Love in a time of people-trafficking: Among the Lost, by Emiliano Monge, reviewed

12 January 2019

9:00 AM

12 January 2019

9:00 AM

From the very first pages of Among the Lost, we’re engaged, and compromised. Estela and Epitafio are our main anchors, their experiences and relationship driving the story’s developments, but these magnetic central characters are people-traffickers and kidnappers, capable of startling violence and dehumanising cruelty. And truly, they’re very much in love.

For most of the novel, Estela and Epitafio are apart, having left the jungle clearing where the book opens to drive their respective consignments of human cargo to their destinations. Theirs is a single story — what happens to one has consequences for the other — told along parallel tracks. Much time is spent fretting about getting a signal to phone each other, because Estela has something vital to tell Epitafio; the tension escalates as they struggle to have that conversation. We move back and forth between them, the man who so loves Estela and the woman who so adores Epitafio — that’s how they’re often presented to us, defined only by their love for each other.

The jumps between strands of the story often happen mid-sentence, a neat trick that just adds to the pull this book exerts on its readers. You’re fully 200 pages in before you realise where you’ve been led, and how high the stakes have become. Though Estela and Epitafio seem, at least temporarily, in control of their own fate, the world they inhabit (which feels mythic, but really is probably less fictional than we’d like to believe) makes victims of just about everybody. Violence is shockingly easy to resort to here, and control is only ever contingent; we glimpse plotting and power plays, with grimly predictable consequences. Though our perspective is often very close to theirs, we see things the characters don’t, and mostly these things are threats.

Likewise, Emiliano Monge is perfectly happy to expose his readers to the unexplained, with stretches of dialogue whose meaning is clear to the characters but not, initially, to us. Everybody has a haunting past we don’t know about, which seeps in gradually through their memories — ‘the past is closer in memory than it is in time,’ says Epitafio, and so it proves. And memories can be sparked by unlikely things: one vista prompts a recollection of childhood — ‘not that what he can see looks like the places that he remembers, but Mausoleo wishes that it did’.

It’s a heady reading experience. The italics that thread through Frank Wynne’s translation — cleverly destabilising the prose  — mark out the oral testimony of Central American migrants (connecting to the timeless, nameless, undifferentiated creatures in the trucks), or particularly juicy Spanish words left untranslated, or lines from Dante woven deftly into the narrative. (The title comes from the Inferno — Dante has never felt so current, so relevant.) It all contributes to the acrobatic leaps in register, between richly poetic and spat-out visceral expletive, somehow remaining all of a piece. Recently in these pages I reviewed a book that argued for care, precision, deliberateness in writing; for the most part, the sounds and silences of Among the Lost couldn’t be a better example of that.

Monge is one of the most talented and interesting young novelists writing from today’s Mexico, and it’s taken too long for Anglophone readers to gain access to his work. In compensation, however, two books have arrived in quick succession. (The other, The Arid Sky — voiced in English by Thomas Bunstead — is a slighter book but also beautiful, also brutal.) And we should have a lot more to come, if there’s any justice in the world. But if you learn one lesson from Among the Lost, that’s a pretty big if…

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