This book starts out with a lunch meeting wherein a journalist promises his editor that he will change from his writing about “irresponsible womanizing” and instead produce something “topical…a bit sexy…down to earth, ear to the ground.” He also decides, that, much though he would like to, it would be financially reckless to commit the violent murder-with-a-table-utensil that he has been amusing himself by planning while he endured the editor’s lecture.
This probably autobiographical scene sets up the book. Be prepared for a full journalistic treatment of the Tijuana illegal border-crossing game, described in loving detail by someone must have been there. For years.
You’re not going to get a better rundown on what is happening up and down the food chain in the Tijuana illegal immigrant community. The techniques, the ploys, the successes and failures are presented in a fractured pastiche of scenes, like viewing the reels of a movie in random order.
Intersperse through this book is the story of the title character, a peasant from the mountains somewhere north of Mazatlan, on her way to immortal fame, at least in the songs of corrido street musicians and Radio Ranchita. We become attached to this wonderful woman as she uses every notch and cranny to scramble further up the social cliff before her. Legality doesn’t figure in her moral makeup, but she manages to help enough others along the way to prepare her reputation for sainthood.
The other characters may be cartoonish and stylized, but are intensely empathetic nonetheless. Even the down-and-out journalist manages to attract our sympathy by realizing the immaturity of his fixation with underage girls, especially since he never manages to realize his illegal dreams. And the brave, uncomprehending Pepito, the seven-year-old hero of the main scene, tears at every heartstring.
Physical description is perhaps the greatest strength of the writing (vying with humor for the top spot), as it must be to help us understand the population of this demimonde. The work is crammed with extravagant details of the setting, society, and history of individuals and the population at large. By the time you finish you will have a wonderful, gritty picture of the border area, aided by the observational skills of a resident journalist. Simply enjoying these details is one of the pleasures of reading the book for the second time.
The other pleasure is being able to figure out the timeline.
One thing you need to know before you start reading. The first and last pages of this book take place one day apart. Scattered between these points is a mosaic of events covering about five years. I never bothered to figure out the “when” of each new scenario, because each one’s place on the chronological scale is unimportant. There may be a few, very short, “where are we now?” moments, but don’t worry about them. Just enjoy whatever story Robinson is telling at the moment. I guarantee you’ll have it figured out by the end.
Another piece of evidence as to the credentials of the writer. If his research isn’t impeccable, his imagination certainly fills in the blanks with credible (but mostly incredible) details of how the illegal immigrant system works, from the lowest pollo to the top of Mexican political life.
Since a great deal of the book involves lovingly baring the histories and motivations of the pantheon of characters, we certainly get a good idea of why most of them are there, even “the dog who would become Pucho,” a fierce, misunderstood junkyard mongrel and pit fighter who just wants companionship.
The writing style of this book is rooted in journalism. There is little dialogue and a lot of analysis. Point of view switches whenever it suits the author, and that usually means from the author himself. However, since Robinson’s take on the world is irreverent, original, and humorous, this does not come across as a disadvantage.
However, the journalistic distance does remove us emotionally from the action, which is more concerned with the outward manifestations of loud motors, gunfire, and screaming. We must provide the stronger emotions from our own imaginations. The advantage is that, while the story is filled with violence, mud and filth, we are cushioned by that same distance from having it thrown in our own faces. The result is more a fairy tale written in journalistic style than a novel.
Highly recommended for lovers of truly creative writing, humourous fairy tales, and Mexico.
An unreserved Five Stars.