Earlier this year I read Mexico: Stories by Josh Barkan and then took to Goodreads.com, a literary review site, to give the book four of five stars. I was also motivated to write a brief review there (not always the case), within which I praised the writing and craft, while also noting that I found Barkan's work a bit too obsessed with violence.
The gist was that Mexico, an editor’s choice by The New York Times, was great but the bloody violence throughout was disingenuous for a book with a title that aspires to represent an entire country. Is Mexico violent? Of course. Is it possible for life there to be safe and pleasant? Well, it certainly didn't seem to be in Barkan's stories. Basically, my review wondered why we didn't see more of Mexico’s beauty, why we didn't get a better sense of real life. If every character is so disfigured by evil then the book becomes an unambiguous depiction of a failed state, an aim that was not suggested by Barkan's careful and deep characterization. Essentially, I wondered how can we know what makes violence so tragic if we're never shown what is lost?
I was not alone in this sentiment. There were 30-some other reviews, the majority of them laudatory, but a vocal minority expressed variations of my same thoughts. I continued to think about the book on occasion, and then months later Barkan came to give a reading in the city where I live. In discussing his work, Barkan said he’d never wanted to write about the violence. He lives in Mexico City with his wife, a painter, and loves the country, etc. But one day he was at lunch in a nice neighborhood not far from his home and a shootout erupted. He huddled in a taqueria for cover, watching as two well-dressed men, bodyguards it turned out, battled a would-be assassin in the streets. That same week, an architect he knew was found dead, rumored to have taken a job with a cartel connection. Put simply, the violence Barkan never set out to depict found him and subsequently permeated his art.
I have my own history with Mexico, as I suspect most of the other reviewers do, too. I went to Puebla when I was 19 and spent weeks with a friend’s family. I’ve since returned to visit many times. My first job out of college was at a newspaper in Texas on the Mexican border, which I often had occasion to cross. This April I was married in my wife’s familial hometown of Puerto Vallarta. I've been shaped and inspired by Mexico. I remember spending a New Year’s in the streets of a neighborhood deep in Mexico City as fireworks erupted, mariachis played, and families took effigies of the expiring year off the rooftops and burned them. I have been to Mexico.
I’ve also had brushes with the violence, not unlike Barkan. As a reporter, I went to San Luis Potosi on a junket sponsored by the state government, which wanted to promote tourism. We saw wonderful places, waterfalls and pyramids and museums, and we were treated as honored guests, as dignitaries. On the way back, our bus was stopped at a roadblock in another state near the border, Tamaulipas. Men without uniforms boarded, automatic weapons slung across their backs. They pointed to the young men (all three of us) and told us to step out. They walked slow circles in the dirt around us, held eye contact until we looked away, made us wait in the sun. Then they let us continue.
Another time in Puebla, I drove with friends in a small red car to the next town over for a festival. We went on rides, ate elote, watched fireworks. When we returned to where we’d parked, the car was gone, evidenced only by shattered glass in the street. The next morning, three men, again with automatic weapons, were waiting outside the house when we woke up, asking for $100 to investigate the theft. We paid them, and within two hours the car was found.
I’m not naive. I know these incidents were just brushes. I know much worse happens to people who can't simply return to the U.S. Yet, I couldn't shake the grizzly bloodshed in Barkan’s stories, nor could I entirely accept it. Violence is an easy narrative, maybe the easiest, especially for a country as awash in it as Mexico. This is all to say that Barkan's book ultimately forced me to take a lens to my own perception of Mexico, to the danger and to the privilege I've always had of being able to escape. Upon doing so, I found that those of us writing on a low stakes site like Goodreads that his stories were too bloody should consider ourselves. How can we be so aware of the richness of life in Mexico yet so vocal about a literary focus on the violence in its margins? Why, for that matter, did we all feel such a need to protest?
Maybe what makes Mexico such an enthralling place to us is its aggressive determination not to let evil define it. I’ve known men and women there who refuse to drink or use profanity, defiantly strict in the face of a corruption that has sown so much death around their homes. Maybe they will one day be killed, but maybe we all will. As I write this, the United States is recuperating from a massacre at a country music festival in shining Las Vegas on a Sunday night. No place is safe.
Or maybe we need to argue with ourselves, to deny why we are drawn to the country. I don't think my own motivation is morbid, not entirely. I'm no fetishist for danger or suffering, I'm no death-flaunting thrill seeker. To say I'm unconcerned with risk would be disingenuous. I heed State Department advisories, and I've gone fidgety more than once when a taxi took a wrong turn. But what I find in Mexico, and what I now believe Barkan's focus on the violence may suggest, is that all life everywhere is an interchange between awareness of threat and necessary denial of it as truth. Otherwise, how could we function? Mexico wears this in the open, fear dancing with desire, triumph taunting the darkness that looms. In Mexico we can be mild and normal, and still be made brave by a stubborn insistence that it is possible to live in peace. That's the draw. That's also why we protest.