Bang by Daniel Peña. Arte Publico. 200 pp, $16.99
Mexican readers have seen an over-abuse of the narco trend in their literature. These are stories of drug lords and their families, dealers, journalists, cops, and even the women trapped in the middle of the chaos we live in. As saturated as the Mexican reader may be by these narratives, however, there is a sense of wonder or amazement with the action-packed drug world in foreign markets: readers elsewhere devour these stories, and some juries reward novels and short story collections that can only show a plethora of commonplaces with an indiscriminate use of guns, violence, and blood used to reel their audiences in (as well as a misappropriation of slang that more often than not feels fake). But that doesn’t mean that a novel set against a narco background cannot be written, or that a writer should avoid it. It is ultimately the world we live in. Having said that, I think that if the book is literary, if it deals with greater themes and exposes universal problems, the backdrop will most likely enrich the text and should go unnoticed.
Literature is what Bang, Daniel Peña’s debut novel, is made of. Do not misunderstand: certainly there is much to intrigue in the bits and mysteries of the narco life, in the crudeness of their rules and day to day life, as I am interested in some aspects of the American way of life (especially Texas). It’s something far from our culture. However, for me, Bang is more about the author’s ability to use his toolbox to reflect on deeper topics—such as the purgatory that being undocumented can be, the pain of feeling lost in the world or probably misplaced—and to produce a work of art.
Bang tells us about a Mexican family that began its story based on luck, when Araceli met Eugenio in a horseracing track, but somewhere along the line that luck was lost, probably years later, when the father got deported. But that is backstory. The book begins with Araceli waiting for Eugenio to cross back into the United States from Mexico. She lives with her sons, Uli and Cuauhtémoc, in the orange groves in Harlingen, Texas. They are living their life “in hiding” and trying to belong at the same time. On the night of Uli’s sixteenth birthday, the two brothers suffer a plane accident and crash on the Mexican side of the border, and the story of their new misfortune begins. They get separated after the crash (Cuauhtémoc leaves the site to look for help and never comes back) and neither of them try to cross back into the U.S., instead going to find their father who supposedly lives in San Miguel, a town in Chihuahua, a place where they all lived before moving. The day after, Araceli also drives to Mexico to find her sons. Now we have the three family members looking for each other and trying to get to their original home, as they get sucked into the narco nightmare in the border territories.
Narco nightmare aside, this is not a novel about drug violence and the crude cartels that have taken over large chunks of Mexican territory. It’s there, obviously, but not exclusively, though it does direct the voyage of its characters in this book’s multiple narratives.
In eighteen chapters—all of them titled and not numbered—the author creates an atmosphere of despair using ghostly towns that in some passages can be read as fantastic, places so surreal that it is hard to believe they actually exist. But they do. And in them, there are traces of the phantasmagoric Bolaño villages (San Miguel vs Santa Teresa), as well as characters (Jimmy and Lalo) that could very well be taken—but not copied from—the Chilean writer’s narrative: a man walking on glass, a punk teenager with a half-burned face who was thought to have supernatural powers and that is sentenced to dead, or a forty-something prostitute who can cook a delicious pozole.
The novel is structured to follow the three family members in their quest for each other. To follow them and their path to get to a special meeting point. But even as the narratives are flawlessly structured, and certainly carries the intrigue (we want the three of them to meet), I see Bang as a 239-page-long canvas exposing the actual pain of being exiled and not knowing if going back is something one would want. It is a mural depicting a contemporary bloodthirsty hell that thousands of people experience without choice. Something that it’s not actually Mexico nor the United States:
There’s no going back to Texas, understand? Those old friends you’ve got? They’re gone. That old life you used to have? It’s done. Your family too. There is no Texas anymore. There’s no Mexico anymore. There’s San Miguel. And there’s everyone who lives in it. And that’s it, understand?
It’s Juarez, it’s Reynosa . . . People trying to cross, or people deported, never seem to get a break. Can it be that Mexicans, as Araceli’s family, have no luck? In any case, these are blood-spattered pages, a recount of pain and cruelty, not necessarily inflicted by humans but by life itself.
That is why, in Bang I see a picture of the underworld in which Mexicans near the border live—on both sides—the Mexicans and Latin American bottlenecked in the border towns, and the undocumented families living in the U.S. going back and forth between identities, but not quite living the American dream, hiding and not feeling from there, as Araceli thinks at one point:
She feels a little pang of shame at the excitement of possibly being deported. She would miss her sons, but she would be able to live her life the way it used to be—before she met her husband, before she made a family for no other reason than it was the thing to do. . . . A life of no fear, no hiding. Deportation wouldn’t be so bad, Araceli thinks.
Besides the portrait of the border area, Peña writes in clean prose and stays away from the fake slang and the need to imitate the way people talk. It’s not a bilingual book, as in the style of Junot Díaz. There’s no need. Instead, there is a sense of rhythm, musical sentences that are a pleasure to read and achieve a certain counterbalance for the gruesome images that Peña creates. He is not trying to be sensationalist, nor writes a word just to be dramatic. He is not leaning on the topic nor the trickery. Words are there because they have to be used, including blood, which appears almost a hundred times, not counting the times it was conjugated. We can’t expect anything else in this Mexican hell. Everyone shows off their blood at some point. Just as everyone is in constant pain.
Every character found in here yearns for a family, works for a family and puts if before everything else. Whether it’s Lalo, the drug lord Jimmy’s henchman, and his desire to please his daughter, or June (the punk girl), whom Uli meets in San Miguel, taking care of her dog. It doesn’t matter. Never mind their cruelty or what their eyes have seen—charred bodies, gladiator-style fights between kidnapped men holding chains and machetes—everyone is moved by family. A Mexican trait.
We have to think of Peña’s book first as the exploration of a Mexican-American that looked deep inside his soul, that actually wrote a book with hot Mexican blood filling his fingers while typing and reflecting on the situation experienced by his paisanos. The author lived in Mexico for some time and knows what Mexicans are about, what deep down he is about. And second, as way of questioning the actions of the current Mexican president, Enrique Peña Nieto, and his predecessor, Felipe Calderón (both mentioned in the book), who actually started this so-called war against narco, a war that has taken tenths of thousands of lives. Is it worth it? Is that hell worth it?
Daniel Peña wrote a wonderful novel that is not about showing us yet again the drug-dealing world. It’s a book that carves deep into our pain, that talks about the burden of our origins. Whoever we are and wherever we come from, going back and tracing the chain of our DNA will always be a painful, bloody experience. A dangerous quest from which we will never make it back the same.
Efrén Ordóñez is the founder and publisher of Argonáutica a Mexican press specializing in translation for which he translated Melville’s Beard, Mark Haber’s short story collection. Last year he wrote his second novel as a recipient of a Fondo Nacional para la Cultura y las Artes grant in Mexico. His first novel Humo (“Smoke”), awarded with the 2013 State of Nuevo Leon Prize in Literature was published by Nitro Press in 2017. His short story collection Gris infierno was published by the Mexican press Analfabeta in 2014; in 2014 he also published an illustrated children’s book Possum, a tale’s story/Tlacuache. Historia de una cola with FCAS in Mexico City. In 2013 he was a recipient of a grant from the State of Nuevo Leon Writers Centre. He currently writes and translates for his writing agency Courier 12 Escritores. He lives in Mexico City.
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