Carmen Boullosa - a richly imagined evocation of the volatile Tex-Mex borderland, wrested from Mexico in 1848

Carmen Boullosa, Texas: The Great Theft. Trans. by Samantha Schnee, Deep Vellum Publishing, 2014.


Loosely based on the little-known 1859 Mexican invasion of the United States, Carmen Boullosa’s newest novel Texas: The Great Theft is a richly imagined evocation of the volatile Tex-Mex borderland, wrested from Mexico in 1848. Described by Roberto Bolaño as “Mexico’s greatest woman writer,” Boullosa views the border history through distinctly Mexican eyes, and her sympathetic portrayal each of her wildly diverse characters—Mexican ranchers and Texas Rangers, Comanches and cowboys, German socialists and runaway slaves, Southern belles and dance hall girls—makes her storytelling tremendously powerful and absorbing. With today’s Mexican-American frontier such a front-burner concern, this novel that brilliantly illuminates its historical landscape is especially welcome. Texas is Boullosa’s fourth novel to appear in English, her previous novels were published by Grove Press.

Carmen Boullosa's masterful new novel, Texas: The Great Theft, is a timely piece of historical fiction amidst the deep political unrest in Mexico over the forty-three students taken by local police, handed over to local drug gangs, and killed. Bolaño's dissection of Santa Teresa in 2666 extends to a history of crimes on the border back to the annexation of Texas in 1846. Boullosa terms it "the Great Theft." The story takes place in the towns of Bruneville and Matasánchez based on the towns Brownsville, Texas, and Matamoros of the state Tamaulipas in Mexico. Don Nepomuceno, based on Mexican rancher and folk hero Juan Cortina, is in Bruneville's town square when Sheriff Shears says to him, "Shut up, you dirty greaser."
The narrative tells of the ensuing consequences of this statement among the citizens of both towns. Boullosa shows, unlike television or film, how a text can omnisciently enter the minds and bodies of hundreds of citizens, thus taking a collective pulse of social, racial, and political tensions. The people of Bruneville believe, as quoted from President Polk, and said at a party hosted by Charles Stealman, a corrupt businessman and his wife Catherine Anne, "Anglo-Saxon blood can never again be dominated by anyone who claims to be from Mexico." Ironically, Mexico had given the land to Americans under the condition, as Boullosa says, "To be perfectly clear: they made them sign contracts swearing to abide by the Catholic faith and pledge their allegiance to the Mexican government." However, Americans, as Glissant would say had an "arrow-like nomadism," which would settle to establish legitimacy and possession of the territory now known as Texas.
What is both moving and also lucid about Boullosa's prose, though, is her ability to take one in and out of a scene fraught with disorder and violence, and place one back in the rich spirit of humility encountering sublime beauty. Before the Sheriff's infamous words, the text takes us to the landscape: "The sun bears down, piercing the veil of shimmering dust." Again, later in the novel, after tensions have risen to violence, "The buffalo hunter, Wild, leaves Mrs. Big's Hotel to take a piss and get some fresh air. Santiago's body is hanging heavily from the icaco tree without swinging, like a mangrove root searching for the earth. A blackbird lands like a stone on his shoulder." The body almost melds into the landscape through the similes as one also sees the atrocity of the recent lynching, the corpse, and also Wild's apathetic reaction. The text continuously expands on these moments, letting them accumulate for the reader in opacity of deferred fabulation, which does not point towards interpretation or totality, but rather frees one into possibility.
Boullosa warns the reader at one point in Texas: The Great Theft, "Not even in a fairy tale!" However, although it is historical fiction, the text opens up to possibility through vignettes such as,
The roots of Ms. Big's icaco tree don't know how to sleep, and therefore can't dream. Rigid, they extend through the muddy earth, thinking always of the Eagles [Bruneville vigilante militia] because the Eagles are always going on about how, 'it's so important to defend our roots,' etc.
The fantastic is left to expose the wounds left untreated in the wake of territorial aggression and racial violence. The text for Americans can be eye opening, illuminating how Texas was taken, rather than given by Manifest Destiny. Samantha Schnee's excellent translation and Deep Vellum, a publishing house for translations of contemporary fiction and creative nonfiction writers, has given another platform to a great novelist. - Matt Pincus

Carmen Boullosa's Texas: The Great Theft (translated by Samantha Schnee, electronic review copy courtesy of the publisher) takes place in 1859, some time after Texas was annexed by the United States.  We're down on the border in the town of Bruneville (on the American side of the Rio Grande), and it's high noon in a dusty, sun-baked street.  Now that's an ominous sign if ever there was one...
... and we're not mistaken:

In the market square, in front of Café Ronsard, Sheriff Shears spits five words at Don Nepomuceno:
  "Shut up you dirty greaser."
(Deep Vellum Publishing, 2014)

It doesn't take a genius to work out that Nepomuceno, one of the most respected and powerful Mexicans in the region, isn't likely to take kindly to the insult.  It's also fairly clear to see that once the shooting starts, it's going to be hard to stop.  Life in Bruneville is about to become a whole lot more interesting - and, for many people, rather short.Texas: The Great Theft is a novel that looks at the border region in a time when matters were still unsettled.  The Mexicans are still unhappy about the way their land was stolen, both by force and by legal tricks, while the Americans are in a constant state of unease, aware that they're living life on the edge.  The high tension evident in the region means any spark can ignite an explosion.So, a story of Yanks against Mexicans?  It's not quite as simple as that - this is a rather diverse region:
"On the other side they also have people of all stripes - Indians, cowboys, bandits, Negros, Mexicans, gringos - as well as profitable mines and endless acres of land, but it's different.  The Río Bravo divides the world in two, perhaps even three or more.  No fool would say that the gringos are all on one side and the Mexicans on the other, with separate territories for the Indians, the Negros, and even for sonsofbitches.  None of these categories is absolute."
The cosmopolitan towns make for a political nightmare, forcing both the Americans and the Mexicans into shifting, temporary alliances with the various native tribes.  It's a case of everyone trying to stay one step ahead of everyone else.
From the start, the average reader assumes that this will be a story about gun fights; in fact, the novel takes a good while to get moving in terms of action.  Texas: The Great Theft is much more a description of the world the incidents take place in, and as the sheriff's words travel from mouth to mouth, through the town, across the river and out to the Indian settlements, Boullosa paints a picture of the time.
Of course, the 'incident' is the backbone upon which all of the description hangs, and the Mayor of the Mexican town of Matasánchez isn't the only one who sees the dangers ahead:
He curses up and down, left and right.
When he's vented this string of insults he asks loudly, "And now what are we supposed to do?  There's no doubt that Nepomuceno will retaliate, and how!  Where does this leave the rest of us?"

By the time we return to see what Nepomuceno actually does about the insult, dozens of pages have passed, and we are now acquainted with the majority of the cast who will play out the aftermath.Eventually, the action does get underway, with Nepomuceno retreating across the Rio Grande/Río Bravo to plan his next move.  There's tension on both sides of the river, but that doesn't stop normal life completely - the card sharps keep playing, the drunks keep drinking, the whores keep whoring.  All the while, everyone knows that soon something big is going to happen...
Texas: The Great Theft is a fascinating story, one which is well told.  There isn't a great amount of descriptive, literary writing, but it's not that kind of book.  Boullosa's story is one that balances description with action, and does it well on the whole.  It doesn't have the magic of some writers, but it's fascinating enough to keep drawing the reader ever deeper into Nepomuceno's struggle.
Schnee's translation is excellent, bringing across the tone of the book, casual, light story-telling (with a dry, disinterested narratorial voice).  Events start off slowly, but they do eventually turn ugly, with atrocities from both all sides.  Interestingly, the tone stays fairly casual, even when the killing increases - this is Texas, after all...
I enjoyed Texas: The Great Theft immensely, but I can't help thinking that it's a daring move for a new publisher based in Texas.  This is a book which, despite the bitter actions and language of all sides, probably has the Americans coming off worst (I do wonder if this one might be a hard sell up in Dallas...).  However, it's well worth trying, and hopefully, Deep Vellum will gather enough support to continue with their plan to bring translated literature to Texas - and beyond :) - Tony Malone

It may be historical fiction, but many of the events in Carmen Boullosa’s latest book seem as if they just happened yesterday.
Texas, The Great Theft takes us back to 1859, in the years following the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo in 1848, which ended the U.S.-Mexican War. Tensions were high as one culture displaced another. Bandits were commonplace, and so was legal chicanery.
Many Mexican landowners who had been given land grants centuries ago by the Spanish crown lost them in legal schemes or in English-speaking courts where Spanish documents were not recognized. This caused one landowner, Juan Nepomuceno Cortina, to fight back as best he could — with his own army.
This is the setting and framework for Boullosa’s novel, which is built around a real-life incident between a Texas sheriff and a wealthy Mexican landowner. It’s a story that shows the foundation of many border issues today.
But it also takes us back to a special moment in the history of the Lone Star State, just as it was being born, Boullosa said in a phone interview this week.
“Both countries lost something, not just Mexico,” she said.
In European newspapers back then, Texas was portrayed as a land of equality in order to attract immigrants.
“People dreamed about Texas, where everyone coexisted in harmony,” she said.
“We all failed. We all lost.”
And so the book raises an interesting question: What would have happened to Mexico if it had not lost Texas?
Although the novel is written from a Mexican perspective, Boullosa understands both cultures and histories well. She’s married to Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Mike Wallace and divides her time between New York City and Mexico City.
Boullosa, 60, is considered today as one of Mexico’s leading novelists, poets and playwrights, and her works have been translated into eight languages. She will read from her novel on Wednesday evening at the Wild Detectives bookstore in the Bishop Arts District in Dallas.
Her book is publisher Deep Vellum’s initial offering as it launches this year. Will Evans said he jumped at the opportunity to publish it.
“We don’t have many authors, if any, in America who write with Carmen’s unique style and psychological insight,” he wrote in an email.
Boullosa’s book has received wide praise in the Spanish-speaking world since it was published last year, but it had yet to be translated into English.
“I thought Texas was the perfect book to introduce Deep Vellum and its mission to readers, reviewers, writers and scholars all across our amazing state,” Evans said.
Evans’ mission stems from his own interest in Russian literature and the lack of contemporary English translations in the U.S. literary market. Only 3 percent or less of the nearly 300,000 books published in the U.S. are original work translations, he said.
Cultures reveal themselves and communicate through literature.
Evans set up his publishing house as a way of putting people in the world “in dialogue with each other.”
With the number of international conflicts escalating around the world today, that seems like a much-needed effort. - Mercedes Olivera

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