Juan Gómez Bárcena (Santander, 1984) has a degree in Theory of Literature and Comparative Literature, History and Philosophy. He is the author of the book of stories Those who sleep and from novels The sky of Lima (Critical Eye Narrative Award 2014) and Kanada (Prize for Literature Ciudad de Santander, Cálamo and finalist for Tigre Juan, all in 2017). His work has been published in Page Break and Sixth Floor.
Not even the dead —Title that comes from ‘Thesis VI’ of On the concept of history, of Walter Benjamin- It is a work of praise and ambition commendable. We attended the trip to the north of Juan de Toñanes, a Spanish soldier who has remained in no man's land after the conquest of Mexico. He runs an inn with his wife, an Indian, and sees his life languish. There he receives a commission - which is, at the same time, a way to go to better fortune and to escape from the same home that he will long for almost from the moment he leaves. That task is to find and then silence the Indian Juan, an exceptional being who has chosen the path of heresy by translating the Bible into Spanish, which separates him from the straight path of the Crown and the Church. Toñanes goes in search of that Indian also called Juan as a trip in search of a reflection.
Bárcena embarks us on a journey upstream, always upstream, dismounting and reassembling time and space, from New Spain in the 16th century to face the nose against Donald Trump's wall. The journey reverberates the echoes of Heart of Darknessnot so much the book of Conrad as the one recreated by Coppola in its cinema version. And so, in many sections Toñanes' journey is that of Captain Benjamin L. Willard in search of Kurtz. One has even believed to see even the figure of the photographer played by Dennis Hopper in one of the secondary parts of the novel, who instead of photos draws what he sees on the little paper that he has at hand — the heretical handwritten Bible itself.
In any case, Gómez Bárcena is intelligent enough to divert the narration from that Coppolian channel to seek his own originality. Thus, with Toñanes we continue forward. We are going with him through the history of Mexico, the history of the same oppressed each time, identical victims and identical jailers and assassins, and the mutation of utopias in the very Indian Juan himself, who is changing his name and essence in Father, Patron, Compadre or Padrote mafioso. How he manages to lift this complex narrative structure already speaks of the author's trade. More if the same spatio-temporal mutation takes place, especially, through language, which changes its skin as in an attempt to adapt the words to violence and the present, and how it is always late to that appointment. The character, the author, the story as a mental artifact always built forwards, towards the north, where we already know that there is no one, but that it is the future, the horizon, a kind of faith already without God or churches: the empty castle from Oz.
In this solid and courageous novel, one misses something of a daze for the reader, to whom much is narrated but hardly anything is revealed to him - neither of the violence, nor of the injustice, nor of the disappointment or the horror - that already did not know when starting to read. That and a certain lack of lightness in the extensive monologues of characters that Toñanes finds throughout the odyssey, which would contribute the same with much less, make the reading somewhat slow. Quite the opposite of what happens when its author works the dialogues or lets us look with the eyes, memories and thoughts of Juan de Toñanes.
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