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Perdidos en Gringolandia

After wrestling a bit with gaijin views of Japan I decided to put the shoe on the other foot and read a book that's been waiting on my shelves for some years now, Ciudades desiertas by José Agustín.

Ciudades desiertas (Deserted Cities) concerns a Mexican writer and her estranged actor husband who spend several months in the US midwestern town of "Arcadia", home of a famous writing program (can you say "Iowa City"?). Much of the book is about a Mexican view of the US: the sterility of our streets, the silence of our airports, our paranoia about cigarette smoke, our endless vending machines, our mall culture, our insipid beer, our unwalkable cities, our misappropriation of the name "America", that we are either cold and manipulative or guileless and overeager for approval, that we (in our liberal mode) fetishize the Indian aspect of Mexico, that we are rootless and soulless, that we (again the liberal "we") are so eager to condemn our own rootlessness and soullessness that we project all sorts of wish fulfillment on the rooted, soulful cultures we think we see elsewhere. (Curiously, one Mexican image of the US gets left out: there are no brutal border guards or racist cops in sight. Unlike my one experience in a Mexican movie theater, when the KKK and the INS joined forces onscreen to terrorize the protagonist and I thought I might have to sneak out the back.)

That much is probably a good tonic for Lost in Translation: see, we can dish it out, so we should be able to take it, too. But like Lost in Translation, Ciudades desiertas is really about its characters more than the strange setting they find themselves in. So while the critique of the US is mostly old hat, the bulk of the book is a puzzle I still can't quite figure out. At the outset I thought the writer, Susana, was the protagonist and her flight from her marriage into the waiting arms of the writing program a standard feminist fairy tale. But then abandoned husband Eligio follows her to Arcadia and all hell breaks loose. A gringo reader expects Susana to dial 911 and get her stalker husband ejected from her life, but she takes him back after a 30-page screaming argument that throws the contained little critique of "Arcadia" right out the window. Eligio is a manic "mexicano macho" (his term) who is conscious enough of the stereotype to accuse Susana of unfairly pinning him with it, and yet who acts the loutish macho at every turn. Eligio's piggish chauvinism is disgusting, and yet his sharp eye and tongue are the main source of life in the book. We keep looking for Susana to leave and stay gone or for Eligio to redeem himself, but neither happens. The book ends with an act of token violence without any retribution that made me wonder: are we supposed to be rooting for Eligio's misogynist antics?

I don't know the answer. Maybe some of José Agustín's other works would tell us.

P.S. Eligio hits the nail on the head in one spot: when a road-trip section of the book passes through Santa Fe, Eligio takes one look at the New Age and indigenous-chic aspects of the town and concludes, "Ah! The gringo Tepoztlán!" Exactly what I thought, in reverse.

books 2004.06.21 link