Treating a Historic Massacre as an Active Crime Scene


Delve into the books of the Mexican writer and musician Julián Herbert and how obedient — how chaste — so much contemporary nonfiction can suddenly seem in comparison. Does Herbert write memoirs? Essays? Novels? His books are mash-ups of memory, investigation and fictional ornamentation, marked with a fond disrespect for genre — much like life.

Herbert wrote his previous, prizewinning book, “Tomb Song,” in his mother’s hospital room, as she lay dying from leukemia. It is as much farce as elegy — his dreamy, druggy interludes vie with deathbed scenes and recollections of a childhood of poverty and abandonment, spent in the brothels where his mother worked, changing her name “with the nonchalance with which other women dye or perm their hair” — Lorena, Vicky, Juana. (The source, I’ve often thought, of Herbert’s comfort with the murk and multiplicity of truth.)

The title was a twist on “cradle song” — a lullaby. Herbert kept vigil over his mother in her final days, her “best-loved and most-hated son.” His new book, like the last, is translated by Christina MacSweeney — one of the great Spanish translators of her generation. It’s another kind of tomb song, this time for the motherland. “The House of the Pain of Others” tells the story of a “small genocide” that took place in the city of Torreón, over the course of three days in 1911, during the Mexican Revolution. Three hundred Chinese immigrants were shot and bludgeoned to death in the streets, their corpses mutilated, their belongings, businesses and homes ransacked.

The crime has had a strange afterlife. It has been misunderstood and misrepresented — many of Torreón’s inhabitants still blame outsiders, marauding revolutionaries and drug cartels (almost anyone, to avoid their own complicity). But it has never been truly forgotten. Oral and printed versions circulated almost immediately in its wake, and academic studies followed. The story of the massacre “wants to be told,” Herbert writes. “It refuses to die. This book is merely a version of that refusal.”

The challenge was to find a form. Herbert begins by describing the books he does not want to write: a conventional nonfiction narrative or a novel — the version of the killings that existed in popular imagination is fiction enough. “What didn’t exist was a crónica, in the hybrid Mexican sense of the term, with its blend of literature and journalism, objectivity and subjectivity. I decided to write an ambiguous story, a stylized cross section of history that would bring together the events of the past, and the dents they have left in the present (and in me),” he writes. He has created “a medieval book,” he tells us, his own efficient hype man. “A historical antinovel: overwriting: a stockpot with bony prefixes to season a greasy literary field that has run out of meat.”

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Julián HerbertCreditGermán Siller

I share your confusion. Not least because after the buildup (and garbled metaphors), what Herbert trundles out is fairly straightforward: a dense, detailed narrative of the massacre — although not without a few flourishes.

The book opens with an epigraph from “Chinatown” (the film’s classic line: “Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown”) and then a heading announcing, “This is a western.” Setting is fate, we are to understand — and Herbert implicates the entire society in the killings, its patrimony of violence, eugenics and amnesia. “Mexico is full of pits filled with the bodies of people who disappeared,” Herbert wrote in his short story “Z.” “A few years ago in Coahuila, a whole town disappeared: 300 people were found buried in a common grave. And none of these cases ever get solved.” Other stories of disappearances gather at the margins of this new book — 43 students who went missing in 2015; the repeated torching of historical archives.

The title of the book comes from the nickname of the local soccer stadium, and encapsulates, to Herbert, Mexico’s xenophobia. “Mexican anti-Chinese sentiment did not begin with the slaughter in Torreón, nor did it end with that event. Before the small genocide, the fantasy of annihilation had set up camp in the press, in coffeehouse conversations, jokes, laws, segregation, public demonstrations and vituperation until things came to blows.”

Or go back even further. Anti-Chinese sentiment seethed long before the arrival of the first immigrant in the Americas; it sprang up “from the thorny territory of the imagination,” nurtured by reports from spurned missionaries to China who concocted stories of “irremediable pagans, child murderers” that were enthusiastically taken up by American tabloids. “Sinophobia became a best seller.”

It’s the unearthed American connection to the massacre that is Herbert’s most interesting contribution. He’s a skittish reporter; more content to chat with taxi drivers than squeeze stories from his subjects. (In one deflating scene, he encounters one of the leaders of Torreón’s Chinese community who expertly sidesteps his questions.) But in combing through various rumors — that the Chinese opened fire first, that the murders were carried out by Pancho Villa and his men — he makes a powerful admonishment about familiar narratives about racism.

The dominant view of the massacre has been of a spontaneous explosion of violence fueled by working-class resentment of immigrants, the cheap labor they provided and their growing foothold in Mexico. Herbert argues the opposite case: It was Mexico’s upper classes who initially “adopted the anti-Chinese prejudice of the leading United States citizens of the day,” he argues, looking to editorials and chilling anti-immigration “satires.” Long before any labor-related grievances cropped up, it was “a middle-class phobia” — and contagion — that spread, stoked by the Mexican government.

The bodies of the 300 Chinese immigrants were dumped in mass graves or left to rot. There was no apology, no restitution — in fact, intimidation of the community only continued after the killings. The great strength of Herbert’s book, written with such shame and fury, is that it is not framed as epitaph but as dispatch from a live crime scene, attentive to the silences, the still seething resentments, relinquishing nothing to history.



Sahred From Source link Arts

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