Today’s contributor to our Big Loves column is Antonio Ruiz-Camacho. Ruiz-Camacho’s collection of short stories Barefoot Dogs was recently published by Scribner. The linked stories, using exuberant and imaginative language, explore the fallout of a patriarch’s abduction in Mexico City, illuminated through the exile and displacement of his family. Here, Ruiz-Camacho shares his love for José Emilio Pacheco.
“I remember. I don’t remember. What year was it?” The opening lines of José Emilio Pacheco’s Battles in the Desert might as well describe my own struggle trying to pin down the first time I read the book. It was in the early nineties, but the exact year escapes me. It must have been in college, shortly after I moved to Mexico City from Toluca, the small town in Central Mexico where I grew up, because reading the book felt like an introduction to the bigness of the city and the heartbreak of first loves and the ever-unfulfilled promises of a country long bound for greatness, perennially falling short. But it was not only that. Above all, Pacheco’s novella, which is revered and has been read and re-read on end by generations of young and old-and-young-again Mexicans, felt like an incursion into everything I admired and aspired to without even knowing it: prose as rhythm, the playful recreation of the past, storytelling as a way of occupying the world.
Reading whole books was not a widespread habit in my hometown–it wasn’t even something you were required to do in order to do well at school. Before my encounter with Pacheco and the big city, the only books I had read from cover to cover in my entire life were: Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, Gabriel García Márquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera, and La Noche de Tlatelolco, Elena Poniatowska’s account of the killing of students by military forces on October 2nd, 1968 in Mexico City. They had all fallen in my hands by accident rather than choice, and I had equally devoured them with fascination and a quiet sense of wonder about the possibilities of the written form to reproduce places never visited, eras long gone, and their unmatched ability to expose injustice in societies and countries ruled by brutes. But that was all. Not one of these books ever prompted me to read more, let alone to write. I was an oblivious boy living in the suburbs of the world who’d keep his burning desire to tell stories in the closet, as if a condition that would eventually, hopefully, go away.
Battles in the Desert affected me in a radically different way. For once, unlike the (three!) books I had read before, this one was short (it is in fact so succinct–a meager sixty-eight pages in the original Spanish version–that the English edition, published by New Directions, made enough room to also include five other pieces of short fiction written by Pacheco, which might mislead you to think that the book is a story collection). There is something atomic, sweeping and awe-inspiring about the way short novels like Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis, Albert Camus’s The Stranger, Juan Rulfo’s Pedro Páramo, Pacheco’s Battles in the Desert, and, more recently, Alejandro Zambra’s Ways of Going Home, and Juan Pablo Villalobos’s Down the Rabbit Hole, manage to stunningly encapsulate and expand the larger world in just a few swift strokes.
Not only was it a matter of shortness but, more importantly, the element of breath, that made Pacheco’s book irremediable and overly affecting. Each one of the paragraphs in Battles in the Desert is a micro-story in and on itself, and this not only blew me away, it defined me.
Consider the very second paragraph of the book:
“It was the year of the polio: the schools were full of children with orthopedic devices; the year of the foot-and-mouth-disease: tens of thousands of sick cattle were being shot throughout the country; the year of the floods: downtown had once again become a lake, and the people rode in boats through the streets. They say that with the next storm, the sewage system will burst and inundate the capital. So what, my brother answered, we are living up to our ears in shit anyway under Miguel Alemán’s regime.”
Originally published in Mexico in 1981 and translated by Katherine Silver for the English edition, which was released six years later, Battles in the Desert is about a boy who falls in love with the mother of one of his friends from school; about a Mexican middle-class family’s financial woes in the middle of an era of economic prosperity known as the Mexican Miracle; about American companies taking over local industries in the incipient Third World; about kids playing Jews vs. Arabs in dusty school playgrounds at the dawn of the Cold War; about old-school politicos and their housewife-like mistresses and all the mischief and tragedy that may fit and explode in between; about growing up in the late forties in the peripheries of the Western hemisphere; about nostalgia for childhood and melancholy for a future of hope and well-being that never arrived, which is to say it is about a boy with wondering eyes coming acquainted with the ever-stretching world–a world that vanished, that was never there.
Consider the following excerpt from the very last paragraph in the book:
“How ancient! How remote! What an impossible story! But Mariana existed; Jim existed; everything I went over in my head existed even after such a long time of refusing to confront it…. They demolished the school; they demolished Mariana’s building; they demolished my house; they demolished the Roman Quarter. That city came to an end. That country was finished. There is no memory of the Mexico of those years. And nobody cares: who could feel nostalgic for that horror?”
The desire to explain ourselves through stories is as primitive as it is untamable. Battles in the Desert aroused me to dig into the confines of my inner, unexplored writerly self and….oh, please–just say it. I simply read the book and life was never the same again. I couldn’t stop thinking, feeling that I wanted to do that. I wanted to write like that. It took me two decades to realize it, and only now that I find myself writing over and over about the same city, the same country Pacheco so perfectly captured in order to rescue it from the demolition of memory, have I finally accepted that I am, too, writing about a place that no longer exists in order to recapture myself.
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