Rafael Bernal, born in 1915 in Mexico City, doesn't come to mind when one thinks of great detective novelists of the 1960s. There is little about him on the Internet in English, and none of his other novels, plays, story collections or histories have been translated. Although he wrote dozens of books, his 1969 novel, "The Mongolian Conspiracy," is considered his masterwork, but it was difficult to procure even an old dog-eared copy — until this past fall, when it was reissued by the folks at New Directions.
Filiberto Garcia, Bernal's protagonist, a pistolero, is a man of "international intrigue" and the classic antihero: sarcastic and outspoken to the point of insubordination, a hired-gun gumshoe with a rambling inner monologue that reveals an inferiority complex, and a proclivity for blurting out self-critical remarks, exclamation points bursting off the page in the tradition of vintage Tom Wolfe or Hunter S. Thompson. Yet Bernal's fictional alter ego is no doubt inspired by the tough-guy trifecta of Chandler, Hammett and Thompson.
"The Mongolian Conspiracy," set in Mexico City, revolves around the poor Chinatown neighborhood off Dolores Street. The government catches wind of an assassination plot allegedly rooted in Outer Mongolian China to simultaneously kill the presidents of the United States and Mexico. A half a million dollars in cash, doled out in $50 increments, is paid to locals to make sure the dual assassination goes off without a hitch. As the hot bills start turning up, the bodies pile up and a game of who's-plotting-what-against-whom commences. The conclusion will not be apparent until it's right in front of you; even then, you'll be surprised by its cynicism.
Garcia's love interest, a half-Chinese girl one-third his age named Marta, occupies the sub-plot of the book and elicits perhaps the only feelings of humanity from any of the characters, especially our pistolero, when they exchange words, hugs, kisses and flirtatious banter as the assassination plot unfolds around them.
In real life of course Bernal was a renaissance man: He earned his doctorate in literature from the University of Fribourg in Switzerland, and his bachelor's degree at Loyola in Montreal, in addition to studying at the Colegio Francés de San Borja in Peru and at the Instituto de Ciencias y Letras in Mexico City. Although he was a successful novelist and journalist for TV, radio and film, he ultimately became a Mexican diplomat after years of extensive travel left him with a taste for the jet-set lifestyle. (The cities and countries he traveled to as a tourist or served in as a diplomat reads like a veritable list of exotic locales in Graham Greene novels: Europe, Central America, Colombia, Cuba, Venezuela, the U.S., Canada, Honduras, Peru, the Philippines, Japan and Switzerland, where he died while serving his country. He is buried in Geneva.)
But as writer Francisco Goldman points out in the introduction to this reissue: "He is reputed to have been at least until the 1950s a right-wing Christian nationalist, and many of his [earlier] novels were platforms for the didactic airings of his views, especially regarding his religious beliefs and the betrayal of the Mexican Revolution by the country's political military, and oligarchic classes."
Disdain for political corruption (something Mexico still suffers from today) soaks through every page of "The Mongolian Conspiracy," as if Bernal were using the novel to elucidate what he had learned from a lifetime of writing, politics and diplomacy, and the now-somewhat-comic capers of the Cold War era.
"They've got people to investigate everything," Garcia says, recounting the bureaucratic malaise and inefficiency of typical government agents — in this case, in the U.S. "I think that's all they do is investigate, and that's why they couldn't prevent what happened in Dallas. They were too busy investigating, they didn't see the guy with the rifle."
In the book's afterward, Bernal's daughter, Cocol, lets on about where Garcia's colorful anecdotes and plot twists might have originated: "My dad spent a lot of time in the jungles of Quintana Roo and Chiapas and met many guns for hire who, after a few tequilas, were more than happy to tell him all their stories. A lot of Filiberto's stories come from them." Case closed.
Gabel is editor and associate publisher of the Pitchfork Review and editorial and creative director of the Chicagoan. He lives in Los Angeles.
The Mongolian Conspiracy
By Rafael Bernal
New Directions: 192 pp., $14.95