Violent stories, one argument goes, inevitably endorse violence. No matter how much pacifist moralizing a writer brings to a war story, it will always play up the thrill and clamor of battle to some degree. And a murder tale will always stoke our voyeuristic urge to witness violence. That’s not so much because we love violence as much as we love story — the rush of bloodshed is wired to the comforts of a familiar narrative arc.
So what if you bent that arc, or even turned it into a pretzel? What effect does a violent novel have then? Those questions are at the core of “The Arid Sky,” the stellar English-language debut of Mexican-born author Emiliano Monge. By leaping forward and backward in time across most of the 20th century while following one man’s violent life in a dusty mesa town, the novel strips away anything that might be construed as heroic. Instead, it evokes a sense of terrible acts constantly repeating in one place, history grimly folding back on itself. It’s a traditional western cut up and turned into an M.C. Escher print.
The novel’s central figure is Germán Alcántara Carnero, who during his 80 years has been a quiet local civil servant, an abandoned lover, a lousy father, and a mercenary who’s brutally put down protests, burning down a church filled with priests. Monge’s anonymous narrator jumbles the narrative, shifting from 1956 to 1901 to 1934 and so on. But regardless of which “knot” in the thread the narrator worries, bad news is following Germán.
In the novel’s unnamed territory, the downcast narrator tells us, plants grow “in haphazard manner: a manner replicated by almost everything on this plain and thus by this story as well.” The son of a deaf mother and belligerent, corpulent father, Germán lives quietly in the mesa until he’s 9 years old, when he gets his first taste of violence — a man who killed a beetle he was admiring is shot dead by another man. The incident triggers something peculiar in young Germán’s brain, a sense that the world makes sense only through the violence it nurtures. It’s telling that his first instinct is to touch the dead body, finding almost comfort in it: “He has seen dead men before but never gone so far as to touch one, and never imagined the blood would be this warm.”
It’s hard not to hear a resemblance to Cormac McCarthy in bleak, lyrical prose like this: Monge’s landscape is a place where “the scattered cacti gather their shadows to them like shawls,” and Germán himself is “a man so thin it makes you want to touch him just to see if your hand passes clean through.” And Monge shares McCarthy’s enthusiasm for vividly littering the dusty Southwest with corpses: At the church Germán helps burn down, revenge for an earlier betrayal, “the black billowing thread of smoke reached skywards, a tongue mute and never-ending, twisting back and around itself. … By the time the two tall church windowpanes exploded, the ten men shut inside were also exploding.”
But “The Arid Sky” also foregrounds Monge’s taste for literary gamesmanship, which draws heavily from Latin and South American experimentalists (Márquez, Cortázar, Bolaño all come to mind) as well as the Modernists. It’s not surprising to learn that Monge, who’s lived in Barcelona, has joined a group of Spanish writers who pay tribute to James Joyce in Dublin every Bloomsday.
Had Monge laid out all these knots in order, Germán’s saga would have a familiar cast: birth, violence, regret, redemption, death. By shuffling the narrative deck, Monge doesn’t let his antihero’s violent past reside neatly in a “past”; indeed, Monge often sets Germán’s latter-day losses and regrets (a tragic marriage, a severely disabled son) near his earliest losses (estranged parents, a disabled sister) to have them echo each other. “A child, or, more specifically, a family — is what he was waiting for all that time,” Monge writes of Germán. “What he needed in order to break with the past.” The break proves to be a delusion, but we don’t need a melancholy tale of decline and fall to understand that.
Monge’s gambit has its shortcomings, particularly when it comes to characterizations. The central women in Germán’s life — the disabled sister, the murdered lover, his mother — are often more sketched than finely drawn. And his motivations for youthful vengeance can sometimes get lost amid Monge’s literal shuffling. Part of Monge’s point is that motivations for violence are less important than how we respond to it; on Germán’s mesa, bloodshed is just part of the general atmosphere. But a sense of depth matters, even in anti-narratives.
Yet the novel thrives on a persistent feeling of universality, a sense that Germán’s scrambled life is a stand-in for many others. Monge routinely refers to him as “ourman,” the better to cast him as symbol for countless other similar violent actors, villains who want to think of themselves as heroes. But the name also forces us to claim him as part of history that can’t be wiped away. In Germán’s territory, Monge writes, “veins course with the same courage, aloofness, fears, servility, hatefulness, and guilt as did those of the people who settled these lands over the centuries.” What story, Monge asks, can we tell that will break that chain of rage and violence? “The Arid Sky” is a cutting, provocative attempt at an answer.
Mark Athitakis is a reviewer in Phoenix.
Emiliano Monge, translated by Thomas Bunstead