Amid the Alien Corn

Desperate, heroic characters make John Vaillant’s first novel a thrilling ride.

The author of two much-prized non-fiction books, The Golden Spruce: A True Story of Myth, Madness and Greed and The Tiger: A True Story of Vengeance and Survival, John Vaillant writes his first work of fiction with assurance and savoir-faire. He has not picked an easy subject or form. The Jaguar’s Children is set in contemporary Mexico, a country with more than a few embattled cultures and histories. As if Mexico’s vast palimpsest were not challenging enough, Vaillant has imprisoned his two protagonists in a water truck’s empty tank. Along with 15 other Mexicans who are trying to cross the border into the United States, they have been abandoned in the sealed tank by their “coyotes,” the smugglers to whom they have paid large sums. Now, crowded amid urine, feces, vomit, prayers and panic, they face extreme heat and cold, hunger, dehydration and, barring a miracle, almost certain death.

Upping the ante even more, one of Vaillant’s heroes, a biotech researcher named Cesar, is unconscious. That leaves Hector, a young man with the usual dreams of opportunity in el Norte. He has Cesar’s cellphone, which has no signal, and a small amount of water, which he doles out in capfuls to Cesar and himself. Finding the one American address in Cesar’s phone, for someone named AnniMac, Hector creates an audiofile to send her, should he ever regain a signal. Interrupted only by relatively brief returns to the reality of the water truck, Hector speaks to AnniMac in installments over the four days after the coyotes depart. The audiofile—not only a cry for help but the retrospective stories of Hector and Cesar—is the novel, and Hector recognizes it as a relief from the calamity in which he finds himself: “The only way out is into your mind.” Like Boccaccio’s Decameron, in which a group of young people escape the Black Death by fleeing to a villa outside Florence and telling stories, The Jaguar’s Children is a lonelier, New World testament to the power of story. The audiofile is also a merciful respite for the reader, as the claustrophobic horror of Hector and Cesar’s situation is bearable only in small increments.

Within the daunting limits he has set himself, Vaillant’s surefootedness is impressive. Speaking to AnniMac in an English that is fluent but not perfect, Hector makes just the right number of grammatical mistakes: they establish his credibility without ever holding up the narration. His essays into figurative language are necessarily few and brief, but striking. When his grandfather appears as a jaguar in a ritual dance, his tail “was a separate thing, trailing its master like a second thought, like it had other plans.” An engine sounds “like river stones in a dump truck.” Unlike the usual method of italicizing the occasional Spanish phrase and either translating or paraphrasing its meaning, Vaillant opts for no italics and no translation, trusting his readers to grasp the context if not the actual words. It is a bold move that brings the reader close to Hector’s mind, suggests the difficulties of immigrants, and underlines the otherness of Mexico.

One of the few places in the novel where the narrative creaks is the not-totally-convincing episode in which Hector and Cesar, school friends from Oaxaca, meet again by chance, join forces and undertake the risky journey to el Norte together. But the novel is at least partly a thriller, and thrillers force you to care less about the niceties of a plot than about an overriding sense of suspense and the threat from a large-scale villain. Hector and Cesar are two halves of the whole Vaillant needs to paint his portrait of Mexico. Both lives have been shaped, or more accurately misshaped, by the United States. Hector is caught between the values of his grandfather, who has remained surprisingly true to his indigenous roots, and his father, who resents what he sees as Mexican backwardness and has a lifelong, frustrated yearning for el Norte. Cesar’s success as a scientist is fatally compromised by the secrets he learns about a plot involving Big Agriculture and genetically modified corn. (Although this comes to light late in the novel, there is no need for a spoiler alert, as it is revealed on the book jacket.)

There were points in the reading when the total of Hector and Cesar’s stories seemed an almost too convenient catch-all for most of the current ills of Mexico—the corruption, the crime, the coyotes, the narcotics trade, the loss of indigenous corn varieties due to engineered corn. And yet, all these bad things undeniably exist and are often interconnected. In Vaillant’s bleak picture of Mexico, the villain has been more or less the same for almost 500 years, although his face is no longer Spanish but American. As Cesar asks Hector, “What more do they want from us, Tito? Already we accepted their language, their government, their god. Must we beg them for food also?”

Thrillers thrive on the alpine peaks of bad behaviour, and can neglect the humble, revealing details of daily life. But Vaillant has a remarkable sensitivity to Mexico at the ground level, especially around the decay of its still vivid traditional culture. As Hector says, campesinos count success in trucks and cement houses. In his village of mostly adobe houses, accessible only by a road made of broken rock, someone has built a cement house with a garage and double electric doors. “And who lives in that big house?” Hector asks rhetorically. “Nobody. It is a palace for insects and mice. Everyone who can work in that family is in el Norte sending money home to pay for the house, and now it’s so hard to come back maybe they’re never going to live in there.” Or take Hector’s younger sister Vera. Rather than the traditional woman’s work of ceramics, she goes to hairdresser school, and wears a t-shirt that announces in fake diamonds, “Is Not a Hobie—Is a Pasion.” She flaunts her long fingernails as a sign that she never worked in the fields, and she laughs at her brother’s traditional huaraches, shoes perfectly designed for Oaxaca’s terrain and climate. “Vera wears only el Converse, black with rainbow socks. Them, or las fuckmes.”

The cement house and Vera’s t-shirt are telling images, but the novel’s most important symbols are corn and the jaguar. Every kernel of Mexican corn, Cesar tells Hector, “is a message from the past to the future—the story of us.” It evolved “generation by generation, from a wild grass to our closest companion, more loyal than any friend, sweeter than any milk.” Now, Big Agriculture has developed a strain called Kortez400 (an ominous echo of Hernán Cortés, the first gringo to conquer Mexico), which will eradicate the impressive variety and savour of the indigenous plant in favour of a bland, homogenized starch. It is an apt metaphor for a culture in danger of losing its soul.

The jaguar is a more mysterious and ambiguous symbol. He is dangerous, of course, and feared by the long-ago Spaniards and the priest in Hector’s village. But he has another side. The so-called grandfather of Hector’s Zapotec people, the jaguar reportedly showed them the valley where they settled and kept their cornfields safe from predators. Hector’s grandfather dances in the jaguar’s memory, and Hector vows that if he ever gets out of the tank, he will carve a jaguar mask and return to the old custom. And speaking of the jaguar, prepare yourself for a tour de force ending that is both tragic and exquisitely satisfying.