Death in Veracruz, the first of the novels to be published in English, will be out from Schaffner Press next month (October 2015). First published in Mexico thirty years ago, Death in Veracruz is a noir novel of ambition, politics, friendship, betrayal, money, and murder. Heralded as “a classic of contemporary Latin American fiction,” by celebrated South American author and playwright Ariel Dorfman and as a work of “genius” by bestselling novelist Jim Harrison, this novel is a realistically drawn and beautifully detailed noir that explores the era of crime and graft in the late 1970s when Southern Mexico and its people were under siege from the oil cartels and the gangs who lorded over their fiefdoms. In the following article, Aguilar Camín writes about the roots of this work of fiction in his non-fiction reporting—but cautions that this does not necessarily make it a roman á clef.
(translated from the Spanish by Chandler Thompson).
Héctor Aguilar Camín
Death in Veracruz: Nothing is what it seems, except death
Except for the deaths, nothing is what it seems in Death in Veracruz. It’s a realist novel set against a backdrop of mirrors in a dance of shadows with a way of becoming facts.
This seemingly simple story is anything but. Its first-person narrator is an influential newspaper columnist we know only as El Negro, whose career is sidetracked by his old pal Rojano, the husband of Anabela Guillaumín, the girl they both courted in college. Rojano has a plan to grow rich and powerful that depends on getting El Negro to write about a series of murders in the state of Veracruz where huge petroleum deposits were recently discovered. Rojano, claims labor boss Lázaro Pizarro is behind the killings of owners of the lands atop the oil finds and covets them for his Union of Mexican Oil Workers. Anabela becomes Rojano’s cynical and seductive collaborator, and she works her wiles on El Negro. A battle ensues with the romantically triangulated Anabela, Rojano and El Negro on one side and the dark forces of Pizarro on the other. It’s a naked struggle for power and money papered over by the stifling rituals of Mexico under the dominant Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI.
Death in Veracruz was, and sometimes still is, read as a roman à clef with repercussions that resonate beyond its pages. Readers confuse the realistic condiments in my stew with fact because I used put them to flesh out a picture of Mexico in the throes of an oil boom, of garish cities and murky politics in a gaudy tropical setting.
I am also guilty of modeling Lacho Pizarro on the man who ruled the Union of Mexican Oil Workers in the 1980’s, Joaquín Hernández Galicia, nicknamed La Quina, Pizarro lives in the oil town of Poza Rica, and like La Quina he uses the volunteer labor of his followers to raise fruits and vegetables on union farms. Lacho and La Quina are both short and squarely built. Both have pencil-thin mustaches, bifocal glasses, and brown skin weathered by the sun.
Many readers equate El Negro with Manuel Buendía, the prominent political journalist murdered in the 1984 plot for which José Antonio Zorrilla, then chief of Mexico’s political police, was convicted six years later. (The assassination brings to mind a fact that would have been hard to weave into any fiction: the night of the murder Zorrilla, having passed himself off as a friend of Buendía’s, attended his wake and paid for the funeral.)
The identification of Buendía with El Negro is not my doing. People who never met Buendía often point to him as a prototype for El Negro, but they bear no physical resemblance one another. I conceived of El Negro as part of a generation following the footsteps of an illustrious predecessor.
For the police Contact who protects El Negro and feeds him information I borrowed the appearance, mannerisms and meticulous grooming of Fernando Gutiérrez Barrios, who later became Secretary of Internal Affairs then Governor of Veracruz. Manuel Buendía introduced me to him and considered him a friend. My own relations with Gutiérrez Barrios continued to be cordial after Manuel died.
Death in Veracruz bore the brunt of many overly documentary readings. Some commentators linked it to squabbles surrounding the 1988 presidential succession. Top leaders of the oil workers, including Hernández Galicia, saw the book as a politically motivated attack on their union. They bought space in major newspapers to denounce my novel as just another feeble attempt to paint to the Mexican labor movement in the worst possible light. “The law of the jungle is invading our country, and killing journalists is the order of the day,” the ads warned.
Finding myself in the middle of fights not my own, I approached the late Manuel Camacho, then a key player in Mexico’s Kafkian political milieu. After a careful reading of the book, Camacho said he doubted I was the real target of the union’s wrath. He saw the newspaper ads less as the start of a war against journalists than labor’s parting salvo in a longstanding struggle with Gutiérrez Barrios.
Camacho knew what he was talking about. Neither the oil workers’ union nor Hernández Galicia himself showed any further signs of hostility towards me personally, and needless to say, I don’t write to order for anybody. Right or wrong, I cleave to the dictates of my own mind and imagination.
Like many novels, Death in Veracruz is an amphibious literary animal, an imaginary construct with streaks of so-called reality—facts, actions, scenes; what people wear, how they look, the stories they tell. Try as they might, novels never quite become real worlds with rules and meanings that are exclusively theirs.. Nabukov calls reality a word that should always be placed between quotation marks.
Though tales of killings and rivalries as personal as they are political must be true to life, mine also demanded a measure of invention. I never met La Quina, and I’d never been to Poza Rica or Chicontepec where key scenes in my story take place. I’d never been in a headquarters of the oil workers union, and I hadn’t been in Veracruz since the early 1970s. Yet I needed to paint pictures so colorful that I believed in them myself.
Death in Veracruz has its literary roots in Truman Capote`s novella ¨Handcarved Coffins” about a murderer who kills the jurors who find against him in a dispute over a well. His story inspired me to dream up a similar character in Mexico. Capote’s Quinn is a reclusive, utterly self-interested psychopath poisoned by the cult of individualism in the United States. His Mexican counterpart Lázaro Pizarro is a union boss afflicted by a similar scourge in a nation built on authoritarianism and corporatism.