Texas: The Great Theft
by Carmen Boullosa
Translated from the Spanish by Samantha Schnee
Deep Vellum Publishing (2015), 304 pages
Weaving lyrical narrative and fully-imagined characters, Carmen Boullosa’s Texas: The Great Theft walks a line between myth and mayhem, telling the story of two towns along the Tex-Mex border at a time of crisis in 1859. The book combines fictionalized re-tellings of real events and actual people, brought together seamlessly by the author. Translated by Samantha Schnee, Boullosa’s novel explores the deep relationships between people and places, and the power of human cruelty.
Texas opens on a quiet day in Bruneville, a fictionalized Brownsville, across the Rio Bravo from Matasanchez. In the center of town, local hero Don Nepomuceno witnesses Sheriff Shears beating the drunken violinist and former-vaquero (or cowboy) Lazaro Rueda. Nepomuceno intervenes, shooting Shears in the leg and whisking Rueda away with a band of his men. As the Texans and the Mexicans brace for war, with the Rio Bravo the only thing separating them, tensions run high and long simmering resentments come to light.
The power of Boullosa’s narrative rests in the subtle way in which she allows the story to unfold. As the rumor of Nepomuceno’s altercation with Shears spreads, Boullosa’s unknown narrator follows it like a burst of wind, pointing out the expansive cast of characters as word of what has taken place reaches them. Indian tribes on the edge of town, Texans transplanted to make their fortunes off the work of Mexicans, vaqueros more comfortable under an open sky, and a plethora of women in varying states of oppression populate the towns of Bruneville and Matasanchez, and they all see either benefit or ruin in the actions of Nepomuceno.
Despite a long list of characters active in the story, Boullosa never gets weighed down by any of them. Jumping from one to the next, she manages to draw complex characters with living histories and ambitions with just a few sparse sentences. Although the story is violent, she leaves much to the imagination, alluding to atrocities or past regrets without explicitly detailing them. After briefly outlining the abuses Indians subjected captured women to, a woman hoping to save her daughter tells Nepomuceno, “There's something else I can't tell you.” The narrator gives voice to the reader's thoughts: “What could it be, after everything she told him?” In this way, she pulls the reader into the deep interior lives of the many inhabitants of Bruneville and Matasanchez.
Told in a series of snapshots, with the text lingering on one scene for no longer than a few paragraphs, Texas moves fast and does not give into sentimentality. But this fleeting touch perfectly communicates the ways in which ingrained racism not only drove Texans to horrific acts of violence, but undermines the many arguments made by characters regarding the so-called barbarism of the Indians and Mexicans.
Far from the upholders of dignity, “gringos” such as Sheriff Shears are tricksters and monsters, capable of cruelty on a scale almost unimaginable. What’s more, they associate cruelty with intelligence and clear-headedness. While discussing the lack of hard work seen in Mexicans, a prominent landowner comments that his son tortures animals, and a friend responds, “Because he’s real smart.” These simple turns of phrase say much without excessive detailing from Boullosa.
Whether it’s as collective punishment, such as the murder of two Mexican bystanders after Nepomuceno flees Bruneville, or the torture of animals by elite members of Texan society, the impact on the reader is swift. It’s clear that fear and manipulation are what has allowed Texas to be seized by the United States, rather than any other claim of rightful ownership. Texans are unable to understand or recognize the nuances of the cultures around them, a deficiency summed up gracefully early on:
Mexicans might think his men are simply vaqueros, or shady bandits, or lively young men. To gringos, they are all worthless greasers.
They do not consider Mexicans or Indians human, a false distinction between themselves and The Other that in turn strips the Texans of humanity. Rather than seeming powerful, the Texans appear comical in their constant assertions of civility and righteousness, undercut by their own hateful rhetoric and actions. By allowing characters to speak for themselves, Boullosa’s morality lessons are subtle enough to feel fresh and new, as if the reader is in on a larger joke being played on the Texans. With a wink and a nudge, Boullosa says, “Check this out,” rather than beating the reader about the head with explicit lessons.
But the brutality of the novel is tempered by a magical realism that lends great emotional weight, and saves the more gruesome episodes from serving merely as shock value. Take, for example, the vicious murder of Rueda at the hands of the people of Bruneville. As he is lynched, a stream of thoughts run through his head that point at who he thought of himself as, a violinist and cowboy who wished harm to no one. “You won’t survive this,” he thinks. “You’re going the way of the buffalo.”
There is no happy ending in this book as time marches fitfully forward in the aftermath of a brief and bloody battle for Texas. But that feels right. Boullosa is not someone to tie up all her loose ends in a beautiful, but unrealistic, bow. Instead, events continue to unfold beyond the final pages, dwindling into the sunset just as they do in life. There are no endings, and no true beginnings uninformed by the past. Carmen Boullosa truly brings history and injustice to life in Texas: The Great Theft, weaving together borrowed moments from the volatile history of the Texas-Mexico border and a simple plot that is gracefully fed by the diverse characters living out the story.
Fiction, Translation, Mexico, United States