It is a particularly important time for art to address the crossing of the border between Mexico and the United States.
It is a particularly important time for art to address the crossing of the border between Mexico and the United States because, though it seems that the border has been discussed exhaustively, the stories of real people crossing this border are obscured. We either hear xenophobic and racist diatribes about why the border should be closed or fable-like tales of hardworking folks out to make a better life. What we don’t see are the variety and complications of the people crossing the border from south to north. Norte, Edmundo Paz Soldán’s 2011 novel that was recently translated to English by Valerie Miles, follows three deeply complex people who travel north across the border. Soldán makes an effort to show how richly different these characters are before showing their similarities: they are separated by time, circumstance and motivation. He makes it clear that these people are not connected economically, socially or even in terms of their nationality. Instead, in the beginning they are connected only by their journey northward and the costs that come with that journey.
Translator Valerie Miles shares several important insights that help engage Norte more deeply in a “Translator’s Note” printed at the end of the book. She reveals Soldán’s influences, which include Latin American literary titans Roberto Bolaño and Elmer Mendoza and less expected, though immediately detectable, writers like William Faulkner, Cormac McCarthy and Bret Easton Ellis. More strikingly, Miles relays a conversation between herself and Soldán, saying that they “deliberated on some of the issues [Soldán] was setting out in the novel, particularly the way in which the United States absorbs and domesticates the splendidly variegated Spanish-speaking cultures under blanket terms like ‘Hispanic’ and ‘Latino.’” Though this is suggested by the differences between Norte’s primary trio, it is notable that Soldán approached the novel with this thought on his mind.
If Norte were simply a beautifully written meditation on the wide array of individuals crossing the Mexico-US border, it would still be excellent. But Norte is more than that; it is a vicious, thrilling exploration of the perils of crossing into and traversing a new land. In that sense, it is a neo-Western, but Soldán comes at it from a different angle than today’s numerous slick and brutal Western enthusiasts. In telling his story from multiple perspectives over a number of time periods, Soldán invites the reader to feel a variety of emotions, ranging from shock and horror to sadness and empathy. Further, no character does exactly what is expected of them. For instance, Jesús, one of the main characters (arguably the main character), is a serial killer, based off the real-life “Railroad Killer,” a Mexican man who killed a dozen people along the border. At first glance, we’ve seen this character before across literature, film and television: the murderous immigrant with ties to the drug world. As the tale unfolds, however, it becomes apparent that the only thing that Jesús has in common with the cliché is his propensity for shocking violence. In Norte, there are very real causes and consequences for Jesús’ actions. Though Jesús is the most striking example, none of the characters are simply saints or sinners.
The other primary characters are fascinating as well, and their stories weave intriguingly in with Jesús’ while taking time to explore their own dark corners, which include, but aren’t limited to, the treatment of immigrants in the American mental health system and international, intergenerational (and interdepartmental) romantic entanglement.
Miles’ translation is excellent, keeping cultural nuance and believability intact while making the reading completely fluid for an English-speaking audience. The level of collaboration between her and Soldán is alluded to in her “Translator’s Note,” and the result is seamless. The distinct voices of the variety of characters are particularly fantastic for a translation, as is the smooth dialogue.
Norte is an absolute thrill to read. It’s a blast to the literary senses, with stomach-churning violence, tear duct-evacuating sadness and brain-swelling intelligence. If there is any complaint to be made, it is that tonally the novel feels like a thriller for large sections, so when quieter, more cerebral pathways are explored it is hard for the reader to switch gears. Still, this is a light criticism for a novel that deftly blends so many perfectly handled elements. Norte doesn’t tell the story of the Mexico-US border because, contrary to news reports, there isn’t just one story to be told. Its overall tale and the smaller ones that comprise it are a few beautifully rendered examples of a complicated and misunderstood part of our world.