Desperation is the shared medium of the irredeemably damaged lovers, Epitafio and Estela – about the weirdest variation of Romeo and Juliet yet to emerge anywhere – as they race across a wasteland hell disturbingly based on present-day Mexico. Neither central character is heroic: both are involved in the human trafficking industry of which they had once been victims.
As this atmospheric and shocking novel opens, there are the first glimpses of terrified migrants forced to place their trust in agents who cannot be trusted. Shadow figures, “sheer fearful bodies”, lost and despairing, are shunted about in airless, decrepit old trucks and trailers. These stoic human ghosts are bound, hung like pieces of meat and traded as such. “We could hear nothing now… There we were gasping for air. Waiting for whatever to happen.” For the women, there is the additional terror of repeated rape, and the beatings – always the random beatings.
In an odyssey of relentless human cruelty, Emiliano Monge, one of the many linguistically adroit writers currently at work in what is an exciting era for Mexican fiction, spares no one. That he can succeed in generating any sympathy for his frenetic lovers is entirely due to the ferocious eloquence of his prose, which has been magnificently well served by translator Frank Wynne’s Miltonic register. Filtered through a wry, if urgent, continuous present tense, it conveys the inhumanity of the jungle and desert landscapes, while remaining alert to their harsh beauty as well as dramatic images such as “the swooping ballet of a thousand blackbirds in the sky” and scavenging eagles.
Epitafio appears to be obsessed with Estela, as she is with him. There are complications. Throughout the narrative, which spans one long day, they are thwarted by a poor mobile phone signal and his fading battery. Their vehicles aren’t up to much either. Epitafio’s operation consists of a cavalcade of “things” and fellow thugs: “his huge trucks, his large trailers, two ramshackle vans, three motorcycles, the blazing spotlight and the petrol generator that has just begun to splutter”. He assesses the situation and privately muses; “It won’t hold out much longer…We don’t have much time today.” As events unfold, this becomes ironic.
Betrayal is a major theme. Epitafio has an assistant of sorts, Sepelio. Monge favours the imagery of death throughout. In what is a determinedly literary novel, rich in echoes of Dante, there are Shakespearean flourishes. If the lovers appear a variation of Romeo and Juliet, blink – or sigh – and they resemble Macbeth and his lady; Epitafio is distracted, while Estela’s sustained aggression defines her. Yet she is devoted to him. He is her world and she wants to warn him about the checkpoints. She is also deaf and reliant on hearing aids. Added to her insecurity is Epitafio’s marriage, which was forced on him by the evil priest, Father Nicho, mastermind of the orphanage which has produced his team of deranged killers.
Miserable with an unwanted spouse, although he is fond of their son, and for all his schoolboy fretting over failing to connect with Estela’s phone, on calling by his house Epitafio savagely beats Osaria, his wife. Not so much for her TV-watching as for even daring to exist – it is that kind of novel. Equally, during that same pit stop, Sepelio, a low-key Iago, becomes so incensed by the family parrot repeating his words, that he takes it outside, batters it to death, then returns it to its cage.
Central to the action is a pair of young teenage brothers. Already corrupted, they ruthlessly deal in personal items retrieved from the migrants, often taken from corpses. The siblings recall the gravediggers in Hamlet, as does the mounting body count by the novel’s close.
Monge intersperses the action, and its various sequences of dialogue, with direct quotes from migrants. Considering the appalling conditions and treatment endured, including ransom threats made by traffickers to remaining family members, some have made more than one attempt to cross the border into what they think is a paradise. One recalls his father’s anger at his leaving and had been told: “There is nothing waiting for you out there… See how many people come back humiliated.” The characterisation and speed of the narrative ensures Monge avoids a polemical tone. Instead there is a sense of nature as witness to the impromptu killings and burning of discarded bodies.
Stylistically reminiscent of an earlier Mexican master Juan Rulfo, and with nods to both Chilean maverick Roberto Bolaño, and fellow Mexicans Alvaro Enrique and Yuri Herrera, Monge’s realist, deadly topical fiction is a weighty metaphor for our world gone mad. His characters, however depraved, often reveal traces of empathy, self- doubt, even suppressed horror.
Monge balances the dour, apocalyptic brutality of Cormac McCarthy with lively, grim humour – evident in the exasperated exchanges – all of which makes the stark truths driving this flamboyant narrative a little easier to swallow.
• Among the Lost is translated by Frank Wynne and published by Scribe (£14.99). To order a copy for £13.19 go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99