Thursday 20 September 2018

A lyrical take on life as a US border guard

Non-Fiction: The Line Becomes a River, Francisco Cantú, Bodley Head, hardback, 256 pages, €17.99

More art than political tract: Cantú itched to get back out in the field after a promotion within the US Border Patrol
More art than political tract: Cantú itched to get back out in the field after a promotion within the US Border Patrol
The Line Becomes a River by Francisco Cantú

The book has enraged activists in the US, but Darragh McManus finds it rich in empathy for Mexican migrants.

The Line Becomes a River is a brilliantly written and quietly provocative (in all senses) story of an American man of Mexican descent who patrolled the fractious border between those two countries for a number of years.

Francisco Cantú's book has caused an almighty storm already Stateside. Immigration-reform leftists have disrupted book readings, angrily accusing him of everything from selling out to outright fascism. 'Build the Wall' zealots, presumably, have their own equal-but-opposite take on the matter, although thus far, that doesn't seem to have expressed itself in heated bookshop showdowns with the author.

A mélange of memoir, history, reportage and philosophy, The Line Becomes a River is divided into three main parts. First we meet Francisco, aged 23, in 2008, having just joined the United States Border Patrol - "La Migra", as it's known to the folks on the other side of that invisible boundary.

A political science graduate, he joined up because he was tired of reading about this problem: he wanted to experience it for himself, see what was happening on the ground and try to formulate a more rounded framework for himself.

His mother, the daughter of a Mexican immigrant, isn't wildly happy about her son's job, though it's not really out of some feeling of pan-Mexican sympathy. Rather, she worries that Francisco will get hurt and, having worked for the Park Service herself, knows how giant government bureaucracies can grind the individual down - even those ones with the best intentions.

Cantú trains, he gets out in the field, he searches in the scorched earth for evidence of people-trafficking by cartel coyotes or, more dangerous, drug-running. They arrest and deport some illegals, though Border Patrol's job appears to be as much about saving the lives of these clueless and desperate cases, burning to death under the pitiless desert sun, as it is punishing them: sometimes, the migrants are just relieved to be alive.

In the second section, a few years on, Cantú has moved to a higher-up "intelligence" job in El Paso. It doesn't especially suit him, temperamentally; he itches to get back out in the field. Paradoxically, he's also having ever-greater doubts about the work he does, the reason he's doing it, what purpose it might serve.

The book's final portion sees Francisco working in a coffee shop, having quit La Migra. He befriends a genial Mexican man called José who returns home to Oaxaca for his mother's funeral. It turns out he'd been in America illegally for decades; thus begins a traumatic and, for the reader, very moving drama of how Francisco and others battle to prevent José's deportation.

An award-winning non-fiction writer, Cantú paints a vivid picture of the region - its people and histories, its linguistic richness and moral uncertainties - and renders some way comprehensible, at least, a horrendously complex situation. Especially helpful, to the lay reader, are periodic inserts explaining how, exactly, the current border came to be, and outlining the gruesome explosion of narco violence in Mexico.

Cantú doesn't necessarily take sides, either, beyond possessing a normal and admirable empathy for people in distress. He neither advocates building that Trumpian wall nor doing away with immigration control altogether. Indeed, his strongest "political" standpoint, as far as I could see, was on the nature of bureaucracies (as forewarned by his mother): by the book's end, he is describing an unfeeling system as "this thing that crushes".

Ironically, however, while The Line Becomes a River is about society and politics, it didn't read as a socio-political book to me, or at least not on its deeper levels. Obviously, the subject matter concerns directly one of the hot-button "issues" of modern-day America (and, in the broader sense, the rest of the world): immigration. But it's written in such a way - beautifully spare, oblique and lyrical - as to make the book feel like a novel, even though the reader knows that these things actually happened.

It imparts that sense of something universal being expressed, a core truth about reality or humanity unveiled in a side-on way, that you tend to find in fiction more than factual books. In short, this is more art than political tract or journalistic essay.

Parts of The Line Becomes a River could have been written by Jorge Luis Borges: the way, for instance, that Cantú is able to reflect large shards of Latino culture in a few precise sentences. The sections on drug-war hell-holes such as Ciudad Juaréz are the real-life equivalent of the hair-raising 'Santa Teresa' chapters in Roberto Bolaño's epic 2666. I was also reminded, here and there, of work as diverse as Richard Rayner's sardonic novel LA Without a Map and Melanie McGrath's 1990s travelogue Motel Nirvana.

The descriptions of the desert landscape, which traverses most of the Mexican-American border, are especially "literary". The author's imagery and contemplations are often strange, dream-like, even rapturous on occasion.

Here he is, for instance, musing on his day-to-day interactions with migrants: "I often recognised the subtle mark left by the crossing of the border, an understanding of its physical and abstract dimensions, a lingering impression of its weight."

Many of these parts feel as if they might have come from a Don DeLillo novel or JG Ballard short story: that sense of the desert as alien, inhuman, existentially unknowable. A place not fit for human purpose, an ancient rock sculpture that exists solely for its own sake - and will continue to exist long after our race, with all our petty squabbles, is extinct. It seems to put a lot of things into some kind of perspective.

Darragh McManus' novels include Shiver the Whole Night Through and The Polka Dot Girl

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