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.”
The plot is an absurdist’s dream. Someone in the Russian embassy has relayed to the Mexican government rumors of a plot hatched in Maoist China. The object of the plot is to assassinate the visiting President of the United States when he attends a ceremonial statue unveiling in Mexico City. The Mexican president will be with the American one at this event, so the Mexican president's life will also be at risk. It goes without saying that such a killing, perpetrated by the Chinese, could destabilize the world enough to threaten world peace. It is at least fortunate that Russian spies picked up the scent of this conspiracy in Outer Mongolia and that they know that the presumed plot members passed through Hong Kong on their voyage to Mexico. In Mexico City, it is thought, the assassins are supposed to contact a Chinese man in Chinatown, and it's also possible, in some way not quite known, that Cubans are involved. Whatever the details, the plot must be uncovered and stopped, and it is with this end in mind that a shadowy Mexican government official and a police colonel turn to Garcia. As the colonel puts it:
I've recommended you for this investigation because you know the Chinese, you play poker with them and you know about their opium dens. I assume this makes them trust you and will make things easier for you…
The joke here, as Francisco Goldman observes, is that Bernal “centers this international conspiracy threatening world peace in Mexico City's very tiny Chinatown, on Delores Street, a few restaurants that serve poor people's Chinese food to poor people and a few shops.” Bernal describes it as “one street lined with old houses and a scrawny alleyway trembling with mysteries.” Cleared to operate, Garcia heads straight over to Chinatown and begins to sniff around among his acquaintances there, and by the end of his first night on the job, he is tailed by two men he winds up killing. Garcia will kill several more people before the novel is over, and he will find himself working in a highly treacherous environment. All at once he will have to deal with the shady motivations of the people who hired him, the various characters involved in the alleged assassination plot, and the two men he's assigned to work with during his investigation, FBI agent Richard Graves and Russian spy Ivan Laski. An American and a Russian, in 1968, working as allies? Why not? The two powers they represent have a common enemy in the Communist Chinese.
What supports all the shenanigans, and keeps the book from veering into farce, is its language. The Mongolian Conspiracy is written in the third person, but it continually slips into Garcia's head and interior monologues so that a good bit of it reads like a novel in the first person. It's a remarkable effect and creates startling intimacy:
The doorman downstairs greeted him with a military salute:
“Good evening, Captain.”
That chump calls me Captain because I wear a trench coat, a Stetson, and ankle boots. If I carried a briefcase, he'd call me professor. Fucking professor! Fucking goddamned captain!
Night began to spread dirty grays over the streets of Luis Moya, and the traffic, as usual at that time of day, was unbearable. He decided to walk. The colonel had told him to be there at seven. He had time. He walked to Avenida Juarez, then turned left, toward El Caballito. He could go slow. He had time. His whole fucking life he'd had time. Killing isn't a job that takes a lot of time, especially now that we're doing it legally, for the government, by the book. During the Revolution, things were different, but I was just a kid then, an orderly to General Marchena, one of so many second rate generals. A lawyer in Saltillo said he was small-fry but that lawyer is dead. I don't like jokes like that. I don't mind a smutty story, but not jokes, you have to show respect, respect for Filiberto Garcia, and respect for his generals. Fucking jokes!
The point of view changes are seamless throughout the book, and they make for a dynamic reading experience. From moment to moment, you're inside Garcia, then outside him, then back in his head again. And when you're in his head, you're in a profane realm, filled with cursing. The Spanish word he uses is “Pinche”, translated as “fucking” and as in the passage above, Garcia uses it as an adjective constantly. It's his favorite word. I don't think I've read another novel that uses the word “fucking” (as an adjective specifically) more often, and the repeated use of the word is yet another thing that helps keep the novel grounded.
Likewise the dialogue. In true noir fashion, it's terse and uncluttered. At the same time, though, a great deal of the conversations have a parodic edge. This is most apparent every time Garcia talks with Graves or Laski, the two spies who become his frenemies. Whenever he meets with either of these men, or when the three get together as a group, the talk sounds like a spy novel mockery.
“We are grateful for your warning, Mr. Laski; and I imagine that the Americans are, too. Maybe this will put an end to the Cold War.”
“The Cold War is a bourgeois invention.”
“What I would like to point out, Laski, before you launch into any speeches, is that both you and Graves, instead of looking for the men who've come from Hong Kong, if they exist, are spending your time investigating and watching each other and me.”
The Russian burst out laughing.
“Seems like a game, doesn't it? It's always like this when there's international intrigue.”
“A game that could end, the day after tomorrow, with two dead presidents.”
“We did our duty by issuing a warning as soon as we found out that something was going on, Mr. Garcia.”
“Precisely. And we've done our duty by thanking you. And now comes the million-dollar question. What interests do you, the Russians, have in continuing with the investigation?”
“A very good question, Mr. Garcia. Very good.”
“I'd like an answer that is just as good.”
“But that would diminish the stature of such a question. A question like that deserves to remain forever unanswered. That's another thing about international intrigue: most questions remain unanswered.”
Garcia, Laski, and Graves play a cat and mouse game that takes them all over Mexico City, from seedy bars to grimy apartments to restaurants with names like Café Canton, and in the process, the reader gets a vivid sense of this huge and forbidding metropolis. By all accounts, Rafael Bernal was an avid reader of detective novels, and one has the sense that he’s read his Raymond Chandler and company, that he’s learned quite well how to turn his city into a geography of menace. Much of the action takes place at night, with armed figures popping out of shadows and people turning up dead in unexpected places. And Garcia, with his long history of killing, is as hardboiled as they come. He lives alone in an apartment and has no family ties – a classic loner. Emotional bonds, he keeps telling himself, are dangerous. He thinks of women as “bitches” and “holes” and remembers the time “he killed a man then fucked his wife, right there in the same room, I raped her.” Hard to imagine a more unpalatable macho type, but Bernal has him fall in love. Garcia becomes enamored of a twenty-five year old half-Chinese women named Marta. The tenderness he shows toward her, the way he takes her into his apartment to (chastely) protect her, provides the emotional weight in the novel, and the turbulence created inside Garcia because he’s having such feelings is quite funny. He’s lived by the code that a man should just take a woman as he sees fit, and yet with Marta, he cannot bring himself to do that and doesn’t even want to act that way. She keeps telling him that underneath it all, he’s a good man, and Garcia just freezes, unsure what to make of himself when he’s not living up to his self-image:
…Now I’m really acting like a chump. A stupid ass. What kind of crap is this anyway?…Maybe it’s better this way with Marta. At my age, it’s better to take things slow, to enjoy them more, but I’ve never done that before…Couldn’t she be trying to pull a fast one?…And me, instead of taking advantage of it, I act like we’re in some kind of daytime soap opera. Fucking Palmolive soap opera!
One finds oneself rooting like mad for Garcia and Marta to pull through the dangers facing them, but one has the feeling that they very well may not. Suffice it to say that Rafael Bernal pulls no punches at the conclusion, and the mystery-international intrigue part of the plot ends in a way both satisfying and bitter. Garcia the detective solves what has to be solved, but that doesn’t mean there’s any real victory. After all, this is noir, and we are in Mexico. The Mongolian Conspiracy may have been written in 1968, but take out the Cold War intrigue and focus on the novel’s view of Mexican politics – the corruption and the cynicism, the violence, the disregard for the citizenry – and not all that much has changed. Bernal wrote a book that is of its time yet relevant today.
Scott Adlerberg lives in New York City. He co-hosts the Word for Word Reel Talks film commentary series each summer at the HBO Bryant Park Summer Film Festival in Manhattan. He blogs about books, movies, and writing at Scott Adlerberg’s Mysterious Island. His most recent book is the genre-blending noir\fantasy novella Jungle Horses, available from Broken River Books.
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