Carlos must kill Carlitos the child—his father, in Freudian terms—but the child’s ghost will haunt him forever. Change is unavoidable and maybe even desirable, Pacheco seemed to be thinking when writing this tiny masterpiece, but it will go wrong if we forget that the city’s mantle is made out of many pasts, many origins, a multitude of cultures and bloodlines.

Critics adverse to Battles in the Desert said, when the piece came out in the form of a book in 1981, that it was not a novel but an inflated short story. Not that these categories have any importance in the reader’s experience—as Foucault once said, even an author’s name is just a tool for situating a book on the shelf—but I don’t think they were right. It is true that one can read it in the span of two cups of coffee, but the density of its portrait of the city, the depth of the wound embedded by its characters and story, produce an effect that amplifies the space this tiny book occupies in the world. As years have gone by, it keeps returning to me, growing with each new visit as the kind of existential beam of light that very few fictions books achieve. I read it for the first time on a lazy afternoon in college, sitting under a tree. That tree is gone, that campus is gone, that version of me is gone. José Emilio was right when he concentrated, in a contemporary, ironic key, the wisdom of Ecclesiastes: everything vanishes just as the records on the jukebox come to an end.


Àlvaro Enrigue is the author of five novels, three books of short stories, and one of literary criticism in Spanish; among these his novels Sudden Death and Hypothermia have been translated into English. He was born in Mexico and lives in New York City.


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