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Lord of the Flies

Science fiction and settler colonialism collide in Rafael Bernal’s Mexico

His Name Was Death by Rafael Bernal, translated by Kit Schluter. New Directions, 144 pages.

Few Mexican readers today remember the name Rafael Bernal, even if they know of Filiberto García, the hard-boiled detective from his 1969 book The Mongolian Conspiracy. In that novel, set at the height of the Cold War, a Mexico City cop must stop a Chinese plot to assassinate the U.S. president during a trip to the capital. With its femmes fatales and spy-game plot twists, the book reproduces noir tropes so faithfully that it spills into satire. García himself is a caricature of the macho lone wolf. He thinks of himself as a “stiff factory,” because they “keep me around to make stiffs when they need them.”

The narrative is threaded through with Garcia’s agitated internal monologues. These tirades often end with him cursing things that make him feel confused or vulnerable, using the Mexican slang pinche, as in “fucking”: “Fucking past!” “Fucking furniture!” “Fucking gringo!” Sentences rarely exceed two lines; words rarely stretch past two syllables. In the rare moments when the prose unclenches, García speaks in comedically over-extended metaphors, like when he compares memories to hangovers. “That’s why drunks vomit,” García thinks, “so they don’t have to remember, and beginners vomit after their first hit, like they were trying to get rid of it. But the trick is to be like an old drunk and carry your Alka-Seltzer around inside you.”

García isn’t just a bad guy killing bad guys: he’s also an instrument of political repression. Having survived the skirmishes of the Mexican Revolution through ruthless self-preservation, he was hand-picked by the country’s top brass as a hitman for the regime. García made his name by snuffing out guerrillas at a Cuban-sponsored Communist training camp in the jungle of southern Mexico. “Six stupid kids playing at being heroes,” he reminisces.

The story must have been particularly resonant when the book came out, by which time Mexico was locked in a warm embrace with the U.S. foreign policy establishment. Only one year before, in 1968, Mexico’s then-president, Gustavo Díaz Ordaz, had ordered the army to fire upon hundreds of student protesters who had gathered in Mexico City’s Tlatelolco neighborhood. To justify the massacre, his government circulated rumors that Communist agitators had entered the country from abroad to arm students. Over thirty years later, declassified documents revealed that Díaz Ordaz was on the CIA payroll the whole time.

Bernal’s work can be pulpy, and reactionary, but it’s also clever in the way it encourages critical reading.

In Mexico today, you are likely to find The Mongolian Conspiracy on even casual readers’ shelves. The detail most people recall is its gratuitous use of the word pinche, the book’s most iconic device. But the work eclipsed the writer, and even in literature departments, scholarship produced about Bernal is scant, though he published prolifically until his death in 1972. For instance, few people know that, in 1947, Bernal published one of Mexico’s pathbreaking sci-fi novels: His Name Was Death. Set among the Lacandón indigenous people in the country’s southern rainforests, it depicts a universe ruled by hyper-intelligent mosquitoes who farm the human race as a food source. In the classic tradition of sci-fi, the story marshals this encounter with the Other—in this case, not just human and mosquito, but indigenous and settler—in the service of social critique. While there are divergent opinions on how the book should be interpreted, it clearly takes aim at Mexico’s nation-building project, which sought to forcibly integrate indigenous people into the modern state. 

His Name Was Death is now finally available in English, in a fluid translation by Kit Schluter that preserves the tone and texture of the original. It’s hard to know why the book has remained under the radar for so long, or how Bernal found himself stuck outside the canon. Maybe modernist gatekeepers like Carlos Fuentes and Octavio Paz viewed his work as pulpy genre fiction; maybe he ran afoul of their progressive literary clique with his conservative politics. Both points have some truth. Bernal’s work can be pulpy, and reactionary, but it’s also clever in the way it encourages critical reading. He possessed a rare ability to assume a perspective and examine it at the same time—and he expected his readers to do the same.

Still from Sebastian del Amo’s 2018 film “The Mongolian Conspiracy.” | MUBI

Rafael Bernal was born in 1915 in Mexico City, into the aristocratic García-Pimentel clan. Like much of the Mexican ruling class, they owed their wealth to haciendas—feudal plantations worked by indentured indigenous peons. At the turn of the century, the García-Pimentels owned the largest sugar plantation in Morelos state, then the fourth largest sugar-producing region in the world.

The Mexican Revolution was in full swing when Bernal was born. Armies of disgruntled peasants led by revolutionaries like Emiliano Zapata rode from town to town, liberating haciendas and setting up collectively owned farmlands called ejidos. In the wake of the agrarian reforms enacted by president Lázaro Cárdenas, the García-Pimentels’ main hacienda was reduced from 120,000 hectares to 234. The family were fanatical Catholics who opposed, among other things, the Revolution’s enforced separation of church and state. They sent Rafael, at age fifteen, to study at the Jesuit-run Loyola College in Montreal, where he read Nietzsche and Sartre and learned fluent Latin. At eighteen, he moved to Chiapas—a remote southern state of mountains and rainforests—to join the rush for “green gold” in the nascent plantain industry. Bernal’s untranslated story collection, Trópico (1946), captures the indignity of the Wild West capitalism he witnessed there.

During the early years of World War II, Bernal travelled Europe as a foreign correspondent for Mexican newspapers. After brief sojourns to New York and Los Angeles, he returned home to Mexico in 1943, where his life turned to politics. Bernal devoted the next decade or so to synarchism, a movement of ultra-conservative Catholics that sought to turn the clock back on the Revolution’s secular, democratic advancements. He was jailed eighteen times for his participation in synarchist street protests—on one occasion, for draping a hood and noose over a statue of Benito Juárez, the president who famously curtailed the power of the church.

Such is the context for Bernal’s untranslated novel, Memories of Santiago Oxtotilpan (1945), which chronicles a rural town ravaged first by the Revolution, then by a botched transition to twentieth-century capitalism. The story is delivered in the personified voice of the town, which is a clever, if slightly clunky way of imbuing these conflicts with added tragedy. The book is pastoral in its depictions of noble farmers, pine forests, and “wheat stalks that bend like rivers.” It is contemptuous in its rendering of the Mexican Revolution—which, if you believe Bernal, was nothing more than a power grab dressed up as social justice. His portrayal of revolutionaries as drunk, incompetent grifters can be very funny. But the send-up is over-the-top, leaving no doubt as to what the author thinks.

As a beneficiary of Mexico’s feudal hacienda system, Bernal had a bone to pick with agrarian reform.

“One morning I awoke under control of the Zapatista army, which was overseen by one General Rioseco,” the town recounts. “He immediately decommissioned all the cane liquor from the shops and drank himself blind with his chief of staff, formed by two cattle thieves and a mule driver who’d escaped from god-knows-what prison.” The army installs an illiterate mayor who fines landowners to pay his cantina tab. He establishes a law expropriating land from the nearby haciendas, then sells the land to the local mafia don, who hires the peons back for half their salary. The mayor’s successor, who is elected unanimously despite his rival’s large turnout, sinks his budget into an American-style hotel to attract tourists—but forgets to build a road to bring them there. The town’s ascendent Socialist Party stages a general strike, which the residents abandon upon realizing they won’t get paid. By the end of the book, all sense of idealism has dissipated. The residents are embroiled in petty feuds and the indigenous peons’ situation has barely improved in the collective ejidos.

As a beneficiary of Mexico’s feudal hacienda system, Bernal had a bone to pick with agrarian reform. When he blames indigenous Mexicans’ poverty not on “lack of land, but a surplus of ignorance,” it echoes the twisted logic of U.S. plantation owners justifying slavery. Nonetheless, to portray the revolution as hampered by greed and incompetence was hardly a radical, or even reactionary move. Authors on the Mexican left were saying as much, as their movement was co-opted by the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which went on to rule Mexico for over seventy uninterrupted years, through their favored tools of corruption, repression, and media manipulation. (Mario Vargas Llosa famously called the PRI rule “the perfect dictatorship.”) In Carlos Fuentes’s novel The Death of Artemio Cruz (1962), the protagonist is a revolutionary who climbs the ranks to become a corrupt politician. As in Hermann Broch’s Death of Virgil, the conceit is a death-bed confession, with Artemio reflecting on the things he did to accrue power, namely: “violence, blackmail, bribery and the brutal exploitation of workers.” The key difference between the two authors is that Fuentes saw the revolution as salvageable.

Rafael-Bernal. | Pushkin Press

In His Name Was Death, Bernal turns his critical instincts inward—or at least toward a character who closely resembles him. Written in the style of a posthumous diary, the story follows a bitter drunk who rejects big-city life and decamps to the Chiapas rainforest. Tormented by his failed writing career and the “absurd necessity of making a living,” he plans to live out his days in a hut next to a Lacandón settlement. He idolizes the Lacandón for having conserved what modernity stripped away, namely faith and clan-based kinship. They, in turn, are grateful to him for the quinine he doles out to temper their malarial fevers.

Left to his own devices, the unnamed narrator descends into a state of delirious, alcohol-induced rage. The descriptions of his mental decay are striking: “They tell me that I was stalking through the jungle without a machete, clearing my way forward with my bare hands, my teeth, with an endless longing to arrive somewhere, anywhere—to break, to destroy.” He eventually awakens in the care of a Lacandón shaman named Yellow Bird, who has exorcised him of “the devil who hides himself in alcohol.” Believing the protagonist possesses curative magic, Yellow Bird asks him to live with them, and for the first time in his life, the protagonist feels like somebody needs him. Like the ivory trader Kurtz in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, he becomes drunk on the Lacandones’ admiration, and begins to see himself as their shepherd. “I never mentioned the world beyond the jungle so as not to plant in them the desire to leave and live among the white man,” he writes.

Night after night, the protagonist is set upon by dark clouds of mosquitoes, in whose buzzing sounds he begins to recognize patterns. His curiosity awakened, he sets about composing a Dictionary of the Mosquil Language, with dreams of becoming the next Darwin or Einstein. He observes that each Mosquil utterance is “emitted in one of the four human vocal ranges,” and that “verbs uttered in the bass range are always declarative.” When he establishes communication with the mosquitoes by imitating their language with a clay flute, his paternalistic attitude transforms into a full-blown God complex.

As it turns out, the mosquitoes are not just sentient—they have ruled the earth for millions of years. Their longevity, we learn, owes to the fact that they’ve evolved past compassion for the individual. Instead, they embrace a ruthless collectivism and a strictly hierarchical society of interconnected regional corpora, wherein each mosquito is no more than the role they play. Their “I am the alpha and the omega” way of talking is part of what makes the mosquito hive mind such a compelling presence. When the protagonist apologizes for having swatted so many of them, they coldly reply: “The death of a few bodies doesn’t matter. Your blood was essential to us, and we took it. If you had killed a hundred times more, we still would have taken it.”

His Name Was Death is a melodrama, and it may ruffle readers who are averse to kitsch.

The mosquitoes make the protagonist an offer as the human race’s de facto representative: either they strike up a mutually beneficial treaty, or they crush human society with blood-borne diseases and turn them into chattel slaves. All the humans would have to do is maintain a blood tribute of three million rotating bodies. In return, the mosquitoes would leave everyone else in peace. This dialogue is a handy vehicle to introduce the book’s central philosophical question: What kind of cruelty is preferable? A systematized brutality whereby 0.04 percent of the population endures the temporary discomfort of being fed upon (though not killed)? Or the blanket imposition of bare life?

Humans won’t go for it because they crave freedom, the protagonist replies. “You sacrifice no more than the cells of your body,” he tells them, “which are easily replaced, but among us every person is a complete being, with intelligence, memory, initiative, will.” The sacredness of free will is grounded in humans’ faith in God, he continues, which is the root of the conscience that elevates them above animals. By contrast, the mosquitoes’ governing body has deliberately withheld the existence of god from their underlings. “The insignificant mosquitoes must not even be aware of His existence,” they say, “because it would jeopardize our entire organization.”

This exchange, which pits humanistic individualism against unfeeling but efficient collectivism, rehearses familiar arguments about Soviet-style communism. It sounds like something right out of Animal Farm, which had come out two years earlier. Bernal cleverly sets this dialogue up to register the pragmatic benefits of a Stalinist system while still giving Catholic humanism the last word. As the protagonist contemplates the mosquitoes’ proposal, he compares the “pseudo-philosophical” leftist texts he devoured at university with his mother’s faith, siding with the latter. “It had been nice to be a pawn in the chess set of an intelligent God,” he thinks, “of a powerful creator deity; but even better was what my mother had taught me: to be a free entity, even before a creator deity, the God who had created us in His image and likeness.”

Ultimately, His Name Was Death is a melodrama, and it may ruffle readers who are averse to kitsch. But it’s also full of richly textured scenery and terrifying images of nature’s elemental force. Perhaps the most memorable of these occurs when the mosquitoes appear to the narrator en masse for the first time, hovering soundlessly on the surface of a lake in the twilight. “I noticed the entire jungle had become perfectly still,” he writes. “The birds no longer cried out in search of their nests, no crawling thing rustled over the ground—not a leaf trembled, not a monkey shrieked: nothing but suffocating silence. And for the first time I felt afraid, felt the desire to run.” He tries to walk away, but the swarm blocks his path. Paralyzed, he hears a chorus of voices buzz from behind him: “Turn toward us, human.”

When it was published, His Name Was Death was mostly ignored by critics. Failing to break into Mexico’s literary scene, Bernal turned instead to theater. In 1950, he wrote the screenplay for La Carta or The Letter, the first television drama ever broadcast in the country. Thanks to family ties, he then found work as a diplomat, traveling between posts in Honduras, Peru, and the Philippines over the next twenty years. Though he continued to publish, his books barely made a blip in the world of Mexican letters—until The Mongolian Conspiracy in 1969, and even that took years to find its audience.

Bernal’s fear of modernization also grew out of a nostalgia for the feudal society whose riches his family enjoyed.

When Bernal was writing His Name Was Death, Mexico was in the midst of an aggressive modernization campaign. This is reflected in the Diego Rivera murals of the 1930s, many of which depict the miracles of science and technology. But the regime also needed to forge a national identity from the countless regional and ethnic identities that dotted the land mass between Guatemala and Texas. Early in the century, the philosopher-politician José Vasconcelos had laid the ideological scaffolding for this project with the concept of mestizaje, according to which the country organically congealed into a mixed-race community, with the violence of the conquest forgotten.

His Name Was Death was politically dangerous because it gave the lie to this official discourse, a fact that might partly account for its lukewarm reception. For Bernal, modernization was a malignant force that threatened Mexico’s social fabric, and the book alludes to the genocidal subtext at play in the idea of forced mixing. But his fear of modernization also grew out of a nostalgia for the feudal society whose riches his family enjoyed.

Sympathetic souls from all over the world still flock to Chiapas today. Many come to volunteer with, or simply learn from, Zapatista militants, who have built autonomous indigenous communities throughout the region. Some are scientists whose research supports the communities’ ecological or agricultural work; others are political organizers who come to study tactics. Reading His Name Was Death, it’s hard not see aspects of the unnamed narrator in today’s Chiapas transplants—outsiders who find renewed meaning through immersion in a more “traditional” way of life. Of course, today’s visitors are generally self-aware enough not to make comments about “finding themselves.” But the dynamics, in many ways, haven’t changed, and Bernal’s insights about power and desire are just as relevant as they were seventy years ago.