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Storms, eggs, everyday corruption, and the Consul’s approaching end

14 May
Another blurry picture taken from a bus and featuring mist and cactus, taken on the road from Saltillo to Monterrey.

Another blurry picture taken from a bus and featuring mist and cactus, on the road from Saltillo to Monterrey.

 

The airport in Saltillo closes because of the fog, so I miss my lunchtime flight back to Mexico City. Julián is laid low by a mystery bug and Mónica offers to drive me to the airport, after picking up little Leo from nursery. We exchange my plane ticket for another, from Monterrey airport, and then set off to the bus station for the two hour journey to Mexico’s third biggest city – and according to Wikipedia the ninth biggest city in the world. I don’t see much of it, however big the place is. The plane leaves at 6.20 pm and I am back into Under the Volcano, picking up with the hideous bull-baiting in Tomalín and the Consul’s vicious set-to with Hugh and Yvonne in the Salón Ofelia (todos contentos y yo también), owned by Señor Cervantes, who carries a black cockerel under his arm: “Nobody come here, only those who have nobody them with.”

Outside the plane passes through a good deal of disturbance as we approach Mexico City, a blood-red sun falling over the mountains and a big storm brooding close by to the north-west, the sky black there with jagged flashes of lightning. The pilot announces – I swear – “With the resounding egg, we make the descent to Mexico City” – and when we are leaving the plane another announcement reminds us: “Please ensure you take with you all your obsessions on leaving the plane.”

At ground level (of course Mexico City is nowhere near sea level, at 2,500 metres) I find a taxi easily enough and we drive through the hammering rain. As usual we overshoot the hotel: this happens all the time, not out of a desire to cheat the customer – the price is arranged beforehand – but because the layout of the streets in this area is pretty complicated and because no taxista can be expected to know his way around a metropolitan area containing twenty-five million inhabitants. So my driver, who is one of those very correct and well turned-out Mexican gentlemen of a certain age does a rather indiscrete U-turn at a big junction, and we are immediately pulled over by a pair of traffic cops, who were lurking under nearby trees.

The driver is asked to step out and negotiations begin. I can hear the young cop citing the precise name and number of the traffic regulation we have infringed, but I suspect that this is an irrelevance. After some discussion the driver returns inside the cab and reaches inside the glove compartment for money. How much? I ask him. One hundred and fifty, he replies (just under seven pounds sterling). Here, I say, take a hundred. After all, I am at least partly responsible for this, as I allowed him to take a wrong turning. He thanks me, pays the cop and gets back in the cab.

This is not a fine, but a pay-off. Most drivers pay the police rather than go through the rigmarole of following through with an infraction of a minor kind. The police officers’ argument goes like this: it’s easier for both of us if you just cough up. In fact I’m doing you a favour, because you’d have to pay more if we went through the proper process. When I ask the taxi driver if he ever refuses to pay a bribe he says something about the pervasiveness of corruption and shrugs. This is how the law works in this country, he says.

Back at the hotel and back into Lowry. Cervantes, the owner of the Ofelia is offering the Consul, Yvonne and Hugh some dinner – eggs is evidently a recurring theme of the evening: “ . . . You like eggs, señora? Stepped on eggs. Muy sabrosos. Divorced eggs? For fish, sliced of filet with peas. Vol-au-vent à la reine. Somersaults for the queen. Or you like poxy eggs, poxy in toast. Or veal liver tavernman? Pimesan chike chup? Or spectral chicken of the house? Youn’ pigeon. Red snappers with a fried tartar, you like?”

Hungry now, I borrow an umbrella and head for the nearest restaurant, El Califa, in Condesa, where the waiter, who seems to know me, greets me warmly. They are not serving spectral chicken, and nor do I order poxy eggs, but a bowl of broth and a couple of veal tacos. At the table in front of me two young people – he in a very shiny suit, she laughing too enthusiastically at everything he says – share a dessert, spooning ice cream into each others’ faces. On the way back the sky cracks with thunder and the heavens open once again. In El Califa they have given me some little sweets with my bill. I open the packet with difficulty and am confronted by some tiny things that resemble hundreds and thousands. I have not met with these before, so I give them a try. There is an explosion of sugar and chilli pepper inside my mouth, which is not at all agreeable. I throw the remaining sweets in a bin and head back to the hotel, prepared for the Consul’s disastrous denouement.

 

 

 

 

Mexico, violence and random bad luck

8 May

Caminar en esta zona no le recomiendo: es muy peligroso, said the guy on the evening shift at my hotel. ‘I don’t recommend walking in this area: it’s very dangerous’. So much for my after dinner stroll. I retire to my room with Under the Volcano, just as astonished – more so perhaps, because better able to acknowledge the scope of the achievement – by Lowry’s novel as I was when first reading it half a lifetime ago. I took it with me to the hotel restaurant, first consuming Michael Schmidt’s Introduction alongside the chicken consommé – intrigued to discover he grew up in the same streets that encompass Lowry’s narrative – and reading the first few chapters (alongside the steak and nopales – edible cactus – and avocado) with delight and a degree of – is it envy or humility or readerly watchfulness, or a concoction of all three?

Earlier there was a massive storm, rocking the trees outside my room, which shed leaves like thin leathery hands and a quantity of other solid matter, along with a downpour of such intensity that I put off heading downtown, settling instead for the more local comforts of the hotel restaurant: hence my attempt to set out after eating. But I defer to the night-watchman’s concern, and it was past eleven after all. One hears so many contradictory tales about what is safe, and where it is safe to walk, especially at night, that in the circumstances I tend to err on the side of caution, something I would never have done a quarter of a century ago. But twenty-five years ago, perhaps, Mexico was not such a dangerous place, and I was a more reckless person. I remember saying to someone last week, who asked me why I hadn’t travelled to Mexico during my youthful journeys, that if I had done so I would probably have ended up getting killed, as I was such a pain in the arse back then and frequently looking for trouble. Some would say I am still a pain in the arse, but I don’t go looking for trouble any more.

In Xalapa, which seemed a reasonably safe place, there was a formidable police presence when I visited last week. Apparently this kind of thing happens in waves, following some tip-off or other. On the day I left, as I was packing my suitcase I hear an explosion on the street. I looked outside and saw people running, looking around as if not knowing quite from which direction it had come. Then, two minutes later, it is as if nothing has happened. I never find out what it was.

A writer I had arranged to meet there tells me of the corruption in local government: businesses close down, not because of any economic crisis, but because of extortion and their inability or unwillingness to pay the protection money to gangsters, who in turn are in league with crooked politicians and bent police officers. The police presence, as I mentioned, is an offence in itself – the same evening, as I took a walk through a busy Xalapa street, a truck pulled past with four police, heavily armed, black armour and helmets, their automatic rifles aimed in readiness at the civilians passing by on the sidewalk: what is this? Who exactly is posing the threat? Why are they aiming their guns at the very people they are supposed to be protecting?

In terms of everyday violence, Mexico gets a bad deal from the press, especially the US press. This itself is a paradox – most violence in Mexico is drug-related and the USA is the place these drugs are marketed – that verges on the hypocritical. One website I looked at cites UN-sourced evidence that you are more than five times more likely to be the victim of an assault in the USA than you are in Mexico, and that in terms of homicide, the murder rate in Mexico is way down the league of tourist destinations: within Latin America and the Caribbean alone, you are much more likely to get yourself killed in (descending order) Honduras, Jamaica, Guatemala, St Kitts and Nevis, Belize, Bahamas, Dominican Republic, Brazil, St Lucia or Ecuador than you are in Mexico. The murder rate in Washington D.C is more than double that of Mexico City (21 per 100,000 as opposed to 9 per 100,000) and in New Orleans it is more than five times greater than in the Mexican capital.

But in terms of everyday security, beyond taking reasonable precautions – i.e. there are some barrios in any city that you simply don’t visit if you can avoid them – bad stuff happens, as elsewhere, mainly because of chance (i.e bad luck). A Mexican couple told me soon after my arrival here that the only time they had ever experienced violence directed against themselves was in Europe: she was mugged in Paris; he was beaten up in a North London pub. Come to think of it, so was I.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Unsolved murder mystery

28 Dec

One of the benefits of being a late starter (or re-starter) in the field of literary studies, is that I sometimes dip into standard works and pick up on items that made little sense to me on first reading. Take, for example, Roland Barthes’ Mythologies, which must have first come to my attention as an undergraduate student of anthropology, many years ago. I took it to bed with me the other evening and flicked through, landing on ‘Dominici, or the Triumph of Literature’, an item that leads to one of those chain reaction searches through Google until I land up with Jean Giono, who is a favourite of mine, and who wrote on the Dominici affair at the time it hit the news in 1952.

 

Sir Jack Drummond, wife Ann and daughter Elizabeth

 

The brief version of what happened:

On August 5, 1952, a family of English campers – Sir Jack Drummond, his wife, Lady Ann, and their ten-year-old daughter, Elizabeth – were found murdered at the side of Route 96 near Lurs, in the Alpes-Haute Provence department. A few yards from the scene of the crime stood a farmhouse that belonged to a formidable old character, Gaston Dominici, aged 75. The man had his own peculiar grandeur, a mixture of illiteracy, severity, and violence. The case attracted much attention and risked pushing France (which was undergoing a bloodletting in Indochina) back through the years to the traumatic divisions of the Dreyfus affair.

Sir Jack, a well-known nutritionist, who classified vitamins in the way they are recognized today, and helped devise UK rationing in World War Two had been in the British Intelligence Service during the war.

In the attack both Drummond and his wife suffered multiple gunshot wounds. Their daughter Elizabeth’s head had been crushed by the butt of the rifle that had been used to shoot her parents. Two of Dominici’s sons accused their father of the triple murder; the accused in turn suspected one of the sons and a grandson. On November 17, 1954, a few days after the start of the rebellion in Algeria, the trial of Gaston Dominici began; it ended ten days later when he was sentenced to death. The Court of Assizes in Digne was crowded with European journalists, including Jean Giono. Paul Morand, Roland Barthes, and Orson Welles were all present or wrote about it. Many people had the immediate impression that everything was a fix-up. When the truth seemed close to emerging during the trial, the chief judge was quick to interrupt or divert attention.

Gaston Dominici, a farmer and shepherd born in 1877, had lived all his life, apart from his military service in the Chasseurs des Alpes, more among animals than among men. He was practically illiterate and did not understand the elegant French of the chief judge and the state attorney. He hesitated at their questions, confused the meanings of words, and these facts were falsely taken for symptoms of guilt. His lawyer seemed unable to organize a logical line of defense, but after the sentence even the minister of justice had doubts and ordered a useless supplementary investigation. It was necessary to safeguard against risks, however, and therefore the death sentence was commuted to life imprisonment. In 1960 General de Gaulle granted his release, but not a pardon. Protesting his innocence to the end, Dominici died on April 4, 1965, in a hospice in Digne, after his farm had fallen prey to creditors. His modest grave is not far from the place of rest of the three Drummonds.

Gaston Dominici in court

Speculation has since mounted about the real cause for the murders, and the possible explanations include (a) that since Drummond was an SOE operative during World War Two, the murder was a settling of scores from the period of the Nazi occupation; (b) that Drummond and his family was the victim of a Soviet KGB hit-squad; (c) that as a senior government adviser and research scientist, Drummond was either engaged in, or else was the victim of industrial espionage, and (d) the family was murdered in a random assault by a German-based criminal gang en route to rob a jewellery store in Marseilles. This last theory seems to me the most compelling for a number of reasons, and a full account appears here.

A BBC East Midlands documentary came to its own conclusions, but makes no mention of the German gang. If, as seemed likely at the time, Drummond did fall victim to a KGB hit-squad, and the French government then in power knew this, Dominici appears precisely in the light in which he presented himself: as the sacrificial lamb on the altar of the state. Paris could not, in the middle of the Cold War and at the height of the Indochina crisis, admit that the Soviets could have assailed some foreign citizens in the very heart of France. But this seems a far less likely explanation than the one involving the criminal gang on their way to a job, who happen upon the family and think there might be additional spoils for the taking. Against the background of all this speculation stood a primitive shepherd who, as Jean Giono noted, seemed to have stepped out of one of Virgil’s bucolic odes.

Whatever the eventual resolution, if there is one, for now – and possibly forever – the Dominici case remains unresolved.

 

 

 

 

 

Bank-robber poets

22 Dec

I am currently enjoying the pleasures of the essay and the short ‘occasional piece’, browsing through Roberto Bolaño’s Between Parentheses.What delights await you, gentle reader, between the covers of this excellent collection, if you are unfamiliar with the prose style of this fine writer. But be warned: here you will find speculation of the most dubious kind:

If I had to hold up the most heavily fortified bank in America, I’d take a gang of poets. The attempt would probably end in disaster, but it would be beautiful. (Bolaño, ‘The best gang’).

If I were to rob a bank the last people on earth I would recruit would be poets. They are generally indecisive, opinionated, and almost universally passive aggressive in relation to other poets, and they would therefore certainly take issue with some aspect of poetic discourse (meter, rhyme, assonance, metaphor, what have you) that took precedence over the planning and execution of the job in hand: indeed, once these theoretical differences gained a foothold, there would be no stopping some of them. They would move from poetics to defamatory statements of the most brutal kind, and from there to physical violence. I can assure you, dear reader, that the fiercest disputes occur between individuals when the stakes are really low: academics and poets are prone to the most vitriolic and bloodthirsty of vendettas precisely because the outcome is of practically no interest to anyone else.

This is true, I have hung around with poets and academics for years now, and I’m not sure which group is more inflated in their sense of self-importance, but it’s a close-run thing.

I’m not talking about all poets, of course, or even all academics, and I do hate generalising; but generalisations, like stereotypes, would not exist if there were not a ‘kernel of truth’ to the person, creature or object being generalised or stereotyped. Even if you disagree with the kernel of truth hypothesis on an intellectual level, you almost certainly – if unwittingly – subscribe to it in some aspect of your opinion-forming and decision-making.

But the type of poet or academic I am excusing from this general rule is actually a very small minority. Most of us, whatever we do, and however much we resist the idea, are a part of the herd. And although no one willingly considers himself or herself as part of the herd, the fact is that seen in retrospect, seen from the perspective of a hundred years hence, great swathes of poets (and other writers and artists) will be banded together indiscriminately and one or two exceptions, probably people who are lesser known now, will be isolated as exceptions and therefore bestowed with genius. The typical thinking goes like this: no one wants to think of him or herself as just one of the herd, and everyone thinks that is how it is going to be for everyone else.

We are certain of our uniqueness and individuality, and this would be the first and insuperable problem for Bolaño’s gang of poet-bank robbers, or bank-robber poets: lack of organisational discipline. I may be wrong, but don’t suppose there are many poets in the ranks of the SAS, nor, for that matter have I read any poems by any bank-robber poets. In fact, with all due respect to Roberto, I feel that poets are better suited to working a bank job solo, and probably not planning the job at all, but leaving it all down to fluke and happenstance. In other words, the only way a poet might successfully rob a bank would be alone, and by mistake.

 

 

 

 

Books and guns in Guadalajara

2 Dec

One of the great pleasures of the Guadalajara Feria del Libro is the spirit of festivity and celebration. Being a Latin affair, the partying is intense and persistent. Fortunately for his readers, Blanco is a restrained sort of chap these days, and since time is limited, would prefer to have a quiet meal with friends rather than to go off on reckless jaunts into the rosy-fingered dawn. However on Tuesday night there was a big do at the house of the Book Fair President, Raúl Padilla, and I went along, easing past the ranks of some very frightening bodyguards into the fabulously well-furnished salón, to enjoy a buffet of epic proportions, and to eavesdrop on the spirited banter of the guests. There is a bit of a bun fight as to who will be invited to be the host country (this year it is Germany’s turn, and next year Chile). There has never been an English-speaking nation, but Ireland are working on a bid for 2013, which might be fun.

 

Blanco with Wendy Guerra and Andrés Neuman

 

Blanco was also able to meet up, quite fortuitously, with two of his favourite Spanish-language writers, both of whom he recently translated for Poetry Wales, the enchanting Cuban Wendy Guerra (who has just brought out a fictionalised account of Anaïs Nin’s time in Cuba called Posar desnuda en La Habana) and the no less gorgeous – and brilliant – Andrés Neuman, whose prize-winning novel Traveller of the Century will be available in English translation in February (published simultaneously by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in the USA and Pushkin Press in the UK).

While talking of favourite writers, I must confess to having met two of my literary heroes, neither of them well enough known in the Anglo-Saxon world, but giants in Latin America. I was introduced to Juan Gelman, the finest Argentinian poet of his generation and a strong contender for the Nobel Prize. Gelman’s is a complicated and tragic story, the essentials of which can be read here, but if you have not read him, please try the excellent translations by Katherine Hedeen and Victor Rodríguez Nuñez in The Poems of Sidney West, published by Salt.

The novelist Sergio Ramírez – who was vice-president of Nicaragua after the Sandinista revolution of 1979, but has since seriously fallen out with the corrupt regime of his onetime-comrade, Daniel Ortega – is perhaps best known for his own powerful and moving account of the revolution, Adiós muchachos but his short stories and a couple of his novels are available in English also. The two of them were enjoying a few tequilas, so I didn’t hang around, but Gelman was very genial, and seemed genuinely pleased when my friend told him I was working on a selected poems of Joaquín Giannuzzi into English (forthcoming with CB Editions).

Strangely enough, I didn’t find out Wednesday night, but the week before the Book Fair there was a mass execution carried out in the city, and the bodies of 26 men, bound and gagged, were found in three trucks only a mile from the Expo Centre where the Book Fair was held (read more here).

Since the Book Fair was celebrating its 25th anniversary the joke was going around that they had chosen to murder 25 and one for luck. Or something. Just to give a signal. It illustrates perfectly the precarious balance of daily life in Mexico today; the contrast between the genuine warmth and hospitality of the Mexican people and the horrific and appalling violence that erupts with such regularity, and which so profoundly colours the outside world’s perception of this fascinating, dangerous and beautiful country.

 

 

 

 

 

Villa Miseria

14 Sep

Barracas 21/24

 

In immaculate contrast to yesterday’s trip to the rarefied air of Villa Ocampo, today I visited a slum (or a Villa Miseria) to the south of the city in the barrio of Barracas 21/24. It is an area without running water or electricity, and with only the most basic provision of what we in the UK would consider to be essential social amenities. I went as a guest of Pablo Braun, a co-founder with Paz Ochoteco of Fundación Temas.

This organization, with Paz at the helm, attempts to provide at least some encouragement to the children and young adults of the barrio, help in the provision of schooling, a kitchen with free meals, and a boxing club. The idea for the boxing club was inspired by the work of the sociologist Loïc Wacquant who wrote about a similar club in Chicago (and no doubt influenced the makers of the HBO series The Wire). As Pablo explained to me on the drive back into town, Wacqaunt argued that the discipline of boxing, within a defined context where the rules were clear, channeled a good deal of the natural aggression of deprived and ghettoized kids, and provided a focus away from the easy distractions of drugs and crime.

There is very little infant schooling for the children here because the facilities do not exist. Forty per cent of the children in this barrio receive no pre-junior education, and a half of them never reach secondary school.

I didn’t want to take pictures inside the boxing club but the images from the nearby streets give some idea of the kind of place it is. The Riachuelo that flows – no, flow is not the word for the sluggish progress of this viscous and putrid effluvia towards the River Plate and the sea – is supposedly the most polluted river in the western hemisphere. Upstream, a leather factory producing luxury goods spews out contaminant chemicals. A railway line runs between the shacks.

 

Rio Riachuelo . . .

. . . and its contents

Dwellings backing onto the river Riachuelo

Diego Maradona grew up in a place like this, so you can appreciate why the people love him. He is one of theirs.

And in the tiny office of Fundación Temas beside the gym where the boys and girls were boxing – up to a half of the members of the club are girls – was a poster of Che Guevara: the only time I have seen this poster in a place where it makes any sense.

When they asked the kids in this barrio where they would like to go one day, or what they would be interested to find out about, they replied ‘Buenos Aires’. They do not consider themselves a part of the city to which they allegedly belong: it is a foreign world to them and most of the kids have never been there, even though it is only a few miles away.

I have promised to write something for the festival about my impressions of Barracas 21/24 but will find it very hard. Apart from the fact that such places exist – itself a crime against humanity – I have difficulty comprehending the extent of the poverty and deprivation in a place like this, and the effect it must have on a young person as he or she grows up and sees no way out other than through crime or drugs. Western Europe and North America have a problem of obesity among the children of the socially disadvantaged. Here they are lucky to get enough to eat. But strangely the two things – hunger and the excessive consumption of fats and sugars – are not so far removed from one another. Paz tells me that problems of obesity are already on the rise among the poor. Unhappily, capitalism knows this, and the multinational food corporations and outlets such as McDonalds only profit from it.

 

 

 

 

The riots: an afterword

7 Sep

Having just read Ken Clarke’s facile, vacuous and pompous account of the recent riots in English cities, Blanco feels moved to chip in.

Clarke makes three points in his article in Monday’s Guardian. The first is that the full force of the law should come crashing down on the ‘feral underclass’ who were responsible for the disturbances and the looting and who now are facing the ‘cold, hard accountability of the dock’. The second is that just about the right degree of ‘robust punishment’ has been exacted on the said feral underclass by the judiciary; and the third is that such individuals – in his opinion ‘the criminal classes . . . who haven’t been changed by their past punishments’ – continue to receive robust punishment in prisons where they learn the ethics of ‘productive hard work’ and where the ‘scandal of drugs being readily available’ is wiped out by paying prison staff by the ‘results’ they achieve rather than by fulfilling ‘processes and box-ticking’.

So far, by my reckoning, he has made more or less the same point, three times.

Finally ‘we need to continue to put rocket boosters on our plans to fix not just criminal justice but education, welfare and family policy’. Wow. How easily that little triptych – education, welfare and family policy – is trotted out. I am bedazzled.

Clarke talks of ‘addressing the appalling social deficit that the riots have highlighted’ but says nothing of the appalling social inequality that ensure the UK remains the most class-ridden and – ironically – the most apolitical nation in Europe.

Another take on the riots comes from Slavoj Žižek in this week’s London Review of Books. Žižek, like a true idealist, bewails the fact that the rioters had no agenda for change, only acting as slaves to a consumer culture that is forever dangled before their eyes but of which they cannot partake: “You call on us to consume while simultaneously depriving us of the means to do it properly” (presumably ‘doing it properly’ would be engaging in what Mr Clarke calls ‘hard graft’ – but alas there are no jobs, or if there are they are total shit and therefore taken by immigrants and would certainly not provide enough remuneration to purchase the goods more easily acquired by lobbing a brick through a shop window and nicking them).

This aspect of things was explored most succinctly in an article in the Argentinian newspaper Clarín, in a report from María Laura Avignolo: “Social inequality divides the poor from the rich, while a ridiculous culture of media celebrity provides a lifestyle model to aspire towards, and ‘reality shows’ a means of salvation and social respectability in a society stratified by a very Victorian vision of class.” Looters, she continues, not only tried on the most fashionable designer clothes for size and fit and chose the best plasma TVs in the store, but destroyed what they could not carry with them “in an attack on the consumer society to which they aspire and cannot belong. The images did not show a social rebellion, but a chilling consumer revenge.”

Such detail is depressing for an idealist such as Žižek, even such an articulate one. One wishes there were something to celebrate about the riots, but sadly there is not. Just a sense of depression, of loss, and of disgust: “And this is the fatal weakness of recent protests: they express an authentic rage which is not able to transform itself into a positive programme of sociopolitical change. They express a spirit of revolt without revolution.”

The most interesting point for me in Žižek’s argument – and at least there were points of interest, unlike the garbage coming from Clarke – was the reference he made to Herbert Marcuse, a philosopher of the 1960s whom I remember reading avidly as a sixteen year old, high on dreams of revolution. Marcuse argued that human drives could be desublimated (the term he used was ‘repressive desublimation’) but still remain subject to capitalist control. “On British streets during the unrest” writes Žižek, “what we saw was not men reduced to ‘beasts’, but the stripped down form of the ‘beast’ produced by capitalist ideology.”

How far we have come since the days of Che.

 

 

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