It’s 1968, the height of the Cold War, and we are in Mexico City. Filiberto Garcia is a sixty year old Mexican policeman. Over the course of his life he has killed people: men, women, a priest. As a young man, he fought in the Mexican Revolution, serving under Pancho Villa, his killing backed by a just cause. But what he once did to help his country transform itself into something better, he now does strictly as a job. By 1968, the Mexican politicians have long since betrayed the Revolution. Real men like Villa and Zapata no longer call the shots. Cold, duplicitous figures who occupy offices in their suits now pull the strings. They of course kill also, but they never do the dirty work themselves. They need others to do it for them, and that’s where Garcia, the central character in The Mongolian Conspiracy, comes in. When the novel opens, he is working as a pistolero – effectively, a police hitman – and any ideals he once had seemed to have died inside him.
Rafael Bernal’s 1969 novel appeared at a critical moment in Mexican history. In October 1968, military and police under the command of the governing Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) had massacred perhaps as many as 400 peacefully protesting students in the country’s capital. The PRI had grown out of the socialist-leaning revolution that ended some forty odd years earlier, and it had dominated Mexican politics since that time. The brutal repression of the leftist students just before Mexico was to host the Summer Olympic games made absolutely clear the extent to which Mexico’s political class had become authoritarian, in betrayal of the revolution’s ideals. The event remains a seminal one in Mexican history, and you have to assume that a bunch of the men who fired on the university students were men precisely like Filiberto Garcia – hired guns, men doing a murderous job to collect their pay, political subtleties be damned. That Rafael Bernal, on the heels of this national trauma, would make his protagonist this kind of gunslinger took guts. As author Francisco Goldman notes in the book's introduction, this was not a character likely to appeal to most Mexican readers. And in fact, the book did not do all that well when it was first published. In Mexico, after falling out of print, it became very difficult to find. But a reissue appeared, and with the passing of time, its reputation has grown. It was translated into English in 2013. The Mongolian Conspiracy is part noir, part detective story, part pulp fantasia, part Cold War thriller satire. As well, it’s a novel about a city, or a certain strata of a particular huge metropolis; in Goldman's words, The Mongolian Conspiracy is “The best fucking novel ever written about Mexico City.”