Found in translation

Tony Cohan is the author of "On Mexican Time: A New Life in San Miguel," "Native State: A Memoir" and the forthcoming "Mexican Days: Journeys Into the Heart of Mexico."

FROM a window seat 30,000 feet up, it's hard to tell exactly when you've crossed the U.S.-Mexico border. By day, there are some visible changes in the pattern of human structures and farmland, though less so with the passing years; by night, there are more lights on the northern side, but this difference too has diminished.

Down on the ground, though, the often-invoked term vecinos distantes -- distant neighbors -- too accurately describes the cultural chasm that prevails along our vast common frontera. The fact is, we just don't read each other very well -- or very much.

Add to this the fact that little foreign literature in general gets translated into English these days -- a trend so alarming that the PEN American Center, a branch of the international writers organization, invited dozens of the best writers from other countries to a conference in New York last year to address this crisis. (In French bookstores, for example, about 40% of the selections may be translated from other languages; in U.S. stores, it's often closer to 4%.) Many readers who used to tote around English translations of Camus, Solzhenitsyn, Garcia Marquez or Borges would be hard-pressed to name a French, Russian or Latin American writer they've read recently. In a global information society, we may listen to world music more, but we read world literature less.

Does this mean great writing has dried up beyond our borders? Of course not; it's just that less of it gets to us. Big publishers have ceded much of the territory -- unless a Nobel Prize winner or other headline-maker is involved -- to small presses and university houses. This means less money and less attention, breeding a literary provincialism we all should deplore, one that surely has political implications as well. That we know so little of our southern neighbor's literature is sadly typical, if not outright scandalous.

All the more reason to welcome "Mexico," a collection in English of short stories, novel excerpts and creative nonfiction by 24 contemporary Mexican authors assembled by writer C.M. Mayo.

Mexico has long served as a dumping ground for Anglo fantasies of histrionic dissolution: Malcolm Lowry's crumbling consul in "Under the Volcano," Graham Greene's whiskey priest in "The Power and the Glory" -- not to mention rafts of recent margarita thrillers and tales of drug deals gone wrong. The country's physical extravagance -- deserts, jungles, mountains and coasts -- seems to invite extremes: cults and chupacabras, tyrants and bandidos, fugitives and remittance men, witches and holy waters and miracle cancer cures. So, Mexico stands in the North American imagination as its permanent exotic -- lawless, colorful, untamed -- and its collective dark unconscious. Land of salsa and sabor, fiestas and revelry, ghosts and gore. A country riddled with bullet holes and beauty.

This simplistic, often exploitative picture quickly collapses before the work of Mexican writers. In the past, we've had the magisterial poet and essayist Octavio Paz as well as fiction by Carlos Fuentes, Laura Esquivel (both of whom are included in this volume) and occasionally others rendered into English. But few of Mexico's vast and varied contemporary literary voices have had a chance to speak to us. Mayo has gathered here established authors as well as relative unknowns, providing a rich banquet -- to borrow her term (and the title of one of the stories). Organized by region, the works begin along the U.S. border and move south, ending in deepest Chiapas and Yucatan.

Inez Arredondo's "The Silent Words" weaves a poetic tale about a Chinese ranch worker in Sinaloa, reminding us that Mexico is home to more than the mestizo. "According to Evaristo," by Jesus Gardea, follows the course of a friendship between an herbalist and the narrator's father in which silence and smells, winds and herbs, create paradoxical resonances. In Ricardo Elizondo Elizondo's "The Green Bottle," a woman in a forgotten salt-mining village waits vainly for her son to return from the States.

In these three strong narratives from Mexico's barren north, you hear something highly original, akin perhaps only to the deep reaches of our Southern Gothic -- Flannery O'Connor or William Faulkner, at times. Sometimes people fall silent or don't answer when spoken to. Dry winds or fleeting memories fill the spaces between the words. One senses the hand of Juan Rulfo, an earlier Mexican master whose novel "Pedro Paramo" (available in English) indelibly etched the haunted wastes and mystic silences of rural Mexico.

A number of stories from central Mexico strike an entirely different tone. The brilliant intellectual gadfly Carlos Monsivais displays his gonzo wit and dancing insight in "Identity Hour." Juan Villoro's "One-Way Street" details the progress of a rich Mexico City kid who takes a walk on the wild side, becoming a temporary punk. In the exceptional "Huaquechula," a divorced photographer takes his two daughters for the weekend to see altars to the dead. It's hard to imagine a North American daddy doing this, but the children are delighted by the little sugar skulls with their names on them, offered like Hershey's Kisses or M&M;'s. Sleek, contemporary, skilled, this story by Pedro Angel Palou delivers a kind of Mexican equivalent of the work of Haruki Murakami.

In Ilan Stavans' bizarre "Twins," set in the state of Veracruz, two Lebanese Mexican brothers face off in an eating contest to the death. As memorable as any tale in the collection is Raymundo Hernandez-Gil's "Tarantula," a grotesque, fabulous cantina story to end all cantina stories: When a village witch dies, the fate that befalls her son almost beggars description. In Alberto Ruy Sanchez's "Vigil in Tehuantepec," visitors to an annual folkloric event in the sweltering, matriarchal town find themselves in the middle of a lynching. A passage from the novel "Tenebrae Service," by the forceful Rosario Castellanos, describes Maya life in the Chiapas town of San Juan Chamula with a ringing, passionate lyricism.

"In the land of need that is Mexico," Fuentes has written, "the impossible distance between desire and the thing desired has given both yearning and object an incandescent purity." Indeed, the most affecting of these narratives are about longing and isolation, uncertain identity and shape-shifting, of someone who wants something he or she can't get and must wait, maybe forever.

Writing life works differently in Mexico. Its literature sometimes labors under the weight of the Spanish tradition -- Cervantes and Catholicism (present in so many of these stories), its outsize history and diverse regional identities and its late arrival into the modern arena. The literary class is small; if you ride Mexican public transportation, you rarely see people with a book open. There is a literary cabal in Mexico City whose members scratch each other's backs (or lacerate them). Many among the younger educated generation are moving into Internet life without pausing to consider literature. Yet there is sizable support for writing in every corner of the republic -- prizes and grants, conferences and workshops, a steady stream of publications both Mexican and foreign.

This collection is perhaps less a "best of" than a "broadly representative of." A few notable absences are the wonderful Elena Poniatowska and some of the more adventurous younger writers, such as Guillermo Fadanelli. Still, we couldn't ask for much more. This is how Mexico looks, tastes and feels, and how its writers write about it. Numerous translators, including Mayo, have lent their voices to this task.

This is a book to throw in a suitcase or mochila (backpack) on the way to Mexico or just settling into a favorite patio chair. It will open your eyes, fill you with pleasure and render our perennial vecinos a little less distante. *

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