In the desolate wastelands between the sierra and the jungle, under an all-seeing, unforgiving sun, a single day unfolds as relentlessly as those that have gone before. People are trafficked and brutalised, illegal migrants are cheated of their money, their dreams, their very names even as countless others scrabble to cross the border, trying to reach a land they call El Paraíso.
Despite this bleak milieu, Among the Lost is a fierce love story. Emiliano Monge’s protagonists Epitafio and Estela share a passionate albeit unstable relationship, ‘a fierce love’ built from years of gruelling and unsavoury experience. Monge’s narrative plants the reader in this dirty and tumultuous foreign land in a way that is artistically and cleverly shackling, and the resultant piece is an important insight into the horrific realities of people-trafficking in South America.
The narrative revolves around these transactions and their inherent complexities. This is facilitated by the accomplished translation by Frank Wynne, who serves the barbaric fluency of the text very well. Epitafio and Estela occupy a strange position. They work in the trade, and are at times brutally callous to their victims in several uncomfortable passages. They trade in migrants, force young children to work and torture and dismember their victims with real malice. However, in typically dark irony, both were once trafficked themselves. They play an active part in the system that once abused them. Elsewhere in literature this might have transformative effects; one might presume Epitafio and Estela might have empathy for their counterparts, since they once held their positions; yet in Monge’s nihilistic narrative, no such compassion is realised. Their actions towards the unfortunate and abused migrants are just as monstrous as the treatment that they once experienced. It is a dog-eat-dog world, and bears striking resemblance to the anarchic Dante’s inferno, which seems to be a key influence on Monge’s narrative.
Indeed, one can sense the influence of various writers in Monge’s narrative. He is often compared to Cormac McCarthy, who shares a preoccupation with bleak and desperate places with morally bankrupt inhabitants. Monge’s landscape is similarly gleefully littered with corpses in seemingly McCarthy-esque fashion. Shakespeare’s plots also seem present in the backdrop of the novel. Epitafio and Estela are seemingly a twisted rethinking of Romeo and Juliet, and two brothers that reappear throughout are reminiscent of the gravediggers of Hamlet: they pick belongings from the bodies of discarded migrants (Hugo’s Monsieur Thernadier from Les Miserables also springs to mind), and muse on mortality repeatedly. The mounting body-count that crowds the scene at the close of the novel also feels nearly Hamletian in nature, as does the sense of jurisdiction and authority throughout.
The influence of James Joyce is evident too. Monge is known to have drawn on literary experimentalists: Joyce is the forefather of this expression, and it is not wholly surprising to learn that Monge is part a group of Spanish writers that celebrate Joyce’s notorious Bloomsday in Dublin every June. Among the Lost follows his example, the plot taking place over one single remarkable day. It also mimics the Joycean tendency to mash words together, seen most effectively in Finnegans Wake; Monge’s characters are often comically nicknamed, such as shewhoadoresepitafio and, my personal favourite, ionlyhearwhatiwant. Together these influences give a layered impression to Monge’s narrative, and contributes to an exciting period for Mexican fiction, following the example of great writers such as Yuri Herrera and Guadalupe Nettel. Monge now sits comfortably in the canon of South American literature, with two accomplished novels under his belt.
Overall, the triumph of Among the Lost is its depiction of human suffering. In an innovative technique that again bears vague resemblance to Joyce, Monge intersperses his narrative with direct emotive accounts from migrants and asylum-seekers. Some of these passages are difficult to read. They are loaded with pathos and sentiment and are important emblems of truths amid the violence and moral corruption throughout novel: ‘This was where they first used their weapons… those who were still standing crumpled… pushing, scrabbling and jostling… desperate to be at the bottom of the heap… No one wanted to be left on top.’ Monge exposes these truths in stories that are not easy to shirk away from, with remarkable linguistic skill. An important read.
Words by Ronan Gerrard.
For more on Among The Lost and Emiliano Monge, visit Scribe Publications.
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