domingo, 22 de fevereiro de 2015
‘The Jaguar’s Children,’ by John Vaillant
By AMANDA EYRE WARDFEB
The New York Times – Sunday Book Review
In 2003, a trailer truck crammed with immigrants trying to cross the United States border illegally was abandoned on the outskirts of Victoria, Tex. As the heat inside climbed over 100 degrees, 19 people died of asphyxiation and heatstroke — one a 5-year-old boy and one believed to be his father. Holes, which people had made by taking turns attempting to scratch their way toward breathable air, were visible in the insulation of the locked door.
If you don’t want to think for another second about the people inside that truck — about how it feels to watch your child suffocate, or what it’s like to climb into a vehicle with only the hope that the dodgy unknown must be better than what you’ve got — you are not alone. And with a multitude of screens offering “dopey communication” (as George Saunders put it in his vital essay “The Braindead Megaphone”), you don’t have to dwell on unhappy thoughts. You can check out snapshots of acquaintances’ dinner platters or tweet about another person’s tweet about race relations; you can cheer a cable newscaster’s ideology or peruse videos of strangers opening packages (this is really a thing). Whatever spikes your dopamine! Nobody’s challenging you to sit still for a moment, open a novel and listen to the voice of a dying boy trapped in a truck.
Except John Vaillant.
“The Jaguar’s Children,” Vaillant’s first novel, begins with a text message from a young man named Héctor María de la Soledad Lázaro González, who is sealed inside a water tank: “hello i am sorry to bother you but i need your assistance — ” Héctor, we soon learn, is one of a group of illegal immigrants who have been abandoned by their coyotes. He is typing on a cellphone that belongs to his gravely injured friend César, who is lying beside him on the floor of the tank.
Héctor has found one American contact in the phone, “AnniMac.” As the hours (and good God, the days) drag on, Héctor texts and then makes sound files to send to AnniMac. He tells her of the “pretty pictures” of rescue he’s created in his mind: “Maybe the mechanic will drive up in a little truck with a shiny red box of tools. ‘¡Hola, amigos! ¿Como están? So sorry to be late. It will only take a minute. ¿Prefieren Corona o Pepsi?’ ” Héctor’s first text hopefully requests, “We need water and a doctor — and a torch for cutting metal.” But as time goes by, Héctor admits, “Estamos jodidos.” (Essentially, “We’re doomed.”)
Vaillant is a celebrated nonfiction author. His two previous books, “The Golden Spruce: A True Story of Myth, Madness and Greed” and “The Tiger: A True Story of Vengeance and Survival,” explore the relationship between man and nature with lush language and — as their subtitles indicate — page-turning suspense. “The Jaguar’s Children” continues in what Edward Lewine (reviewing “The Tiger” in these pages) called Vaillant’s “murder-in-nature mode,” but the felled creature this time is not a tree or a tiger but a human.
At times, the novel’s device of Héctor repeatedly addressing AnniMac strains credulity: Would he really be telling a stranger about Nafta and his grandfather’s archaeological digs as people cried out and died around him? And a subplot involving the horrible truth that some of Mexico’s native corn varieties have been contaminated with genetically engineered DNA is an important topic, but feels misplaced.
Vaillant’s triumph is the way he invites readers to know Héctor so intimately as he waits for salvation or death. While it’s painful to read Héctor’s musings on thirst (“It is like being a baby again — you turn into one big mouth”), on the same page he remembers his grandmother’s pilgrimages to “the pueblo of Juquila, high in the southern mountains where the Virgin appeared to a campesina washing the clothes.” Vaillant allows the pace of the novel to slow as he describes Héctor’s abuela, who brings a handmade garment to dress Juquila: “In her church there is a room stacked to the ceiling with tiny gowns.” She dons a green skirt and flowered huipil, takes a shot of mezcal, and places a basket and statue of Juquila surrounded by fireworks on her head. Among the throngs of pilgrims, a worker lights this crown of rockets, and they watch as she dances in the plaza: “We are all clapping now, cheering for her courage and beauty and faith because she has stopped time and with her dancing freed us from the past, the future, all the burdens we must bear.”
Vaillant vibrantly describes the Abastos market, where “the first trucks are coming in from the coast with fish and oranges, seashells and coconuts, maybe a special order of turtle eggs hiding in the belly of a tuna, or a crocodile skull with all its teeth.” Héctor’s grandfather is brought to life (and even given a first-person voice) in Héctor’s fevered brain, allowing readers to hurt with the understanding of how, in one generation, this family has gone from comfort and serenity to a place where Héctor’s father not only urges him to go to el Norte but arranges the passage himself with the help of shadowy contacts. “Can’t you see it?” Héctor’s father tells him. “The world has moved on without us, and for a young man there is no worse fate. You are missing the future because the future isn’t here. The future is there!”
Héctor muses: “Maybe this is our destiny — not for Mexico to lose her people or for America to lose her soul, but for all of us to come together — the United States of Améxica. It will be a new superpower, but with better food.”
Somehow, the barrage of bad and useless news leaves us immune to others’ stories. But when I read Héctor’s recounting of the last time he went with his mother to church, I cried. The son walks with his mother to the altar (“I was thinking only of my own problems and where can I find a pair of Puma Ferraris for cheap”) and hears her voice behind him: “ ‘Mi cariñito, mi angelito, mi vida, niño doradito’ — such tender things, over and over. . . . She is stroking my body, caressing me like she did when I was born — the top of my head and then my cheeks, across my shoulders, down my spine, and her crying and praying all at the same time so that I am glad she is behind me because I cannot bear to see her face.”
This is what novels can do — illuminate shadowed lives, enable us to contemplate our own depths of kindness, challenge our beliefs about fate. It’s the hope of every writer to change the way a reader perceives the world. In seeing Héctor as someone’s beloved son, I gained a new understanding of what was lost outside Victoria, Tex., in 2003, and of the people who are, at this moment, climbing into a coyote’s car, clinging to the rails of a train headed north, standing at the Mexican edge of the Rio Grande, gathering their courage to jump.
Vaillant’s use of fact to inspire fiction brings to mind a long list of powerful novels from the past decade or so: “What Is the What,” by Dave Eggers; “The Map of Love,” by Ahdaf Soueif; “The Storyteller,” by Jodi Picoult; “Salvage the Bones,” by Jesmyn Ward; “American Woman,” by Susan Choi; “Half of a Yellow Sun,” by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie; and more. In a world of relentless content and thin (if bright) attractions, what could be more important than carving out an hour or three and opening yourself to the voice of another, to the possibility that a novel will transform you? To quote Héctor: “They say hope dies last, but I think it is the story.”
THE JAGUAR’S CHILDREN
By John Vaillant
280 pp. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $26.
Amanda Eyre Ward’s “The Same Sky,” a novel about families on both sides of the Mexican-American border, was published last month.
Posted by Francisco Augusto Vaz Brasil at 21:28