The book is The Jaguar's Children, a novel by John Vaillant. It gripped me from the first sentence, and as is so rarely the case (you'd be amazed how many books I start and stop, deeply disappointed, initial pages' promise betrayed soon enough), it never let go. So yes, this is a page turner, a very fine one, and purely in terms of its writerly quality it deserves praise. But it is much more than a well-written, well crafted story.
It is in a sense a horror story, the most horrifying kind, rooted in reality. Most important, and the reason my reaction lands here on Read Red rather than meriting just a five-star rating in my Goodreads account, The Jaguar's Children is a political novel that takes on a very important issue, or really two important issues.
- The plight of undocumented Central American migrants trying to reach the United States
- The conditions at home that drive them to the desperate decision to migrate
The way Vaillant depicts the situation is simple and devastating. He takes us inside a truck, a sealed water tanker, that has driven across the border from Mexico into the U.S. The truck blows a tire in the Arizona desert. The truck's driver and the coyote who has charged exorbitant fees to the dozens of people hidden and sealed in the empty water tank abandon the vehicle along with the human beings trapped within. We are inside with them via the voice of one of them: Hector, who uses his friend Cesar's phone to dial the only U.S. number on the phone and leaves a series of voicemail messages to seek help, to narrate the experience in the truck as hour by hour hope trickles away, and to tell how he and Cesar came to be there.
It's this last, the back story, that provides the novel's political heft. In fact it's a beautiful example of the way fiction can, by telling one or two characters' individual tales, explicate and illuminate large, broad swaths of history, of political developments, of the class struggle, of the national question, of imperialism. Vaillant does so here, with great skill and sensitivity, and with full depth of feeling, full dimension allotted to the characters. The reader learns much about Mexico over the last century and more, and about what has happened to the lives of the Indigenous peoples in that country. Finally, and this for me is the key to how beautifully this novel accomplishes what I always yearn for a novel to do, the story comes full circle as the flashbacks build to a climax and we learn why Cesar had to flee. The villains: NAFTA, U.S.-based agribusiness, and their Mexican comprador-bourgeois accomplices. There's a lot packed in here, and, miraculously, it works.
If you google the phrase "Mexican immigrants die in truck" you'll come up with roughly 16 million results. The heart breaks. As it will reading this book. Which is good, for the world's workers--especially the tens of millions on the move, forced to migrate by U.S.-imperialist bombs and invasions and wars and occupations, U.S.-imperialist trade and agricultural wars, and the worldwide U.S. and other imperialist exploitation of resources and labor--need and deserve the fellow feeling of those of us who live in the U.S. and other imperialist centers. But it's nowhere near good enough if you close a book like this, your heart broken, and that's that. The ultimate worth of this kind of novel is measured by the action it arouses. In this case, it's a call to stand in solidarity with migrant workers, to fight the fascist Trump movement, to act against the deportations.
How? It's a no-brainer. May Day is coming up, and May Day 2016 is the tenth anniversary of the great national uprising that was May Day 2006, a.k.a. A Day Without Immigrants, when much of this country was virtually shut down by an immigrant workers' general strike. Here's the poster for this year's action in New York City. New Yorkers, I'll see you there. Everyone else, check out your city's event.