Marcus Sedgwick, Saint Death

stdeathSedgwick’s Ghosts of Heaven was on the Carnegie shortlist last time I read it (two years ago); a book in conversation with various texts that I love, I wasn’t sure how I felt about it as a whole but really liked many of its parts. Despite this, my overwhelming feeling on first encountering Saint Death was: why? Why would Marcus Sedgwick be my first port of call for a story set on the Mexico-US border featuring narcos, gambling,and the politics of immigration?

The plot: Arturo lives in Anapra, on the outskirts of Juárez and only a short distance from the border with the US. He lives alone–we discover later that he has an abusive and absent father who hates him, after Arturo reported him to the police. The plot opens as his closest friend from school, Faustino, returns from a long absence and in some danger. Faustino has become involved with a gang, and has stolen money from his boss, El Carnero, in order to pay for his wife (Eva, also an old school friend) and newborn son’s journey to America; though the traffickers have accepted a lower fee on the understanding that Eva will be a drug mule. He enlists Arturo’s help in winning back money to replace what was stolen, through Arturo’s skill at calavera (a card game; I’m not sure if it’s real or just another way of shoehorning death into the story). Things go horrifically wrong when Arturo, intoxicated by his initial gambling success, overreaches–at the end of the game he owes five times the money that Faustino originally needed to repay, and he sets out on a quest through the city, trying to scrape together the money and very aware that both his life and Faustino’s will be forfeit if he fails. Along the way he meets various friends (a couple who own a bar, and an old schoolteacher), each in their way complicit in the system that Arturo is finding impossible to navigate and that he knows will kill him. Throughout, Arturo keeps thinking of Santa Muerte, a figure who seems sometimes to be supporting his endeavours, sometimes thwarting them.

Okay. It’s not an original story, and it’s pretty grim, but it’s often well written–Arturo’s disastrous game of calavera nearly had me shouting at the page. Unfortunately, the story itself is punctuated by small essays (or blog or forum posts–one of them claims to be by user “chomsky68″) explaining the larger political structures that govern the cartels, immigration, US-Mexico trade relations, the global politics of the drug trade.

I suppose many teenagers coming to a book like this might benefit from some Chomsky, but this format really does not work. In part because it suggests that the framework for understanding Arturo’s world needs to be one imposed from outside the story–it might be possible that chomsky68 and whoever else is writing these sections are young Mexican boys, but there’s nothing to suggest this. At only one point in the main story does a character express knowledge of these broader political events; Arturo’s friend Siggy (short for Siegfried; his boyfriend is Carlos; they’re named after Freud and Jung), an American who has immigrated to Mexico, lectures Arturo on how “[t]he world as we find it is a lie. A lie made between those with power: those who run the companies, those who run the government and those who control the police and the army,” while Arturo himself listens wide-eyed. “he doesn’t understand half of what Siggy is saying, not in detail, but he doesn’t mind. He knows it’s important, and he thinks he might understand, one day.” The Mexican characters (and Faustino, who immigrated from Guatemala as a child) live with the consequences of imperialism and global inequality, but are still portrayed as unable to understand these things–Arturo’s bewilderment at Siggy’s speech suggests that they never even talk about them. Even the understanding that NAFTA is hugely unequal has to come from outside the plot, as if these characters somehow wouldn’t know this.

Or perhaps the book just isn’t interested in whether its characters are aware of these things or not, because they’re not its audience. Saint Death opens with a Charles Bowden quote, and Sedgwick himself says in this interview that the reason for including it is to emphasise the interconnectedness of the world. But the quote in question (“This book is about other stories, that occur over there, across the river. The comfortable way to deal with these stories is to say they are about them. The way to understand these stories is to say they are about us.”) does this partly be re-emphasising the “over there”; both in Bowden’s quote and in Sedgwick’s text it’s made very clear who the them and the us are, who is being spoken to and who is being spoken about. (The interview linked to above also mentions Sedgwick’s desire not to italicise the Spanish words in the book–my kindle edition certainly has them italicised …)

I’m writing this post shortly after reading and discussing another book on this Carnegie shortlist, Angie Thomas’s The Hate U Give (thoughts on that forthcoming), which also dramatises a longstanding and violent political issue, but makes very different (and better) choices about how wide a scope it can manage and how to mediate between its multiple audiences. That book is as grim as this one in its understanding of how violent institutions preserve and perpetuate themselves; but it’s also full of activism, history, real people living with and working against these systems, building better worlds. I can’t blame Saint Death for having no solutions (I also have failed to save the world this week), but between its relentness grimness, the inability of its characters to do anything, and the book’s own lack of interest or belief (whichever it is) in their ability to think about their world, it all just becomes tragedy porn.

Perhaps I can use this book as a stepping stone to getting some people to read Yuri Herrera’s Signs Preceding the End of the World though?

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